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Authors: Jane Ashford

The Headstrong Ward

BOOK: The Headstrong Ward
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Copyright © 1983 by Jane LeCompte

Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover illustration by James Griffin/Lott Reps

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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Originally published in 1983 by Signet, a division of The New American Library, Inc., New York.

One

Charles Vincent Debenham, fifth Viscount Wrenley, stood before his library fire with a glass of Madeira in his hand and looked from one to the other of his two younger brothers. His expression was not particularly pleasant. “If that is all you have to contribute, Edward,” he told the youngest, “you may as well keep your tongue between your teeth.”

“I like that,” retorted Captain Edward Debenham, an officer in the exclusive Horse Guards regiment. “Why ask for our opinions if you don't want to hear 'em?”

The viscount eyed him with distaste. “I begin to wonder why.”

“Here, now, don't start to quarrel,” put in Reverend Laurence Debenham, at twenty-seven the middle brother and accustomed to mediating disputes between the twenty-four-year-old Edward and the head of the family. “We shan't get anywhere if you do that.”

“But Charles enjoys it so,” responded Edward, an irrepressible spark of mischief in his eye. “I hate to disappoint him. He
expects
it of me.” When Lord Wrenley looked sharply at him, he grinned.

The viscount surveyed his brothers. An impartial observer might have pronounced all three men uncommonly handsome. The Debenhams were tall and well-made, with very pale blond hair and eyes of clear gray. Each possessed the arched, aquiline Debenham nose, which could be seen repeated in the portrait gallery on the first floor of Wrenley, their country seat. But here the resemblance ended. Charles added to these outlines a raised eyebrow and a faint sneer, which lent his rather thin face a haughty distance. At thirty-one, he dressed with the austere elegance of a Corinthian, and had the shoulders and leg to carry it off. Laurence, as befitted his clerical profession, was more quietly attired; his pleasant face was rounder than his brothers', and his gray eyes showed more kindness. He had particularly attractive hands, elegant and well-shaped, inherited from their gentle mother. Edward set off his dashing costume with a rakish air and careless manner that often irritated his eldest brother. He was the tallest of the three by an inch and had a spare, loose-knit frame. His crooked grin and wicked twinkle had been the downfall of many young ladies in all walks of society.

“You called us here to Wrenley,” continued Laurence hurriedly, before Charles could make the caustic remark so evident in his expression, “to help you decide what is to be done about Anne.”

“There is no need to repeat my own words back to me. And frankly, I begin to think I made a mistake. It is obvious that neither of you is going to be the least use.”

Laurence frowned, but Edward merely laughed. “You might have known that, Charles. We none of us know the first thing about schoolgirls.”

“No?” The viscount eyed him coldly. “From what I hear of your career in town, you, at least, know a deal too much.”

Edward's eyes danced. “Not schoolgirls, Charles!”

The other turned away in disgust, taking a vermeil snuffbox from his waistcoat pocket and flipping it open with a practiced thumb.

“When does Anne arrive here?” asked Laurence. “I haven't seen her since Mother died. It must be…why, three years.”

“She is to return from school next week.”

“Funny to think of little Anne grown up,” said Edward. “She must be…by Jove, she's nineteen this year, ain't she? What has she been doing in school all this time?” He looked apprehensive. “I say, Charles, she's not a bluestocking, is she?”

“On the contrary, her school reports suggest that she is hardly literate. I left her there an additional year in the hope she might improve.” The viscount's chiseled lips turned down. “She did not.”

“Did you truly hope so,” responded Edward, “or did you wish to put off being saddled with a chit of a ‘ward'?” He grinned as Charles glared at him.

“Is she…is she at all, ah, changed?” put in Laurence.

For one rare moment, the Debenham brothers were in complete sympathy as they heaved a collective sigh. Lady Anne Tremayne had been introduced into their household when she was barely a year old, after the tragic death of both her parents at sea. Their mother, Lady Wrenley, was the child's godmother, and when no blood relation stepped forward to claim Anne, she had informally adopted her, eventually providing for her in her will. But almost from the moment of the girl's arrival, she had been the despair of her new family. Suddenly blessed with three much older “brothers,” Anne had asked for nothing better than to follow their example in everything. For boys of six, nine, and thirteen, this had been a continuing trial, and moreover, it had made Anne an unusual, intractable girl. She had ridden and shot and hunted from the earliest possible age with a concentrated abandon that no scolding could eradicate. Lady Wrenley gradually took refuge in an invalid's couch and a murmured stream of complaint, particularly after her husband's premature death when his eldest son was barely sixteen. Charles, overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, had had increasingly acrimonious quarrels with Anne, until, at last, he insisted that she be sent to school to learn manners. This had accordingly been done when the girl was barely fourteen. And her ladyship's death two years later had simply confirmed the arrangement.

The brothers sighed again as they thought of her. In a remarkably handsome family, Anne had been an anomaly since her little-girl prettiness gave way to a gawky, awkward adolescence. They all remembered her, vividly, as a tall unattractive girl, all knees and elbows and unkempt red-blond hair, distressingly likely to indulge in fits of temper at the slightest provocation.

“I haven't the faintest notion,” drawled Lord Wrenley.

“What do you mean?” Laurence stared at him. “How was she when you last visited the school?”

“I have not visited it.”

Even Edward looked surprised.

“Not this year, you mean?” added Laurence.

“Not at all.”

They gazed at him incredulously. “B-but…during her holidays?”

“She has always asked leave to spend them with one of her school friends since Mama died. I saw no reason to deny her.”

“My dear Charles, you cannot mean that you have not seen Anne since our mother died?”

“Can I not?”

“But that is more than three years! Has no one been to visit her in three years?”

Lord Wrenley shrugged, looking slightly self-conscious. “She would not have welcomed a visit from me. We did not part on good terms, you know. And in any case, we hardly knew one another even before that.”

“Hardly…? You are her guardian! And she was a child when she left. I daresay she has changed a great deal. It was your duty—”

“Don't prate to
me
of duty,” interrupted the viscount in a dangerous tone, and Laurence subsided. He knew that his brother harbored a lamentable bitterness over his premature family responsibilities. At sixteen, Charles had stolidly taken over for his dead father, but he had rid himself of each task as soon as practicable, and he had never shown any signs of enjoying his new position. On the contrary, it had changed him all out of recognition, in Laurence's opinion. In the place of an indulgently superior older brother, there had appeared a rigid, distant disciplinarian who had seemed only too eager to dispense with the encumbrance of their presence. Flashes of the old Charles occasionally appeared, but with decreasing regularity.

“I would have been happy to visit Anne,” Laurence dared to add, before being silenced by the viscount's hard look.

“Well, I don't see that it matters now,” said Edward unheedingly. “Anne's coming home. What's to be done with her?”

Lord Wrenley turned away from his brothers and looked down at the fire, mastering his anger with a visible effort. The prospect of being saddled with a schoolgirl, just now when he had succeeded in ordering his life to his own satisfaction, filled him with rage. “That, Edward, is what I asked you both down to Wrenley to discuss,” he drawled finally.

“Yes, well…” The military branch of the Debenham family seemed at a loss.

“She must be brought out, of course,” said Laurence. “That is the customary procedure.”

“That's it,” agreed Edward. “Find her a husband. Mama left her a tidy fortune, so it shouldn't be difficult to get someone.” Laurence frowned, but his younger brother didn't notice. “Do you remember the day Anne came upon that party from the Grange down by the trout stream? One of the ladies frightened her horse; I forget how. They say the squire still hasn't recovered from the language she used. It positively set his hair on end. And she had a great purple bruise over her eye where she had fallen from the apple tree.” He chuckled reminiscently; Laurence groaned.

“She always swore she'd be a jockey,” continued Captain Debenham, “and I have to admit, she
could
ride. But, you know, Anne in a drawing room…” His voice trailed away, and he shook his head. “Her clothes were always thrown on by guess, and if she ever put a comb to her hair,
I
couldn't tell it. She hated dancing lessons, too.”

“We must suppose that five years in a young ladies' seminary have changed that, at least,” replied the viscount.

“Yes, but you know, Charles,” continued the other, “she ain't at all pretty. It's odd, because she was very well when she was small, I remember. But after she was eleven, she went all gawky. Anne may have learned manners—mind, I say
may
—but…” He trailed off again, and all of them fell silent, imagining the Lady Anne Tremayne they remembered a deb in the London season.

Laurence groaned softly again. “Poor child.”

Lord Wrenley raised his eyebrows. “Granting these things, can either of you suggest an alternative to presenting Anne this season?”

Edward grimaced, then shook his head. Laurence stared frowning at the carpet for a moment, then slowly did likewise.

“I see. We must suppose it settled, then.” Charles sounded far from pleased.

“Will you use the town house?” asked Laurence.

“Where else?”

“Well, yes, but I mean…”

“I shall have to find a chaperone, of course.”

Edward laughed. “You'd better find a tartar. Lord, what a comedy it will be.”

“This is no laughing matter,” chided Laurence.

“Well, if I don't joke, I shall dashed well weep. When I think of puffing Anne off in a London drawing room…” He grimaced eloquently again. “You don't care; you're safely settled here in the country. But Charles and I are in for a grim few months. Lord!”

The viscount smiled. “Oh, Laurence must come up to town for the season. We shall want his, er, counsel.”

“Here, I say…” sputtered Laurence.

Edward gave a shout of laughter, as Charles blandly took a pinch of snuff. “I shall find a chaperone,” added the latter, “and Anne shall come out this season with
all
of us to support her.”

“My clerical duties…” attempted Laurence.

“You have a curate.”

Reverend Debenham's face fell, then brightened. “What about Lydia? I can't leave her right now. We are only just engaged.”

Edward made a face indicating extreme distaste. Lord Wrenley remained impassive, but something in his tone as he replied, “I thought Miss Branwell was to be in London this season,” suggested that he shared his youngest brother's low opinion of Laurence's affianced bride.

“Oh,” answered Laurence. “Oh, yes, that's true.”

“Splendid. You will not then be bereft of her charming company.”

Edward made a derisive noise, and Laurence glared at him. “We shall be one great happy family.” He snorted, unabashed. “The
ton
won't know what to make of it.”

“Indeed,” responded Charles quellingly. “Laurence will give Anne the benefit of his, er, guidance, and you will bring all your dashing friends round to meet her.”

“No, here, I say, Charles!”

Lord Wrenley raised an eyebrow.

“They'll never forgive me!”

“Which might be for the best, considering some of the company you have been keeping.”

“And what will
you
do, Charles?” retorted the other, stung.

“I shall lend you all my countenance.”

Edward sniffed. “What about
your
friends?”

“They are far too old for a chit fresh from the schoolroom. Indeed, we shall have to rely upon you to squire Anne about, Edward. You are nearest her age and know all the younger crowd.”

“Charles!”

Something like a twinkle appeared briefly in the viscount's gray eyes. “You have a duty to your family, Edward. It is high time you realized that.”

***

Some seventy miles west of Lord Wrenley's elegant library, on the outskirts of the city of Bath, the subject of these remarks was just then mounting a hired post chaise, which already contained one other young lady. She plumped alarmingly down on the cushions, waved a hand to the postilions to signal their readiness to depart, and grinned at her companion as the horses started forward. “Isn't this splendid!” she said. “We are really off at last. I could shout with joy!”

The other, a diminutive brunette with large, soft brown eyes, looked apprehensive.

“But I shan't, goose, so there's no need to wonder how you can dissuade me.” Lady Anne Tremayne laughed. “I declare, Arabella, you are positively transparent.”

Miss Arabella Castleton dimpled. “Well, so are you. And I daresay you
would
have shouted, and shocked the postboys horridly, if I weren't here to restrain you.”

Anne wrinkled her nose at the girl who had been her dearest friend for the last three years. “And if I had not insisted, you would have remained at that beastly school for another week. For no earthly reason.”

Slowly Arabella nodded. “Though we did have some good times there, didn't we? Particularly toward the end. Indeed, if you had left last year as you should have, I don't know how I could have endured my final year. I would have missed you dreadfully.”

BOOK: The Headstrong Ward
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