When Margaret de Lacey was six years old, she dreamed of being a great beauty and marrying a prince. Her mother laughed and said of course she would, if only she ate her porridge and did as her nurse said. Margaret obeyed, although she wasn't sure what porridge had to do with beauty. But Mama was very beautiful, and therefore she must know the secret.
When she was ten years old, the local squire's son called her a horse-faced shrew. Her brother showed Margaret how to punch a boy right in the nose, and she felt much better after showing the squire's son this new skill, even if it did result in a fortnight's punishment for unladylike behavior.
When she was fourteen, she threw her mirror against the wall and broke it, furious at the reflection it showed her. She wanted to be dainty and beautiful, not tall and plain with no bosom to speak of. She didn't want to hear about ducklings and swans anymore, or about good bones or fine eyes. No one cared about those things any more than they cared about her talents on the pianoforte or whether she could speak French.
By the time Margaret was seventeen, she accepted, however sullenly and grudgingly, that the best she could hope for was to be called charming, or perhaps handsome. Her father told her handsome was better than beautiful, for beauty faded and handsome lasted a lifetime. Margaret smiled and laughed with her dear papa, but privately she knew he lied. He had married a beautiful woman who was still beautiful. And gentlemen in London didn't seem much interested in "handsome" young ladies in any event, not in either of Margaret's Seasons in town, and she ended them both as she had begun: unmarried, at home.
When she was twenty-one, she accepted that she would be a spinster all her life. Though far from destitute, she was also far from rich. Her father was the grandson of a duke, but due to a falling out some years ago, they weren't at liberty to presume on that connection. And young ladies with no fortune, tenuous connections, and little beauty were too common in England for Margaret to stand out.
When she was twenty-five, her mother died of a cancer. For three years she ran her father's household, until he caught a chill in a November rainstorm and passed away before Christmas. That left Margaret, nearing thirty, to her brother's charity.
Francis was ten years her elder, and as such he had been either an adored god-like figure or absent, first at school and then in London. He had also never married, and since he was fond of living well, it was a far better situation than most spinsters suffered, even if it did require her to uproot from her home in the country and move to London. Margaret knew all this, but she still thought it cruel of the Fates to sentence her to being her brother's companion for life.
"Cheer up, Meg," Francis told her over dinner the first night she was under his roof. "I'm glad you're unmarried. Now I shan't have to hire a new housekeeper."
"I will poison your food if you ever say that to me again," Margaret replied. "Once you marry, I plan to steal a large sum of money from you and run off to Italy to have scandalous affairs."
He laughed. "A fine thing to say to the brother who took you in off the street! Besides, I shall never marry. I'm far too old and gray."
She gave him a sour look. Her brother was tall and vigorous, and looked ten years younger than he was. Many called him handsome, and unlike in Margaret's case, it was meant in a complimentary way. "You're hardly gray at all, and unlike women, men can marry whenever they want."
He scoffed. "Not true—not that I intend to marry. I prefer the bachelor life."
This was probably true. For as long as Margaret could remember, Francis had been determined to chart his own course. From the moment he reached adulthood and bolted for London, she'd heard the slightly shocked whispers about him, although due to the age gap between them, she didn't understand the stories at first. He really had been a rake and a scoundrel, but Margaret also knew him to be fiercely loyal and protective. He would make a good husband, if only he set his mind to it.
"I'll poison us both if you expect me to live with you forever," she said. "You'll marry. You'd make a good father—you would, Francis, don't scowl at me—and someday you'll want a steady companion for your old age. And I shan't be her," she added as he started to smirk.
"You're a romantic." He pointed a fork at her. "Take my word for it, marriage isn't like that rot poets and novelists portray. It's a damned cage. Some don't realize it until the door is locked tight behind them, but they're prisoners all the same."
She sighed. "Don't worry. I'm not likely to ever know the difference."
As often happens, however, fate conspired against both of them. In the spring, their distant cousin Arthur died of consumption. Margaret read the news in the paper and pointed it out to Francis, who merely grunted. Neither had ever met Arthur, due to the long-standing breach in their family, and neither paid much heed to the news of his death until a fortnight later, when a letter arrived.
It caused a bit of a stir in the household, arriving in the hand of a tall, stone-faced footman wearing the buff and green livery of the Duke of Durham. Margaret studied the crest embossed in the smear of wax sealing the missive. The duke was the late Arthur's father, and great-uncle to Margaret and Francis. Not that it had ever mattered before; they hadn't spoken to that side of the family in Margaret's lifetime. But something about this letter made her skin prickle with premonition.
When Francis returned home, he read the letter in silence. "Durham requests my presence," was all he would tell her, but Margaret was no fool. She slipped into Francis's study and read the peerage, until she realized exactly what must be on Durham's mind. Arthur's older brother Philip had died years ago, and the duke had no more sons. Margaret's grandfather had been the duke's younger brother, and her father had been his only son, who in turn had only one son—her brother. Francis was the new heir presumptive to the dukedom of Durham.
"Don't make too much of it," he warned when she confronted him about it. "Durham is a bitter old man. I wouldn't put it past him to have a new young bride within the week, trying to sire another son."
"And he hated our grandfather," Francis said coldly. "Don't underestimate the curative powers of spite."
But Durham didn't, or couldn't, find a young bride in time. By that autumn he contracted a slow wasting disease. Late one night in the dead of winter, a tall, spare man knocked on the de Lacey town house door. "I bring news," he announced in a deep voice that carried up the stairs to where Margaret hovered, shamelessly eavesdropping, while Francis went down to see the caller. "His Grace, the Duke of Durham, has died this evening. By patent, the title and its encumbrances descend to you." A pause. "Your Grace."
Margaret never heard Francis's reply. The air seemed to have left the room. She sank to the stairs, gasping for breath. She was the sister of a duke. She could hardly comprehend it, and from the expression on his face when the solicitor left—for it was the Duke of Durham's solicitor who had brought the news—neither could her brother.
"This will change everything, Meg," he said heavily, sinking into his favorite leather chair.
"Yes—a dukedom!" She shook her head. "Wouldn't Papa have enjoyed the sight of this?"
"Not if he had any sense," muttered her brother.
Margaret knelt beside him and took his hand. "Are you worried, Francis? Because I believe you'll make a fine duke. Look how well you've done for yourself already." She swept one hand around the room, encompassing their comfortable furnishings. She knew her brother wasn't truly wealthy, but he had done quite well with his business enterprises, and certainly wasn't poor.
"Managing a dukedom is quite a different thing than playing at investments."
"Yes," she allowed. "But you're no naïve young man to be abused by sycophants and swindlers." She paused. "And I shall have my revenge on you: Now you have no choice but to marry."
A queer expression crossed his face. "No."
Margaret, who had seen the way unmarried ladies threw themselves at any man with a ducal crown, just smirked. "You'll be fortunate to escape the salons of London without a dozen eager brides chasing you."
Francis flinched. "Heaven help me."
"Don't say you're frightened at the thought of being pursued by beautiful women!"
"Like a fox with a crippled leg, set on by a pack of hungry hounds," he said grimly.
Margaret laughed, but stopped when she saw her brother's face. He was genuinely uneasy, with a trapped, almost panicked look about him. "Francis, what is it? Most people would see this as a brilliant stroke of good fortune." She glanced around the well-appointed room. Their home was gracious and comfortable, but would surely pale next to the Durham properties. Her brother was ambitious and driven, and had made his own small fortune already. If he could do this well when he had started with so little, she was sure he would own half of England, given Durham's resources. Why wasn't he pleased at the boundless opportunity just laid at his feet?
For a long time he didn't reply. That was unlike Francis, who rarely lacked for something to say. His face shifted and changed more than once, as if he struggled for words to express himself. "Arthur was raised to it," he muttered finally. "I haven't been. My life has been my own—I've made mistakes, done things I shouldn't have, and wouldn't have done if I'd known …"
"Haven't we all?" But it struck her that if they'd known about this all their lives, she wouldn't be a spinster now. If she'd been the sister of the Duke of Durham ten years ago, even just the sister to the heir presumptive, she would have had at least one suitor, at least one chance to find happiness and a home of her own. For a moment the thought made her throat constrict.
As if hearing her thoughts, her brother mustered a smile. "There's one good deed I may do because of this. I shall make you an heiress, Meg. You'll have a queue of suitors before the end of the month."
She should have known he would settle on that one tender subject. She waved one hand with a bittersweet smile. "It's much too late for that. No one will want me now."
"For a fat enough dowry, my dear, every unattached man in town will want you."
She raised her eyebrows. "Shall we hold an auction, then? Except instead of taking bids, you'll make them. 'What will you require, sir, to marry my sister? Five thousand pounds? Six?'"
"It will cost more than that, I expect." He ducked when she threw a pillow at him. "But don't you worry. You may help choose the fellow."
"From all the impoverished fortune hunters who will apply? No, thank you." She made herself laugh. How like Fate to play such a cruel joke. Now that she was finally resigned to a spinster's life, men would line up at her door. The trouble was, none of them would want her any more than they had ten years ago; they would be lined up for Francis's money, and only marry her as the cost of getting it. Why couldn't she have found a simple country curate years ago, who would have taken her with only the five hundred pounds left to her in her father's will? That would have made this news a heaven-sent windfall.
"That's quite a number of men," Francis replied. "You'll like one of them, mark my words."
Margaret started to scoff, but saw his face. A cold breath of worry whispered over her skin; he had that set, determined expression she had learned to fear. "I don't want old Durham's money," she said, striving for lightness. "Give me only enough to tempt a country squire, and I shall be happy chasing his dogs from the garden and counting his silver. Anyone higher than that would be hopelessly pained by me, and I by him."
He turned to her, a hard light in his eyes. "Oh no. If I must be a duke, my sister shall be a lady. You'll have an enormous dowry, and take your pick of all the gentlemen in England. I don't wish to be married, but you do—you always have. And now you shall be."
She sat in silence. "I should have poisoned you years ago."
Francis laughed, his face relaxing until he looked more like his usual self. "And now you've missed your chance! No one would have missed Mr. Francis de Lacey, but they'll hang you for killing the Duke of Durham."
She thought back to the preening men who danced attendance on the wealthy young ladies. She had learned early on that money made a plain girl prettier, and enough money made an ugly girl beautiful. The thought of those conniving leeches calling on her now made her shudder in disgust, and she quietly resolved to have nothing at all to do with any man who only wanted money. "At the moment, I would gladly risk it."