Authors: Lois Menzel
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken….
As the outside door slammed with enough force to echo through the house, Katherine Stillwell looked up from the household budget she was struggling to balance. She glanced at the ormolu clock on the mantel and a puzzled frown crossed her face. Only her stepfather was wont to slam doors, and he was never home for dinner.
Soon she heard the muffled voice of one of the servants in the hall, then the angry response from Sir Humphrey Corey. “Get out of my way, you babbling idiot! Where is my stepdaughter?”
Now the voice of Martin, the butler, was closer. “I believe she is in the salon, Sir Humphrey, but it is nearly the dinner hour. Would you perhaps like to change?”
Katherine suspected her stepfather had been drinking; spirits evoked his worst behavior. She also realized that Martin was trying to shield her from Sir Humphrey’s vile mood. She closed her ledger and rose from the desk as the door opened and her stepparent bowled into the room. His hunting clothes were wrinkled and soiled, his boots scuffed. She was accustomed to Sir Humphrey’s outbursts—they occurred often. She was also prepared for his request—it never varied.
“I find myself a bit short, Katy. No doubt you can lend me a fiver till quarter day.”
It was less than one month into the quarter, yet Katherine regarded him with a face schooled to display as little emotion as possible. In the past she had made the mistake of allowing her disapproval to show. If she voiced her shock at the price of a new stallion he had purchased, if she expressed her concern over the maintenance cost of his extensive stable, if she showed her disappointment at his inability to manage funds or her disgust of his drinking and gambling habits—all these actions on her part were met with blazing anger on his.
“I have a guinea or two in my bedroom,” she replied. “I will go and fetch them for you.”
“No need,” he answered. “I will go myself and perhaps have a glance through the rest of your room. You must keep the ready there, for I know it is not in that desk of yours. I have searched it often enough and never found a penny.”
He was already moving away as he uttered these last words, and Katherine followed him numbly down the hall. Surely he had not meant what he said; he would not actually search her room. Yet he climbed unsteadily up the main staircase, leaning heavily on the carved oak rail. When he stumbled and a footman quickly reached out a helping hand, Sir Humphrey shook the man off angrily. “Keep your hands off me, you fool!”
When Sir Humphrey arrived at the door of Katherine’s bedchamber, the butler, who had followed, intervened again. “Sir Humphrey, perhaps—”
Red-faced and fuming, Sir Humphrey rounded on him. ‘‘Say one more word and you will find yourself out the door! I should have dismissed you years ago, but my wife insisted on surrounding herself with servants who don’t know their place. Go away! I don’t want to see your face again today.”
He turned the door latch and stepped into Katherine’s room while she laid a restraining hand on the butler’s arm and whispered, “Martin, please, I can handle him. I do not know what I would do without you if he sent you away.”
“Very well, miss. I will be downstairs. If you should need me, please ring.”
He left reluctantly while Katherine followed her stepfather into the bedchamber. She found him standing in the center of the room, his bloodshot eyes sweeping over the wardrobe and chests that stood against the walls of the chamber. He walked to the nearest chest and pulled open the drawers one after another, spilling their contents onto the floor.
With a shriek of dismay, Katherine hurried to him. “Please, you will find no money among my things.” She lifted her reticule from the mirrored dressing table and fumbled inside, producing the money she had promised earlier. “Here, take this. Truly, it is all I have.”
He snatched it from her, demanding, “And what of the money you receive each quarter day? I know you don’t spend it. Where is it?”
“I do not have it sent to me. My solicitor invests it in the Funds, to build a dowry for Serena.”
“A dowry for Serena!” He snorted. “Not for yourself? You are not an antidote, though you are growing a bit long in the tooth. If you don’t marry soon, none will have you. And I am reminded . . . I spoke to Archie Postlethwaite yesterday about your sister. All is arranged there.”
“What is arranged?”
“Her betrothal. We agreed on settlements. Even set a date for the wedding—September.”
“Wedding!” Katherine exclaimed. “Archie Postlethwaite and Serena? Do not be absurd! He must be past fifty while she is not yet eighteen!”
“Just what the chit needs, a man capable of controlling her headstrong ways.’’
“But what of her Season? You promised you would bring her out next year.’’
“Why waste the blunt? We have a perfect husband to hand, wealthy and eager to have her to wife.”
“But surely she deserves some say in the matter,” Katherine persisted. “With a Season she would meet other eligible men. She could choose someone younger—”
“Choose someone? As you did, I suppose. Three Seasons you had! Three opportunities to do the choosing you speak of. And how many paragons did you meet in all those months, at all those fancy parties? None that I ever heard of! You found not one man to your liking. Or if you did, you could not bring him up to scratch—which amounts to the same thing.”
“I met Lord Parnaby,” she said quietly, trying to defend herself.
“Parnaby don’t count; he is a neighbor. And you never meet him in London; you met him at Rolly Beecham’s. He will never marry you, girl, mark my words. He may have a list of titles as long as winter, but he has also got a purse as empty as a Gypsy’s promise. He must marry money, and lots of it. Which leaves you sucking hind teat.”
Obviously bored by this discussion of Katherine’s marital prospects, Sir Humphrey proceeded to the next furnishing, which happened to be a wardrobe, opened the doors, and began stripping its contents into a heap on the floor.
Katherine’s clothes were neither fancy nor fashionable, but they were all she had. “You will find nothing there!” she protested. “Why will you not believe me?”
He turned suddenly to face her, and she shrank from the fury in his eyes. “I don’t believe you because you are a lying minx just as your mother was. She pinched every penny, denied me the smallest pleasures, harangued me about my horses every day of our married life. I have some of the best heavy hunters in the county, but could she accept that? Could she be proud of it? No. She doled money out to me as if I were a child. Even doled out her favors toward the end, denied me her bed when she thought I’d had too much to drink.”
Katherine’s eyes widened in shock at the indelicacy of his remarks.
He noticed her deepening blush. “You didn’t know that, did you?”
She moved toward the open door and took the handle in her fingers. Striving for a normal tone, she said, “You must believe me when I tell you that the money I gave you is all I have.”
He crossed toward the door, saying nothing. She suspected he was already eager to convert the guineas he had dropped into his pocket into a pint with his cronies at the local tavern. He would even have enough for an evening of cards if the stakes were low.
She stood her ground as he advanced on her, her hand still on the door holding it wide for him to pass. He stopped inches from her, close enough for her to see black horsehair on the red cloth of his jacket and to detect the unmistakable odor of horse that the day’s hunt had left on his clothing.
Reaching above her shoulder, he gripped the edge of the door, easily pulled it from her hold, and slammed it firmly home. “I have no intention of leaving this room until you give me the money you have hidden here. You have exactly ten seconds to tell me where it is.”
* * * *
The shabby gig rattled noisily over the frozen rutted road. The gray cob that pulled it had been handsome once, but advanced years and a meager diet had eroded his former glory. Sparing no expense when it came to his hunters, Sir Humphrey saw no need to waste money on the horses provided for the use of his stepdaughters.
With his head drooping low and his ears splayed wide, the old gelding paid scant attention to the roadway beneath his hooves. He moved at a tedious walk, but even though Katherine held a buggy whip in one gloved hand, she did not employ it.
Tightly wrapped in a warm cloak, her brown hair carefully tucked into her bonnet, she sat straight on the seat, holding the reins with confidence. On the floorboards near her feet were two small, much-worn packing cases. She had taken her best dresses, but beyond that she had gathered only the necessities, collecting them almost at random from the scattered clothing her stepfather had strewn about the floor. She’d had no time to pack properly, and she knew most of her things would be too shabby for London anyway. She fixed her gaze steadily on the road ahead, her regular, aristocratic features bleak: the dark brows slightly furrowed, the bottom lip occasionally pulled between the teeth, the large gray eyes shining with unshed tears.
Sir Humphrey had been bullying her for years; she was accustomed to it. But today he had finally gone too far. Her sister was a sweet child, as innocent in Katherine’s eyes as she had been the day their mother died, leaving them in Sir Humphrey’s care. Serena had only been eleven then, while Katherine had turned seventeen.
Suffering with grief herself, Katherine had found her younger sister devastated by the loss of their cherished parent. The child had wept uncontrollably until she was physically exhausted. Afterward, she had maintained an eerie silence, speaking to no one while awake, subject to horrifying nightmares when she slept.
Through the weeks and months of Serena’s indisposition, Katherine had seldom left her side. During that time, their relationship had changed from that of sisters to one more profound. Katherine now looked upon her sister with a mother’s pride, cherished her with a mother’s love. She would defend her now, if necessary, with a mother’s sacrifice. She raised her chin with determination and brushed away her tears.
It was already after four and the sky was unusually dark with dense, forbidding clouds streaming overhead. As Katherine raised her face to examine them, she clucked to her horse, then added, “I believe it might snow, Blue. Perhaps we should hurry.” The gelding swiveled his ears at the sound of her voice but offered no noticeable increase in his gait.
Another mile brought them to the well-maintained drive that gave access to Harrington Manor. This Katherine turned onto, following its curving, raked surface between a double row of chestnut trees, their bare branches buffeted by the wind.
When she stopped her carriage outside the house, a servant hurried to help her down and take charge of the horse. At her request he placed her cases at the top of the shallow flight of stairs. Just inside the massive front door the familiar face of the Harringtons’ butler appeared. “Miss Stillwell,” he remarked. “We did not expect to see you again so soon.”
“I know, Jamison,” she answered. “Is Miss Harrington at home? I must speak with her.”
“Indeed she is, miss. She is in the salon with Lord Harrington. Shall we bring your bags inside?”
These were quickly moved into the hall while the butler accepted Katherine’s cloak and bonnet. He passed them into the waiting hands of a footman before he led her down a wide, dark-paneled hallway.
It was a relief to be out of the wind. Katherine patted her hair, tucking in a few strands as she followed Jamison to the salon.
When the butler announced Katherine from the doorway, both Charity Harrington and her father looked up in surprise, for Katherine had visited to say good-bye to them earlier the same day.
“Katherine! We did not expect to see you again until summer,” Charity exclaimed.
As Lord Harrington rose to his feet to greet their visitor, he immediately noticed Katherine’s swollen and bloodshot eyes. “Katherine! You have been crying. What is amiss?”
Looking into his concerned face, Katherine knew it would have been the simplest thing in the world to accept his sympathy, allow the tears to come again, indulge her distress. But instead she lifted her chin bravely and forged ahead.
“Oh, my lord, everything is wrong. I have had a horrible row with my stepfather.”
Charity Harrington came slowly across the room to join them, her progress impeded by a lame leg. She encouraged her friend to sit on the sofa. “Tell us what happened. Was he drinking again?”
“Yes. He often starts before noon, but he is seldom home for dinner. Today he came home early. He had run out of money and wanted me to give him more. When I told him I had only a little, he did not believe me. He stormed up to my room and began rifling through my things, emptying every drawer. When he found nothing, he took me by the arms and began shaking me, demanding that I tell him where I hide my allowance.”