Theo stood on the deck of The Summerset staring into the fog. He bent his neck from side to side, causing it to give several menacing cracks. The sound suited his mood. If he were still in Barbados, he would be watching the sun set, a breeze cooling his warm skin. He looked at his hand. It still held the hint of a tan. Not at all desirable for an English Lord, which was one of the reasons he liked having one.
His navigator and longtime friend, Rex Adelman, muttered next to him, “Damn English weather.”
His thoughts exactly, as they attempted to dock along the Thames. The cold, moist air bit his skin. He hated the cold and the rain. Not for the first time, he wondered what was the point of being a wealthy duke if one could not choose to live on a balmy tropical island? “We’ll be back to Barbados before you know it.”
“I hope that’s true.” Rex clapped him on the shoulder. “But this country is difficult to escape. We both know that.”
He grimaced, understanding what his friend meant. Even for Theo, inheriting the title did not leave him entirely in charge of his fortune. He supposed that his folly had been leaving the finances in the very able hands of his brothers-in-law. While they had done an admirable job—he got their quarterly reports—they had grown tired of managing his affairs along with their own. “If there is a way, you and I will find it. Though I suspect you’re correct. Leaving won’t be easy.”
He also suspected his mother had a hand in the fatigue of his brothers-in-law. Just as it was she who chartered a ship specially to send him a message. Come home to meet your perspective bride or we will cease managing your affairs or sending you funds.
Bloody hell that message had taken far less time than he’d supposed. He’d only been gone for two years.
Theo had seriously considered the possibility of not returning. It would be easy enough to hire a solicitor even from Barbados. But in the end it seemed foolish. He’d have no idea the quality of the man he hired. He cared little for being the Duke of Waverly and even less for the bonds of matrimony but in the end, he’d decided to heed the summons. He wouldn’t carelessly throw away what his family had spent generations building.
While it was unlikely that he’d marry, his family deserved to hear that from him. He would not leave his sisters or mother without explanation. And he’d take this opportunity to put his affairs in order in a way that did not give his mother the ability to summon him whenever she chose.
He’d learned, during his time at sea, how to face life as a man, rather than being a puppet under his parents’ command. Though it was his mother who now tried to rule his life, in the past, it had always been his father who’d controlled his every breath. But that would no longer be the case. Not that he would act irresponsibly. Whatever decision he made, he’d make with full knowledge of the consequences of his actions and the strength to face them. He’d not bend to another’s will again.
If he married, it would be his choice and no one else’s.
The ship finally docked and Rex gave him a long, dark look. “I’ll meet you in a few days.”
Theo gave him a terse nod. “Good luck, my friend.” Rex had his own troubles to solve but would join Theo and his family as soon as he could.
Bidding Rex and his crew a temporary farewell, he found a hack to take him to his London town home. In the morning, he’d choose from any number of horses to make the two-day ride to his childhood estate.
It would be nice to see his mother and sisters again. He’d sincerely missed them. Tricia and Tabbie, his older sisters, had done their best to protect him from his father’s tyranny, to give him love and support, rather than the harsh rule his father had provided.
Their husbands supported him still in their own ways. They had seemed to understand that he needed to take some time to learn to be his own man.
After reaching his home, his valet helped Theo undress. “Would you like a shave, Your Grace?”
He nearly chuckled aloud. He knew what he looked like. Tan with a scruffy beard and long hair, he did not look very lordly. A fact that he delighted in. “No, that will be all.”
His mother would near faint when she saw him. Served her right for trying to strong-arm him.
He had missed sleeping on land and as he collapsed into bed, the soft mattress enveloping him, he realized there would be a few perks to returning to England.
The next morning, he rose and chose a stunning stallion to make the journey. As a duke, he likely should have ridden in a carriage. It was safer, far more conservative. Which was likely why he’d chosen to ride.
But he set out, loving the animal beneath him. Another benefit to being home. This quality of animal couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world. “That a boy.” He’d patted the horse’s neck and kicked him into a brisk pace.
As the day went on, the fog turned to mist and then the mist to rain. The road began to rut and Theo cursed the English weather once again. He’d forgotten to factor in the rain. It had rarely been an issue on the island.
As his horse sidestepped a puddle, he landed his front hoof on the banking and let out a whinny, hobbling to the side of the road. Theo gave a curse as he climbed off the animal to check his leg. “There’s a good lad,” he soothed the animal as he gently lifted the hoof to have a look. It didn’t appear to be broken, but to be safe, he couldn’t ride him. With a grimace, he realized he was walking in the rain until he reached the next town.
* * *
Lady Violette Chase attempted to look out the carriage’s rain-soaked window and let out a small sigh. Her mother glanced over at her, her eyebrows drawn together. Sighing was not ladylike. But under the circumstances, she believed that she was entitled to one tiny breach of behavior.
She’d been thinking on their circumstances. Which were dire.
She smoothed her skirts and sat up straighter; her mother’s brow relaxed. “When you meet His Grace,” her mother began. Violette held in her sigh this time. Many of their conversations had started exactly so. “Make sure to be the picture of ladylike decorum.”
The lecture went on and Violette nodded attentively, though she barely paid attention. In her defense she’d heard it so many times, she could nearly recite it verbatim. And she had other matters to think about.
Violette was now the sister of an Earl, her father having passed a year prior. And while her dowry was intact, the family’s funds were so diminished that she wouldn’t be able to participate in the upcoming season.
Not that she hadn’t tried to save them in some other fashion. Her mother had no head for numbers and her brother was still so young. It was Violette who had tended the books and tried to turn their situation around. But there was no hope for it.
She needed to marry, there was no question about that. Without a match, her family wouldn’t survive financially. So her mother had leveraged her social connections to secure several invitations. The goal being to find a husband before they were forced to use her dowry to live. That would be the beginning of the end.
With a proper husband, her mother would be cared for. She hoped to convince her new husband to provide a modest dowry for her sister and help her brother learn to manage his funds far better than their father had done.
Her mother finally ended her lecture. “If he doesn’t wish to make a match, we will simply move on. The Marquess of Dunstable and the Earl of Rumsford have also sent invitations.”
That was supposed to make her feel better. If this man didn’t want her, another would. But somehow, it only made her insides twist into knots. She resembled a side of beef at the market to the eligible men. One of them would want her for his table.
She pushed the thought aside. She’d given up lamenting her fate some time ago. She understood the alternative and she wouldn’t allow her sister to become a spinster, her brother to sink under the weight of their debt.
Her father had loved them. He’d been attentive and kind. Loving and present. He simply was a poor manager of money. But she understood the value of family and she’d do what she could to protect hers now.
The carriage slowed and Violette peered out the window again. The blurry figure of a man and his horse huddled under a tree caught her notice as the driver pulled to a stop. She could hear her driver’s muffled voice and she watched the man straighten.
The carriage bounced as the driver climbed down and then a rap on the door echoed through the interior.
“Yes,” her mother called.
“Stranded traveler, my lady,” he replied as her mother opened the door and climbed out of the carriage.
Violette swallowed a lump. Her father should be here. Her mother should not be stepping out into the rain to greet strange men. What if he was a highwayman intent upon robbing them?
Her heart beat faster even as her mother climbed back into the carriage, giving a delicate cough as she took her seat. “Move onto my seat, dear,” her mother stated matter-of-factly. “We’re taking on a passenger.”
“Mother,” she gasped. “You can’t. What if he’s a—”
But she stopped as the door opened again. She might have yelped but she’d already gotten a lecture this day and so she simply moved over. The man climbed into the buggy and shed his wet coat. Silently, he handed over a coin purse to her mother. “Thank you,” he said as she took it in her gloved hand.
Violette caught her breath as she watched him sit. He did indeed look like a highwayman. Tall, broad, and well-muscled, he moved with the grace of a predator and she shivered, having nothing to do with the cold blast of air that had entered the carriage. His dark, wet hair had fallen into his piercing blue eyes and he pushed it back in a careless gesture that made her heart beat faster.
His skin was a rich brown, which only lent to the air of danger, and she watched as he rubbed at the growth of hair on his face. It wasn’t just stubble but also hadn’t grown enough or been groomed in such a way to be considered a beard.
She had to admit that his features were classically handsome though it mattered little if he chose to rob them or even kill them for their valuables. Not that they had many. But still.
She noted how large his hand was, and for a moment, she thought to clutch her mother in fear. But that would only lead to a lecture, and so she clasped her fingers together instead.
Her mother had allowed this man into their carriage because he’d paid her to do so. She’d seen the exchange of funds and while their situation was dire, this plan was folly at best. Who was to say he hadn’t stolen coin from the last traveler he’d met? Gads, their financial woes would lead them to their death.