Mayfield, the Country Estate of the Duke of Camberly
September 8, 1813
“You are trying my patience, Matthew,” the imperial voice said from his study door. “Have you forgotten you are to be in London for your wedding on the morrow?”
In the thin light of an overcast morning, Matthew Addison, recently named Duke of Camberly, looked up from the desk where he had been poring over ledgers to coldly eye his grandmother. Minerva, the Dowager Duchess of Camberly, was a handsome woman, over seventy in age, but she moved as if younger. Her hair was silver, and she wore her black with a touch of purple for her late husband and their oldest son and heir William whom she had adored with a passion. Both had passed within less than six months of the other a little over a year ago. She had not bothered to take off her coat, hat, or gloves. Instead, she had apparently arrived and come right for him.
Unfortunately, she had chosen the wrong moment to make an appearance. It was almost as if the suspicions in his mind had conjured her.
“Hello, Grandmother.” He did not rise. “I have not forgotten. How can I? You’ve been sending me letters reminding me of my responsibilities every day for the past several weeks.”
“Because you are supposed to be in London ,” she snapped. “People are talking. There are wagers being made that you will not show. Leland Reverly is not pleased.”
“London is only three hours away. I’ll be there before the appointed time on the morrow. After all, everyone knows I need money. I really have no choice.”
Matt was expected to wed Miss Willa Reverly, known as the Reverly Heiress and a woman he barely knew. He had nothing against Miss Reverly. She was like every other well-bred young miss with a rich father. Although if he remembered correctly—and his memory was a bit hazy—she was far more attractive than most.
That still didn’t mean his upcoming marriage set well with him. He’d come to hate being the Duke of Camberly. The bloody, impoverished title had sucked everything meaningful out of his life.
Minerva frowned as if sensing something was not right between them. Her gaze took in the ledgers stacked and spread across his desk. She shut the door and approached him, taking the chair in front of his desk where she perched upright. “What is the matter with you?” she asked. “Why have you holed yourself up in here? I’ve heard reports that you have rarely strayed from this study.”
“Oh, I’ve strayed, Grandmother. I’ve walked the estate from one end to the other.”
She looked at him as if he’d said the most preposterous thing she’d ever heard. “Why would you do that?”
“Because I own it. Because I inherited a mess and I know nothing about land management and crops and breeding.” And because, after the fool he’d made of himself in front of the ton over Letty Bainhurst, he’d thought to recover his self-respect by doing what was honorable and right. He had wanted to step up to the title.
Instead, he’d uncovered one mystery after another until, that very morning, he’d reached a terrible realization.
But his grandmother did not know this. She smiled. “Yes, however, you are going to marry Miss Reverly, and her dowry will set everything to rights.” There it was: selling his name and person into marriage was merely a simple solution, and Matt rebelled. He became direct.
“What happened to the money, Grandmother?”
For the first time since she’d barged into the room, Minerva looked hesitant. “The money?”
Matt tapped the top ledger. “The money in the estate.”
“You know what happened. Times have not been good for Mayfield. We discussed this after Henry died and we sat with George to go over matters.” Henry was her late husband, the old duke. George was Matt’s second cousin and a well-respected lawyer. “The estate was losing money. It just all went away.”
“It did disappear,” Matt agreed, his voice tense. “Money came in and yet was not spent on the estate at all. In fact, as little as five years ago, there had been plenty for repairs and improvements—and then it appears to have vanished. Decent tenants left because of unfulfilled promises over cottages with leaking roofs. The stables were emptied of good horseflesh, and the beasts in the fields from the pigs to the cattle, if they had any worth, were sold—except that money doesn’t show where it went in the ledgers either. Worse, I’ve learned that Grandfather stopped the servants’ and workers’ wages.”
“Running the estate is expensive. I warned you—”
“Aye, you did. You said I would walk into Mayfield and see that everything of value had been sold off. All the books, the portraits, the furnishings are gone, except, according to these older ledgers, there should have been no need to sell them.”
His grandmother laughed, the sound almost frivolous, convincing him more than anything else that she knew the truth. “What are ledgers?” she said. “You know Henry was not good with details.”
“Actually, at one time, Grandfather had a competent manager, whom he abruptly let go before taking over managing the estate himself. And then it appears he willfully bankrupted it.”
The dowager jumped on the force behind the word “bankrupt,” the purple plume on her black bonnet shaking. “He tried his best.”
Matt leaned back in the chair, dumbfounded. “His best? He didn’t spend the money on seed or wages. Years ago there was plenty, and now it is gone. My grandfather was not a gambler and if he was into whores—”
“He would never touch one.”
“Good, because for the amount of money I’ve found missing, there aren’t that many whores in England.”
Her chin came up. “I do not like your tone. Especially toward my late husband.” She even added a dramatic quiver to her voice. “You don’t understand the workings of an estate like Mayfield. You are a scholar and a poet—”
“Grandmother, what I am not , is a fool.”
That snapped her mouth shut.
Matt leaned forward. “You know what happened to the money. You and Grandfather were as one. You even finished each other’s sentences. Someone either robbed the money from the accounts or deliberately removed it, and what I want to know is why. To what purpose?”
“A good one,” she answered, her voice faint.
“And that is?”
Instead of answering, her gaze hardened. She stared at some point in the far corner of the room, her black gloved hands clutched tightly in her lap.
Matt rose from the chair and came from behind his desk to her. He was a tall man, a good six foot five. “On the morrow, I’m marrying a woman I barely know to save Mayfield. One of my expectations in life was to marry for love.”
“Like your father?” Minerva’s tone was bitter.
“Yes, like him.” Matthew’s father had been Stephen, the second son, the one who had never followed the family’s dictates.
“Wasting himself on an actress,” she said with disgust.
“He married the woman he loved,” Matt corrected. He had years of experience in deftly fending off his grandparents’ barbs toward his mother. “And Father had no regrets, even when you and Grandfather disowned him for marrying her.”
There was a beat of silence and then Minerva said, “She wasn’t even that good of an actress.”
“No, but she was a brilliant mother.”
Minerva’s pale eyes glanced at him as if to see if he jested. He didn’t.
Matt had loved his parents very much. He’d been the youngest of five and the only son. The next oldest sibling to him was Amanda, and she was eight years his senior.
When his parents had been taken by fever, his sisters had brought ten-year-old Matt to their grandparents. His oldest sister, Alice, had told him it was the hardest thing she’d ever done, and yet, the four of them believed it was best for him.
The reception had been very cool. Alice had to set aside her pride to ask for help. In the end, her grandparents had given her what she’d wanted, an education for Matt and what she called, “his rightful place in society.”
Those years in private school had been lonely and hard. His grandparents and his uncle William had given him very little of their interest. His sisters had been there for him. However, they had their own struggles. Several married. The unmarried one, Kate, went into the theater as their mother had. Matt learned the difficult lesson that life could consume the best of intentions.
Fortunately, he had proven to be a stellar student, especially since his grandfather, the old duke, had made it clear Matt would be receiving no support from him. And then life changed.
Matt had been working as a tutor when he’d received word that William had died. He’d broken his neck in a riding accident.
It was at that point that Matt had been summoned by his grandparents. William’s death had made him “the heir.” They demanded his company. They had expectations for him.
He’d not obeyed instantly. He’d had mixed feelings about his grandparents and his role in the succession of the title. His loyalty was to his sisters and his parents’ memories. Again, it had been Alice who had prodded him forward. Mayfield was his birthright, she’d said.
Matt often wondered if his father would have agreed with her.
And yet, Matt had been curious about this mysterious world of the haut ton .
Now, he knew more than he wished.
Minerva frowned at the floor before muttering, “I thought you were here at Mayfield nursing your wounds and pining over Letty Bainhurst.” There were actually tears in her voice as if he had betrayed her in some way. “You’d made quite a cake of yourself over her.”
“I did.” He could admit that much. Matt and Letty Bainhurst, wife to one of the most powerful men in England, had been lovers. In fact, he’d even thought of asking her to leave her husband and run away with him. He would have given up the title for her.
Or had he just wanted a love like the one his parents had enjoyed? A love that defied all conventions?
In the end, Letty cut him off. She’d suddenly refused to speak to him. She’d ignored his calls, his letters, his entreaties . . .
And that was the true reason he’d agreed to marry the Reverly Heiress. If the woman who owned his soul would not have him, well, then what did it matter whom he married? Of course, the decision hadn’t set well with him. The day after his betrothal party to Willa, he had slunk away to Mayfield because in London he was a fool.
It had helped to leave. Once he’d stopped pitying himself, he’d started to perceive that what his grandmother had told him about the state of Mayfield’s financial affairs did not equate to what his own reasoned intelligence noticed. He’d started asking questions. It had taken time to receive answers.
“What happened to the money?” he repeated to his grandmother. “What is the story? Was my uncle William involved?”
The mention of William stirred her. “He knew nothing about it.” She straightened her shoulders. “And I shall not say another word.”
“Then I won’t marry the Reverly Heiress.”
That robbed her of her starch. “You must. You can’t abandon her at the altar.”
“There will be nothing if you don’t marry her. You’ll be ruined.”
“We’ll be ruined,” he countered.
She pressed her lips together tightly.
“Don’t make this so difficult,” he said.
From somewhere in the house, he could hear the chime of a clock. It was not yet noon . . . and then his grandmother’s face crumpled as if she could no longer hold in the truth.
“A man named Hardesty was blackmailing us.”
Out of all the possible scenarios, that was one Matt had not anticipated. “What? ”
“Blackmail,” she repeated impatiently. “You know what that is.”
“How could anyone blackmail my grandfather?” The old duke had been a stickler. He’d lived the upright, moral life. Matt had been trying to shock Minerva when he mentioned his grandfather and whores in the same sentence.
She removed her gloves. “This man, Hardesty, he learned a secret. We paid him to be quiet. We had to. We had no choice.”
Matt knelt by her chair and took her hand. Her fingers were cold. She started to shake. “Grandmother, it will be all right.”
“It hasn’t been ‘all right’ since that terrible man started sending letters. He always wanted more.”
“Who is this Hardesty?”
“We never knew. He’d demand money and tell Henry where to leave it. We could never catch him even when Henry hired men to go after him.”
“But why would you pay Hardesty?” That was the true mystery.
“For silence.” Her fingers squeezed his tightly. She looked away.
“Grandmother, tell me.”
“I wish you’d let this go—”
“But I won’t. Tell me.”
Her pale blue eyes met his. “Hardesty knew some uncomfortable things about William that he threatened to expose.” William, the favored son. The heir.
A little over sixteen months ago, he’d died in a riding accident. He’d been out in the early morning and had been thrown. His neck had been broken.
Both of Matt’s grandparents had taken his death badly. His grandfather’s health had started failing immediately. In their last interview together, Henry had let Matt know that he considered his grandson barely a shadow of the man William had been.
“What uncomfortable things did he know about my uncle?” Matt had not known his uncle well, but by any account, William, Marquis of Tilbury, had been widely respected and admired. A true Corinthian.
Minerva drew another long breath. Her whole manner stressed how difficult the subject was for her. “William was a complete gentleman.”
“Aye, he was.”
“Except he had unusual tastes.” Minerva looked at Matt as if gauging whether he understood what she was saying. “He would never marry. He was not of that persuasion to take a wife even though he was the most masculine of men.”
Matt understood exactly what she meant.
The ton were a licentious lot. Depending on the tolerance of one’s spouse, adultery was given a passing wink. There were great ladies who didn’t know the true father of all their children. As long as they delivered a decent heir, their husbands were usually too busy with their own adulterous pursuits to care. Gambling wasn’t considered a sin, even when a fortune was lost and children went hungry. Excessive drinking to the point of being incapacitated was more the rule than the exception.
But there was one vice for which a man could be successfully blackmailed—the “unnatural” crime. Any man could be imprisoned for it. Certainly, he would have been ruined whether he was a yeoman or a duke.
“Did my uncle tell you this himself?”
“No, but a mother knows. For a long time, I didn’t believe Henry knew or suspected about William. However, after Hardesty started his terrible threats, and once Henry confided in me . . . then we understood that we both had known. I loved my son. I admired him. He was a worthy man in every aspect,” she added, as if insisting on the fact.
Matt could have pointed out that she’d had two sons. William was the golden child while Matt’s father, Stephen, had committed an unpardonable sin in the family—he’d married beneath himself. Or was it that he had ignored his father’s dictates?
“How did the blackmail start?” he asked his grandmother.
With her secret out, Minerva had regained some of her composure. “Henry received a letter with reports of William’s activities and a threat to go to authorities. You know that if they received a complaint, they would have had to act. The scandal—well, it quite boggled the mind. We wished to protect William. Mayfield actually was beginning to have financial difficulties. The fields weren’t producing. Money had been spent unwisely. Your grandfather had a desire to breed a great racehorse and had spent a fortune over the years in pursuit of that dream. Of course, it never happened. Breeding is tricky. It was all such a challenge, and then the horrid letters started coming. Henry paid to shut the man up. In the beginning, the amounts Hardesty wanted were small. Eventually, he always wanted more. And he kept sending his terrible reports.”
“Did William know about the blackmail?”
She looked stricken. “He found out.”
Minerva bowed her head. She’d started pulling on one of the gloves she held. She stopped before confessing, “I told him.” She lifted her gaze. Remorse filled her eyes. “I began to believe that Hardesty controlled Henry. Your grandfather was obsessed with preventing anyone from hearing the truth. It wasn’t right. I lost my temper. I decided William should know. He would put an end to it. I knew he would.”
“What did my uncle do when he learned of all this?”
“He was furious. He considered it an affront to his honor.”
“Did he deny what Hardesty had accused him of doing?”
“No.” She closed her eyes. “How I wish I had never said anything. Hardesty could have had all of Mayfield, but at the time—” Her voice broke off. Tears began to roll down over her cheeks. “I unleashed a horror upon us.”
“Finish it, Grandmother. What happened?”
“I believe Hardesty murdered William.”
Shocked, Matt stood. He took a step away and then came back. “Murdered? He broke his neck in a riding accident.”
“There wasn’t a horse in the world William couldn’t ride. He’d never come off. However, shortly before he died, he told us he believed he’d discovered who Hardesty truly was and he was going to confront him. William’s body was found close to one of the places Henry had left money for Hardesty.”
“Did William go after the blackmailer alone?” That seemed particularly foolhardy.
“Apparently. He was alone when he was found.”
“Was the magistrate notified of your suspicions?”
“It appeared an accident ,” she stressed. “We would have looked silly lodging a complaint of murder. And we wouldn’t have told him anything about William’s . . . life. And we won’t .” A touch of the autocratic dowager colored her last words. “I’ll not let anyone sully my son’s reputation.”
Matt raked a hand through his hair, trying to make sense of something that seemed almost fantastical. “The blackmail stopped?”
“Yes, after William died. We wouldn’t have paid another shilling . . . if we’d had it.”
Matt paced the length of the room, trying to process all that he’d heard.
“Henry blamed himself for what happened to William and he was furious with me,” Minerva admitted. “His heart couldn’t stand the betrayal and I lost him.” She appeared every year of her age and more.
Matt had nothing to say.
She looked to him. “But what’s done is done. It is over. Honor was everything to Henry. As it was to William. And now, it is up to you to save Mayfield.”
“By marrying the Reverly Heiress.” He curled his hands into fists at his sides. The world would judge Matt by his ability to rebuild Mayfield. The responsibility of such an overwhelming challenge weighed heavy on him.
“It is your role,” she replied simply. “You are Camberly.”
Yes, he was. A role his father had shunned. An unreasonable anger toward his sire rose in him as well. He was in this position because his father had fallen in love with Rose Billroy. He’d made the decision to free himself of the responsibilities of the Addison name and any claim to the title.
But Matt couldn’t do that. He was Camberly. As Alice had claimed, the title was his birthright.
A new purpose formed in his mind, one he had a feeling his grandfather and uncle would approve. “I want to know who this Hardesty is.”
Minerva jumped to her feet. “No , Matthew, please. We have not heard from the odious man since William’s death. Let it be.”
But he couldn’t. “I would be interested in what George has to say about this.”
“George—? Matthew, it is done. It is over . I pray no one ever finds out about any of this. The shame would kill me.”
“I’m not of a like mind. This Hardesty is nothing more than a common thief and, according to you, a murderer. If there is a way to track him down and bring him to justice while also wringing the money out of his worthless hide, I plan to pursue it—”
A knock sounded on the door. “What is it?” Matt asked, annoyed.
“A letter just arrived by messenger for you, Your Grace,” the maid said through the door. “I was told to tell you it is from Miss Reverly.”
He walked over to the door. Throwing it open, he took the folded missive from the maid, who said, “The messenger said Miss Reverly does not need him to wait for an answer.”
Frowning, Matt looked to his grandmother, who was very interested in the letter. “Thank you,” he murmured, and shut the door. He cracked the seal, but his mind wasn’t on missives from his “betrothed.” No, he was thinking of how he quickly he could hunt down this Hardesty.
And then his plans changed as he skimmed Miss Reverly’s letter. She actually had a lovely hand. He had thought her writing would be awkward and full of the silly loops that women often favored to make their handwriting distinctive. Miss Reverly’s penmanship was highly readable and her style direct.
“What does she have to say?” Minerva asked.
“She says she is releasing me from my promise—”
“She is jilting you? ”
“Apparently.” He found himself surprisingly displeased. Yes, he was angry about the marriage, but he did not like receiving the boot.
Especially in such an abrupt manner . . . and after he’d started to warm to the idea of marrying her for her much needed money.
Minerva stamped around in a worried little circle. “She must not do that . You have stop her. You must go to her at once and tell her that she can’t cry off. If you let her jilt you, you’ll be tainted. Heiresses of her wealth are not common. Everyone will wonder what is wrong with you. They will ask questions. There are already whispers, what with you and Letty.”
She’d said the magic words. Matt had no desire for Letty to know that another woman had found him lacking.
“I will ride to London immediately,” he said, already moving toward the door. It was half past eleven. He could be knocking on Miss Reverly’s door before four.
“I’ll be right behind you,” Minerva promised. “We must have a wedding, Matthew. Everyone in London is expecting one.”