Loel Woodbine, Duke of Marche woke at his accustomed time on the day he learned of his engagement. His valet arrived as usual, setting down his burdens to pull back a judicious number of curtains, allowing in just the right amount of light after a late night at Mrs. Dahlram’s Tearoom. The sun shone from its accustomed seat in the firmament, several degrees past its zenith. As Marche sat up against the pillows, the red-haired manservant placed the breakfast tray and daily newspaper over his lap.
“Good morning, Negus,” Marche said. “I trust that it is a good morning.”
“Aye, that it is. Every day in your employ is a good one, sir.”
Marche looked at the man over the top of the Morning Post. “Oh dear, have you been unlucky at cards again? If you need a loan, you have but to ask.”
“Nay, sir. The cards always do well by me. It is the blasted nags as have a mind of their own.”
“Ah, I see. Let me rephrase my question. Have you made some ill-considered wagers?”
“Ill-considered,” Negus repeated the term as though savoring a mouthful of ale. “Your Grace always has the precise word.”
Marche frowned, golden brows drawing together over eyes of dark amber. “You called me ‘Your Grace.’ Just how much money do you need?”
“Well, sir, I had information from a rascal what I thought was reliable, bein’ me own baby sister’s husband and all, and I put down a month’s wages.” Negus shook his head. “And then I made another bet so as to win back my losses like. As I am known to serve a gentleman of the highest quality, I was given leave to mark down an amount and sign my name, which you yourself taught me to do, thankee.”
“I may live to regret it. Since you don’t mention the amount right away, may I assume it’s more than a month’s wages?”
“I owe more than fifty guineas, sir!” Negus burst out.
“The devil you say!” Silver rattled against china. “I am afraid that stretches my purse a bit at the moment. Fifty guineas! What were you thinking, man?”
“It were a powerful good tip, sir.”
“Apparently, it was not all that powerful, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. How soon must you make good on your note?”
“Well, I don’t see how I can manage it before the week’s end. I will be attending Lady Bolbracken on Saturday, but until she hands over my allowance, I’m on the rocks myself. High rank does not, alas, guarantee ready wealth.”
Negus kept his expression carefully neutral at the mention of the duke’s great-aunt. Thrice married, thrice widowed, turning a tidy profit each time, Willamina, Lady Bolbracken, held the strings of a very deep purse, and she could be quite generous. However, she considered that subsidizing the lifestyle of her great-nephew conferred the right to a say in how that lifestyle was conducted. After all, Lord Marche represented her when he went about in society, and she would not tolerate behavior that reflected badly on their decimated but lofty family. As the only heir to her fortune, he was expected to attend certain social functions and to be well groomed while doing so. Negus knew that his master chafed at being a performing bear, as he put it, but Marche accepted that he was a prisoner of his birth, and, when he wasn’t on display, he was left to his own devices. As the valet thought about the forms those devices sometimes took, his impassive mask slipped a trifle.
“What the deuce are you grinning at?” Marche raised his voice a trifle.
“Sorry, m’lord. I believe my troubles have given me a nervous twitch.”
“You’ll be fortunate if that’s all they give you.”
“That’s the gospel truth, sir. The betting parlor is under new management, and the bookkeeper has got a new fellow works for him, as in doin’ the collectin’ like. A large fellow he is, nearly as large as your lordship and you six and a half feet in your stockings.”
“Do I take it that you’ve been threatened with dire consequences?”
“Dire consequences! Didn’t I just say that your worship always has the precise word as what is needed? That’s the mark of a first-rate intelligence and no mistake.”
“Oh, do stop fawning. It doesn’t suit you. I plucked you from the gutters because I saw something in you. You’re common as horse dung in the streets, but you give me no more respect than I’ve earned. That is why I tolerate your comic theater manner of speaking and your damnable gambling, not to mention that face of yours, which could do double duty as a saddle bag.”
“I’ve a hangdog look; it is true, sir. Me own mother told me so.”
The duke sighed. “Well, I can’t let you be thrashed by a bookkeeper’s hired man, even if you are ginger-haired. It just won’t do to have you sporting bruises while on duty, and, if by chance, this large fellow breaks one of your limbs, how will you serve me at all? While you can still draw breath, why don’t you lay out my clothes? I will have my tea and think on your predicament.”
“Aye, sir.” To the rustling sound of newspaper pages being turned, Negus proceeded across the room to a large armoire. The valet chose a bottle-green jacket with short tails and a black silk waistcoat liberally embroidered with vines of gold to go over the duke’s customary buff-colored breeches. He was touching up the shine on a pair of black calf-length boots when Marche swore under his breath and crumpled the paper in his big fist. The valet hurried to take away the breakfast tray as his master rose. “What is it, sir?”
“Damme, Negus, I am engaged to be married.”
“Are you, sir?”
“It is printed here in the Society section of the Morning Post. Therefore, it must be true.”
“As you say, m’lord.” Negus paused. “Who are you tyin’ the knot with then?”
“Just a moment.” Marche retrieved the balled-up pages and spread them open on the bed. “I was so shocked that I confess I didn’t catch the young lady’s name. This is bound to be my great aunt’s doing, you know. She threatened me not two weeks ago over luncheon, claiming that an unwed man above thirty is a scandal.”
“The old dragon’s got a lot of company in that opinion.”
“You’ve become a bit too familiar, don’t you think?”
“It’s a regrettable failing of mine, sir. I’ll do better; I swear.”
“You do swear; that’s true enough, and I am in no fit shape to flog you this morning.”
Negus smiled at the timeworn joke. “Have you not found the hussy’s name yet, sir?”
“Yes, I was simply recovering from the second shock inside of ten minutes. I may need a drop of restorative in my tea. My dear aunt has outdone herself this time. I am to marry the Honorable Miss Valeria Randwick, daughter of Julius, Earl of Blythestone.”
“Never heard of her.”
“No one has, but when I was a lad I knew someone who knew her father. The Blythestone lands bordered ours before Sir Julius lost Lamberglyn Park and all the rest of it. He had unfortunate political connections, an obstacle that he might have overcome had he not fallen gravely ill. He was still quite a young man when he exiled himself from England, taking his pregnant wife to Brittany to live in what I heard were greatly reduced circumstances. It was never proved whether the threat of violence was a real one or the imaginings of a mind unhinged by disastrous turns of fortune. Whatever the truth may have been, he chose to flee, unwisely, as it happened. He trusted an agent to sell off his holdings, and the blackguard sent him only a pittance of the profits, absconding with the rest of the money.” Marche frowned. “I haven’t thought of that sad story in nearly twenty years. Now the hapless earl has passed out of this world as well as out of mind, and I am to marry the child he spirited out of England in the womb.” The duke sighed heavily. “She’ll probably be the type that’s prone to the vapors.”
“It all sounds powerful romantic to me, sir.” Negus held up Marche’s snowy white shirt, adopting a casual tone when he spoke again. “I suppose you’ve a reason now to attend on Lady Bolbracken before Saturday.”
“I suppose I have.” Lord Marche slipped his arms into the sleeves of the tailored garment. “How very convenient for you.”
Negus cocked his head as he navigated the complexities of Marche’s cravat. “That’s the first time you’ve not had the precise word, Your Grace. This ain’t convenient for neither of us, I wouldn’t say.”
“If you insist on being factual, I’ll finish dressing by myself.”
“Pardon me, your lordship.” Negus waited for Marche to shrug into his jacket before he pulled the man’s tawny shoulder-length hair back and tied it with a simple black ribbon. “I’ll do me best to pretend this marriage is a good idea.”
“And so will I.” Lord Marche sighed. Poor Miss Randwick, I hope for your sake that you are not a naïve young girl who yearns for true love and a houseful of children.
“Valeria!” Anne Kermartin, the Randwick’s housekeeper—who also cooked and had been a nanny in her time—heard no reply. “Where is the girl?” she muttered as she ended her search where she’d begun it. There was no one in the kitchen except for the marmalade tabby licking a paw by the hearth. Seeing she’d be getting no help, Anne tied an apron around her plump middle and set about getting dinner started. She’d got as far as chopping cabbage to add to the pot over the fire when she heard voices outside. A moment later, Valeria came through the side door that let onto the herb garden.
“Where have you been, miss?” the housekeeper asked, ignoring Valeria’s attire. She had already expressed her opinion on the wearing of trousers by females, and she was not a woman to waste her breath in futile exercise.
“Dear Anne.” Valeria bent to kiss the woman’s furrowed forehead. “I’ve been helping you with dinner as I promised.”
“I’ll not lie to your mother for you.”
“Since when?” Valeria replied pertly.
“What a vulgar turn of phrase! You’re a lady in name, but lately you’ve been acting the hoyden, cutting didoes as if you’ve no shame at all. I don’t think you know how bold you’ve become, living as we do. You’ve no one to set an example for you.”
“What about my mother?”
“The countess barely has time to eat and sleep after the work is done.”
“I take your meaning. Perhaps if I were to contribute more to the running the household, Mama would have time for other things, such as teaching me deportment.”
“I would not presume to tell you your duty, miss.”
Anne changed the subject. “What have you got behind your back?”
Valeria laid a brace of dressed rabbits on the cutting board. “I told you I was helping you with dinner. What do you say to a nice bit of meat in the stew?”
“Bless you, girl. I am tired to the bone of fish and fowl.”
“I am tired to the bone of everything.” The tall young woman sat and put her chin in her hands, her morning glory eyes going vague as she stared into the middle distance.
“Everything?” Anne went back to chopping. “Did I not hear my nephew’s voice just now?”
“Randall was returning from the village when I came out of the forest. Naturally, we walked together.”
“I hope he did his job well.”
“He got the cow serviced by Mayor Loic’s bull,” Valeria answered matter-of-factly. The doings of the barnyard and stable were no mystery to her, and she saw nothing shameful in them. Animals simply did as Nature intended and were humans not of animal nature as well? “That’s why we had to walk so slowly. For poor Blossom’s sake.”
“Valeria!” Lady Amandine, Countess of Blythestone stood poised in the doorway, a hand clutched at her bosom.
“Mama!” Valeria hurried to offer support, towering over her dainty mother as she settled her in a chair and offered a cup of tea. “Good heavens! Are you all right? You gave me such a turn. You looked as though you were going to faint.”
“What would you expect when I hear my only daughter speaking like a plowman? If your father were alive, he would die of shame.”
“Mama—” Valeria began.
“No! I won’t hear it. I have let you run wild long enough. How I wish we could have provided for you as we did for your brother. In a convent, the nuns would have seen to your training in dignified deportment.” Amandine sighed. “However, I could not bear to be parted from both my children. My selfishness is to blame for your circumstance.”
“Mama, no! I am glad you didn’t send me away. I wish Valentine could have stayed as well.”
“You know that was not possible, my dear. We could not take the chance that our enemies would harm him.”
Valeria held her peace though she chafed at it. When she was small, she’d looked for lurkers in every shadow, but as she grew, she came to see that her father’s fears were of his own invention. Not for the world would she have suggested aloud that he was a bit soft in the head, but she knew it to be true. She did as her mother did and indulged the gentle, deluded man until his sudden death. Valeria banished the memory of her father’s face when his body was pulled from the river.
“And we are not speaking of your brother,” Amandine was saying. “Your father and I hoped that one day you would marry well and know the bliss of wedded life, even though we were doomed to exile here.”
Valeria snorted, tossing the thick braid of dark auburn hair over her shoulder. “Long and plain as I am?”
“You’re a handsome lass, miss,” Anne was goaded into saying.
Amandine gave the housekeeper a sharp glance before she spoke. “Listen to me, daughter. It is true that we are reduced to living hand-to-mouth on foreign soil, but we are still of the highest quality. It does not matter that I have turned our home into a laundry so we may supplement what our garden provides. Nor does it matter that I am chief laundress of a staff of three. I am still Lady Blythestone, daughter of the Earl of Danswell, and shall be until I die. No one may take that from me, even if fate has taken all that goes with those proud names.”
“You have been working too hard, dear Mother,” Valeria said quickly, anxious to head off one of her mother’s bouts of black depression. “Anne and I are preparing rabbit stew. Won’t you put your feet up until it is ready?”
“I have not yet told you the news.”
“There was a letter in the packet that Randall delivered from town. It is there on the floor where I dropped it. Do be an angel and fetch it for me.”
Valeria strode across the kitchen, her long legs making little of the large open space. As she bent to pick up the sheets of creamy vellum, she noted the crest at the top. She didn’t recognize the blazon, but she was certain of the lofty quality of the letterhead.
“You will never guess the contents of that blessed letter,” Lady Amandine said. “The answer to all our prayers is in there.”
“Good heavens,” Valeria said, exchanging a doubtful glance with Anne. “I cannot imagine.”
“It is the best news possible. You are to be married, my girl! Six weeks ago, your hand was asked for and I sent a reply accepting for you. Today the official answer arrived. In three months time, Loel Everett Woodbine, the Duke of Marche, only heir to the Brackenmourse, Falkertin, and Marche fortunes, will make you his bride!”
“I have never even met the man!”
“My mother met my father on their wedding day, and they had a happy life together.”
“Grand’Mere was French and betrothed in the cradle. We live in more modern times.”
“I am shocked by your reaction,” Amandine said. “I thought you would be happy to hear that such a man had offered for you. Why, his endowment is the largest in all of England!”
“I am sure Miss Valeria is merely stunned,” Anne said. “When the news has a chance to sink in, I know that a clever girl will see the advantages of such a marriage.”
Valeria’s expression clearly revealed her shock at this betrayal. “Anne, how could you say that when you know….” The girl’s words trailed off.
“What does Anne know?” Amandine demanded.
“I- I was considering entering a convent,” Valeria stammered with swift invention.
“Perish the thought! One religieuse in the family is quite enough. How can you speak of locking yourself away, as well? Am I never to see my family as one again?”
“I am sorry, Mother, but I would rather take vows than marry a stranger.”
“And I would rather be in our estate at Lamberglyn Park with your father still alive and both my children at my side, but sometimes we have no choice and we do as we must. I know my Julius would say the same if he were here.” Amandine rose and went to the door. “I am going to lie down for a bit. By the time dinner is ready, I expect you will have resigned yourself to this marriage, and I hope you realize that I only want what is best for you.”
“Yes, Mama.” Valeria curtsied as the lady left the kitchen. “How eager she is to marry me off to this no-doubt ancient Englishman with a name for each of his fortunes. I was born in Brittany; I have lived here all my life, and I’ve no wish to leave. I cannot even imagine what life as a grand lady would be like, but I doubt I will like it.”
“I noticed how red and chafed my lady’s hands are,” Anne said softly. “When I came to work for your family, your mother had the smoothest, whitest hands I’d ever seen, like porcelain they were. To see them now, so rough and work-worn, near breaks my heart. She was never raised for a life such as we live, but she does the best she can.”
Miss Valeria Randwick closed her mouth on whatever she would have said next and thought about Anne’s words. Valeria had been conceived here, in the region the French called Bretagne, and had never known another life. She loved the old farmhouse and the ancient orchard, loved hunting game and tending the garden, loved wearing men’s clothing when no one was around, but most of all, she loved Randall Cleary. How could she marry a stranger when her heart was already given away?
Valeria picked up a knife and began chopping turnips as she considered her dilemma. A clever girl should be able to solve this problem.