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Authors: The Weaver Takes a Wife

Sheri Cobb South (2 page)

Mr. Brundy nodded. “I try to visit London twice a year to see to me ware’ouses. Otherwise I’m in Lancashire, where I’ve a m—”

“Mansion,” put in Lord David, before Mr. Brundy could further demean himself in the eyes of his goddess by revealing the source of his wealth. “Two, actually, for Mr. Brundy has just purchased a London residence in Grosvenor Square.”

“There goes the neighborhood,” was Lord Waverly’s whispered observation.

“Indeed,” nodded Lady Helen, although it could not be said with certainty whether this remark was in polite response to Lord David’s assertion or in agreement with Lord Waverly’s.

“I’d ‘ardly call me Lancashire ‘ouse a mansion,” protested Mr. Brundy. “Still and all, it suits me down to the ground, being close to the mill.”

Lady Helen’s eyebrows arched, and her smile became faintly mocking. “Then you are a tradesman, I collect?”

“Indeed I am,” the weaver said proudly. “I’ve a cotton mill near Manchester.”

“And while you are in Town, you have decided to cut a dash among the
beau monde?”

Oblivious to irony, Mr. Brundy merely nodded. “Lord David ‘as been good enough to introduce me about in Society.”

“We stand forever in his debt,” Lady Helen drawled. “And what do you think of the social scene, Mr.—Brundy, is it? I should love to hear your impressions.”

“As to that, me lady, I find it much more to me liking now than I did just an hour ago,” answered Mr. Brundy, his expression frankly admiring.

Lord Waverly drew a small enameled snuffbox from the pocket of his coat and flicked it open with his thumbnail. “Then in addition to your, er, business interests, you are an aficionado of the theatre and an arbiter of taste. How vastly amusing! Pray favor me with your opinion of my signature blend, Mr. Brundy.”

The weaver shook his head. “I never touch the stuff meself, but I’ve no objection if others do.”

“Well, then, with your permission,” said the earl and, placing a small pinch on the inside of his wrist, raised it to his nostrils and inhaled deeply.

Lord David had listened in silence to this exchange, all the while growing increasingly angry for the sake of his friend, who lacked the sophistication to know he was being mocked.

“I think we had best return to our box,” he asserted hastily, judging it high time to intervene. “The second act is about to begin. We shall trespass on your hospitality no longer, Lady Helen.”

As the curtain rose on the second act, most of the patrons made their way back to their own seats. A notable exception was the Earl of Waverly, who lingered in the duke’s box long after the others had left.

“It appears you have made another conquest, my dear,” he remarked to Lady Helen. “What do you think of that?”

“I think I am very glad I do not live in Grosvenor Square,” she replied without hesitation. “Can you imagine having Le Brundy for a neighbor? I can readily imagine Sir Aubrey taking the man up for a lark, but I would have expected better of Lord David. Really, what can he have been thinking, bringing the creature here?”

A moment later Mrs. Tree took the stage, and Lady Helen was pleased to put Lord David and his odd acquaintance out of her mind. But twice during the second act her gaze strayed from the performance, and she was disconcerted to find Mr. Brundy watching her through his quizzing glass from across the theater. When Mrs. Tree’s Ophelia finally succumbed to madness in the last act, Lady Helen hardly even noticed.

 

Chapter 2

 

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE,
Macbeth

 

Alone in the sanctuary of his study, the Duke of Reddington scowled at the ledger lying on his desk. The neat rows of figures so painstakingly transcribed by his secretary were misleading, for there was nothing at all neat or orderly about the duke’s current financial status. Of course, he had known for some time that he was in difficulties; Alfred, his secretary, had always taken great pains to remind him of the fact. But he had the Englishman’s love of gaming, and the gambler’s optimistic conviction that his luck might turn at any moment.

Alas, this conviction had proven to be groundless. After escorting his son and daughter home from Covent Garden the previous evening, he had thought to try his luck at a new and very discreet gaming establishment in Jermyn Street. The play there was deep—perhaps too deep, given his present circumstances—but the duke was not squeamish about high stakes. Unfortunately, after winning for the first half-hour, his luck had turned abruptly, and when he rose from the table just before dawn, his pockets were lighter to the tune of some twenty thousand pounds.

His investments had fared no better, and Time, which had hitherto been his ally, had at last turned adversary. Every day’s post brought increasingly threatening letters from impatient tradesmen, and the threat of duns on his doorstep or an ignominious exile to the Continent was no longer beyond the realm of possibility. If Alfred’s calculations were correct, it was time to begin liquidating his remaining assets. Not too quickly, of course, lest the
ton
discover his straitened circumstances and flock like vultures awaiting the kill. His unentailed property was long gone. He had staked the house in Brighton on a racehorse which had subsequently gone lame, and the hunting box in Leicestershire had been sold the previous February to fund yet another Season for his daughter.

The Duke dashed a hand over his eyes. What had he done to deserve such ungrateful children? His son, at nineteen, was still too young to marry an heiress, and while he could hardly fault the boy for his age, his daughter was quite another matter. Lady Helen, though one of London’s greatest beauties, had been on the marriage market for three years, during which time she had frightened away all her most promising suitors with her damned nasty nature. With no prospect of a well-heeled son-in-law to plump up the Radney coffers, there was nothing for it but to dispose of his stables. To that end, the first of his cattle would go on the auction block at Tattersall’s next week. After the horses were gone, he supposed he would begin stripping Reddington Hall, his ancestral estate, to the bare walls.

These gloomy contemplations were interrupted by a knock on the study door, and a moment later it opened to reveal Figgins, his butler, looking uncharacteristically flustered.

“Begging your pardon, your Grace, but there is a gentleman—er, that is, a
person,
sir, who desires the indulgence of a moment of your time.”

The duke opened his mouth to instruct the butler to send the fellow off with a flea in his ear, but something about Figgins’s manner made him reconsider.

“What is the man’s name?”

“Brundy, I believe, your Grace.”

“Hmmph. Can’t recall that I owe the fellow money, at any rate. Send him in, Figgins.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

The butler sketched a hasty bow, then disappeared, to return a moment later with the visitor in tow.

“Mr. Brundy, your Grace.”

Having discharged his duty, Figgins beat a hasty retreat, leaving the duke to cast a dubious eye over his caller. The man’s breeches were of a bright yellow hue, and his poorly-cut blue coat of Bath superfine was worn over a garish waistcoat patterned with coquelicot stripes an inch wide. A single pearl the size of a wren’s egg nested in the folds of his spotted cravat.

“Well, Mr., er—”

“Brundy, your Grace. Ethan Brundy,” said this worthy, extending his hand to the duke. His Grace not being inclined to accept it, Mr. Brundy was obliged to withdraw the gesture—which he did, wiping his hand on the seat of his breeches before allowing it to drop to his side.

“And what may I do for you, Mr. Brundy?”

Mr. Brundy drew himself up to his full, albeit unimpressive, height. “I should be honored, your Grace, if you would bestow upon me the ‘and of your daughter Lady ‘elen in marriage.” Having delivered himself of this speech, Mr. Brundy waited expectantly for the duke’s reply.

The duke reached for the bell pull with the express intention of summoning Figgins to toss the impudent young mushroom out into the street, but once again he hesitated. It had been a difficult morning; surely he was entitled to amuse himself at this upstart’s expense. Leaning forward, the duke propped his elbows on his desk and rested the tips his fingers together, peering at his would-be son-in-law over his slender white hands.

“And how, pray, do you know my daughter?”

“I met ‘er at Covent Garden last night, I did. We were introduced by Lord David Markham.”

“I see. Well, if on the basis of one introduction, you think to align yourself with one of England’s most ancient titles—”

“As to that, your Grace, I can’t say as ‘ow I want to marry a
title,
exactly—”

“Do not interrupt me, young man, or I shall have Figgins escort you from the premises! And what, pray, would you consider an appropriate marriage settlement, were I to agree to such a misalliance?”

“I thought per’aps fifty thousand pounds,” suggested Mr. Brundy.

“Ha! Well, let me tell you, sir, that Lady Helen’s dowry is less than one-tenth of that figure.
Now
are you so eager to wed her?”

Just as the duke had intended, his daughter’s suitor looked distinctly ill at ease. “Er, begging your pardon, your Grace, but
I
‘ad planned on giving
you
the fifty thousand pounds.”

“Look here, I don’t know who you are or how you came to learn of my, er, embarrassments, but if you think to gloat over me—”

“No, no!” cried Mr. Brundy in genuine alarm. “I ‘aven’t ‘eard anything of the sort, but if you’re in need of funds, I daresay I could go a bit ‘igher—seventy-five, per’aps?”

The duke was not accustomed to being mocked, and he did not take kindly to the experience. “Impudence!” he bellowed, his face turning quite purple with rage. “And where, pray, would you raise such a sum, were I to accept your suit?”

“Well, I should ‘ave to consult first with me banker,” confessed Mr. Brundy, glancing at the clock over the mantle. “Still and all, I expect I could ‘ave the money in ‘and by tomorrow afternoon.”

As he listened to this speech, it gradually dawned on the duke that Mr. Brundy was quite serious. Either the man was mad as a March hare, or he was rich as Croesus. At any rate, it would be foolish to dismiss his daughter’s unlikely suitor before he knew which. If this Mr. Brundy were telling the truth, he could be just the solution to the duke’s financial woes. Of course, there would be the devil to pay when he informed Lady Helen of the match he had arranged for her, but he was her father, by God, and if he said she was to marry Mr. Brundy, then marry him she would.

“I shall need time to consider your proposal,” the duke said, rising and offering his hand to his visitor. “In the meantime, won’t you join us for dinner tomorrow night? We dine at eight.”

No sooner had Mr. Brundy quitted the room than the duke summoned his secretary. “Alfred, discover all you can about a Mr. Ethan Brundy—who he is, what he’s worth—”

“If I may say so, your Grace, Mr. Brundy’s name is well known at the Exchange. He owns a textile mill near Manchester, I believe, and his personal wealth is said to exceed half a million pounds.”

“Half a million pounds, you say?” The duke’s eyes gleamed with avarice. “Send my daughter to me.”

Lady Helen, having returned from Covent Garden in the wee hours, was still abed when she received the duke’s summons. Knowing her father for an impatient man, she dressed quickly in a morning gown of figured muslin and threaded a blue riband through her honey-colored hair.

“Yes, Papa?” she asked, entering the duke’s study a short time later. “You wished to see me?”

“Close the door, Helen, and come sit down.” He waited until she was comfortably settled in a worn leather armchair before continuing. “It may come as a surprise to you, daughter, to learn that we teeter on the brink of penury.”

Lady Helen’s green eyes opened wide. “Again? How did it happen this time, Papa? Turf or table?”

“Do not be impertinent, miss! The how and why is not important. The fact of the matter is, it
has
happened. The question that remains is, what do we do now?”

“We could always sell the Radney jewels,” Lady Helen suggested flippantly.

The duke shook his head. “They were replaced years ago with colored glass.” Seeing his daughter’s dismayed expression, he added irritably, “I tell you, girl, we are poised for disaster if something is not done quickly. That, my dear, is where, you come in.”

“Me?”

“Let us not mince words, Helen. You are twenty-one years old. It is past time you were wed.”

Lady Helen shrugged, “I have always known that I should have to marry someday. I daresay I shall have Waverly in the end.”

The duke dismissed this suggestion with a snort of derision. “Waverly will never offer for you now, and you would be a fool to accept him if he did. No, my dear, I have had a better offer for you—a
much
better offer.”

A prickling along the back of her neck warned Lady Helen that she would not like her father’s plans for her future. “An offer, Papa? From whom?”

“Do you recall meeting a Mr. Ethan Brundy last night at Covent Garden?”

All the color slowly drained from Lady Helen’s face. “Papa, no! You cannot be serious!”

“I assure you, I was never more in earnest. Alfred tells me the man is worth half a million pounds, at the least reckoning. As his wife, you would be rich beyond dreams of avarice.”

An uncharacteristically wistful note crept into Lady Helen’s voice as she replied, “I don’t dream of avarice, Papa.”

“No? Then what
do
you dream of? Your sharp tongue has frightened off most of your suitors. What, pray, are you looking for?”

Lady Helen had asked herself that question many times since her come-out, and was no closer to an answer now than she had been three years earlier. She knew that a woman of her station could not expect the luxury of a love match; her father had left her in no doubt on that head when, at the age of sixteen, she had conceived a violent
tendre
for a half-pay officer. And time had proven Papa’s point: had she and her handsome captain been allowed to marry, they would no doubt have been at daggers drawn within six months. She had long since put away such fanciful notions. Still, was it too much to hope that, out of all the men who vied for her hand, she might someday find one to whom marriage would not be a punishment?

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