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Authors: Jo Beverley

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BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
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“My dear friend . . .” Perry murmured.
“Her portion is large, and it’s been hinted it’ll be increased for the heir assumptive to an earldom.”
“Your brother could sire a son anytime in the next ten years or more. He has girls already.”
“I assume Rumford sees it as a worthwhile gamble for the chance to see his daughter a countess. As for me, I must marry money. You know that.”
“Have I advised against it?”
“Then why come here to interfere?”
“Even my devotion to your welfare would not bring me to Bagnigge Wells. A messenger arrived from Keynings. Wouldn’t state his business, but stressed its urgency. He’d had some difficulty in locating you,” Perry added in mild reproof.
“I hadn’t found time to tell the family that I’d moved in with you.”
He hadn’t communicated with Keynings at all since his explosive departure. They were doubtless content with that. So why the messenger?
“Drastic news, I suppose, so it must be Mother. Merely ill, or dead?”
He should feel more, but they’d never been close, despite his bearing her family name. Perhaps because he bore the family name. He resented it, and she didn’t think he lived up to the Catesby standards.
“You could have directed the messenger here,” Cate pointed out.
“I thought to spare a Yorkshire lad becoming lost amid the wilderness of Islington, so I made the sacrifice. Bagnigge Wells,” Perry repeated, and shuddered.
It was largely humorous affectation, but Cate felt sure his friend had not previously visited this area. He was a creature of Mayfair and St. James’s.
“Did I mention urgent?” Perry said.
“I’ll take my farewells.”
As Cate crossed the room to Georgiana and her mother, he couldn’t help feeling grateful of an excuse to leave. If only the Rumfords were fond of music, art, or antiquities rather than gossipy gatherings of their own sort.
He and Perry were soon in a hackney and heading toward the distant smoke that marked London. Zeus, how he longed for the country.
Perry regarded his perfectly buffed fingernails. “You know I don’t interfere, my friend, but are you quite sure about La Rumford?”
“Yes.”
Perry sighed. “Where will you buy your estate?”
Cate had shared his plan with his friend, so he had no reason to feel irritated. “Rumford favors somewhere near London, but larger properties come cheaper farther north.”
“As far north as Yorkshire, perhaps?”
“Why not?”
“It might be possible to be too fond of your family home,” Perry suggested delicately.
“Do you feel no pining for Herne?”
“Never been any point. Fourth son, and now Pranks has a couple of his own.”
Pranks was Perry’s oldest brother, born with the heir’s title of Viscount Pranksworth and destined one day to be the Earl of Hernescroft.
“In any case,” Perry said, “the country bores me, whilst Town and court do not.”
“You can afford Town and court.”
“The charm of sinecures. Perhaps your brother would purchase a couple for you.”
“My brother and I parted on less than amiable terms.”
“Will it be difficult to return? You had, as you described it, a flaming row.”
Cate hadn’t thought of that. “Plague take it. If Mother’s seriously ill or worse I’ll have to go north, won’t I?”
Be required by filial duty to go north.
Have an excuse to return to Keynings, where he might be able to mend fences with Roe.
His brother, Sebastian, Lord Malzard, was known in the family as Roe from the heir’s title he’d been born to—Viscount Roecliff. Roe was six years Cate’s senior, so they’d never been close, but Cate regretted being at odds, and, in particular, being an exile from the home he loved.
He’d been away in the army for years, able to return on furlough only once, but he’d always known Keynings was there, waiting with tolerably open arms. . ..
“You never did say why you quarreled,” Perry said.
They were leaving the small fields behind and traveling between cottages.
“Mostly it arose from my pride,” Cate said. “After the debacle, I was allowed to sell my army commission in the normal way, but the story behind it spread. I’d been chronically insubordinate, come close to mutiny, and caused a riotous brawl in which three men had died.”
“Not exactly true.”
“Three men did die,” Cate said flatly, “but even without that it wasn’t an interpretation easy to contest, especially as no one spoke of it openly.”
“A few spoke of it openly to me.”
“Ah, so that’s why you called Willoughby out.”
“Dammed coward retracted his words.”
“But it silenced open comment. Thank you.”
“How did all that lead to your being alienated from your family? They couldn’t have believed—”
Cate laughed. “They certainly could. They showed it by being intolerably understanding. Roe assured me that Keynings was my home—without meaning it for a moment. We’re flint and steel at the best of times. He’s so damned righteous, and feels that as head of the family he takes Father’s place in our relationship.”
Cate made himself stop that line of complaint. If Roe despaired of him, he had reason. Even now, courting Georgiana, Cate knew he’d be marrying to disoblige his family. They would not find it pleasant to have to mingle with the Rumfords. Would his mother be able to bring herself to embrace Georgiana and call her daughter?
He took up his account. “Artemis, my sister-in-law, raised the possibility of future professions or business enterprises—fretfully, as if doubting I could find one. Mother . . . Ah, Mother was openly peeved that I was back to bother her again.”
“’Struth!”
“We’ve never been close. The army had offered me one other choice—a regiment about to set sail for India. She couldn’t see why I hadn’t taken that opportunity, as fighting seemed to be the only situation in which I could bring credit to her family name.”
“She said that?”
“Crisply and clearly.”
“Why didn’t you?” Perry asked. “You did gain admiration in the war.”
“My dear friend,” Cate said in imitation of Perry’s drawl, “India is my Islington, far, far from all I value and enjoy.”
“All the same, not surprising if your family didn’t understand.”
Cate’s teeth clenched. Beneath his family’s “understanding” he’d recognized the lifelong conviction that he was destined to make a pig’s dinner of anything he turned his hand to. They had some reason. He knew that.
There’d been his brief attempt at studying for the Church, ended by too strong a taste for pretty women, strong drink, and action. He’d followed that path only with the dream of becoming rector of St. Wilfred’s, the closest parish to Keynings.
After that, his father had found him a place with the East India Company, which was newly expanding into power and wealth. The possibility for adventure had appealed, but when he’d faced the fact that he’d be sent to the far side of the world, he’d found a way to get thrown out. There’d been true reason to protest the company’s greed, but he’d picked that fight to escape exile.
Only later had he discovered that exile had been his father’s intent.
He’d been twenty-one then, and he’d reencountered Perry in London, so he’d settled into enjoying life—without the means for it. When the debts threatened to drown him he’d been at his father’s mercy.
That was when his father had spoken bluntly. He didn’t believe in second sons hanging around the family home as if they had a right to it. It was unhealthy for them, and led to discord. The older son and heir was already married and father of one healthy child—a girl, but a boy would follow. Cate must make a life for himself, one in no way connected to Keynings.
He’d been ordered into the army.
His father had hoped his regiment would be sent to the Americas—he’d said as much—but in a twist of fate and army politics, it had taken Cate only as far as Hanover to begin with, and kept him in Europe for the rest of the war. It had seemed far enough at the time, though once he’d become accustomed to the army he’d discovered a talent for leadership and fighting.
And, alas, a strong disinclination to follow the rules.
Perhaps he’d have been better off across the Atlantic, where the army had had to embrace irregular procedures to fight in an untamed land. He’d showed a natural talent for irregular procedures. What was more, the end of war hadn’t ended all action. Disgruntled colonists seemed likely to create trouble soon, and the native tribes were objecting to invasion of their lands. Even if there wasn’t another war, the Americas presented a land to conquer and estates to be carved out.
But it wouldn’t be England, and any estate, no matter how large, wouldn’t be Keynings. Perhaps it was insane to be marrying money in order to create a pale imitation of paradise, but it was the best he could do.
The hackney disgorged them outside the building just off St. James’s Square, where Perry had rooms. The location was admirably situated for court, clubs, parks, and all London’s pleasures, and “rooms” didn’t do justice to the extent of his residence. His home was staffed by his valet, a footman, a man-cook, and a lad of all work, and furnished in the height of elegance.
As he’d said, the wonders of sinecures, three of which brought him a handsome income.
The messenger from Keynings was sitting upright in the tiny reception room, his three-cornered hat clutched in big hands. He rose instantly.
“Jeb,” Cate said, trying not to show inappropriate pleasure, for it was clear the news wasn’t good.
Jeb Littlefair came as close to a friend as possible between a groom and a son of the house. They were of an age, had played together as boys and ridden together as youths. Two months ago, during the fateful visit, Jeb had always accompanied Cate on his long morning rides, relaxing into first names and informality.
“Sir!” Jeb swallowed. Yes, the news was bad. And then he said, “Milord . . .”
Cate stared, wanting to say all sorts of idiotic things about silly mistakes, its not being true, or even that Jeb was speaking wicked lies, but he knew. If Jeb had addressed him as “my lord,” his brother was dead.
At only thirty-two, Roe was dead—leaving three daughters and no sons.
Which meant that Cate was Earl of Malzard, owner of all the earldom contained.
Including Keynings . . .
“Sit down.” A hard hand on his arm pushed him into a seat and he heard Perry call for brandy.
Cate managed one word. “How?”
“Not exactly sure, sir . . . milord. Sent me off immediately, they did, to ride ’ere with all speed. But as I heard it, the earl just collapsed and died.”
A glass in his hand.
He drank and the spirits broke the shock a little.
“When?” he asked hoarsely, and took another drink.
Jeb rubbed his head as if needing to think. “Sunday it was, so . . .”
“Four days ago, and I didn’t know.”
“I rode as fast as I could, sir.”
“I’m sure you did. Horses can’t fly.” Cate drained the glass, trying to think. One thing was clear. “I must set off immediately. I’ll be too late for the funeral, but I must make all speed.”
“I’ll order a chaise,” Perry said. He topped up Cate’s glass and left.
Cate turned back to Jeb, trying to make sense of the unbelievable. “He just collapsed? How could he just collapse?”
“I dunno, sir. His lordship did say as he’d ’ad ’eadaches. When he came to the stables that very morning he said something about cursed ’eadaches and perhaps riding’d cure them.”
Cate surged to his feet. “No one dies of
headaches
!” He reined himself in. “I’m sorry. I won’t take it out on the messenger. How much sleep have you had?”
“I had to stop for a few hours every night, sir.”
“I’m sure you did. Get a good rest now.”
Cate took out some coins. They were most of what he had to hand. Except now he was rich. Very, very rich. Unless Artemis was with child . . . Damnable that the thought caused a sense of loss.
“Go to the Star,” he said, giving Jeb the money. “It’s just around the corner and a decent place. Rest well; then take a coach home.”
“I’d rather travel with you, sir. I mean . . . begging your pardon, sir, but you shouldn’t travel alone.”
“You think me incapable?” Cate asked angrily.
“No, milord. But—”
“Don’t use that title. It’s not settled yet.”
Jeb stared at him.
“It’s possible my brother’s wife might be with child.”
Perry had returned. “I’ll accompany him north. Take your rest, man. You’ve earned it.”
Jeb left and Cate turned on Perry. “Travel to Yorkshire with me? Don’t be foolish.”
“You won’t dissuade me, so don’t try.”
Cate wanted to, but his mind felt misty.
“Eat.”
He looked at the object presented. “A jam tart?”
“My cook insists sweets are better for shock than brandy. Eat it.”
Cate obeyed, and the mist did seem to clear a little.
He sat again, sinking his head into his hands. “I can’t believe it. I didn’t just dream that?” He flinched at his words and looked up. “I didn’t want this. You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. It’s a damned shame. But—”
“Artemis could be with child.”
“Yes, that’s possible. Whatever the situation, your family needs you.”
“I wonder.”
“Don’t be a damned fool.”
It wasn’t something to be spoken, not even to Perry, but Cate was sure his family—his mother and sister-in-law in particular—were appalled at the thought of him in control of the earldom. They were probably right to worry. What did he know of the business?
He’d always been carefree—or careless, depending on one’s point of view. Impulsive. More suited to action than measured reaction. He’d always known Keynings was better off in his brother’s steady, wise hands.
BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
12.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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