Authors: Beverley Kendall
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
Also by Beverley Kendall
Published by Kensington Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 2011 by Beverley Kendall
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To my mother, who has always been there for me, and is
there for me.
I love you, Mom.
To Mary-Cannon and Anastasia, as always, your critiques are essential to a good story and clean manuscript. To Barb, the best query critiquer ever. And most of all, to my son, Ryan, who slept early enough to allow me to write this book. I love you, sweetie.
As Thomas, Viscount Armstrong, digested Harold Bertram’s words, he came up straight in his seat, his hands finding the curved arms of the chair. Although the marquess delivered the request with all the gravity of a clergyman officiating a funeral, Thomas
he hadn’t heard him correctly.
“You would like me to do what?” Thomas issued the question in a soft voice and an even calmer tone, but the sound cracked the air like the report of a rifle.
The marquess gave a mirthless laugh and shot a quick glance at the study doors before shifting his regard back to him. “I am asking you to-to take my daughter under your care during my stay in America.”
Thomas suffered through the second such insupportable request in as many days—this one even more painful than the last.
Only the prior day, a peer in the House of Lords had presented him with the kind of offer that sent honest men hurtling full-tilt down the unsavory road to perdition. He hadn’t thought it could possibly get more unseemly than that.
He was wrong.
What Harry spoke of was not about politics and one-thousand-pound bribes; this was one hundred times worse.
“It would be—er—up until the new year unless I could conclude the negotiations in less time.”
Harold Bertram, the Marquess of Bradford, or Harry as he preferred close acquaintances to call him, was not a lack wit—though many might doubt that assertion at the present time. He possessed the sharpest mind in matters of finance and business, and could articulate—when not suffering a brain lapse—with the eloquence of an orator the likes of which Caesar and Henley never saw. However, his nineteen-year-old daughter could fray the nerves of even the most battle-seasoned soldier. Thomas himself could attest to that.
Fixing the marquess—who had fallen conspicuously mute—with an unblinking stare, Thomas cocked his brow. Harry must have indeed taken leave of his senses. The chit had finally driven him to that.
“If this is a joke, I assure you, I do not find it the least bit amusing,” Thomas replied, when he finally recovered enough to speak. “I mean, we are speaking about Lady Amelia, are we not? Unless, pray tell, you have yet another daughter hidden away who is
a disrespectful termagant?”
A round of uncomfortable clearing of the throat ensued, followed by a weary-to-the-bones exhalation. “Heavens, then tell me what I’m to do with her? If I take her with me, I would have neither the time nor energy to keep her out of her usual mischief, especially in a country where I lack familiarity. At present, you are the only person I trust enough to come to regarding this matter. Perhaps if the trip weren’t of such importance, and I could rearrange my schedule….” Harry sent him a silent look of appeal.
At his words, Thomas’s conscience received a faint prick, but thankfully, the feeling lasted no more than a few seconds. In his estimation, voyaging to America in the interest of a
business endeavor could not compare to subjecting himself to playing taskmaster to Harry’s recalcitrant daughter.
Leaning forward, Thomas’s fingers curled into the napped fabric of the armrest. “If you requested I take your place at the guillotine or the hangman’s noose I would consider that less of an imposition.”
Harry’s eyebrows met above a straight patrician nose as his mustachioed mouth gave a faint twitch. “I am going to be frank with you. That gir—daughter of mine seems most determined to deliver me to an early grave. She’s managed to embroil herself with yet another ne’er-do-well. This time, if my manservant hadn’t been so careful, I would be forced to call that worthless Clayborough my son-in-law.” He spat the man’s name as if a more foul sound could not pass his lips.
“Harry,” Thomas said on a long, drawn-out sigh, subsiding back into the chair. “Perhaps it would be best if you permitted her to marry whomever she pleases. Wouldn’t it be easier than chasing her across the wilds of every county in England? She
reached the age to wed.” Let some poor unfortunate bastard take her on. Thomas was certain the man would be crying foul within months of the marriage once he realized the bargain he’d struck.
A dull thud echoed throughout the study as Harry’s fisted hand collided vigorously with the glossy veneered finish of his mahogany desk. “No! The last thing I want is that wastrel for a son-in-law. Heavens above, I am well aware my daughter is a considerable handful, but I have a duty as her father to protect her from such men.” His voice dropped low. “Her poor mother would turn over in her grave if she knew what has become of her only child.”
A poignant sadness dimmed the light in his friend’s eyes at the mention of his departed wife, and in that moment, Thomas was ashamed of his unfeeling suggestion that he knowingly allow Harry’s daughter to wed a gambler and
fortune hunter. But good God, if any woman deserved such a fate, surely Lady Amelia Bertram topped that ignominious list.
To even contemplate Harry’s request—which he certainly was not—would be a hairbreadth shy of insanity, but the friend in him felt compelled to justify his refusal. “Just what would you have me do with her in that time? I will assume you wouldn’t allow me to put her to
Though, the thought did bring a rueful smile to his face. It would be nothing less than she deserved. Thomas was certain she didn’t even know the meaning of the word, much less participate in any activity more taxing than angling her insolent nose in the air.
Harry’s face brightened like a street urchin spying a crown on a sidewalk along the streets of the East End. “Now that is something I never considered. It is really a capital idea, albeit somewhat unorthodox. Yes, it might be just what she needs to acquire a modicum of temperance. This time I am determined she learn her lesson. Mind you, the work itself cannot be menial or anything of that sort.” The latter he added more solemnly.
So, Harry would be amenable to putting her to work. Thomas had only intended it as a joke. The notion was absurd. He smiled. But so fitting.
After a moment, the marquess’s eyes sparked again. “Perhaps she could act as a companion to your sisters?”
Thomas sobered immediately. The gleam in his friend’s blue eyes signified hopes soaring high, something he had to quash before he found her deposited on his front doorstep, trunks and all. “My sisters will be accompanying my mother to America for six weeks this winter.” And one of the ten plagues of Egypt would plunge London into utter darkness for three days if he even considered thrusting Lady Amelia upon his family.
Plowing a hand through his hair, Thomas sighed again. “Lord, you’ve seen us together. I’d have an easier time taming a wild boar. She’d exhaust my patience in the first
hour, never mind days, much less weeks on end. What your daughter needs is a guard dog.”
Harry compressed his mouth into a straight line.
“Or perhaps you can find her a suitable gentleman who will divert her from her more, er, spirited activities,” Thomas corrected more judiciously. He really must remember to whom he spoke. As close as he and Harry were, the poor man
the girl’s father.
Harry tugged at the brass closures of his navy blue waistcoat as if it had suddenly become too tight. “Well, I cannot say that I particularly blame you, as the two of you did not have an auspicious start.”
Ha! That was like saying Waterloo had been a mere spat between neighboring countries. “I’d say that would be phrasing it nicely,” Thomas said, his tone arid.
Pushing the chair back, Harry slowly arose. Thomas took his cue and came swiftly to his feet. With resignation sketching his features, the marquess extended his hand across a desk surfeit with plumed pens, elegant black inkwells, and stacks of papers and books. Thomas accepted it with a flash of regret. Not regret for refusing his request, but regret that it had been one he could not in his right mind accept. Had he been feeble of mind, perhaps. Sound of mind, never.