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Authors: Dorothy Mack

The Impossible Ward

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The Impossible Ward

Dorothy Mack

A CANDLELIGHT REGENCY SPECIAL

 

Things were awkward, mused Lady Marianne Carstairs, deuced awkward. She was grateful for the unexpected inheritance, of course, but she might have wished that the late Earl of Melford’s choice of trustee had been someone other than the handsome and charming Justin, Lord Lunswick.

She sighed. Ruefully, she was forced to confess to herself that life on a Yorkshire farm had ill prepared her for the elegant fencing and flirting of the
ton.
And now Andrew’s hen-witted scheme for saving Justin from the bewitching Aurelie St. Clair ... Yes, things were very complicated indeed.

 

CHAPTER ONE

The untimely death at the age of forty-eight of Peregrine Carstairs, fifth earl of Melford, from injuries sustained in a freak accident on the hunting fields of Leicestershire, achieved the rather unique distinction of surpassing in notoriety a life spent (or misspent, according to one of his more acid-tongued relatives) in committing the sort of follies that give rise to scandalous conjecture amongst the members of that stratum of Polite Society, to which he belonged by right of birth, if not subsequent behavior. It was not the fact of his putting a violent period to his life that caused raised eyebrows and clacking tongues, for some such end to his daredevil career had confidently been predicted ever since his naval days when he had distinguished himself by acts of reckless bravery during the siege of Toulon. At Calvi, where Nelson lost an eye, the second son of the fourth Melford sustained the loss of two fingers on his left hand with no invalid period before returning to duty. In fact it was not until news reached him during the battle of the Nile in 1798 of the tragedy of the twin deaths of his father and elder brother in a boating accident that the new earl, with extreme reluctance, resigned his commission and returned to his homeland after an absence of over five years.

Some of his intimates ascribed the vicissitudes of his later years to disappointment at having to renounce his naval career for the duties attaching to a position he had never coveted or thought to occupy. Others, less tolerant, dismissed his actions as being those of a man bent on suicide.

Certainly the fifth earl’s subsequent unheedful activities had provided fuel for scandal flames for better than fifteen years. Though his name had been coupled on numerous occasions with any number of reigning beauties, both married and single, from the most eligible heiresses to the most outrageous courtesans of Covent Garden fame, not the most enterprising female had succeeded in dragging him to the altar. Therefore his will, read before a small group of relatives and mourners seated in the sunny library at Maplegrove, the late earl’s principal seat, by a senior member of the firm of Dillingham, Tillinghurst, Upton and Dillingham, Solicitors, was destined to create something of a sensation.

Mr. Dillingham, Senior, coming at last to the end of a: long list of bequests to servitors and family retainers, paused momentarily to clear his throat, glancing briefly at the assembled listeners. The predominant expression adorning the faces of his audience was polite boredom, but his next words changed that.

... and all the remainder of my personal property and fortune I bequeath to my daughter, the Lady Marianne Carstairs, to be held in trust until ...

It was extremely unlikely that the trust arrangements under which the Lady Marianne Carstairs would henceforth receive her income penetrated the consciousness of any but one of the astounded gentlemen staring openmouthed at the prosaic, bespectacled solicitor before the combined noise of exclamations of shock and disbelief and a subsequent buzz of speculation compelled that cavernous, soberly clad personage to pause yet again in his reading.

“And the sole reason behind
my
dim comprehension,” the one exception was explaining to his maternal parent on the following day, “was undoubtedly that well-known human weakness of vanity that enables one to discern one’s own name even in the Tower of Babel.” A self-mocking little smile played around the corners of his well-shaped mouth.


Your
name? What can you mean, Justin? What possible connection can you have with this, this ... unacknowledged daughter?”

At the sight of the suddenly squared shoulders and indignant expression turning his soft, charming mama into a bristling lioness preparing to defend her young, his smile widened to a satisfied grin. Ahh, that had caught her! Truth to tell, he had been surprised and more than a little disappointed at her unblinking reception of what he had confidently expected to prove earth-shaking news.

“No connection at all, so far,” he said soothingly, “but I strongly doubt my luck shall hold in future, since Perry has been so misguided as to appoint
me
his daughter’s trustee.”

“What!” Her reception of this piece of information atoned for any earlier want of feeling. “He must have been all about in his head,” her ladyship declared flatly, “to select an unmarried man of barely thirty years to be guardian to a child—and a female child at that.”

“In the interests of accuracy, I must correct you, Mama, on one or two points. My unenviable position is that of a trustee, not a legal guardian, and the female in question is not a child, being, if I recall correctly, some two and twenty years of age.

“Two and twenty!” gasped the marchioness. “But Perry was not even in the country twenty-two years ago. At least—I cannot quite recall, but surely that was about the time his ship was sent to the Mediterranean?” A distressing thought crossed her mind and was given immediate utterance. “Justin, do you suppose this girl is the result of an entanglement with a ... a
foreigner?
I suppose there
is
proof that a marriage did take place? Or it could all be a hoax. Yes, that would be just like Perry—I vow he would do anything to shock Society,” she enunciated in bitter accents, and launched herself into a tirade, recalling some of the earl’s more scandalous escapades and roundly condemning his thoughtlessness in involving her son in his affairs.

Knowing it from long experience as an exercise in futility, the young marquess did not endeavor to interrupt his parent in full spate but waited patiently for her to calm down before he attempted to mollify her.

“Now, Mama,” he soothed, “it is not so bad as you fear. There definitely was a marriage, all right and tight and aboveboard.”

“To a foreigner?” she demanded straightly.

“No, no, I promise you.” He hesitated briefly, then continued. “Actually the girl Perry married was the daughter of an Irish scholar.” He ignored his mother’s derisive sniff. “Her parents objected to the marriage, so he obtained a special license and they made a runaway match of it.”

This time the sniff was closer to a ladylike snort. “They objected to an alliance with one of the oldest families in the land and a title to boot? You may have been taken in by such a tale, but I assure you
I
am not such a ... such a
flat
as to swallow whole that farradiddle!”

“Mama! Such language from a lady! I am appalled!” But the marquess’ eyes twinkled as he smiled indulgently at his now guiltily blushing parent. One of her most endearing traits, in her sons’ eyes, was her ability to enter wholeheartedly into their concerns from earliest childhood. They were so in the habit of discussing their affairs with her that over the years she had built up quite a vocabulary of slang and cant terms that occasionally found their way into her conversation at awkward moments, to her intense embarrassment and the everlasting delight of her loving but wickedly appreciative offspring.

His eyes grew serious again. “It is true nevertheless, Mama. Old Dillingham gave me a letter Perry had dictated the day he died. The will had been made long since of course, but he wished to acquaint me with the whole story. To no one, not even Papa—and you know how close they were—had he ever disclosed the existence of a child or the story of his marriage, but he wanted me to know so I would be better prepared to help his daughter. The girl he married was very young, an only child of a late marriage, and her parents doted on her. Perry’s father and brother were alive then so there was no question of a title, and he was always very wild, you know. In any case her parents forbade the match and he knew Melford would have cut up stiff if he learned what was in the wind, so he married her out of hand. They had barely a year together. Her parents knew after the elopement of course, but he did not tell the Carstairs. Hostilities broke out again in 1793 and Perry was ordered to the Mediterranean just about the time the child was due. He planned to take his wife and baby and leave them with his family when he had to report, but before he could prepare them, his wife died giving birth to the child, and he went berserk with grief. He had brought her back to her parents to await the birth and, Mama, he said he refused to look at the baby who had cost his wife’s life. He left it with the stunned grandparents and went to war without telling a soul. He was gone over five years, as you must remember, and returned only at the death of Melford and Jack.”

“Did he not go to see the child then? Why hide all these years? Is there something wrong with her—Justin, she is not an imbecile or something of that nature, I trust?”

“He never once set eyes on her, Mama, but he corresponded with the grandparents at infrequent intervals. The girl is perfectly normal. Since her grandmother’s death ten years ago she has resided with her grandfather on a small property Perry purchased for them in Yorkshire. I gather they live quietly in the country near Leeds.”

“The poor child.” His mother’s large blue eyes softened in commiseration. “Never to know either parent, hidden away from her rightful inheritance, with only an old man for company, and a scholar at that! She might well not exist for him if he is like some, shut away forever in a musty library, living in a world of books instead of people. What are you going to do, Justin?”

“Bring her here if you are willing. Perry wished me to see to her future, find her a husband, and establish her in Society, as well as handle her income for a time.”

“Well, I must say that is the outside of enough! He does not ask much! You are to take a country-bred girl, still unmarried at two and twenty, which tells one straight away that she is either an antidote or has never stirred from her grandfather’s side, and thrust her into a society for which she cannot possibly be prepared, and he expects you to find a husband to establish her. A Herculean task indeed. It might be different if the girl had a fortune, but most of Perry’s property must be entailed and therefore goes to his nephew, which is indeed a sorry situation, for a bigger wastrel than Aubrey Carstairs I have yet to meet. Perry can’t have had much of a personal fortune, not with his being a confirmed gamester. Why if but
half
the tales of him are true he was wont to lose as much as five thousand pounds in a single night in those hells he was forever frequenting.”

“Now
there
you are quite out, Mama.”

“You mean the rumors were not true; Perry did not lose large sums night after night in St. James’s Street?”

“Oh, the tittle-tattle was true enough, but your assumption that Perry had little in the way of a personal fortune is glaringly false. The truth is he made fantastically successful investments here and in the colonies and will probably cut up to the tune of around a quarter of a million, all safely invested in the Funds.” He flicked open a gold filigree snuffbox with a graceful gesture of his left hand, took a small pinch, and inhaled it easily without taking his appreciative eyes from his mama’s very expressive countenance.

“Close your mouth, love. You resemble a very startled goldfish at the moment—a delectable goldfish if I may say so, but of rather dim mentality.” His teasing laugh robbed the words of any wounding intent and, in any case, the marchioness secretly rather delighted in the affectionate raillery directed at her by her sons, both of whom had tried very hard to make up to her for the loss of her firstborn three years before at Salamanca, scarcely surviving his father by a year.

Indeed, looking at her it was difficult to imagine a more pampered little creature, for she was delightfully tiny and delicately made without appearing fragile. As Lady Georgina St. Clair, she had been hailed as the most beautiful debutante of her season when the young marquess of Lunswick had crossed her horizon and straightaway set out to storm the citadel, to such success that they were married within two months of her initial appearance on the London scene. The gold in her hair had faded somewhat, and there were fine lines about her mouth that had not been there before the sudden death of her husband and the subsequent loss of his heir on the field of battle, but she was still a remarkably lovely woman, and when animated, could have denied with no fear of contradiction, ten of her forty-nine years, if such a thought had ever crossed her mind. Her intensely blue eyes had gradually lost that haunted look that had so concerned her remaining sons, but the elder was thinking now that the animation and vivacity that had been her most appealing characteristic had been in complete abeyance for the last few years.

He frowned unseeingly at the small box still in his hand as it flashed across his consciousness that this unknown ward, or more correctly, obligation of his, might just prove a blessing in disguise—if only his mother could be brought to take a real interest in her fate. She had always wished for a daughter. Perhaps she might even be induced to leave Lunswick Hall next year and begin to resume some of her former activities in Town during the season, in order to oversee his ward’s initial appearance. In the past, his generous-hearted mama had always been more than happy to devote time to her various nieces during their seasons; in fact, until mourning had driven her into this uncharacteristic apathy, she had been the most gregarious creature alive. If this girl had any possibilities at all she might provide just the challenge needed to jolt his parent out of her present inertia. His frown deepened as he quelled the nagging thought that Perry’s daughter might prove to be utterly impossible.

As if reading his thoughts, the marchioness echoed this one hesitantly:

“You know, Justin, she may turn out to be hopelessly ineligible despite the fortune.”

“Nonsense, love,” he chided bracingly. “No heiress is completely ineligible, be she ever so ill-favored or underbred. I have the utmost confidence in your ability to make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear, if so she should turn out to be. In any event I fancy I can guarantee the lady one eligible suitor at the very least.”

His mother raised an inquiring eyebrow. “Melford,” he replied shortly. “He was green when it turned out that all Perry’s private fortune went to this unexpected daughter, though how in the circumstances he could have anticipated benefiting by one groat more than was necessary under the entail I cannot imagine. Everyone knew Perry held him in the greatest contempt and could be expected to divert any assets he could from falling into his nephew’s hands.”

“Well, the estate is in fair shape, is it not? Aubrey will not now be driven to seek an advantageous match.”

This time her son’s answer was slower in coming. “I have no certain information of course, but Perry seemed convinced that Aubrey’s been living on the expectation for years. Seemed to think he’s gotten himself deep into the clutches of the moneylenders, in which case he’ll need everything he can wring from the estate to settle with them. If past performance is anything to go on, he’ll be under the hatches in less than a twelve month. He had no idea how wealthy Perry’s daughter is, of course, but I’d not wager a groat on our chances of keeping this news from becoming one of the choicer
on-dits
of the year.”

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