McNaught-E November: Exclusive Excerpt from Once and Always by Judith McNaught
To celebrate the re-release of 14 classic novels and novellas from author Judith McNaught, a few bloggers will be posting exclusive excerpts from several of her books all month long for your reading pleasure! Hopefully, you can fill your e-readers with enough romance to last the entire holiday season. I've linked below to the first two exclusive excerpts for your convenience. Read on for this week's exclusive excerpt from Once and Always.
Excerpt from Whitney, My Love (scroll to bottom of linked post)
Once and Always
Victoria Seaton, a blithe and fiercely independent orphan, leaves her home in America to travel across the vast Atlantic to claim her long-lost inheritance: a labyrinthine English estate named Wakefield. There she encounters her distant cousin, the notorious, proud, and mysterious Lord Jason Fielding. Drawn to his magnetic charisma, Victoria can’t help but suspect that like her, he harbors a dark and painful past. Neither Victoria or Jason are able to resist one another’s charm but, in a moment of blinding anguish, Victoria discovers the shocking truth that lays at the heart of their love—a love she had dreamed would triumph.
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“VICTORIA, ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN your mother never mentioned either the Duke of Atherton or the Duchess of Claremont to you?”
Victoria tore her thoughts from aching memories of her parents’ funeral and looked at the elderly, white-haired physician seated across from her at the kitchen table. As her father’s oldest friend, Dr. Morrison had taken on the responsibility of seeing the girls settled, as well as of trying to care for Dr. Seaton's patients until the new physician arrived. “All Dorothy or I ever knew was that Mama was estranged from her family in England. She never spoke of them.”
“Is it possible your father had relatives in Ireland?”
“Papa grew up in an orphans’ home there. He had no relatives.” She stood up restlessly. “May I fix you some coffee, Dr. Morrison?”
“Stop fussing over me and go sit outside in the sunshine with Dorothy,” Dr. Morrison chided gently. “You’re pale as a ghost.”
“Is there anything you need, before I go?” Victoria persisted.
“I need to be a few years younger,” he replied with a grim smile as he sharpened a quill. “I'm too old to carry the burden of your father’s patients. I belong back in Philadelphia with a hot brick beneath my feet and a good book on my lap. How I’m to carry on here for four more months until the new physician arrives, I can’t imagine.”
“I’m sorry,” Victoria said sincerely. “I know it’s been terrible for you.”
“It’s been a great deal worse for you and Dorothy,” the kindly old doctor said. “Now, run along outside and get some of this fine winter sunshine. It’s rare to see a day this warm in January. While you sit in the sun, I’ll write these letters to your relatives.”
A week had passed since Dr. Morrison had come to visit the Seatons, only to be summoned to the scene of the accident where the carriage bearing Patrick Seaton and his wife had plunged down a riverbank, overturning. Patrick Seaton had been killed instantly. Katherine had regained consciousness only long enough to try to answer Dr. Morrison’s desperate inquiry about her relatives in England. In a feeble whisper, she had said, “. . . Grandmother . . . Duchess of Claremont.”
And then, just before she died, she had whispered another name—Charles. Frantically Dr. Morrison had begged her for his complete name, and Katherine’s dazed eyes had opened briefly. “Fielding,” she had breathed. “. . . Duke . . . of . . . Atherton.”
“Is he a relative?” he demanded urgently.
After a long pause, she’d nodded feebly. “Cousin—”
To Dr. Morrison now fell the difficult task of locating and contacting these heretofore unknown relatives to inquire whether either of them would be willing to offer Victoria and Dorothy a home—a task that was made even more difficult because, as far as Dr. Morrison could ascertain, neither the Duke of Atherton nor the Duchess of Claremont had any idea the girls existed.
With a determined look upon his brow, Dr. Morrison dipped the quill in the inkwell, wrote the date at the top of the first letter, and hesitated, his brow furrowed in thought. “How does one properly address a duchess?” he asked the empty room. After considerable contemplation, he arrived at a decision and began writing.
Dear Madam Duchess,
It is my unpleasant task to advise you of the tragic death of your granddaughter, Katherine Seaton, and to further advise you that Mrs. Seaton’s two daughters, Victoria and Dorothy, are now temporarily in my care. However, I am an old man, and a bachelor besides. Therefore, Madam Duchess, I cannot properly continue to care for two orphaned young ladies.
Before she died, Mrs. Seaton mentioned only two names—yours and that of Charles Fielding. I am, therefore, writing to you and to Sir Fielding in the hope that one or both of you will welcome Mrs. Seaton’s daughters into your home. I must tell you that the girls have nowhere else to go. They are sadly short of funds and in dire need of a suitable home.
Dr. Morrison leaned back in his chair and scrutinized the letter while a frown of concern slowly formed on his forehead. If the duchess was unaware of the girls’ existence, he could already foresee the old lady’s possible unwillingness to house them without first knowing something about them. Trying to think how best to describe them, he turned his head and gazed out the window at the girls.
Dorothy was seated upon the swing, her slim shoulders drooping with despair. Victoria was determinedly applying herself to her sketching in an effort to hold her grief at bay.
Dr. Morrison decided to describe Dorothy first, for she was the easiest.
Dorothy is a pretty girl, with light yellow hair and blue eyes. She is sweet-dispositioned, well-mannered, and charming. At seventeen, she is nearly of an age to marry, but has shown no particular inclination to settle her affections on any one young gentleman in the district. . . .
Dr. Morrison paused and thoughtfully stroked his chin. In truth, many young gentlemen in the district were utterly smitten with Dorothy. And who could blame them? She was pretty and gay and sweet. She was angelic, Dr. Morrison decided, pleased that he had hit upon exactly the right word to describe her.
But when he turned his attention to Victoria, his bushy white brows drew together in bafflement, for although Victoria was his personal favorite, she was far harder to describe. Her hair was not golden like Dorothy’s, nor was it truly red; rather, it was a vivid combination of both. Dorothy was a pretty thing, a charming, demure young lady who turned all the local boys’ heads. She was perfect material for a wife: sweet, gentle, soft-spoken, and biddable. In short, she was the sort of female who would never contradict or disobey her husband.
Victoria, on the other hand, had spent a great deal of time with her father and, at eighteen, she possessed a lively wit, an active mind, and a startling tendency to think for herself.
Dorothy would think as her husband told her to think and do what he told her to do, but Victoria would think for herself and very likely do as she thought best.
Dorothy was angelic, Dr. Morrison decided, but Victoria was . . . not.
Squinting through his spectacles at Victoria, who was resolutely sketching yet another picture of the vine-covered garden wall, he stared at her patrician profile, trying to think of the words to describe her. Brave, he decided, knowing she was sketching because she was trying to stay busy rather than dwell on her grief. And compassionate, he thought, recalling her efforts to console and cheer her father’s sick patients.
Dr. Morrison shook his head in frustration. As an old man, he enjoyed her intelligence and her sense of humor; he admired her courage, spirit, and compassion. But if he emphasized those qualities to her English relatives, they would surely envision her as an independent, bookish, unmarriageable female whom they would have on their hands forever. There was still the possibility that when Andrew Bainbridge returned from Europe in several months, he would formally request Victoria’s hand, but Dr. Morrison wasn’t certain. Victoria’s father and Andrew’s mother had agreed that, before the young couple became betrothed, their feelings for one another should be tested during this six-month period while Andrew took an abbreviated version of the Grand Tour.
Victoria’s affection for Andrew had remained strong and constant, Dr. Morrison knew, but Andrew’s feelings for her were apparently wavering. According to what Mrs. Bainbridge had confided to Dr. Morrison yesterday, Andrew seemed to be developing a strong attraction to his second cousin, whose family he was currently visiting in Switzerland.
Dr. Morrison sighed unhappily as he continued to gaze at the two girls, who were dressed in plain black gowns, one with shining golden hair, the other’s gleaming pale copper. Despite the somberness of their attire, they made a very fetching picture, he thought fondly. A picture! Seized by inspiration, Dr. Morrison decided to solve the whole problem of describing the girls to their English relatives by simply enclosing a miniature of them in each letter.
That decision made, he finished his first letter by asking the duchess to confer with the Duke of Atherton, who was receiving an identical letter, and to advise what they wished him to do in the matter of the girls’ care. Dr. Morrison wrote the same letter to the Duke of Atherton; then he composed a short note to his solicitor in New York, instructing that worthy gentleman to have a reliable person in London locate the duke and the duchess and deliver the letters to them. With a brief prayer that either the duke or the duchess would reimburse him for his expenditures, Dr. Morrison stood up and stretched.
Outside in the garden, Dorothy nudged the ground with the toe of her slipper, sending the swing twisting listlessly from side to side. “I still cannot quite believe it,” she said, her soft voice filled with a mixture of despair and excitement. “Mama was the granddaughter of a duchess! What does that make us, Tory? Do we have titles?”
Victoria sent her a wry glance. “Yes,” she said. “We are ‘Poor Relations.’ ”
It was the truth, for although Patrick Seaton had been loved and valued by the grateful country folk whose ills he had treated for many years, his patients had rarely been able to pay him with coin, and he had never pressed them to do so. They repaid him instead with whatever goods and services they were able to provide—with livestock, fish, and fowl for his table, with repairs to his carriage and to his home, with freshly baked loaves of bread and baskets of juicy, handpicked berries. As a result, the Seaton family had never wanted for food, but money was ever in short supply, as evidenced by the oft-mended, hand-dyed gowns Dorothy and Victoria were both wearing. Even the house they lived in had been provided by the villagers, just as they provided one for Reverend Milby, the minister. The houses were loaned to the occupants in return for their medical and pastoral services.
Dorothy ignored Victoria’s sensible summation of their status and continued dreamily, “Our cousin is a duke, and our great-grandmother is a duchess! I still cannot quite believe it, can you?”
“I always thought Mama was something of a mystery,” Victoria replied, blinking back the tears of loneliness and despair that misted her blue eyes. “Now the mystery is solved.”
Victoria hesitated, her sketching pencil hovering above her tablet. “I only meant that Mama was different from every other female I have ever known.”
“I suppose she was,” Dorothy agreed, and lapsed into silence.
Victoria stared at the sketch that lay in her lap while the delicate lines and curves of the meandering roses she’d been drawing from her memory of last summer blurred before her moist eyes. The mystery was solved. Now she understood a great many things that had puzzled and troubled her. Now she understood why her mother had never mingled comfortably with the other women of the village, why she had always spoken in the cultured tones of an English gentlewoman and stubbornly insisted that, at least in her presence, Victoria and Dorothy do the same. Her heritage explained her mother’s insistence that they learn to read and speak French in addition to English. It explained her fastidiousness. It partially explained the strange, haunted expression that crossed her features on those rare occasions when she mentioned England.
Perhaps it even explained her strange reserve with her own husband, whom she treated with gentle courtesy, but nothing more. Yet she had, on the surface, been an exemplary wife. She had never scolded her husband, never complained about her shabby-genteel existence, and never quarreled with him. Victoria had long ago forgiven her mother for not loving her father. Now that she realized her mother must have been reared in incredible luxury, she was also inclined to admire her uncomplaining fortitude.
Dr. Morrison walked into the garden and beamed an encouraging smile at both girls. “I’ve finished my letters and I shall send them off tomorrow. With luck, we should have your relatives’ replies in three months’ time, perhaps less.” He smiled at both girls, pleased at the part he was trying to play in reuniting them with their noble English relatives.
“What do you think they’ll do when they receive your letters, Dr. Morrison?” Dorothy asked.
Dr. Morrison patted her head and squinted into the sunshine, drawing upon his imagination. “They’ll be surprised, I suppose, but they won’t let it show—the English upper classes don’t like to display emotion, I’m told, and they’re sticklers for formality. Once they’ve read the letters, they’ll probably send polite notes to each other, and then one of them will call upon the other to discuss your futures. A butler will carry in tea—”
He smiled as he envisioned the delightful scenario in all its detail. In his mind he pictured two genteel English aristocrats—wealthy, kindly people—who would meet in an elegant drawing room to partake of tea from a silver tray before they discussed the future of their heretofore unknown—but cherished—young relatives. Since the Duke of Atherton and the Duchess of Claremont were distantly related through Katherine they would, of course, be friends, allies. . . .
“HER GRACE, THE DOWAGER DUCHESS of Claremont,” the butler intoned majestically from the doorway of the drawing room where Charles Fielding, Duke of Atherton, was seated. The butler stepped aside and an imposing old woman marched in, trailed by her harassed-looking solicitor. Charles Fielding looked at her, his piercing hazel eyes alive with hatred.
“Don’t bother to rise, Atherton,” the duchess snapped sarcastically, glaring at him when he remained deliberately and insolently seated.
Perfectly still, he continued to regard her in icy silence. In his mid fifties, Charles Fielding was still an attractive man, with thick, silver-streaked hair and hazel eyes, but illness had taken its toll on him. He was too thin for his tall frame and his face was deeply etched with lines of strain and fatigue.
Unable to provoke a response from him, the duchess rounded on the butler. “This room is too hot!” she snapped, rapping her jeweled-handled cane upon the floor. “Draw the draperies and let in some air.”
“Leave them!” Charles barked, his voice seething with the loathing that the mere sight of her evoked in him.
The duchess turned a withering look in his direction. “I have not come here to suffocate,” she stated ominously.
“Then get out.”
Her thin body stiffened into a rigid line of furious resentment. “I have not come here to suffocate,” she repeated through tightly clenched teeth. “I have come here to inform you of my decision regarding Katherine’s girls.”
“Do it,” Charles snapped, “and then get out!”
Her eyes narrowed to furious slits and the air seemed to crackle with her hostility, but instead of leaving, she slowly lowered herself into a chair. Despite her advanced years, the duchess sat as regally erect as a queen, a purple turban perched upon her white head in place of a crown, a cane in her hand instead of a scepter.
Charles watched her with wary surprise, for he had been certain she’d insisted upon this meeting only so she could have the satisfaction of telling him to his face that the disposition of Katherine’s children was none of his business. He had not expected her to sit down as if she had something more to say.
“You have seen the girls’ miniature,” she stated.
His gaze dropped to the miniature in his hand and his long fingers tightened convulsively, protectively around it. Naked pain darkened his eyes as he stared at Victoria. She was the image of her mother—the image of his beautiful, beloved Katherine.
“Victoria is the image of her mother,” her grace snapped suddenly.
Charles lifted his gaze to hers and his face instantly hardened. “I am aware of that.”
“Good. Then you will understand why I will not have that girl in my house. I’ll take the other one.” Standing up as if her business had been concluded, she glanced at her solicitor. “See that Dr. Morrison receives a bank draft to cover his expenses, and another draft to cover ship passage for the younger girl.”
“Yes, your grace,” her solicitor said, bowing. “Will there be anything more?”
“There will be a great deal more,” she snapped, her voice strained and tight. “I shall have to launch the girl into society, I shall have to provide a dowry for her. I shall have to find her a husband, I—”
“What about Victoria?” Charles interrupted fiercely. “What do you plan to do about the older girl?”
The duchess glowered at him. “I’ve already told you—that one reminds me of her mother, and I won’t have her in my house. If you want her, you can take her. You wanted her mother rather badly, as I recall. And Katherine obviously wanted you—even when she was dying, she still spoke your name. You can shelter Katherine’s image instead. It will serve you right to have to look at the chit.”
Charles’s mind was still reeling with joyous disbelief when the old duchess added arrogantly, “Marry her off to anyone you please—anyone except that nephew of yours. Twenty-two years ago, I wouldn’t countenance an alliance between your family and mine, and I still forbid it. I—” As if something had just occurred to her, she broke off abruptly, her eyes beginning to gleam with malignant triumph. “I shall marry Dorothy to Winston's son!” she announced gleefully. “I wanted Katherine to marry the father, and she refused because of you. I’ll marry Dorothy to the son—I’ll have that alliance with the Winstons after all!” A slow, spiteful smile spread across her wrinkled face, and she laughed at Charles’s pinched expression. “After all these years, I’m still going to pull off the most splendid match in a decade!” With that, she swept out of the room, followed by her solicitor.
Charles stared after her, his emotions veering between bitterness, hatred, and joy. That vicious old bitch had just inadvertently given him the one thing he wanted more than life itself—she had given him Victoria, Katherine’s child. Katherine’s image. A happiness that was almost past bearing surged through Charles, followed almost immediately by boiling wrath. That devious, heartless, conniving old woman was going to have an alliance with the Winstons—exactly as she had always wanted. She had been willing to sacrifice Katherine’s happiness to have that meaningless alliance, and now she was going to succeed.
The rage Charles felt because she, too, was gaining what she had always wanted nearly eclipsed his own joy at getting Victoria. And then suddenly a thought occurred to him. With narrowed eyes, he contemplated it, mulled it over, studied it. And slowly he began to smile. “Dobson,” he said eagerly to his butler. “Bring me quill and parchment. I want to write out a betrothal announcement. See that it is delivered to the Times at once.”
“Yes, your grace.”
Charles looked up at the old servant, his eyes burning with feverish jubilation. “She was wrong, Dobson,” he announced. “That old bitch was wrong!”
“Wrong, your grace?”
“Yes, wrong! She’s not going to pull off the most splendid match in a decade. I am!”
* * *
It was a ritual. Each morning at approximately 9 o’clock, Northrup the butler opened the massive front door of the Marquess of Wakefield’s palatial country mansion and was handed a copy of the Times by a footman who had brought it from London.
After closing the door, Northrup crossed the marble foyer and handed the newspaper to another footman stationed at the bottom of the grand staircase. “His lordship’s copy of the Times,” he intoned.
This footman carried the paper down the hall and into the dining room where Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield, was customarily finishing his morning meal and reading his mail. “Your copy of the Times, my lord,” the footman murmured diffidently as he placed it beside the marquess’s coffee cup and then removed his plate. Wordlessly, the marquess picked up the paper and opened it.
All of this was performed with the perfectly orchestrated and faultlessly executed precision of a minuet, for Lord Fielding was an exacting master who demanded that his estates and townhouses run as smoothly as well-oiled machines.
His servants were in awe of him, regarding him as a cold, frighteningly unapproachable deity whom they strove desperately to please.
The eager London beauties whom Jason took to balls, operas, plays—and bed—felt much the same way about him, for he treated most of them with little more genuine warmth than he did his servants. Nevertheless, the ladies eyed him with unveiled longing wherever he went, for despite his cynical attitude, there was an unmistakable aura of virility about Jason that made feminine hearts flutter.
His thick hair was coal black, his piercing eyes the green of India jade, his lips firm and sensually molded. Tough, rugged strength was carved into every feature of his sun-bronzed face, from his straight dark brows to the arrogant jut of his chin and jaw. Even his physical build was overpoweringly masculine, for he was six feet two inches tall, with wide shoulders, narrow hips, and firmly muscled legs and thighs. Whether he was riding a horse or dancing at a ball, Jason Fielding stood out among his fellow men like a magnificent jungle cat surrounded by harmless, domesticated kittens.
As Lady Wilson-Smyth once laughingly remarked, Jason Fielding was as dangerously attractive as sin—and undoubtedly just as wicked.
That opinion was shared by many, for anyone who looked into those cynical green eyes of his could tell there wasn’t an innocent or naive fiber left in his lithe, muscular body. Despite that—or more accurately, because of it—the ladies were drawn to him like pretty moths to a scorching flame, eager to experience the heat of his ardor or bask in the dazzling warmth of one of his rare, lazy smiles. Sophisticated, married flirts schemed to occupy his bed; younger ladies of marriageable age dreamed of being the one to thaw his icy heart and bring him to his knees.
Some of the more sensible members of the ton remarked that Lord Fielding had good reason to be cynical where women were concerned. Everyone knew that his wife’s behavior when she first came to London four years ago had been scandalous. From the moment she arrived in town, the beautiful Marchioness of Wakefield had indulged in one widely publicized love affair after another. She had repeatedly cuckolded her husband; everyone knew it—including Jason Fielding, who apparently didn’t care. . . .
The footman paused beside Lord Fielding’s chair, an ornate sterling coffeepot in his hand. “Would you care for more coffee, my lord?”
His lordship shook his head and turned to the next page of the Times. The footman bowed and retreated. He had not expected Lord Fielding to answer him aloud, for the master rarely deigned to speak to any of his servants. He did not know most of their names, or anything about them, nor did he care. But at least he was not given to ranting and raving, as many of the nobility were. When displeased, the Marquess merely turned the chilling blast of his green gaze on the offender and froze him. Never, not even under the most extreme provocation, did Lord Fielding raise his voice.
Which was why the amazed footman nearly dropped his silver coffeepot when Jason Fielding slammed his hand down on the table with a crash that made the dishes dance and thundered, “That son of a bitch!” Leaping to his feet, he stared at the open newspaper, his face a mask of fury and disbelief. “That conniving, scheming—He’s the only one who would dare!” With a murderous glance at the thunder-struck footman, he stalked out of the room, grabbed his cloak from his butler, stormed out of the house, and headed straight for the stables.
Northrup closed the front door behind him and rushed down the hall, his black coattails flapping. “What happened to his lordship?” he demanded, bursting into the dining room.
The footman was standing beside Lord Fielding’s recently vacated chair, staring raptly at the open newspaper, the forgotten coffeepot still suspended from one hand. “I think it was somethin ’ he read in the Times,” he breathed, pointing to the announcement of the engagement of Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield, to Miss Victoria Seaton. “I didn’t know his lordship was plannin’ to wed,” the footman added.
“One wonders if his lordship knew it either,” Northrup mused, gaping in astonishment at the newspaper. Suddenly realizing that he had so forgotten himself as to gossip with an underling, Northrup swept the paper from the table and closed it smartly. “Lord Fielding’s affairs are no concern of yours, O’Malley. Remember that if you wish to stay on here.”
Two hours later, Jason’s carriage came to a bone-jarring stop in front of the Duke of Atherton’s London residence. A groom ran forward and Jason tossed the reins to him, bounded out of the carriage, and strode purposefully up the front steps to the house.
“Good day, my lord,” Dobson intoned as he opened the front door and stepped aside. “His grace is expecting you.”
“I’ll bet he damned well is!” Jason bit out scathingly. “Where is he?”
“In the drawing room, my lord.”
Jason stalked past him and down the hall, his long, quick strides eloquent of his turbulent wrath as he flung open the drawing room door and headed straight toward the dignified, gray-haired man seated before the fire. Without preamble, he snapped, “You, I presume, are responsible for that outrageous announcement in the Times?”
Charles boldly returned his stare. “I am.”
“Then you will have to issue another one to rescind it.”
“No,” Charles stated implacably. “The young woman is coming to England and you are going to marry her. Among other things, I want a grandson from you, and I want to hold him in my arms before I depart this world.”
“If you want a grandson,” Jason snarled, “all you have to do is locate some of your other by-blows. I’m sure you’ll discover they’ve sired you dozens of grandsons by now.”
Charles flinched at that, but his voice merely lowered ominously. “I want a legitimate grandson to present to the world as my heir.”
“A legitimate grandson,” Jason repeated with freezing sarcasm. “You want me, your illegitimate son, to sire you a legitimate grandson. Tell me something: with everyone else believing I’m your nephew, how do you intend to claim my son as your grandchild?”
“I would claim him as my great-nephew, but I would know he’s my grandson, and that’s all that matters.” Undaunted by his son’s soaring fury, Charles finished implacably, “I want an heir from you, Jason.”
A pulse drummed in Jason’s temple as he fought to control his wrath. Bending low, he braced his hands on the arms of Charles’s chair, his face only inches away from the older man’s. Very slowly and very distinctly, he enunciated, “I have told you before, and I’m telling you for the last time, that I will never remarry. Do you understand me? / will never remarry!”
“Why?” Charles snapped. “You aren’t entirely a woman-hater. It’s common knowledge that you’ve had mistresses and that you treat them well. In fact, they all seem to tumble into love with you. The ladies obviously like being in your bed, and you obviously like having them there—”
“Shut up!” Jason exploded.
A spasm of pain contorted Charles’s face and he raised his hand to his chest, his long fingers clutching his shirt. Then he carefully returned his hand to his lap.
Jason’s eyes narrowed, but despite his suspicion that Charles was merely feigning the pain, he forced himself to remain silent as his father continued. “The young lady I’ve chosen to be your wife should arrive here in about three months. I will have a carriage waiting at the dock so that she may proceed directly to Wakefield Park. For the sake of propriety, I will join the two of you there and remain with you until the nuptials have been performed. I knew her mother long ago, and I’ve seen a likeness of Victoria—you won’t be disappointed.” He held out the miniature. “Come now, Jason,” he said, his voice turning soft, persuasive, “aren’t you the slightest bit curious about her?”
Charles's attempt at cajolery hardened Jason's features into a mask of granite. “You’re wasting your time. I won’t do it.”
“You’ll do it,” Charles promised, resorting to threats in his desperation. “Because if you don’t, I’ll disinherit you. You’ve already spent half a million pounds of your money restoring my estates, estates that will never belong to you unless you marry Victoria Seaton.”
Jason reacted to the threat with withering contempt. “Your precious estates can burn to the ground for all I care. My son is dead—I no longer have any use for legacies.”
Charles saw the pain that flashed across Jason’s eyes at the mention of his little boy, and his tone softened with shared sorrow. “I’ll admit that I acted precipitously in announcing your betrothal, Jason, but I had my reasons. Perhaps I can’t force you to marry Victoria, but at least don’t set your mind against her. I promise you that you’ll find no fault with her. Here, I have a miniature of her and you can see for yourself how beautiful . . . Charles’s voice trailed off as Jason turned on his heel and stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him with a deafening crash.
Charles glowered at the closed door. “You’ll marry her, Jason,” he warned his absent son. “You’ll do it if I have to hold a gun to your head.”
He glanced up a few minutes later as Dobson came in carrying a silver tray laden with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. “I took the liberty of selecting something appropriate for the occasion,” the old servant confided happily, putting the tray on the table near Charles.
“In that case you should have selected hemlock,” Charles said wryly. “Jason has already left.”
The butler’s face fell. “Already left? But I didn’t have an opportunity to felicitate his lordship on his forthcoming nuptials.”
“Which is fortunate indeed,” Charles said with a grim chuckle. “I fear he’d have loosened your teeth.”
When the butler left, Charles picked up the bottle of champagne, opened it, and poured some into a glass. With a determined smile, he lifted his glass in a solitary toast: “To your forthcoming marriage, Jason.”