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He
stopped for a moment longer, running his hand over the tree's rough bark and
was all at once filled with a sense of melancholy so deep, it seemed to pierce
his soul.
What am I doing with my life these days,
he asked himself,
that
is so all-consuming, so terribly important, that I have failed to take the time
to pause and drink of beauty and tranquillity such as this? How long it's been
since I even realized such moments still exist!

He
shook his head sadly then, at what he suddenly perceived as his own folly and
followed this with a bark of mirthless laughter. All at once his head filled
with scenes of his life as it had been for the past several years—the long,
empty days at sea where, more frequently than not, his official mission was so
boring, he would doff his gentleman's garb and throw himself headlong into
common seaman's labor, just to make the time pass faster... the wild, senseless
nights in London, the incessant rounds of parties, routs and balls, crowded
with people who spoke much, yet said little... the boredom of frivolous gossip,
high-stakes card games and beautiful, yet dull, mistresses who with predictable
regularity dropped from sight as quickly as they appeared... Where was it all
taking him?

He
thought, then, of the old man lying amid the bedcovers in his upstairs chamber,
awaiting his end.
Ah, Grandfather! Is
this what it's all been for?
You bade me work hard and apply myself while you trained and groomed me for the
life I was to lead one day, to follow in your footsteps, and I have done so,
willingly, unflinchingly, for it was important to earn your respect... your
love.... But now that I've done so, where do I
go from here? How do I
apportion some sense and meaning to an existence that, by virtue of those very
skills and achievements you exhorted me to attain, runs along so smoothly, I
cannot fail but to look about me now and ask, what now? What are my challenges?
Shall I too end up a sick and failing old man, lying alone in an upstairs chamber,
waiting for the lights to dim?

At
last Brett sighed and dropped his hand from the tree's trunk. He glanced upward
and saw the dimly lit windows he knew to grace the south side of his
grandfather's corner room.
Well,
he thought with more than a trace of
stoical resignation,
enough of me and my world-weariness right now. Up there
lies the only person in the world who gives a damn whether I live or die, and
he's waiting for me. I'd better see what I can do to make his last moments
count.
And with a resolute squaring of his shoulders, Brett went into the
house.

The
duke was asleep when Brett entered the chamber, but woke readily to the soft
click of the latch as his grandson closed the door behind him. "Ah, Brett,
boy, you're here!" He gestured toward the bedside chair where Robert Adams
had been sitting earlier. "Come, sit down beside me and we can talk
without your having to strain to hear." The duke gave a weak chuckle.
"Ah, this damnable failure of the body! I tell you, Brett, I'd have ended
it all long ago if I'd known it was to be like this!"

Brett
threw the old man a sharp look of concern as he lowered his tall frame into the
chair. "You cannot mean that, sir. It's not like you to talk of—"

"It's
not like the me I
used
to be, you mean!" interrupted the duke.
"The man you see before you is a different kettle of fish, I assure you,
but I've not called you here to discuss me and my frailties. I've asked you to
come because I want to talk about
you."

"About
me," said Brett, interest showing in his turquoise eyes. "With regard
to—?"

The
duke was silent for a moment as the question hung in the air. He was at a loss
to know how to approach the subject agreeably. Finally he decided to plunge in
headlong, for he was acutely aware that time was running out for him.
"Brett, it's about this attitude you have toward women and marriage. It's
been troubling me."

The
look on Brett's face couldn't have been plainer, accompanied as it was by a
snort of obvious disdain.
"Troubling
you! I fail to see why, since
it was an attitude bred wholly
by
you! 'Women are a canker,'" he
quoted, "'a blight on—'"

"Yes,
yes," rasped the duke impatiently. "I know all that and need no
reminders of my speeches. And the fact remains, dear Brett, that all I've
cautioned you about, regarding the so-called delicate sex, is lamentably true,
believe me!"

"So—?"
Brett questioned. "Where is the problem?"

"The
problem," snapped the duke with a surprising spurt of vigor that reminded
Brett of the grandfather of his youth, "is that you seem to have forgotten
that I nevertheless also taught you that females are, in one unavoidable
regard, totally necessary: in the breeding process, to produce heirs!" He
fell back upon the pillows from which he had arisen, again looking weak and
tired.

Brett
watched the old man's face for a second and was momentarily moved to pity, but,
seeing which turn their conversation was taking, forced himself to deal with
his irritation. "I see," he said at last. "So you would have me
wed... to the Hastings cow... and see her quickly breeding!"

The
duke's eyebrows lowered in a darkening scowl that again reminded Brett of
earlier times. "You can save the stings of your acid tongue for your
friends at Almack's, m' boy! I'll have none of it!" Here a sudden spasm of
coughing seized the duke's wasted frame, but as Brett reached for the bedside
water goblet, he waved him away, and soon the coughing ceased. "'Cow,'
indeed!" sniffed the duke. "Heavens, man, she's one of the most
sought-after heiresses of the season, I'm told!"

Brett's
sneering smile preceded a voice laced with disgust. "It would seem you've
allowed the Lady Margaret your ear. Can it be you no longer find her company
tedious or repulsive?"

At
this the Duke shook his head in a gesture of sad dismay. "Dammit, boy, I
had hoped to get through this session with a modicum of intelligent discussion
and civility, not to mention
sensitivity,
but I now see I must take the
bull by the horns, and sensitivity be damned!"

Brett
looked at the resolute will now resting in the blue eyes and waited, knowing
something important was forthcoming.

"It
has occurred to me," continued the duke, "that there may be a major
underlying cause for this unreasonable resistance of yours toward taking a
wife—a cause that I have taken immediate steps to counteract."

Watching
the turquoise eyes that met his gaze, the duke knew he had his grandson's
complete attention now, and so, plunged ruthlessly on. "I speak of your
singular omission in the education that has been lavished on you, Brett—your
inexperience
with women!
No, it's no use to deny it, so don't even bother. Uncomfortable
as it renders me to admit it to you, I've had careful and close tabs kept on
you over the years, and not once has any word come back to me about your
fraternization with females. It
must
mean you are yet a virgin, or close
to it. What else would explain it? Adams has a remarkable penchant for
thoroughness, as you can well attest, and—" Suddenly a fit of coughing
overtook the old man again, and this time it was so violent, it seemed it would
tear his withered frame in half.

Brett's
look of incredulity at the words he'd just heard gave way to one of deep
concern as he witnessed the attack. Compassion etched his features as he
reached for the water goblet that, this time, was gratefully accepted. When the
fit had at last subsided, he saw before him the specter of his grandfather as
he'd known him—a strong man who was now dying— and the acute realization of
this robbed him of any speech of denial he had been prepared to make. Softly,
he queried, "Are you too ill to continue, Grandfather? Shall I leave you
to rest until—"

"No...
no," came the much weakened response. "No... time... let me
finish...." There was a long pause as the duke appeared to be mustering
his remaining energy. Then he began again, though Brett had to lean forward to
catch all the words.

"You
need to learn the ways of bedding a woman, lad, and I've arranged, through
Adams, to take care of that for you." He smiled weakly. "After all,
your ignorance is actually my own doing, my... fault... so it is only fitting
that I see that it comes to an end.

"Listen
carefully. Installed at this very moment, in your chamber, is a tasty little
morsel... a woman of... pleasure, handpicked by Adams for me, for the sole
purpose of—of instructing you along the lines I've been discussing."

The
duke suddenly made an enormous effort to rise, bracing himself shakily on his
elbows, a look of eager concern on his face. "Promise me now, lad, that
you'll go to her... now— at once! It's the last thing I may ever ask of you.
Spend whatever time you feel you require to feel comfortable in bed with a
woman, and then make plans, posthaste, to wed....
Promise me!"

These
last words were uttered in the weakest of whispers, and with them, the old man
fell back on the pillows, silent and exhausted.

Brett
stood looking at the still figure, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. It was
almost on his lips to set his grandfather straight, but the grayish-purple hue
about the duke's lips prevented him. Sadly, he chose what he hoped would be a
wiser course. After all, he mused, what harm would come of satisfying an old
man's dying illusion?

And
so, with a weary sigh, he took the duke's hand and answered, "Very well,
Grandfather, I promise."

 

CHAPTER
FIVE

 

Ashleigh
looked about her in the spacious, lavishly appointed bedchamber, her eyes
feasting on its richness, its symbols of taste and obvious wealth. Against the
interior wall to her left stood the room's focal point, a high tester bed, its
heavy, deep blue velvet hangings not obscuring the massive grace of
Chippendale's design. It was a style from an earlier era, she knew—not like the
furniture in the majority of the rooms at Hampton House, which were done in the
latest Regency mode; its quiet elegance as well as that of the other pieces in
the chamber, spoke of a place furnished with care, in a manner that would
tastefully withstand the fleeting dictates of fashion's whims.

She
glanced down at the thick Eastern carpet under her feet, its intricate designs
drawing the eye into a splendid maze of deep wine reds, jewel-like blues and
delicate creams, and she resisted the urge to kick off her slippers and dig her
toes into its silky softness.

There
had been a carpet like it in a room she now recalled with vivid
clarity—Patrick's bedchamber at Sinclair House. Suddenly her gaze drifted to
the two windows with their velvet draperies that matched the blue of the
bedhangings. She knew why she was thinking of her childhood home so much right
now. and it had little to do with Turkey carpets or fine English furniture.

Quickly,
she walked over to stand before one of the twin windows and, pulling aside the
blue velvet, looked out. It was quite dark now, but a nearly full moon had
appeared over the horizon as she accompanied the man named Adams to this place,
its pale shape casting enough light over the changing landscape to enable her
to view most of the scenery in some detail through her carriage window. Now, as
she surveyed the lovely bucolic countryside, she was again caught up in the aching
sense of familiarity that had first hit her during the journey. Yes, incredible
though it seemed, she was sure: this was the countryside of her childhood!

Although
she'd been not quite seven the last time she'd seen Kent, there were memories
of her early years here that would always remain with her. Looking south, she
fancied she could still see the gentle banks of the Medway River, which, Adams
had confirmed, was the one they'd spied as they were passing over the Downs en
route. Not too much farther south lay the town of Tunbridge Wells, where
Patrick and her father had taken her to a wonderful country fair when she was
five. And that way lay Knole, home of friends she and her parents used to
visit, while Penshurst Place, another vast country house she'd once visited,
lay in yet another direction, but not too far from here either.

Even
the air had seemed familiar when she alighted from the carriage after it pulled
to a halt on the large circular drive below, and she remembered Adams giving
her a queer sort of look after she'd paused for a moment, closing her eyes and
breathing deeply, just to drink in the sweet nostalgic scent of it.
How very
odd,
she thought,
to be returning here after all
these years....
It's almost as if life were circular, in a way....
I wonder what other
surprises this new turn in my life has in store for me....

She
turned from the window and took another long, slow look about the room. The
only inelegant object in it was the small, worn leather valise Megan had lent
her to hold the few meager belongings she owned. Her friend had apologized
profusely for the shabbiness of its appearance, explaining with a wry laugh
that she owned no other, owing to the fact that she traveled very little these
days, her "profession" being a stationary one. But Ashleigh had
protested the apology, saying it was hardly necessary. Hadn't Megan already
outdone herself by digging into her hard-won savings to present her with a
parting gift—a beautiful walking dress with matching pelisse and bonnet?

BOOK: Sattler, Veronica
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