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Authors: Jo Beverley

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BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
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Was she apologizing?
“I came as speedily as possible, but we’re prisoners of reality. No will in the world can shorten distances or make roads smooth.”
As he spoke, he was wondering whether his sister-in-law’s words could be taken as a declaration that no child was possible. How did he ask?
As if she picked up his thoughts, she said, “I’m not with child.” Staring somewhere beyond him, uncomfortable to be speaking of such things, she added, “I had my courses last week, and . . . I am not with child,” she repeated firmly. “You should assume the title and responsibilities of earl immediately.”
Cate had no idea whether a woman could be mistaken about such things, but if Artemis didn’t want this hanging in uncertainty, he understood. She would very much dislike everyone paying close attention to her intimate affairs.
“Very well. Some announcement must be made, for the household and the neighborhood.”
“I’ll attend to that,” his mother said. She reached into her right pocket and took something out. “You will want these.”
He rose to take the two rings—the earldom’s signet ring, and a black ring with a design etched through to silver. Roe’s mourning ring. Any gentleman who’d attended the funeral would have received one.
Cate didn’t want to put them on, but he did, feeling Artemis in particular grow more tense. How hard this must be for her. She’d even stopped setting stitches. His mother’s mouth was tight.
Cate thought that came from gloom over his capabilities, but then he realized it might be because fate had given him power over both women’s lives. He could, in theory, order them out of the house to live in the long-unused dower house. Or even send them away from Keynings entirely.
“Everything shall be just as you wish,” he said.
His mother looked pained. Lord save him.
“I mean nothing else need change unless you wish.”
Artemis said, “Thank you. Keynings still feels like my home, and of course it’s the only home my daughters have ever known.”
“It is your home, their home. Permanently.”
“You’re very kind, but your wife’s feelings must be taken into account.” It sounded like an explanation to a simpleton.
“I’m not married.”
“But you will be,” his mother said.
“Yes, but . . . I assure you, I won’t marry anyone who would distress my family.”
This conversation was worse than slogging through marshes under sniper fire.
“And then, in time,” Artemis said, finally stabbing her needle into her cloth, “I may wish to live elsewhere.”
Remarry. Of course she would. She was not yet thirty.
“You will marry, Catesby?” His mother managed to make a question an order.
“That’s not—”
She reared up. “Can you not bring yourself to do even
that
?”
“May I at least sleep alone for one night?”
“Don’t be crude!” she snapped. “Everyone will appreciate the necessity for haste with evidence of fate’s cruelty so bitterly clear.”
“Everyone will expect a decent interval, dammit.” He controlled himself. “My apologies, Mother, but truly . . .”
She glared, but then exhaled. “You have the right of it, my dear. I too apologize. It’s only . . .” Her lips wobbled and she covered them with her handkerchief.
She was trying so hard. So was he. So was Artemis. They were all straining for a modus vivendi in this impossible situation. The best action now was retreat.
He rose. “Is there anything that needs my immediate attention?”
His mother managed a smile. “No, my dear boy. Everyone here knows their duty. Sleep if you wish. You must be exhausted.”
More so now than when he’d arrived
.
“A friend accompanied me. The honorable Peregrine Perriam. He won’t intrude.”
“Perriam?” his mother asked with a spark of interest. “The Worstershire Perriams?”
“His father’s Lord Hernescroft, yes.”
“Ah.”
Cate didn’t appreciate finding approval only for his companion. He was tempted to say, “We met in a whorehouse,” which would, in a way, be true.
He contented himself with bowing and leaving. The outwardly impassive footman still stood nearby, so Cate allowed himself no twitch. He walked briskly away toward his room.
Then stopped.
Which room?
He’d been going toward the room he’d used as a youth, the room that had still been ready for him on his return, months ago. It would be a refuge, but if he was earl, was he expected to use the earl’s bedchamber?
It took only a second to know.
Yes.
The whole point was to have the great change over and done with. He was sure Artemis had already moved out of the countess’s adjoining rooms.
With heavy reluctance he turned toward the suite of rooms he still thought of as his father’s. He opened the door to the bedchamber feeling as if a great alarm might sound to declare,
Intruder! Intruder!
The door did not so much as squeak, but inside he found a servant—a very proper upper servant in soberly elegant clothing.
Roe’s valet.
Hell’s guts.
Had he misjudged? But if he was the earl, he’d tolerate no petty exceptions. They weren’t going to be allowed to preserve these rooms as a mausoleum.
Cate continued his entry and shut the door. “Your name?”
The man bowed. “Ransom, my lord. Your brother’s valet.”
So this servant had already been informed. Shame. He’d have liked a fight. A rip-roaring fight with a noble cause. Like that aborted vengeance in Northallerton, when he’d been raw from events here. At least Hera had triumphed.
Prudence Youlgrave.
His weary mind was wandering and the valet was waiting, blank faced, for a response. He wasn’t sure whether he could endure Roe’s valet for long, but he needed someone now. Someone able to turn him out in proper style. When he had suitable clothing.
“Washing water, if you please.”
The valet bowed and left and Cate allowed himself to slump.
He rubbed his hands over his face—finding that his hair was already half loose. A fine, bedraggled sight he must be. He pulled off the ribbon entirely as he walked over to the windows to look out at the rolling green landscape. So green nearby, but a patchwork of many shades farther away, showing the different uses of the land and the different crops growing there.
Roe would have known exactly which crop and when it would come to harvest. He’d know which fields were part of the home farm and which were worked by tenant farmers. He’d know the tenants’ names and details. He’d been trained for the job from the nursery, and spent decades shadowing his father in the work.
Cate could see the roof of the home farm, and the spire of St. Wilfred’s, where he’d once foolishly dreamed of being rector. He glimpsed the roofs of Holmewell village and the scattered farmhouses farther away. All paying rent to the earldom. To him. Would some people feel joy at such possessions? He couldn’t. Even if he’d hated his brother, he couldn’t, and he hadn’t hated Roe. He’d never wanted this.
Liar!
He’d certainly never wished for his brother to die. That, thank God, was true.
He turned to focus on the room. He’d visited here only rarely, and only in his father’s time. Strange to think of the number of rooms in this house he’d hardly ever entered. The administrative rooms, for example, which lurked on the ground floor, like a beasts’ lair awaiting him. Terra incognita
.
Focus on here and now.
The hangings were new since his father’s day—blue damask instead of some old, worn, gold-embroidered stuff. His father had cared little about the style of the house and had probably gone along with the place pretty well as he’d inherited it back in 1731. The heavy oak bed looked to be from the seventeenth century, perhaps even from before the civil war, as did the carved chest at its foot.
Those old pieces anchored him. He would never change them.
He walked toward the door that led to the earl’s library, as it was called, with its matching oak and shabby grandeur. The “earl’s retreat” would be more accurate, for no one intruded without invitation. Cate remembered being “invited” there for what he’d always thought of as audiences with his father.
He opened the door and paused, shocked. . ..
“Ah, there you are. Survived the family?”
Cate froze for a moment, fighting fury at Perry’s intrusion.
“As well as can be expected,” he said, turning toward the other door, the one to the corridor, which Perry had used. “I’m apparently to assume the honors, my sister-in-law being certain no son will arrive to change anything.”
Perry executed a flourishing bow. “My lord earl, then.” But he winced. “My apologies. Not the right tone.”
“No. I’m accustoming myself to changes of many sorts. I remember this room as smaller. In my father’s day the paneling was unpainted and covered the ceiling too.”
Perry surveyed it all. “Fine plasterwork up there, and pale green’s à la mode for walls. But I don’t care for painting fine old wood myself.”
“I wonder if such changes can be reversed.”
Cate immediately regretted saying that. It was as if he wished to obliterate Roe’s time here. As well as take down the paintings his brother had brought back from his grand tour. They looked particularly well against the dusky pale green.
“It looks as if my brother truly studied art and culture in Italy.”
“Instead of frivolity and whores, as I did.”
“Doubtless what I would have done, but younger sons didn’t get such treats in this family.”
He idly picked up one of two books lying on the desk, but immediately put it down again. The books must be ones Roe had been reading in the days before his death, perhaps seeking distraction from the pain, but with no suspicion that the pain heralded his doom.
“Have you been taken care of?” he asked Perry, leading the way back into the bedchamber.
“Excellently. What of you?”
“This is my domain, where all is mine to command.”
“What, then, have you commanded?”
“Don’t busy yourself about my affairs,” Cate said brusquely.
“This is not a lair to be explored alone.”
“This is my home.”
“Then what’s through here?” Perry opened the opposite door. “Ah, your lordship’s dressing room, and an excellent one.”
Perry disappeared into it and Cate followed. He couldn’t remember ever venturing into this private chamber, but Perry was impossible to suppress or deter, and yes, if Cate was honest, he was glad not to be undertaking this navigation alone.
He stopped, looking around with genuine appreciation. “This must all be Roe’s work. Father would never have indulged in such a huge bath, or had walls painted with scenes of gods and goddesses. Roe liked his comforts.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” Perry strolled around the bath, which sat on a dais in the center of the room. “And he’s left you a bath suited to your length. Now, where does that go?” He hunkered down to inspect something. “A tap for easy emptying, feeding into some room below. Excellent design! May I make use of this during my stay?”
“If you don’t mind being eaten. The inside is decorated with a painting of some sort of sea monster.”
Cate considered the other furnishings—a chest of drawers, shaving stand, and magnificent clothespress with doors decorated with fine marquetry hunting scenes.
He idly opened the doors and then froze. The press was full of clothes. Full of Roe’s clothes. God alone knew what made a person’s smell distinctive quite apart from any perfumes they might wear, but it was so, and here it lingered.
“Your washing water, sir.”
Cate turned to see Ransom ushering in a footman bearing a large, steaming jug. Both had halted at sight of Perry.
“My friend Mr. Perriam will want refreshment. Perry, why don’t you request what you want and await me in the earl’s library.”
Perry’s brows rose at the tone, but he went. After putting down the water jug, the footman followed him. Ransom poured the steaming water into the china basin.
Cate asked, “Why are my brother’s clothes still here?”
The valet put down the jug. “The dowager thought that you might have use for them, sir, you and your brother being of similar height.”
“But not of similar build. My shoulders would burst the seams.”
“I fear your mother didn’t realize that, my lord.”
What to do with the damned things?
“Have everything packed away and consult with my sister-in-law as to her wishes. Leave me now.”
Ransom would be used to attending Roe here at all times, but Cate needed to be alone and he was well used to taking care of himself, even to darning his own stockings and sewing on his own buttons.
Once he was alone, he stripped off his coat, waistcoat, and shirt and washed, only then wondering why he was being so thorough. Perhaps it was some instinctive baptism. Wasn’t there something in the service about entering into a new life? Babies generally howled at the font.
Without hope, he hunted through his valise and trunk for a clean shirt, but found only the three he’d already worn on the journey. By tomorrow they would be perfectly laundered and ironed, any defects repaired so skillfully that they’d disappear.
He could soon have new shirts. Footwear, too, replacing his thin-soled shoes and scarred and scuffed boots. New clothes of all kinds, sober in hue but in the latest style and made from the finest materials.
Like all Roe’s clothes in that damned press.
He turned toward it. There’d be pristine shirts in there, and shirts were loosely cut. There was probably unscuffed footwear.
No
.
He might have to step into his brother’s shoes, but he would not do it literally. In any case, his brother’s shoes would pinch. He grimaced at the unintended metaphor and put on the cleanest of his own shirts and neckcloths.
BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
9.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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