He was born to be a great man.
At birth he was swaddled in the finest linens embroidered with the crest of the Earldom of Gresham—his father's second-highest title and therefore his, by courtesy of being the heir. The great estates of Durham and all his father's lesser properties, extensive and wealthy enough to be a small kingdom, would be his one day. His line could be traced back to the first Earl of Durham, ennobled by Richard the Lionheart himself, and on his mother's side he was descended from Edward IV. The blood of not just dukes, but kings, flowed in his veins.
He was expected to live up to it. One of his first memories was of his nurse scolding him for some misdeed and telling him how great he would be. "You'll be a duke one day, a great man like your father, and it doesn't become you to hit your brother," she'd told him as she spanked his hand with her wooden spoon. He squirmed in agony through the punishment, but there was nothing he could say in reply. His brother Edward wasn't the heir; he was not born to be great. Charles Cedric Spencer Fitzhenry de Lacey, eldest son of the Duke of Durham, felt the burden of his heritage from an early date.
When he was eight he was sent off to school. His mother cried, but Charlie was eager to go. Being the heir meant he was closely supervised, and school promised freedom. And first Eton, then Oxford, suited him; in their demanding halls and fields, where a boy's character as well as his body and mind endured trial by fire, he thrived. He made friends easily, and was big enough to hold his own against those he didn't befriend. His family's standing was among the highest in England, and he was usually elected head of any group of boys. He acquitted himself reasonably well in his lessons, and learned the trick of winning his tutors' favor to raise his standing even more. And his title made him irresistible to girls of all ages and shapes, which was just bloody brilliant in Charlie's opinion. Away from home, he felt quite up to the lordly destiny imposed on him at birth.
At home, though, was a different story. His father had always been a demanding parent, but his mother leavened the atmosphere at Lastings Park with laughter and love, teasing Durham out of his darker moods. When she died, the summer Charlie was eleven, it cast a shadow over the whole household but most especially over the duke. Durham grew stern and critical of everything his sons did. He constantly pushed them all to excel, but Charlie was held to a higher standard—impossibly high, it seemed. When he finished in the upper half of the form, Durham excoriated him for not being at the top. When he was reprimanded at school for some harebrained caper, Durham himself came to deliver a brutal lecture and suspend his pocket money for a full term, forcing Charlie to live like a pauper and borrow what he could from friends. Whatever he did, his father found fault with, citing his future position and duty as the bar he fell woefully short of. Charlie privately thought he wasn't quite as bad as all that, but he dutifully bore up under the lectures and thrashings. He was the heir, after all, and great men bore up under adversity.
He came home from school at age sixteen to discover his father had begun talking about estate business with Edward—Edward, who was only thirteen. "The boy's uncommonly bright," the duke boasted to a neighbor, in hearing of all his sons. "Excellent sense in his head. Quite the brightest of my lads." Charlie shot an unhappily surprised look at his brother, who only gave a sheepish shrug. Edward couldn't help being clever with numbers. Charlie, who managed well enough at mathematics but didn't really care for it, knew he was beaten before he'd even realized there was a competition.
When he next came home on holiday from university, he discovered his youngest brother Gerard had shot up in height and now topped him by two inches. Charlie, accustomed to seeing Gerard's eager face turned up to him in admiration, found this unsettling. Gerard had inherited the de Lacey streak of fearlessness, and when he rode the unbroken colts, Durham roared with approval. Charlie, who had been forbidden since birth to touch those raw colts, watched in grim silence. While not precisely longing to risk his neck on Durham's wildest horseflesh, he rather resented his father's obvious approval of his youngest brother's abilities and daring.
But all this, too, one might endure. As infuriating as it was to suffer in comparison to younger brothers, Charlie still had the consolation of knowing he was the heir. Edward might be cleverer at managing the estates, but they would be his estates. Gerard might cover himself in glory on the battlefield, but he would have the seat in Parliament, where the direction of the nation was decided. He might never be renowned for his brilliance or lauded for his courage, but he would matter. He told himself the rest was immaterial; he didn't hate his brothers for their talents, even if his father clearly preferred them. Lord knew he wasn't the only heir to chafe under a strict and demanding father's hand.
But then he met Maria.
He had gone to the local assembly rooms on a lark with Rance and Longhurst, two mates from university. All three were whiling away a few weeks of freedom before departing on the Grand Tour; Durham had finally decided he might travel abroad, so long as he stayed clear of any lingering madness in France. In a room filled with gentleman farmers and a handful of gentry, Charlie and his titled friends stood out like candles in the darkness. Every female in the room sighed in rapture at their entrance, from the blushing young ladies to their suddenly alert grandmamas. So many females were presented to him that night, Charlie lost count. He danced until his feet were sore, and was in search of liquid refreshments when he caught sight of the ravishing creature who would turn his world upside down.
She was almost ethereally beautiful, with sky blue eyes in a perfect pale oval face. Her dark curls were tied with a simple white ribbon, and her pink dress displayed a plump, luscious figure. Even so, it was the toe of her slipper, peeking from beneath her skirt and tapping in time with the music, that really caught his eye. Why was such a lovely girl not dancing? And who the devil was she?
A few discreet questions supplied the answers. "Maria Gronow," Rance reported. "Family's a bit dodgy, if you believe the gossip. Still—by gad, Gresham, she's a sweet piece."
"Yes," said Charlie, staring at her openly. "Find someone to introduce me."
It was nearly love at first sight. She blushed very prettily when he bowed to her, but her smile was almost coy. She agreed to one dance, which sadly turned out to be an old-fashioned pavane that prevented any significant conversation, and then refused to grant him another.
"A lady must be so careful of her reputation, my lord," she murmured, looking up at him through her eyelashes and flashing an enigmatic smile. "And a gentleman must mind his intentions."
"Of course, Miss Gronow." He returned her smile, already anticipating the pursuit.
When he called to pay his compliments, she smiled in her coquettish way and said she hoped he would come again. He did, with flowers, and was rewarded with her agreement to go riding with him. Mrs. Gronow, her mother, granted permission with a smile, but it was nothing to the smile Maria gave him later, after he stole his first kiss on that first ride together. From that moment, he was lost.
It was an intoxicating month. Charlie called on her every day, taking her riding and driving and even just walking. He grew drunk on the taste of her, the scent of her, the touch of her lips. She understood him; for hours they talked, and she never failed to take his side and roundly malign anyone who slighted him. She looked at him as if no one else in the world existed, and he didn't know how he could survive without her. He couldn't sleep for thinking of her. He could barely carry on conversations for thinking of when he would see her next. Every kiss drove him mad, every touch made him burn, and her tempting little smile only fueled the inferno of desire inside him. Quite rapidly his world divided in two, where there was only the bright heaven containing Maria and the cold dark hinterland containing everyone else.
His friends noticed. They teased him about his luck in securing the prettiest piece of muslin in Sussex, and Charlie just smiled. His love for Maria, he knew, was a tricky thing. He couldn't bear the thought of leaving her for several months to take a Grand Tour. Not because he feared falling in love with someone else, as she sometimes teased him, but because he was mad for her. If anything, she would find another fellow while he was gone, someone polished and older and independent. He was sure Maria could tempt a royal prince himself, if she happened across His Highness's path. The more Rance and Longhurst talked of the Tour looming before them, the more resistant Charlie grew. Italy and Greece would always be there; Maria, young and beautiful and almost his, would not. By the time his friends departed for their family homes to prepare for the journey, he had made up his mind. He was not going. He was going to stay in Sussex and marry Maria.
He just had to tell his father.
"I don't think I shall leave for Italy next month after all." He fired his opening shot at dinner one night. Opportunely, he was dining alone with the duke; Gerard was at university and Edward was in Wales, studying sheep farming with their uncle, the Earl of Dowling.
Durham didn't say anything. He looked at Charlie for a long moment over the rim of his glass, then waved one hand, sending the footmen from the room. "Why not?"
"I haven't been home much. I ought to learn the estate."
Durham just focused a hawklike stare on him.
"I thought you'd be pleased," Charlie forged onward. "Shouldering my duty, and all that."
"It wouldn't have anything to do with that girl, would it?"
The question caught him off guard. He hadn't said a word about Maria to his father, and Rance and Longhurst were too cowed by His Grace to betray him. "She's not just any girl," he snapped back before he could think better of it.
His father grunted. "No, indeed. She's the very worst sort of adventuress, trying to entrap a boy barely out of short coats."
"I'm twenty-two years old," he replied, flushing with humiliation. "I'm not a boy, Father, I'm a man."
"Then act like one." Durham turned his attention back to his plate. "Don't be led by your prick, lad."
"I'm in love with her." He was trying to be calm and firm about this, but his father knew just how to provoke him.
"No, you're not," said Durham, unmoved. "You want to bed her."
That was true—desperately, painfully true—but Charlie bristled in the face of such bald accusation. "I haven't! I wish to behave honorably toward her."
His father raised an eyebrow. "Indeed? Then you're giving her far better coin than she gives you. The Gronows are unparalleled leeches."
"She's as decent and modest as any young lady in England!"
Durham put down his knife and fork and leveled a stern finger at him. "I don't care how badly she teases you or how desperately you want her. You're not going to marry her. Talk your way under her skirts if you will, but no son of mine is going to marry into a scheming family of charlatans. She may have some finer qualities, but mark my words: she wants to be a duchess, with ready access to Durham's funds to support her worthless father. Don't fall for her pretense of affection, Charles."
He took a deep breath, his hands in fists. "I'm bringing her to call," he announced. "You'll reconsider when you meet her."
Durham stared at him. "Very well," he said at last. He reached for his wine as if peace had been restored. "Invite her parents if you like."
The Gronows were delighted to accept the invitation. Charlie suffered a pang of hesitation when Mrs. Gronow almost crowed in triumph as she stepped into the house, and he didn't miss the way Mr. Gronow eyed the furnishings and paintings with a calculating, hungry look. His father was wrong, damned wrong, about Maria, but perhaps Durham knew something about her parents Charlie did not. His fears evaporated when Maria caught his eye and gave him a rueful smile as her parents exclaimed a little too loudly about Lastings Park. He managed to take her hand as they followed the butler to the drawing room, and she squeezed his fingers back, setting his heart at peace again.
Durham made his appearance half an hour later. At first he was the very model of an aristocrat, polite but chilly. Charlie began to relax, despite the gleeful glances Mrs. Gronow kept giving Maria; he hoped his father couldn't see those. To himself, Charlie admitted the Gronows were rather grasping and avaricious, but he wasn't marrying them, he was marrying Maria, and she was enduring this endless visit with the same serene assurance she always had.
"So," said Durham abruptly, fastening his dark gaze on Maria. "I understand there is talk of an alliance."
"Indeed, sir." Mrs. Gronow sat up a little straighter and beamed at her daughter. "We hear nothing at home except of Lord Gresham—and I daresay my daughter is too modest in her praise of him!"
"I daresay," murmured the duke. "Has an offer been made?"
"Yes, sir." Charlie met his father's eyes evenly and confidently. Despite his father's warning the other night, he had asked for Maria's hand in marriage. He couldn't resist a fond glance at his betrothed. "Happily she has consented, and Mr. Gronow has given his blessing." Maria blushed a pretty shade of pink and modestly lowered her eyes.
"With great pleasure," declared Mr. Gronow. "I couldn't hope for a better match for my child. We are all honored by the connection."
Durham shot an unreadable look at him. "No doubt." He turned back to Maria, his eyes narrowed almost as if he were studying her for flaws. Charlie was sure even his father, demanding and particular, could find nothing false in her. She was so beautiful, perfectly at home in the elegant drawing room. He flashed her another confident glance, and was rewarded with her little smile, the intimate look she reserved just for him.
"I do not approve," said Durham quietly. "He is too young to marry."
Mrs. Gronow made a shocked gasp. Her husband's chin dropped. Charlie could barely see for the haze of humiliation that sprang up before him. "I am old enough, sir—" he began, but his father wasn't finished.
"He is much too young," repeated the duke. "I cannot consent to this, and I will not bless it. He has not reached his majority, and if he were to contravene my wishes, he would be cut off without a farthing for the rest of my life."
There was a frozen silence in the room. Maria's blush faded to stark pallor as she stared at the duke with burning eyes. Mrs. Gronow looked fearfully at her husband, who seemed to be struggling for speech. Charlie could hardly breathe. How humiliating, to be treated like—and called!—a child, in front of his beloved and her parents. It was bad enough to hear his father praise Edward's intelligence over his, or applaud Gerard's bravery, but this... All he asked of his father was permission to marry the girl he loved, and Durham had cut him down in the cruelest way possible.
Unruffled by the tension in the room, the duke got to his feet. "Good day." He was out the door before anyone else moved.
"Well!" Mrs. Gronow sucked in a deep breath, and then another. "Well!"
"I'm very sorry," said Charlie in a low, tight voice. "I never dreamt—"
"It wasn't your fault," Maria said woodenly.
"Of course not," added Mr. Gronow. He gave Charlie a distracted pat on the shoulder. "Maria, Mrs. Gronow, let us go."
Charlie followed them through the house. "Don't despair, darling," he whispered to Maria as the footmen fetched their things. "It's not the end."
She looked at him with skeptical hope. "How can it not be? He refused to give his consent—he appeared quite implacable!"
"I don't need his bloody consent," growled Charlie. He touched one finger to the corner of her mouth, desperate to see her smile again. "I won't be bound by his arbitrary pronouncements."
Maria shook her head. The hopeful light in her face faded. "How? How can you persuade him?"
He couldn't, and he knew it, but Charlie didn't give a damn right now. "Can you get away tomorrow?" Her parents were ready to go; he had only a moment left with her. "Meet me at the bridge, tomorrow morning. Please, Maria," he begged as she glanced uncertainly toward her father. "For just a few minutes."
"The day after," he urged. "Three days from now. Any time. Please, darling."
She bit her lip, but nodded. "Ten o'clock, Friday."
Four days from now. An eternity, but he was desperately grateful for the chance. "Until then." He pressed her fingertips to his lips, disregarding their companions.
"Good-bye," she whispered, and then the Gronows were gone, Maria hurrying in her mother's wake, her head down. Charlie watched until their carriage was gone, but she never looked back at him.
A sharp ache speared his chest. How dare his father do that to him? He knew Durham didn't approve, but to denigrate his heir that way, in front of others, was intolerable. He stormed off to vent his humiliation and hurt at his father, but it was unsatisfying. Durham absorbed his fury without responding to it. He listened and said nothing when Charlie wanted him to erupt in fury. He wanted his father to feel the same pain he felt now, the same panic. Maria was doubting him. Mr. Gronow might withdraw his consent. And still his father refused to engage, merely repeating that Charlie was too young to know his own mind and the decision was irrevocable.
For three days he brooded about it, avoiding his father. On the day he was to meet Maria, Charlie rose with his mind made up: he would make one last effort to persuade his father, and failing that, he would elope. He would be cut off from his allowance, true; but what was money when weighed against losing the love of his life? Durham couldn't disinherit him. Sooner or later Charlie would ascend to the dukedom and its trappings, and probably sooner than later. His father was nearing seventy, albeit without any real sign of infirmity. His heart hardened with resolution, he went into the breakfast room and bowed.
"Sir," he said. "I implore you one last time to reconsider."
Durham didn't ask about what. His face set, he slowly shook his head. "No."
As he had expected. Charlie bowed again. "Good day, then."
Maria was waiting by the time he reached the bridge in the woods, her blue cloak a bright spot amid the greenery. His heart jumped as always at the sight of her; he was off his horse and rushing toward her before she even turned to face him. But her expression stopped him in his tracks.
Her eyes were grave. Her porcelain skin was frighteningly pale, and her mouth trembled at the sight of him. Renewed fury bloomed inside him, that his father had done this to her—to them. He clasped her in his arms, and she clung to him as if her life depended on it, soft and fragile in his embrace.
"Run away with me," he whispered. "I can't bear to lose you. Elope with me."
She raised her face to him. "We can't. Your father—"
"Damn him," Charlie growled. "I love you."
"We'd be poor," she cried in anguish. "Cut off. Cast out."
"Only until he dies." It was cold and heartless to say it that way, but Charlie thought those words described the duke's action perfectly. "Maria, darling, we can manage."
"How? Do you really mean to be destitute for years and years?" She stepped back out of his hold. "Did you know he called on my father?"
Charlie stared, thunderstruck. "No."
"He said you wouldn't have a farthing from him if we married against his wishes. Papa was quite indignant on your behalf—how could a father cast out his eldest son?—but His Grace was adamant. He declared the previous Duke of Durham lived past age ninety, and he meant to do the same. Don't you see, we can't run off!"
"I'll take care of you," he promised recklessly. "Somehow."
A tear rolled down her cheek. "No," she whispered. "I wish I could, but I can't. My parents told me this morning I'm not to see you again, because His Grace threatened them if they did not separate us. Mama wants me to go to her cousin in Bath—a change of scene, she says. My heart is breaking. I love you. I always will. But I cannot marry you, not like this."
She went up on her toes to kiss him. In agony, Charlie seized her and held her close, trying to persuade her with his kiss if not with his words. She wound her arms around his neck and kissed him back, but in the end she pulled away from him. "Good-bye, my love," she said, her voice quaking. "Good-bye." She turned and hurried off, leaving him alone.
She hadn't exaggerated. He heard through neighborhood gossip Maria left the day after their farewell; in fact, all the Gronows went to Bath. But if Charlie thought that was the harshest blow to bear, he was mistaken: barely a fortnight later news reached his ears that she was being courted by an older, more sophisticated man. By the time he heard whispers that Maria Gronow had snared herself an earl—a proper earl, in full possession of his estates and income—Charlie was past the point of feeling the pain.
His father found him in the garden the night he heard the heartbreaking news, staring off in the direction of the bridge where they had parted that last time—forever. For several minutes Durham just sat silently beside him on the cold stone bench.
"She fooled you," the duke said at last. "It hurts, but better now than later, when you would be irrevocably tied to her."
"She loves me." Charlie's voice sounded flat and dead to his own ears. "And I love her."
"She wanted to be a duchess," countered his father. "And her family schemed to make her one. Did you never wonder why a mother would allow her sixteen-year-old daughter so much freedom with a young man?"
He had wondered, briefly, but Maria told him her mother suffered headaches and was often confined to bed, not noticing where her daughter went. Because it suited his wishes so perfectly, he accepted it. Had she lied to him? He shook his head slightly; it didn't matter now.
"Gronow made no effort to hide it. He hinted you had compromised the girl, thinking to force my hand." Durham glanced at him. "I know my son. You're too honorable." Charlie just sat, stony-faced, remembering every little liberty Maria had allowed him, and every one she had denied him. He had been too honorable. If he'd taken advantage of her innocence, just once, to make love to her and get his child on her, Durham would have had no choice but to agree.
"But I'm not a fool, and I didn't let him mistake me for one," his father went on. "Gronow was born a viscount's son, but he's a scoundrel and a liar, looking to twist everything to his advantage." Durham paused, shooting a contemplative glance at him. "He had the temerity to suggest my opinion of the match counted for little, when I said you would never marry his daughter, and to point out I could not disinherit you. He asked if I would allow my grandchildren to be raised in penury."
"I would marry his daughter," replied Charlie.
"I told him I would not be blackmailed into supporting his family," went on his father, as ruthless as ever. "He wanted money, Charles. As soon as I called his bluff about the girl's virtue, he asked for recompense for her broken heart, first ten thousand pounds, then five, then one. He's awash in debts. His pretty daughter is the only asset he's got."
"She's not like that."
"Perhaps not, but I see she wouldn't elope with you. And now she's engaged to marry another man, barely three weeks after professing her love for you."
"She got what she wanted, and it wasn't you; it was a title and a fortune." The duke's tone grew a shade softer. "Surely you see that now."
"What choice did she have, after being humiliated here? You're not the only one with pride, Father, although not everyone exercises it so cruelly."
Durham stiffened and looked away. "You'll understand some day," he said at last, his face grim and shadowed. "And you'll thank me for it."
Slowly, Charlie turned to stare at his father, feeling hollow and numb. He could endure being the least favorite son; he could endure being criticized on every point, made to feel inferior and useless. In some corner of his mind, he had known his father wouldn't approve of his match with Maria, but never had he guessed the old man would go to such lengths to prevent it, to drive her away so she would be forever beyond his reach. And to say he would some day thank him for ruining his every hope of happiness, without even a word of sympathy or regret…
"No, sir." He could almost see the wall between him and his father now, invisible but impenetrable all the same. "I will never thank you for it. I can barely look at you."
Durham's jaw twitched. "I am saving you from a fate far worse than you can imagine."
Rage poured through him, so sharp he was suddenly trembling with it. "What is that? The fate of being married to the woman I love?" He lurched to his feet and flung his arms out wide. "What's so terrible about that?"
His father hesitated. He started to speak, then closed his mouth into a firm line.
"I'm leaving," said Charlie, his voice taut with fury. "I'm not coming back. I've disappointed you for years, so I expect it will be a relief for you as well as for me. Good-bye, Father." He swept a mocking bow and turned to go.
"Charles," said the duke behind him as he walked away. Charlie paused, waiting, but his father didn't say another word, so he walked on. He packed his things that night and left at dawn the next morning. He didn't see his father again. No one tried to stop him; in fact, the stable boy had his horse ready and waiting in the morning. He took the road north, toward London, not certain what he would do there but absolutely determined not to be controlled and manipulated like a puppet on a string.
His father thought he was reckless and foolish; so be it. His father thought him a boy, thinking only of pleasures and nothing at all of responsibility; very well. His father thought he wasn't quite good enough, no matter what he did, so Charlie had had enough of trying. Perhaps the duke deserved to see how very, very right he was. What was the point in striving for something if one was doomed to fall short forever? He might not be a great man, but he could certainly be the greatest libertine in England.
When Charlie reached London, it didn't take long to lose himself in myriad pleasures and vices. He spent wildly, drank copiously, gambled to excess, and carried on with women of every rank. Within a few years he was established as the most scandalous of rakes, the wildest of rogues, the very embodiment of a scoundrel.
His father disapproved, vehemently—but his excoriating letters never contained a single hint of apology or regret.
And Charlie kept his word never to return.
Tessa Neville had never met the Earl of Gresham, but she hated him just the same.
She was not normally given to hating people. It was a waste of time and a rather indulgent emotion, in her opinion, and Lord knew there was enough indulgence and emotion in her family already. Had she encountered Lord Gresham under different circumstances, chances were she would have thought little of the gentleman, if she even noticed him at all. Earls, especially of his status and notoriety, were far out of her normal circles, and she was quite happy that way.
Awareness of him, however, was forced upon her, and not in the best way. She supposed there might be a good reason one could be forcibly aware of someone, but generally it was a bad reason. And at this particular moment, in this particular way, Lord Gresham managed to leave her annoyed, impatient, and disgusted with him and herself.
His first offense was not a personal failing. By simple bad luck, she arrived at the York Hotel, Bath's finest, only a few minutes before the Gresham entourage. And to be fair, her mood was already on edge. Eugenie Bates, her elderly companion, had been in such a state of nerves over the journey she hadn't been ready to leave on time, and so had made them later than Tessa wished. It was a very warm day, making travel even more uncomfortable than usual as the heat and brilliant sun seemed to wilt everything but Eugenie's ability to worry aloud. By the time they reached Bath in the late afternoon, Tessa was already tired, hungry, and heartily wishing she had defied her sister and left Eugenie at home. She'd told herself all would be better once they reached the hotel and she could change out of her wool traveling dress, have a refreshing cool drink, and stretch her legs. She'd all but leaped down from the hired travel chaise, anxious to settle Eugenie into the hotel.
But no sooner had she walked through the doors and given her name than there came the rattle of harness and a clatter of wheels in the street, and almost immediately a hue and a cry rose. The hotelier, who had come forward to welcome her, excused himself in a rush and hurried out to see what was the matter. The arrival's title reached her ears in a whisper both delighted and alarmed: the Earl of Gresham!
When Eugenie, straggling in Tessa's wake, heard the name, she gasped. "Oh, my dear! I did not know this hotel catered to such an elegant crowd!"
"It is a hotel, Eugenie," replied Tessa, watching the hotel staff rush past her without a second glance. "It caters to whoever can pay the bill."
"Lady Woodall will be so dismayed she missed such a sight!" Eugenie's fatigue vanished. She watched in open fascination as servants bustled back and forth, bringing in luggage and carrying it away up the stairs.
"I am sure she will be nearly as delighted when she reads your account of his arrival." Tessa thought her sister would have stationed herself in the hall to look fetching, hoping to secure an introduction. Louise was looking forward to her life in London with almost feverish eagerness, and being acquainted with an earl would have made her faint with joy. At least Eugenie was too shy to thrust herself forward that way.
"Oh, my dear, we must wait and catch a glimpse of the gentleman!" Eugenie caught sight of Tessa's wry smile and blushed. She was such a pink and white creature, Eugenie Bates. Tessa had been making her blush since she was a schoolgirl of ten, when Eugenie, a poor but beloved distant cousin of her mother's, had come to live with them. All it took now was a certain look, because Eugenie had a vast experience of what Tessa's looks might mean. "So I might relate it to Lady Woodall," she protested. "Not to be rude, of course."
"Naturally," agreed Tessa. "It wouldn't be rude to stand here to see him at all, as we were standing here before he arrived, and because we simply have no choice but to wait until the hotel staff remember we exist."
"Oh, I'm sure they haven't forgotten us! Mr. Lucas will surely return at any moment. Are you tired, Tessa dear? Should we sit down in the lounge over there?" Eugenie's disappointment was clear, but she dutifully gestured to the small sofa on the other side of the room.
Tessa, who was tired, patted her hand. "I'm perfectly fine. And here comes the earl now." She was glad of that last part. Eugenie could have her glimpse of the noble personage, the hotel staff could grovel at his feet, and the sooner that was done, the sooner she would have her own peaceful room. She obligingly stepped back to allow her companion an unimpeded view of His Lordship's entrance.
"Good heavens, an earl!" Eugenie leaned forward, her face alight. "I encountered a marquess once, but it was quite by accident—I expect he thought I was a woman of low morals, for he was very forward! For my own part, I was so amazed he spoke to me, I'm sure I gave no very good account of myself, either. And of course I was acquainted with your dear papa, and now your brother, but otherwise I've never seen anyone of such rank!"
"Not true; you once saw one of the royal princesses in Wells, taking the waters."
Eugenie waved it off. "That was from afar, dear! This is very near, only a few feet apart. I shall be able to see every detail of his dress, and whether he has a kind face, and what sort of gloves he wears. Lady Woodall will be so anxious to know what is fashionable for gentlemen in London, so she might order accordingly for young Lord Woodall … "
Tessa stopped listening whenever issues of fashion arose, especially anything to do with Louise's idea of fashion. It wasn't that she didn't care about her own appearance, or didn't wish to look smart. She just had no patience for endless dithering over the merits of ivory gloves versus fawn gloves, or whether a blue gown should have white ribbons or blond lace or perhaps seed pearls for embellishment. She had been born with an unfortunately firm and decisive personality, much to the dismay of her frivolous sister. In the time it took Tessa to change her dress and arrange her hair, Louise could scarcely choose a handkerchief. Eugenie fell much too easily under Louise's spell, although she did improve when away from her. And since Tessa had been persuaded that she had little choice but to bring Eugenie with her on this trip, she could only pray the lingering influence of her sister faded quickly.
Her mind drifted as Eugenie breathlessly narrated the earl's infuriatingly slow progress into the hotel. She had a great deal to accomplish this week, and she did hope for a few days of seeing the sights before leaving. Tessa might be immune to the lure of a milliner's shop, but she loved to spend a pleasant hour in a bookshop, and the coffeehouses of Bath occupied a special place in her heart. Eugenie was looking forward to visiting the famous Pump Room, with strict instructions from Louise to take note of what all the ladies wore. If Tessa could have left her companion behind in Bath, she would have done so, to the greater happiness of both of them. Eugenie would enjoy herself here a great deal more than out in a small town in the country, but Louise had insisted Tessa couldn't possibly go alone. And once Louise set her mind on something, it was best just to admit defeat. Pyrrhus himself would have conceded the battle was not worth fighting.
"My dear!" Eugenie's voice went up a register in excitement. "My dear, he is coming!"
So much the better, thought Tessa, since no one would serve them until he came through; but she obligingly stepped forward to see what sort of man could upend the entire York Hotel.
Mr. Lucas, the hotel proprietor, ushered the earl to the door himself. Lord Gresham was moderately tall and wore clothing of unmistakable elegance and quality. He turned on the doorstep to speak to someone still outside, and she studied his profile. A high forehead, square jaw, perfect nose. His dark hair curled against his collar, just a bit longer than fashionable. From the tips of his polished boots to the crown of his fashionable beaver hat, he exuded wealth and privilege.
"Such a handsome gentleman!" breathed Eugenie beside her, clinging to Tessa's arm as if she would faint. "I've never seen the like!"
"I would like him a great deal better if he hadn't been responsible for everyone deserting us to carry up his luggage," she replied.
"And his carriage is so elegant! Everything a gentleman's should be, I'm sure," went on Eugenie, either ignoring or not hearing Tessa's comment. "How fortunate we should be in Bath at the same time, at the very same hotel! I do believe Lady Woodall mentioned his name recently—oh, she shall be in transports that we have seen him! What was it she was saying about him?" Her brow knitted anxiously. "I'm sure it was some bon mot that would amuse you, my dear…"
Tessa suppressed a sigh. She didn't listen to Louise's gossip, and Eugenie didn't remember it. What a pair they made. She shifted her weight; her shoes were beginning to pinch her feet.
Lord Gresham smiled, then laughed at whatever was said outside the hotel, and finally walked through the door. He moved like a man who knew others would pause to make room for him to walk by. It was the bold, unhurried stride of someone with the world in his pocket, with a whiff of predatory grace, as if he knew just how arresting his appearance was and meant to use it to his best advantage. Because Eugenie was right: he was a blindingly attractive man.
Tessa had learned the hard way to be wary of attractive men. They often thought it counted for too much, and in her experience, a handsome man was not a man to be trusted. And this man, who not only had the face of a minor deity but an earldom and, from the looks of his clothing, a substantial income, was nearly everything she had come to mistrust and dislike. That was all without considering how he had inconvenienced her, however unknowingly. Together, it pushed her strained temper to the breaking point. She arched her brows critically and murmured to Eugenie, "He looks indolent to me."
Here the earl committed his second grievous offense. He was several feet away from her, with Mr. Lucas hovering beside him and a servant—probably his valet—trailing close behind, and yet when she spoke the peevish words in a hushed whisper, Lord Gresham paused. His head came up and he turned to look directly at her with startling dark eyes, and she knew, with a wincing certainty, that he had heard her.
Eugenie sucked in her breath on a long, whistling wheeze. She sank into a deep curtsy, dragging Tessa down with her. Chagrined at being so careless, Tessa ducked her head and obediently curtsied. She fervently wished she had arrived half an hour earlier, so she and Eugenie could have been comfortably ensconced in their rooms before he arrived, or even half an hour later. Now she would have to be very certain she never ran into the earl again; if he remembered her face, or heaven forbid, learned her name and connected her to Louise, her sister would quite possibly murder her.
For a moment the earl just looked at her, his gaze somehow piercing even though she still thought he looked like a languid, lazy sort. Then, incredibly, one corner of his mouth twitched, and slowly a sinful smile spread over his face. As if he knew every disdainful thought she'd had about him, and was amused—or even challenged—by them. Tessa could hear Eugenie gasping for air beside her, and she could feel the heat of the blood rushing to her cheeks, but she couldn't look away. Still smiling in that enigmatic, wicked way, Lord Gresham bowed his head to her, and then finally—finally—walked away.
"Oh, my," moaned Eugenie. Her fingers still dug into Tessa's arm, and it took some effort to pry her off and lead her to a chair in the corner. "Oh, my…"
"I'm sorry," said Tessa, abashed. "I never dreamed he would overhear, but I was wrong to say it out loud. But Eugenie, he won't remember. Or if he does, it will be some amusing story he tells his friends about the shrewish lady at the York Hotel."
"What if we see him again?" whispered Eugenie in anguish. "He might remember, Tessa, he might! And your sister, so hopeful about her new life in London! He's quite an established member of the haut ton; he could ruin her!"
"I will hide my face if he approaches," she promised. "You know I would never deliberately upset Louise—and you shouldn't either. Telling her about this will only send her into a spell and cause her to worry needlessly." It would also unleash a flurry of letters to Tessa, full of despair and blame. She prayed Eugenie wouldn't set her sister off. "And really, I am very, very sorry. It was badly done of me, and I won't make the same mistake again." She did so hate it when her temper got away from her, and this time it could leave Eugenie on the verge of a fainting fit for the duration of their stay in Bath. Seen in that light, the coming week seemed endless, and she applied herself to reassuring her companion.
Once the earl's retinue had proceeded up the stairs, someone finally remembered them and came to conduct them to their rooms. Tessa helped Eugenie up the stairs, still patting her hand as the porter led them to a lovely suite and carried in their luggage. When she finally coaxed Eugenie to lie down with a cool cloth on her forehead, her first instinct was to leave. She could slip out of the room and soothe her cross mood with a short walk before dinner. If she happened across a new novel or delicious confection in Milsom Street, so much the better. Eugenie would be immensely cheered by a small gift, and a novel would keep her occupied for several days. Tessa hadn't wanted anyone other than Mary, her maid, to come with her, and already she was chafing at Eugenie's presence.
She pulled the door of the bedroom gently closed and quietly crossed the sitting room. "I'm going out for a walk," she told Mary softly, throwing her shawl around her shoulders and picking up her reticule. "See to Mrs. Bates; she'll likely have a headache." Eugenie was very prone to having headaches when Tessa had done something she disapproved of. Mary might as well be forewarned to have her favored remedy, a good bottle of sherry, at hand.
Some instinct made her pause at the door. Instead of just leaving, she opened the door a few inches and took a quick look out. The first person she saw was Mr. Lucas, the hotelier. The second person was the Earl of Gresham. He had shed his long greatcoat and hat by now, displaying a figure that didn't look the slightest bit soft or lazy. His dark hair fell in thick waves to his collar, and somehow up close he didn't look like a languid fop at all. Tessa froze, hoping to remain invisible by virtue of holding very, very still. Mindful of her recent promise to Eugenie, she all but held her breath as the men came nearer, just a few feet away from her door. Her prayers seemed to be answered as they passed without looking her way, but only for a moment. When she cautiously inched the door open a bit more and peered around it to see that they were gone, she beheld a door only a few feet down the corridor—almost opposite her own—standing open, with Mr. Lucas ushering the odiously keen-eared earl through it.
Tessa closed the door without a sound. Well. This was a dilemma. How could she leave her rooms if he might be passing in the corridor at any moment? She could ask for a new suite, perhaps, in another part of the hotel, but that would be a terrible bother. On the other hand, having to sneak in and out of her own hotel room was the height of inconvenience. What was she to do now?
She shook her head at her own dithering. "Mary, did you pack a veil?" she asked her maid, who was bustling about the room unpacking the valises.
"Yes, ma'am." Mary produced the veil, draping it over her bonnet, and Tessa picked up her parasol as well. She would not be held prisoner in her own room, but neither did she want to break her promise to Eugenie. Not that he was bound to recognize her, even if he did see her. Eugenie was worried over nothing. She was well beneath the notice of any earl, particularly a vain, arrogant, indolent one. On her guard this time, she let herself out of the room, and safely escaped the hotel.
Charlie was having a hard time ridding himself of Mr. Lucas, the smooth and somewhat oily hotel proprietor. He had no objection to being personally greeted, nor to being shown to his rooms, and then to a larger, better suite when the first was unacceptable. But then he wanted the man to leave, and instead Mr. Lucas stayed, blathering on about his hotel's service. Mostly Charlie was tired and longed to prop up his stiff leg, nearly healed by now though still ungainly, but Mr. Lucas was undeniably annoying as well.
"Yes, that will be all," he said at last, resorting to a lofty, bored voice. "Thank you, Mr. Lucas." He motioned to Barnes, his valet, who obediently whisked the obsequious hotelier out the door. "Fetch something to eat, Barnes."
"Yes, Your Grace." Without being asked, Barnes offered the cane he had just removed from the trunk. With a grimace, Charlie took it, inhaling deeply as he shifted his weight off the injured limb. He was trying to wean himself off the cane, but by evening it was still welcome, much to his disgust. What a bloody nuisance a broken leg was. He'd fallen down the stairs after too much brandy almost two months ago and broken it in two places. It no longer throbbed as though a red-hot poker had been rammed into it, but after a long day in the carriage, it was stiff and sore. He hobbled across the room and settled himself in the chair by the window overlooking George Street.
"Shall I procure some laudanum?" Barnes murmured when he had arranged a tray with dinner and a bottle of claret at Charlie's elbow.
He scowled and eased his aching foot onto a stool, surreptitiously placed by Barnes. He still wore his boots, and it would hurt like the devil to take them off. Of course, he probably deserved the pain. It was a good substitute for the sorrow he ought to feel at his father's death. "No."
He dismissed his valet and picked up the glass of wine. It was still incredible to him that the duke was dead. Durham had been eighty, but remained vigorous and vital in his memory; Charlie had been sure, when he got Edward's first letter detailing their father's failing health, that the duke would survive on force of will alone. Edward had written a dozen more letters, first hinting and then outright asking him to return home, but Charlie hadn't gone. Partly because of his broken leg—the doctor had strictly warned him to stay in bed or be crippled for life—but partly because he just couldn't. In the eleven years since he left home, he'd had a letter from his father every few months, letting him know how splendid things were without him at Lastings: how brilliant and capable Edward was at business, how clever and heroic Gerard was in the army. Those letters never intimated the slightest hint of reconciliation, and now it was too late.
For a few maudlin moments he tried to remember what life had been like, years ago, when his mother still lived and made his father smile. The memories were dusty and dim, and mostly of just his mother, as if he had deliberately cut the duke out of them. He remembered the way the joy went out of his father after her death, like a candle snuffed out. But he couldn't remember a moment since then when he and Durham had gotten along.
And Charlie couldn't see how that would have changed had he obeyed his father's dying wish and returned home in time to hear Durham's confession. His father, that unforgiving paragon of ruthlessness and keen judgment, had had a scandalous past. No, not simply scandalous; Charlie knew scandal, and what his father had done was something much worse. As a young man, Durham had entered into a secret marriage with an inappropriate young woman—an actress!—and then simply parted ways from her when they ceased to get along. There was no divorce, and until the day of his death, Durham had no idea if she still lived or had died years ago.
Quite aside from the element of hypocrisy, it was nearly the worst sort of thing he could have done, in every respect. The vast majority of the Durham holdings were entailed on the next duke; most of the money was also tied to the estate, although Charlie's mother's dowry funds had been held separately and become a handsome sum under first Durham's and then Edward's management. As long as Charlie became the next duke, all three brothers had a secure future. If he didn't inherit, though, because he was an illegitimate son of a bigamous marriage, he and his brothers would each only be left with his share of their mother's dowry and a single property his father had won in a bet.
As if all that weren't bad enough, someone had discovered this clandestine marriage and begun sending Durham blackmail letters a year before his death. For that year, the duke had known his past was a boil about to burst, and instead of confessing it then, he'd hidden it. He had betrayed his sons in the worst way, not only with an illicit marriage but with his utter inability to humble himself and admit fault.
Whatever bitter irony Charlie might have appreciated about the situation—at least the old devil had known what he was talking about when he railed about unwise attachments to inappropriate females—was lost in the enraging realization that this could ruin all three of them, and the deep alarm that they wouldn't be able to stop it. Hell, they couldn't even agree on a plan to solve the problem. Edward favored a legal battle, and Gerard announced his intention to find and shoot the blackmailer. Charlie, to his private horror, had no ideas at all, which made him almost resent his brothers for being so certain they did. It seemed the best thing he could do was stay out of the way of their plans, to avoid mucking things up.
Not that either of them had been proved right. Edward, against advice, told his fiancée of the trouble, and she faithlessly sold the story to a scandal sheet and then jilted him. If things had been grim before, they became positively beastly after that, when all London began scrutinizing their every move and whispering about the Durham Dilemma, as the gossip rags had dubbed the disaster. Charlie endured it with his usual front of careless disregard for anything unpleasant, but inside he seethed. He still thought Edward's plan to mount a bold, swift legal action was eminently reasonable and the most likely to succeed, but the gossip complicated things. The courts moved slowly. And when he called on Edward after a few weeks to see how they were progressing, his brother not only said it wasn't over but sent him a dispatch case filled with all the documents and told him he must fight for Durham himself. For the first time Charlie could ever recall, Edward was leaving a task unfinished and turning it to him. That was shocking enough, to say nothing of alarming. It got even worse when Edward threw all his usual caution and reserve to the wind to marry an outspoken widow who had bewitched him—there was no other explanation for such shockingly unusual behavior on his brother's part.
And now it appeared Gerard's plan to bring the blackmailer to a swift and brutal end had also run off track. After disappearing for weeks, the first word they had from their youngest brother was a desperate letter for help. Edward actually refused to go, which thoroughly quashed all Charlie's amusement at his head-over-heels tumble into love. Edward handed the letter to him and wished him luck, then retired to make love to his new wife in shameful, callous, blatant disregard of his duty to family. Or so Charlie imagined, as he told Barnes to pack his things.
So now he was in Bath. Tomorrow he would call on Gerard, discover what sort of trouble his brother was in, and then… He had no idea. Chase down the blackmailer, he supposed, since that should provide a link to the truth. Either the villain had proof of his charges and meant to demand something for it, or he didn't, in which case his actions would all come to nothing when Charlie was declared the rightful duke. Charlie couldn't decide which seemed more unlikely. Hopefully Gerard had learned something useful, but he had also somehow acquired a wife, according to his letter, and Charlie had seen how marriage changed Edward. It still amazed him that ruthlessly logical and practical Edward had thrown over his family for a woman; Gerard, always more prone to emotion and impulse, was likely to do even worse, if he'd also fallen in love with his bride. And that would leave only Charlie to find the blackmailer, discover the truth about Durham's long-lost first wife, prove his claim to the dukedom, and save them all from disgrace.
He caught sight of the leather satchel on the writing desk across the room. In it were all the documents and correspondence from the investigators and the solicitors relating to that damned Durham Dilemma, as well as his father's confessional letter. He turned his head away, not wanting to look at it. He'd forced himself to bring it all to Bath, but just thinking about it left him angry at his father, irked at his brothers, and deeply, privately, alarmed that his entire life now hung by a thread. If rumors in London—and Edward's expensive solicitor—could be believed, Durham's distant cousin Augustus was about to file a competing claim to the dukedom, alleging that Charlie could not prove he was the sole legitimate heir. If the House of Lords upheld that claim, the title and all its trappings would be lost—at best, held in abeyance until proof was found, or at worst, irrevocably awarded to Augustus. Either outcome would effectively ruin him.
Charlie hoped to high heaven the answer to all their troubles could be found in Bath. And even more, he hoped he was capable of finding it before the House of Lords heard his petition.
He let his head drop back against the chair and closed his eyes. How ironic that the first time anyone expected great things of him, the stakes were so high. Right now he didn't want to think of anything beyond his dinner and the glass of wine in his hand. If the lady from downstairs could see him now, she would surely think him the most indolent, useless fellow on earth.
A smile touched his lips, picturing her defiant expression when she realized he'd heard her disdainful remark. She was sorry he'd overheard, but not sorry at all for saying it. What a prudish bit of skirt. No doubt she had a collection of prayer books and doted on her brood of small dogs. Charlie was accustomed to people making up their minds about him before they ever met him, but for some reason she amused him. It was always so unfortunate when a woman with a mouth like hers turned out to be a judgmental harridan. In fact, if she looked less cross, he might have said she was attractive, but it was hard to call any woman a beauty when she was looking down her nose at him. He wondered if she'd formed her opinion of him from the London gossip sheets or if his infamy had preceded him to Bath.
He raised his glass in silent toast to her. For tonight at least he would be utterly, happily indolent. And he hoped the thought rankled her deeply.