Realm 03 - A Touch of Cashemere (8 page)

BOOK: Realm 03 - A Touch of Cashemere
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“Uncle!” Velvet squealed before rushing into Ashton’s welcoming arms. “How did you come to be here?” However, before the baron could answer, Velvet grabbed both Satiné and her in an encompassing hold. Their oldest sister alternated kissing both their cheeks. “I am so happy to see you. You have no idea what your presence means to me,” she whispered to them.

The baron took possession of Velvet. “The earl brought Cashémere to Chesterfield Manor,” he explained to her, “and, of course, we had to assist the duke in your rescue.”

Velvet appeared stunned by his statement. “To think that you came to support His Grace’s efforts.”

“Your sisters did more than that, Velvet. Look at how they are dressed.” Baron Ashton gestured to the twins. “They distracted your kidnapper long enough for Fowler to stage your rescue. They were quite bold.”

“My Goodness!” Her sister gasped in wide-eyed acknowledgment. “We could be triplets!”

Cashé wrinkled her nose in disgust. Before she thought about her words, she said, “Except that you are so unkempt.”

Satiné warned in a hiss. “Cashé!”

While Fowler reclaimed Velvet, Cashé considered her twin’s reprimand. Her revulsion was as much for the situation as it was for Velvet’s unseemliness. Cashé found it all quite odd; Uncle Samuel and Aunt Alice had taught her that intimacy of any kind was purely for the procreation of children, never for pleasure. Yet, Velvet showed no regret for her actions, and Uncle Charles offered no censure. She did not understand how no one else found Velvet’s ruination repugnant. Why was she the only one who thought it so?

The earl reappeared with a physician in tow, and everyone moved quickly to tend to Velvet, Fowler, and Hill. When the physician decided to transport his patients to his office, a clean up of the incident became the next phase. The viscount saw to the wounded, and Yardley reported the incident to the local authorities, as well as settling the damages with the shopkeeper.

Ashton announced, “I will take the girls to Chesterfield Manor. I assume, Your Grace, that you will see my niece safely to Cheshire.”

Fowler bowed in respect. “Velvet is under my protection, Your Lordship.”

Cashé pulled at her uncle’s sleeve. “Do you think it best, Uncle, to permit Velvet to travel with Thornhill? Uncle Samuel would object; we need to consider Velvet’s reputation,” she whispered.

“His Grace has shown his affection for your sister by his actions,” he assured her. “Fowler will protect Velvet with his title. The man is part of our family, can you not see that he loves your sister and will bring no shame on our name.”

From the rooftops of the neighboring building Murhad Jamot watched as a middle-aged English gentleman–the one he had encountered in the blacksmith’s stables–leave the warehouse with a young lady on each arm. The women were obviously twins; he could discern very little difference between them. Now, he fully understood how the Realm had tricked him. The women bore an uncanny resemblance to Velvet Aldridge, and they both wore dresses of a similar shade. They made him see things that did not exist. A nice illusion–and he had fallen for it. It would not happen again.

He would change his operation. Mir would not be happy with his lack of success. He had started with the Realm’s leader James Kerrington and then Brantley Fowler. He never really suspected that either man held the emerald. Both possessed a high sense of honor. However, Mir ordered that he start with them; his leader thought Worthing’s and Thornhill’s honor a façade. Mir did not understand how these Englishmen thought, but Jamot did. He had lived among them for the last year. He had felt the chill of their winters and the warmth of their springs. He had seen the hatred for foreigners on their faces. He had recognized their attitudes of superiority. The Realm had fooled him this time. He would not allow it to happen again. He would regroup and find the weaknesses among the others. He would find the missing emerald.

“To think, Uncle, my sister is to be a duchess,” Satiné said for the third time in an hour.

Cashé rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Why is that so important?”

The baron good-naturedly explained, “A duke is the closest to royalty this country offers in the social strata. When Velvet becomes a duchess, your sister will hold great sway in society, which plays well for your own places.”

“I am so happy that we postponed my Come Out,” Satiné gushed. “To be known as the sister of the Duchess of Thornhill shall open doors left closed otherwise.”

Cashé sat back into the coach’s soft squabs. She crossed her arms before her chest, symbolically closing herself off from reason. “You make the assumption, Satiné, that Uncle Samuel will allow Thornhill to marry Velvet, and I can assure you that Uncle shan’t agree.”

“How might Averette prevent the joining?” the baron demanded.

“As Uncle Samuel has assumed Velvet’s guardianship, he may speak to her choice of husbands until she is of age. That is why Velvet came to stay with us in Edinburgh. Uncle objected to the duke’s attentions to my sister. He actually caught them in an intimate moment,” Cashé shared. Her uncle had tried to hide the reason for their hasty removal from London, but Cashé had overheard Fowler’s servants gossiping about what Samuel Aldridge had said to His Grace.

Ashton sat forward, as if to hear better. “What do you mean? Averette assumed guardianship of Velvet.”

“Just as I said,” Cashé smirked. “Uncle Samuel found Velvet and Fowler kissing in the duke’s London library. He demanded that Velvet return with us to Scotland. Thornhill quickly gave up Velvet when Uncle Samuel threatened to expose Eleanor for the truth.”

“I would like an explanation,” Ashton insisted.

Cashé told him of the scene at the Prince Regent’s party–of Sir Louis Levering’s charges–of the baronet’s attacking the Prince–and of how the Fowlers had led Prince George to believe that the Averette’s governess was Lady Eleanor’s traveling companion. “Uncle Samuel confronted Thornhill regarding the former duke’s debauchery. He told Fowler how he had chosen to look the other way because Lady Eleanor deserved a better life with an honorable man, but Uncle Samuel could not allow Velvet to return to Kent with His Grace without a chaperone.”

“And Thornhill refused to make an honest woman of your sister?”

“No, His Grace made an offer,” Cashé continued, “but Uncle refused.”

The baron leaned back. “And why would Aldridge refuse to accept a duke’s offer? That is the real question. What is in it for him?” A touch of bitterness laced his words.

“Uncle just wished to protect Velvet’s name,” Cashé asserted.

Ashton laced his fingers across his waistcoat. “I doubt that. Aldridge would make no move, which did not benefit him.”

Cashé puffed up with indignation. “Uncle Samuel had Velvet’s best interest in mind.”

“My Dear, I realize your allegiance to Samuel Aldridge, but your eyes cannot be so closed as to see the real truth.”

“What truth?” Cashé demanded. “All I know is Uncle Samuel has given me a home and affections.”

Satiné responded, “And you think that the Fowlers and Uncle Charles did less for Velvet and me?”

Cashé blushed, but she continued. Such accusations against the only family she had known did not set well with her, but she could not deny that the baron and the Fowlers had done honorably by her sisters. “Uncle Samuel welcomed me into his family because he loves me!” she asserted.

The baron reached across the coach and patted her hand. “Cashé, I have never believed otherwise, but you must also recognize Aldridge’s weaknesses.”

“Such as?” Cashé demanded.

“Such as requiring Uncle Charles and the Fowlers to pay him before he doled out children to their care.”

Cashé bucked at the idea. “You speak an untruth!”

“No, Satiné does not,” the baron said evenly. “Both William Fowler and I gave Samuel Aldridge five thousand pounds for Velvet and for Satiné. If you care to check my ledger for proof of the transaction, I will gladly share it with you. The implied threat was that if the Fowlers and I did not respond that you girls would be sent elsewhere.”

“Then he must have loved me best!” Cashé’s eyes misted with tears. “He could not part with me!”

Neither Ashton nor Satiné spoke their thoughts. “The point is,” said the baron evenly, “that Aldridge probably believed he could make a better settlement with someone other than Fowler. Has Aldridge presented suitors to Velvet while your sister resided in Scotland?”

“Of course.” Cashé raised her chin defiantly. “Uncle Samuel has chosen husbands for both Velvet and me.”

Ashton smiled grimly. “As I suspected. Cashé, Samuel has overstepped the boundaries set up for your sisters. He cannot question my guardianship of Satiné or that of the Fowlers for Velvet. He had no legal right to remove Velvet from Thornhill’s home. As Fowler has assumed his father’s title, he has also taken over Velvet’s guardianship. In fact, there will be more stigmas to young Fowler marrying his ward than any public show of intimacy. Thornhill must marry Velvet in a speedy manner for everyone to save face, even Samuel Aldridge. Once they marry, everything will be forgiven.”

“Then you believe Uncle Samuel will agree?” Cashé challenged.

“I believe Samuel Aldridge will attempt to stop Velvet’s joining for he sees a way to line his own pockets, but I will take up Thornhill’s cause. Velvet, obviously, loves young Fowler, and a marriage based in love holds great sway with me.”

“Did you say that Uncle Samuel has chosen a husband for you?” Satiné questioned.

“Yes, Lachlan Charters and I have an understanding.”

The baron sat forward again. “Has not Viscount Lexford also expressed interest? The earl led me to believe it is so.”

Cashé flushed. “Viscount Lexford spent much of his time in London in company with my family, but I counted his attentions to be only part of his friendship with His Grace.”

“Yardley appeared to think there was more to Lexford’s regard,” the baron shared.

“Uncle Samuel would never accept the viscount,” Cashé claimed.

The baron spoke seriously. “Cashé, do you not see a pattern? Samuel would give Velvet to a man without a title rather than allow her to marry a duke, and he would give you to plain Mister Charters rather than see you as a viscountess. What gentleman would refuse a title and a place in British society for his nieces? That makes little sense.” He paused briefly. “Tell me. Does Mister Charters hold a place of distinction in Aldridge’s church?”

“Mister Charters is a church deacon.”

The baron continued his questioning, “And he is several years older than you?”

“Mister Charters is a widower; he has two small children,” Cashé confided.

The baron nodded his head as if processing the information. “Again, as I suspected.”

Cashé could not understand the baron’s obvious dislike for Samuel Aldridge. Somehow Charles Morton described a man Cashé did not know. She believed in her Uncle Samuel, but Satiné felt as strongly about the baron. They both could not be correct. Had Uncle Samuel basically “sold” her sisters to the baron and the Fowlers? And, if so, why had he chosen to keep her over her sisters? There were too many questions and too few answers.

*

“Would you care to explain what happened today?” Marcus and Lexford returned to Chesterfield Manor. They had seen to the incarceration of Jamot’s hired driver and had provided the local magistrate and dockside officers with an “edited” version of what happened.

Marcus anticipated his friend’s censure. “It was nothing.”

“It was something,” Lexford corrected.

Marcus silently prayed for patience. How could he explain the turmoil? “I became upset when we could not reach Miss Satiné. I had promised the lady to protect her.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “And then Miss Cashémere acted on her own, placing herself in real danger.” As he said the words, Marcus wondered at whom he was really angry: himself for losing control or Cashé for acting impulsively. Did the girl not realize it was a man’s province to protect the woman? Every time he thought of Maggie and how he had failed her, Marcus cringed in agony–died a bit also.

“Miss Cashé acted sensibly under the circumstances,” Lexford defended the lady.

Marcus simply nodded his head. He would not fight his friend’s intended reprimand. “I have assured the baron that I will offer my apologies to Miss Cashé.”

“Then, I thank you also for your magnanimity.”

“Miss Cashémere, might you walk about the room with me?” Marcus bowed to her. By silent assent, they had avoided each other through most of the evening; even over the rather boisterous supper conversation, she and Marcus exchanged no discourse.

He could tell that she considered refusing, but she said, “Thank you, Lord Yardley.”

Marcus placed her hand on his arm and began a slow promenade about the music room. Her twin entertained everyone on the pianoforte. They strolled for several minutes without making conversation. Marcus directed her steps to a recess in the back wall. “Miss Cashé, I wish to extend my apologies for my uncouth behavior earlier today. I spoke out of turn, and I pray you will offer your forgiveness.”

The girl raised her chin defiantly. “Is this your idea, Lord Yardley, or is it an edict from my uncle?”

Marcus flinched. “Baron Ashton expressed his discontent with my actions, but I was aware of my abhorrent behavior prior to your uncle’s comments.”

“So, you would have asked for my forgiveness without Uncle Charles’s prompting?” Her voice held cynical strands.

He regretted making his apologies if it was to cause a scene. Marcus simply wished to terminate his connection with Cashé Aldridge. She brought out the worst in him. “I am not a heathen, Miss Cashémere. I understand what is acceptable in polite society. I was upset when we were unable to secure your sister’s safety. I feared for her life, and then you improvised, placing yourself in danger also. I reacted to the stress.”

“I am surprised, Your Lordship, that you were successful as a government agent if you so quickly lose your control.”

Marcus bit back the hateful words that sprang to mind. He considered telling her that she caused his bad behavior with her infuriating actions. Instead, he said, “I assure you, Miss Cashémere, that my standards were never in question.”

BOOK: Realm 03 - A Touch of Cashemere
9.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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