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BOOK: Anne Barbour
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Regina’s brows flew into her hairline, and Lawrence laughed unpleasantly.

“Well, it looks as though you learned to curry favor in the army, if nothing else,” he said.

This time, David’s only response was a bored smile. Lucius, however, took issue.

“Not all, my lord,” he snapped. “The major already spoke fluent French by the time we came to the Peninsula, and thereafter, he picked up quite a bit of Spanish. Since he was also one of the most intelligent and well-informed officers in Beresford’s command, he was chosen on several occasions to handle local negotiations. With marked success, I might add.”

David’s smile was genuine now.

“You’ll have to forgive that totally objective report from a good friend.” His laughter was warm.

Kate’s attention was still focused on her aunt’s rudeness, and an imp of anger took possession of her.

“I’ve been trying to convince David to remain longer—perhaps to make his home here.”

Regina’s reaction was all that Kate had hoped. A furious flush spread to her cheeks, and she lifted her hand in a gesture of protest.

“Yes,” continued Kate serenely. “Uncle Thomas has promised for years that he should have the River Farm. The cottage—well, it’s a small mansion, really—has been sitting empty for a long time, and Mr. Pettigrew says it’s a valuable piece of property that could be made to turn a profit if it were properly administered.”

For a moment, Regina simply gabbled, but Lawrence flushed in fury.

“Never mind what Pettigrew says. He’s always been on David’s side! Whose agent is he, anyway? David has no right to so much as a pebble of Westerly land.”

Kate could have bitten her tongue for indulging her temper—and just after she had made that self-important speech to David. Now, she had brought about another spiteful attack on him.

Her eyes met those of Aunt Fred, who only smiled and dropped one eyelid in a slow wink.

David had gone rather white around the mouth, but he answered calmly, “I’ve already explained to Kate that I have no plans to install myself at the River Farm, even if Father were to deed it to me—which, as far as I know, he has no intention of doing.”

Regina had by now regained her composure, and rose to signify that the meal was at an end.

“But of course, it would be impossible.” She smiled as she made her way from the room, gesturing to the females in the group to join her. “Lawrence will need every available asset at hand for his future. As a matter of fact, I believe Thomas plans to assign the River Farm as a personal bequest to Lawrence when he and Kate marry next year.”

Regina’s thin laughter drifted back into the room as she shepherded the ladies into the corridor, leaving the gentlemen to their port and brandy.

It seemed to David that his brain was extraordinarily slow in functioning. Kate and Lawrence? No—it was impossible! He glanced down the table to where Lawrence sprawled in his chair, twiddling the stem of his wineglass. His face bore an expression of self-satisfaction mixed with embarrassment and— what? Uneasiness?

Kate could not possibly be considering marriage to that insufferable little popinjay! But she had not denied Regina’s statement. Why had she said nothing to him?

His gaze moved to Crawford. Certainly that young man seemed unsurprised, but he, too, seemed uncomfortable. What was afoot here?

Only Lucius seemed unperturbed.

“So we may wish you happy, my lord?” he said to Lawrence, lifting his glass.

Lawrence squirmed in his seat.

“Yes—well, nothing’s been announced formally, of course. M’father’s illness and all that. Been his dearest wish for years, though.”

“And Kate?” asked David quietly.

Lawrence wriggled even more agitatedly.

“Well, as I said, nothing settled yet.”

“Ah.” David leaned back in his chair.

The ladies gathered in the gold saloon to await the gentlemen, except for Lady Frederica, who retired immediately to her rooms as was her habit. As soon as the doors closed, Kate whirled to face the countess.

“Aunt, what in the world can you have been thinking of? Lawrence and I betrothed? What madness is this?”

“But my dear,” Regina answered smoothly. “You know it has always been anticipated that you and Lawrence should marry?”

“Anticipated by whom?” gasped Kate.

“Why, all of us.”

With a rustle of silken skirts, Lady Falworth seated herself on a settee by the fireplace.

“What could be more natural?” she continued with a complacent smile. “You and Lawrence have loved one another for years.” She ignored the titter that arose from Cilia and the muffled snort from Kate’s direction. “It was only to be expected that your affection should culminate in—in a permanent union.”

“But nothing has ever been said,” cried Kate, “at least, not in so many words. Aunt, I do not wish to be married! And, I’m sure Lawrence does not, either. As for love ...” Kate paused helplessly. “We have been raised almost as brother and sister, so I admit there is some family affection, but...”

“My dear child,” interrupted Regina gently, “there is no need to fly up into the boughs. You will soon grow, er, accustomed to the idea. I know you have not been used to look at Lawrence in such a light, but now that the seed is planted ...”

An idea struck Kate.

“Does Uncle Thomas know of this?”

Regina’s reply was swift. “Of course, he does. In point of fact, he and I were discussing the matter just before I left him to change for dinner. You must know, he has been uneasy in his mind of late that your future is unsettled.”

“Aunt Regina, I can take care of my own future. I must ask that you drop this absurd notion.”

Regina’s lips thinned, but she merely smiled.

“We’ll see,” she said softly, then turned quickly to another subject.

“I must say that I was somewhat relieved to discover that David will not be staying long. I cannot conceive what possessed him to make the trip here at all.”

“Because Uncle Thomas asked him to,” retorted Kate. “He can certainly have had no other reason for returning to a family that has treated him so shabbily.”

Regina opened her lips as though to reply, but Cilia was before her.

“I do think his friend is nice—that Mr. Pelham.”

Regina sniffed.

“I wish you’d try for a little more discrimination, Cilia. A farmer’s son?” she continued with some asperity. “One would think that David would aspire to a higher station in his friends. I’m surprised he would bring such a person here.”

“But he was an officer, Mama,” replied Cilia, with unusual boldness. “And I sense nothing of the barnyard about him.”

“I shall admit that to be true.” This, accompanied by a gracious nod. “Perhaps a wealthy patron bought him a pair of colors. However, he is still hardly fit to be invited to the Earl of Falworth’s residence.”

Kate bit her lip. She had no wish to enjoin in a brangle with her aunt. She cast about in her mind for a less volatile subject.

“I visited the conservatory this morning, Aunt. I see your acidanthera is about to bloom.”

“Yes,” said Regina in a pleased tone. “I have been caring for it most assiduously. I have promised several of the ladies in the neighborhood the opportunity to see it when it blossoms. Perhaps ...” She was interrupted by the entrance of the gentlemen.

“You were not long!” exclaimed the countess in surprise. “But, where is Lawrence?”

David and Lucius shot a glance at each other, but it was Crawford who answered.

“Oh, his precious lordship went into one of his miffs. He and David got into another bicker, and when David started to leave the room, saying he planned to visit Father, Lawrence pushed ahead of him, saying, no,
he
was going to go up. What a clunch!” he finished with a derisive chuckle.

“That will do, Crawford,” snapped Regina. She turned to David. “I had hoped, since your stay here is to be brief, that you could manage to refrain from venting your ill nature on my son. It was always your way, of course.”

“On the contrary, ma’am,” Lucius interjected, unable to help himself. “It was your son who discharged his spleen—at considerable length, I might add.”

“What a good friend you are, Mr. Pelham,” purred the countess, her eyes narrowed to two points of steel.

David flung up his hand.

“Handsomely over the bricks, Lucius,” he said. To Regina, he added only, “I’m sure Lawrence will be down shortly.” As if to turn the subject, he continued, “Tell me something of Father’s illness, my lady. Is he recovering as the doctors said he would? I was shocked at his appearance.”

For a moment Kate thought Regina meant to ignore her stepson, but finally she sighed.

“No, he does not go on at all well. He rallied immediately after his paralytic stroke, and we were hopeful at first, but he seems to have fallen into a decline. It’s as though”—her voice fell to a whisper—“he doesn’t care.”

Her concern was obviously genuine, reflected David. But then, she had always seemed truly affectionate toward his father. It was only his father’s love child whom she could not abide.

Lawrence strode into the room. He was obviously in a towering rage, and he trembled as he spoke to David.

“Father wishes to see you.” He turned to the countess. “Mama, he practically threw me out of his room! Are you going to allow that—that upstart”—he pointed a trembling finger at his half brother—”to come here and twist Father around his finger again?”

Regina hurried across the room to place a hand on her son’s arm.

“But, what happened, my dear?”

“I told Father that David is angling for the River Farm and that he should order him to leave at once. He became furious, Mama—at me!” He swung to face David, his face contorted in a snarl. “I suppose you think you have a sinecure here, but when my father is gone, then—well, be assured you’ll never set foot in Westerly again!”

“Lawrence!”

It was his mother’s voice that spoke in a tone of outrage. He stopped abruptly, and his eyes dropped.

David moved swiftly to the door, his limp pronounced.

“I hope”—he flung over his shoulder—”that you did not phrase your displeasure in those words to Father.”

Lucius followed David from the room, murmuring of his fatigue from the journey and his intention to retire.

“Whew!” he said to David, once they were in the corridor. “What a hellhole this place is! Were you serious about returning to the Court with me? It certainly seems advisable. Why in God’s name does that little snerp hate you so?”

“I don’t know,” sighed David. “As youngsters, we got on fairly well, but Regina was always there, dropping her poison. ‘Never mind that he beat you in the race, my dearest. He only does it to show off, of course—so that your Papa will praise him. He is jealous because Papa loves you more than he does him.’ ”

“The woman is incredible,” said Lucius, shaking his head.

The two parted at the head of the main staircase, Lucius repairing to his room, and David turning toward the earl’s chambers.

Later, Kate sat before the fire in her room. She had long ago ceased to notice that the primrose silk hangings were beginning to fray, and that the furnishings were growing increasingly shabby. She stared into the dying embers and reflected dismally on the events of the day.

David, home at last! It had seemed at first that it was not David at all who had returned, but a mean-spirited stranger. Then, at dinner, he had warmed her with the crooked grin that had won the heart of a small, red-haired termagant so long ago. He was still David. But how changed he was. Such bitterness was reflected in his dark eyes, and the pain he lived with spoke from every line in his face.

And there was Aunt Regina’s announcement. Kate admitted to herself that she was not as surprised as her words might have led her aunt to believe. She could not remember when the hints first started. Her schoolmates at the exclusive seminary in Bath where she had spent several fruitless years trying to learn deportment, giggled and sighed over various beaux. When she had perused the current crop of dandies for a young man of her own to sigh over, Uncle Thomas pursed his lips and said, “But you have Lawrence!”

Kate frowned. Lawrence? How ridiculous. Yes, they had grown up under the same roof, but he had drifted in and out of her universe like a minor planet, moving in his own orbit, seemingly utterly unconscious of Kate in hers. If Lawrence had any thought of marriage to anyone, let alone the tiresome cousin whom he saw rarely and thought of even less, she would be prepared to eat his highly polished Hessian boots, tassels and all.

With a yawn, she dismissed Phoebe, her maid, and prepared to climb into bed. She was stayed by the sound of commotion in the corridor outside her chambers. The next instant, Phoebe had thrust her head inside the room.

“Oh, miss, you must come! It’s his lordship—they say he’s dyin’!”

 

Chapter Five

 

When Kate tiptoed into the earl’s chambers, she found the rest of the family assembled there. Regina sat near the head of the bed, holding her husband’s hand. Lawrence hovered diffidently behind her, and Cilia and Crawford stood together on the other side of the room. The only sound to be heard was the stertorous breathing of his lordship.

Thomas lay unmoving against a mound of pillows and bolsters. His eyes were closed, his face an ashen gray, and the silken quilt that covered him trembled spasmodically with each labored breath.

Kate moved swiftly to David.

“What happened?” she asked softly.

“I’m not sure. I had just entered the room, and Father was trying to tell me something. He lifted himself and reached out to me. He said the words, ‘terrible mistake’ several times. Then ...” His voice faltered. “Then, he cried out suddenly, and sank back on his pillows. He has been as you see him ever since. We have sent for the doctor, but he is away from home on a call. A servant was sent after him, and he should be here momentarily.”

David moved to the other side of the bed and knelt to take Thomas’s hand in his own.

“Father,” he whispered. “Come back to us.”

Kate, watching from the foot of the bed, felt her eyes fill with tears. It seemed to her, that at the sound of his son’s voice, the old man stiffened slightly, and his head turned, almost imperceptibly.

BOOK: Anne Barbour
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