“I’ll do something,” Sophia assured her sister. “Don’t cry.”
“But I love Lawrence. I don’t want to marry anyone else.” Dorothy’s blue eyes were rimmed in red, swollen from weeping and still utterly adorable, Sophia thought dispassionately. No wonder Father gave her the very best, wanted for her everything her heart desired.
“You won’t have to. I’ll fix it. Don’t I always, dear heart?” Sophia shook back her thick brown hair and stroked her sister’s blond head. “Don’t I always do what it takes to make you happy?”
“You do, Sophia. You’re the most wonderful sister any girl ever had. I don’t blame Father for wanting to keep you with him always. You take such good care of everyone.” Dorothy recovered sufficiently to dry her eyes on an embroidered handkerchief and straighten the neck of her nightgown.
Sophia sat down on the bed beside her younger sister and resumed brushing her hair, the activity that had been interrupted so suddenly when Sophia had mentioned that the duke of Page was expected the next day. “It’s my duty, Dorothy, and the state to which heaven has called me. Nothing interesting in that. Tell me of your love for Mr. Reyder. When did this happen?”
“I’ve always reveled in his company, since the first time William brought him home from Oxford. He’s so handsome and so brave. The way he rides! His voice! An angel among men.”
Sophia rolled her eyes behind her sister’s back. The dear little idiot had no idea what was important in life or desirable in a husband. She described the lad accurately enough, but one could have him as a houseguest any day of the week and enjoy all those attributes without taking the rash step of marrying him! “Ah, well,” Sophia sighed. “William should have brought home angels with a little money. Mr. Reyder hasn’t a feather to fly with!”
Dorothy turned around too quickly, jerking the brush out of Sophia’s hand. “You won’t hold that against him, will you? You’ll let me marry him?”
“Of course I will. I mean, of course William will.”
Dorothy laughed as she retrieved the brush from the floor and gave it back to Sophia. “William will do whatever you tell him to. He’s like Father was in that respect. Always listened to you. What did he always say? ‘Girl’s got a good head on her shoulders, just like her mother, bless her.’ I can hear him say it still.”
“I’m not sure he would agree if he heard I was trying to get you out of such an advantageous agreement. Thank goodness that was as far as the business had gotten. An agreement between two gentlemen is much more easily overlooked than an actual engagement. Surely I can talk him round. I mean, once I tell him that you are in love with someone else, he’s bound to step aside.”
“Of course he will, if you tell him to! You’re ever so sensible.” Dorothy smiled back at her sister. “Thank you for brushing my hair out. Maud can’t do it right.”
“She does it quite well. You just like me to do it because we used to do it when we were children. We’ve grown up now, little sister.”
Dorothy’s smile changed to a frown in an instant. “But not too grown up for you to brush my hair at night, are we?”
“No, indeed, especially not you. Now, time to douse the lights and go to sleep. Good night!” As she padded silently down the carpeted hall to her own room in their spacious country home, Sophia could only hope that Duke Page would indeed listen to reason. She had every reason to hope he would. The state of their finances would see to that.
* * *
At breakfast the next day, Sophia drank one last cup of tea while perusing the morning post. Dorothy, finished with her meal, waited patiently for William to eat his baked egg. This process took a good bit of time, since more than half his attention was apparently being given to the book he was devouring with more gusto than his food.
Sophia, hoping to save the book from more of the shower of plum cake crumbs it had already endured, cleared her throat to get her brother’s attention. “This letter here, from Duke Page, indicates that he will be visiting us shortly. When that happens we must by all means persuade him to go for a long country ramble with us tomorrow afternoon.”
William gave her a vague look and nodded affably. “Should have a good day for it, do you think?”
“I do, yes. I’ll have Summers set up the tables for tea on the lawn, too. We’ll make a day of it outside, shall we?”
“As you wish, my dears. I’ll just go to the library now and meet with old Humphrey to see how the crops are getting on, eh? Get that duty over and done with early every day, that’s the way!”
Sophia gave him a patient smile. “If it pleases you, dear brother, but please, do not so lose yourself in a book as to be unable to hear the duke when he comes.”
“A book? I’m going to meet with Humphrey!” The innocent look on William’s face would have put the direst forebodings in the heart of anyone interested in getting even a scant hour’s work from him that day.
“Yes, certainly, William. Please don’t forget to mention the apple orchards,” Sophia reminded him, giving him a bit of dried apple to take with him so that he would have some chance of remembering. She could hear him whispering to himself as he made his way down the hall.
“Apple orchards. Apple orchards. Mustn’t forget. Apple orchards.”
“That’s taken care of him. Now, off to meet with Humphrey!” Sophia said brightly.
“But what about William?”
“He’ll be glad to wait until I’ve had a word with Humphrey. Things run more smoothly this way, dear.”
Dorothy and Sophia walked out into the garden together, where Dorothy remained to inspect the first shoots and tentative sprouts that presaged the coming of spring. Sophia walked on down the long driveway that led to the road to town.
* * *
During all of the long journey that morning, Spencer Preston, duke of Page, wondered about the household he was about to visit. The day, at least, was most congenial for such a task. The freshening breeze held the sweet promises of spring. As he rode up the long wooded driveway, he could see them from his horseback vantage point long before they noticed him. Even more intriguingly, he could hear them over the tall hedge that helped hide him from their view.
“It’ll have to come down, Humphrey,” the young lady repeated patiently.
“Ma’am, I hasn’t got time nor men for taking down that great hulking oak. It’s been standing there since there weren’t no earl here and it’ll stand a season longer.”
“But Humphrey, it’s a danger to the traffic on the road. One good breeze and this branch will be in the middle of some poor soul’s carriage, if not their… well, heaven forbid!”
“Your father, God rest his soul, he never wanted it moved. Only half of it is dead. The other half is fine.”
“My father was a sentimental old… oh, never mind. We’ll see what William has to say about it, shall we?” The girl cast a glance over toward the house, lying gray and stately against the blue canvas of the sky.
Spencer imagined the scene before him as a plate in one of his beloved books. How lovely it would look, perhaps even as a frontispiece. He reined in his gelding and dismounted to approach the arguing pair on foot. Pushing through the hedge, he drawled loudly enough to be heard, “Can I be of assistance?”
When the woman jumped and turned shocked eyes on him, Spencer realized that perhaps he had come out of the hedge a bit too close to them. He hadn’t meant to startle her, but before he could apologize, the man called Humphrey took a belligerent defensive stance in front of the lady.
She inspires loyalty in her servants; that much is certain, Spencer mused as he turned his gaze downward at the much smaller older man. Arguing one minute, ready to risk his life the next. She’s got some sense, or I’m much mistaken. If she’s the one old Henry promised me, I could do a good deal worse.
“Have we been introduced?” she finally managed to enquire.
“Perhaps not, but I am expected. Spencer Preston, duke of Page, at your service. Do I have the pleasure of beholding my intended, Lady Dorothy?”
Suddenly, the lady’s face underwent a complete alteration. It seemed to Spencer as if she smiled not only in greeting, but in relief.
“Unfortunately, no, I am not Dorothy, but I am her sister, Sophia Tamworth. So nice to make your acquaintance. We have been expecting you. Welcome to Tamworth Hall.”
“An honor, to be sure. Such lovely grounds should not be marred by so blatant a blight on the landscape. The lady is quite right, my good man. It will indeed have to come down.” Spencer laid a hand on the obviously rotten and decaying shell of what had once been a grand oak.
Humphrey, not surprisingly, accepted his verdict with a sigh and a grimace, but none of the argument he might give a woman. “Too true, Your Grace. ‘Tis a great nuisance, this is, but soon as Lord Tamworth gives the order, it will be done.”
Spencer offered his arm to his new acquaintance and they began to stroll down the lane together. “You can send a groom for my horse, Humphrey. He’s tied on the other side of the hedge.” Since he assumed he would be obeyed, he did not wait for a reply, but went on. “I must apologize for my unorthodox arrival. I should have waited to make myself known to you under more proper circumstances, but I heard your conversation and could not but lend my aid.”
“It was much appreciated.”
“I wonder that it fell to you to deal with estate matters thus. Your manager is very loyal, I don’t doubt, but he obviously understands orders better from a man. Your brother William is not ill, I trust, that he left you in charge.”
It needed a moment before comprehension dawned on Sophia’s face, but then she smiled ruefully. “My brother is a man of letters and learning, Your Grace. Practical matters are not so much to his taste.”
Spencer nodded. “With so capable and charming an assistant, no wonder he leans on you to help him.”
“I do my best, Your Grace. Please, let us go in. We have been out quite long enough with only Humphrey as a chaperone.” She gave a little laugh, as if this was some sort of jest, but to Spencer, it was a serious matter indeed.
He had no wish to insult the family or bring anyone’s reputation into doubt. “There will be someone inside, of course. Or I can wait outside until someone can be called.”
Again, she graced him with an amused little chuckle that delighted him quite unexpectedly. “I am afraid that I am more than old enough to act as a chaperone myself. No hint of scandal could ever attach itself to a spinster such as I, on the shelf these many years. Still, our cousin Margaret sits by the fire most mornings and knits. I’m sure we will find her there. Please, go in.” She gestured to the French doors before them.
From the stone-paved terrace, they entered a spacious drawing room. On first glance, the room had an elegant though not uninviting air. It was not until Spencer had seated himself on a divan and waited for several minutes that he noticed how outmoded the upholstery appeared and the stains in the beautiful oriental rugs.
Sophia had rung the bell as they entered, then crossed to the fire to lean close to the elderly lady sitting there, nodding over two knitting needles that lay limp in her hands. Spencer was startled when Sophia shouted into the poor creature’s ear. “Cousin Margaret!”
When the lady still did not awaken, Spencer understood. “Pray do not disturb her. Does she always sleep like this?”
“No, indeed,” replied the young lady with a gentle smile that held just a hint of mischief. “She usually snores so loudly we have to shout at each other to make ourselves heard.”
Spencer laughed in spite of himself. “Then let us count ourselves lucky.”
“Yes, indeed. Duke Page, there is something I wish to discuss with you while we have a moment before my brother joins us. It regards the matter you broached earlier. I hope you will not think me impolite to mention the topic so soon after our first acquaintance, but I think it best to set the matter straight before further misunderstanding ensues.”
“What matter would that be?”
“The matter of my sister, Dorothy. I know that my father took the unusual and perhaps rash step of trying to win from you a commitment of yourself to an alliance with our family.”
“A matrimonial alliance, in point of fact.” He smiled to indicate to her his pleasure in this thought.
Sophia nodded hesitantly, then continued. “Matrimonial, yes, as you say. Shortly before his sudden, tragic demise over a year ago, he informed us of your agreement. I remember thinking at the time that Father was ill-advised to press you into such a compact.”
“He did not press me, my lady. I entered into the thing most willingly.”
The amusing chuckle bubbled from her again. “I know how my father was, Your Grace. Enthusiasm unencumbered by discretion. No one with your benefit in mind could have in good conscience made such a bargain. But my father did indeed wish you only the best. He assured us of his respect and affection for you.”
“And mine for him, I hope.”
“Yes, he did indicate that the friendship was mutual, so I am confident that he would wish me to release you from the ties of honor which you may mistakenly think still bind you. We hold you blameless and in fact, thank you for your forbearance in not revealing our situation to the wider world.”
“Your difficulties? Hold me blameless? I am afraid I do not understand you.”
Sophia looked away, a most becoming blush staining her cheeks. “You see, Your Grace, while our honor and noble title are still intact, my father’s enthusiasms seem to have outstripped his resources. Any dowry he may have indicated to you is… how shall I put this… no longer available. Upon his death we learned to our great sorrow and shame that my brother’s inheritance in monetary terms leaves us just barely enough to survive on.”
Spencer examined the girl closely. While assuredly courageous and perhaps clever, she is not yet quite as adept at manipulating people as she thinks. If she so willingly reveals such private information, there must be something else she’s hiding. What could it be? Best to draw it out. This girl, as clever as she is, needs a man’s guiding hand and no mistake. Has she bitten off more than she can chew? Poor little thing. I’ve no choice but to try to help her. What does she think to accomplish?
Toward that end, he put on a fake understanding smile and shook his head. “How could I abandon the family of a dear friend? In their hour of need? Never let it be said that a Preston shrank from helping a connection, no matter how distant.”
“Oh, thank you, Your Grace! You are most kind. I will be sure to beg Providence to provide you with the most beautiful helpmeet imaginable in return for your kindness.”
Spencer frowned, the lines etched between his brows furrowing deeper even than years of study in dim light had made them. “What kindness?”
“In acceding to my request.”
“But I have not acceded. I said I would not abandon your family.”
“You said that you would not shrink from helping a connection. The only way to help us would be to forget the entire arrangement.”
“On the contrary, my dear lady. I believe I can, as a brother-in-law, with all propriety aid your family in ways that would be unavailable to a mere acquaintance.”
“But there is no marriage settlement, no dowry, nothing at all. However it pains me to admit it, I must be candid. My brother cannot meet any financial obligation my father entered into.” Sophia hung her head. “My sister would have brought nothing with her, if the marriage contract had been signed and enacted. Thank goodness things had not gotten that far and nothing was put in writing.”
The look she gave him then told the tale. She isn’t certain. I can read her thoughts clearer than trumpet notes on a cloudless morning. She is hoping to learn whether a formal contract had been written. And even more, she is hoping it has not been signed. “Will you permit me to match you in candor? I need neither contract nor settlement for the marriage to take place. I have resources enough to support a wife and help her brother until such time as he can improve his position.”
Was that a look of exasperation flashing across her face? “You are most generous, indeed, Your Grace, but we cannot allow…”
“That will surely be for your brother to decide,” Spencer cut in.
She looked shocked at his rudeness, but recovered enough to answer, “Of course. I shall summon him directly. But before I do—”
He never learned what it was she intended to do before she summoned him, because at that moment, the man appeared, glasses slightly askew, book in hand, looking for all the world like he had lost his way in a circulating library and found himself here by mistake. “What? A visitor? Have we met? Dreadfully sorry to interrupt. I’m William Tamworth. I see you’ve met my sister, Sophia.” He held out his hand, which Spencer took with sincere pleasure in his eyes.
“The earl of Tamworth? The William Tamworth, author of that intriguing little treatise on deciduous trees of Northern England published last year?”
“Yes, indeed! You read that? I hadn’t a notion anyone had.”
“But of course. I enjoyed it tremendously. I count myself, in a humble sort of way, a collector of books, both modern and antique. Natural history is one of my areas of concentration.”
Both men seated themselves in chairs near the fire. Spencer settled himself in to enjoy a rousing discussion the likes of which he could not find among the young gentlemen who made up the popular set in London’s high society. Out here in the country, one of his chief pleasures was to find and cultivate diamonds in the rough like the man who sat before him now, educated and devoted to his topic, but without the arrogance of their mutual class. Spencer prided himself on being able to navigate both worlds, but he knew he felt more at home in a threadbare country squire’s drawing room than in the glittering salons of the ton. This setting suited him perfectly and he intended to make the most of the scholar’s attention before it was pulled away by some other academic pursuit.
Sophia’s set and brittle smile informed Spencer that he had not heard the last of her reasoning. In fact, he counted upon it, looking forward with relish to the resumption of negotiations. He felt confident that while he might have won the first abortive skirmish, the war was by no means over. As a final salvo, he said, “But, Tamworth, I fear we will bore your sister with our masculine topics. It doesn’t do to leave the gentler sex out of our discussion thus. Perhaps we should retire to your study to continue, leaving the ladies to peaceful feminine pursuits.”
William waved this thought away like so much stale cigar smoke. “No, not at all. Believe me, we could not disturb my cousin Margaret if we wished. And as for Sophia, my sister is quite knowledgeable of natural history. Our father made sure of it. I daresay she could teach me a thing or two.” He laughed vaguely as if his statement had not been shocking in the extreme. Of course, William meant only to flatter his sister, but Spencer made note again of the admiration this young lady inspired in all those around her.
Sophia rose to go. “Please, have no concern on my account. I must see to dinner, the running of the household, and other peaceful feminine pursuits. We can continue our conversation after dinner.”
Something was definitely troubling the girl. Of that he felt certain. What surprised him was the strength of his desire to help her, to sweep the worry from her face. He listened with half his attention to William’s informative but somewhat disorganized ramblings. Interestingly, the anticipation he had been feeling at the thought of meeting his intended bride had dissolved, not to reform until the maid brought in the tea tray.
“Oh, dear! Is it time for tea already? Didn’t think to offer you anything before now.” William declared. Waving his hand vaguely to indicate the bell pull, he went on, “Could have taken a ride. The local tavern roasts a very nice fowl and the ale is, I have been told, the best in three counties.”
“Another day, to be sure. I never noticed the time.”
Sophia came in at that moment, followed by another lovely young lady. Nothing could have been clearer than the fact that something was troubling the pair. Even William, as distracted as he had proved himself to be more than once during the afternoon, noticed, as his comments soon made apparent. “Dorothy? Sister? Is something wrong?” Turning concerned eyes to Sophia, he fretted, “What has happened?”
“All will be well, I assure you,” Sophia claimed, strain tightening the otherwise pleasant little crinkles at her eyes and brows. “Smythe, put the tray on that table, if you please. I shall pour from here. Thank you. That will be all for the present.” Dismissing the maid, she went about the business of making and serving the tea, an occupation that she carried out with the efficiency and grace that seemed to characterize everything Spencer had yet observed about her.
“But what ails the girl? You haven’t been scolding her again, have you? I told you, no harm was done when she borrowed my Quercus.” William, suddenly much less vague than Spencer had seen him yet, frowned at his older sister.
Spencer could make nothing of this statement. “Your Quercus? She borrowed an oak tree?”
“Quercus is my horse, don’t you know. Named him the Latin name for my favorite tree. Got quite a stable here. Or had, once upon a time. Had to sell off a few of the best, I can tell you, but there’s still always something decent to ride.”
Dorothy sniffed. “I rode Quercus on the last day that… oh, dear.” Tears welled up in her eyes.
“There, there, Dorothy!” Sophia repeated with forced patience. “No one wants salty tears in his or her tea. Do take this to His Grace.”
“So this is Dorothy, I take it? How do you do?” Spencer put out his hand, but instead of taking it, Dorothy thrust a cup of tea into his grasp and stepped back as if she had been scorched.
Sophia quickly made the proper introductions while Spencer wondered to himself, Why is the girl standing there looking as if I’m an emissary from old Nick in the flesh, come to seal a bargain for her soul? I don’t much like the idea of the girl being so frightened of me. I’m a decent chap. Do I look so awful?
Sophia deftly turned the conversation to mundane topics. The weather was always a safe haven in any conversational storm, and Spencer learned a great deal more about the upcoming charity fete than he cared to know. After he had drunk enough tea to fill a boat and eaten enough sandwiches to sink that same vessel, he felt relief as well as anticipation when he heard Sophia’s opening salvo. It came in the form of a change of topic. “The old oak in the middle of the road, William. I asked Humphrey to have it removed at last and I believe His Grace’s arguments convinced him, but he is still waiting for your word. Would you mind finding him and telling him it is to be done?”
“Of course, my dear sister, but should this not wait? Our guest has only just arrived.” William smiled pleasantly, but Spencer thought he detected a bit of the hunted stag in William’s expression. This was obviously not the first time this topic had arisen.
Sophia wafted dexterously around the room, collecting cups and plates. “It is long past time for our guest to have a moment to rest and see his rooms before a nice ride.”
William turned a sincere grin on Spencer. “I’ll show you over the place, shall I? We can find old Humphrey while we look around. In an hour, say? I’ll wait for you in my study.”