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Authors: Suzanne Enoch

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BOOK: Sin and Sensibility
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That was then, however, and this was now. And tonight she meant to make a stand.

Chapter 2

B
y the time Eleanor arrived downstairs for dinner, Zachary, Shay, and Melbourne were already seated, as was Sebastian’s daughter, Penelope. Peep’s presence might be a problem to her plans, but once the drama began Eleanor was fairly certain Sebastian would see to it that the six-year-old exited before any blood could be shed.

“Good evening,” she said, relieved that she sounded calm. No hysterics, no shouting, nothing but calm and logic. That was how she would succeed tonight.

“I believe I had your maid notified that dinner would begin at seven this evening,” Sebastian returned. “Do I need to have her dismissed for failing to pass on that information?”

Calm
. “Helen informed me. The fault is mine, not hers.”

“I don’t doubt that. Take your place, if you please.

Stanton, you may begin serving.”

16

Sin and Sensibility / 17

The butler bowed. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

“A moment, if you please, Stanton,” Eleanor countered, drawing the folded paper she held from behind her back.

It had been so difficult not to clench it in her fingers, but wrinkles or sweat marks on the paper would have lost her the game before it began.

Sebastian glanced toward her hand and returned his gaze to her face again. “What do you have there, Nell?”

If he was using her nickname, he’d already realized something was afoot. Damnation. He knew “Nell” made her feel like a child. “It’s a declaration,” she said, moving forward to hand it to her eldest brother.

“A declaration of what?” Zachary asked, as she reversed direction to take her seat farther down the table.

She’d considered standing defiantly beside Sebastian while he read her missive, but putting a little distance between them had seemed wiser. “Of independence.
My
independence, in case that was your next question.” She’d come to the table prepared for a battle of wits and wills, so they might as well get on with it.

Peep, sitting beside her, leaned closer. “Aunt Nell, the Colonies got in trouble for having one of those.”

“Yes, I know,” she whispered back. “I’m likely to have the same difficulty.”

“Oh, dear,” Peep whispered, shaking her head so that her hair bounced in dark, curling ringlets.

Sebastian hadn’t opened the paper. He hadn’t even looked at it again, but instead kept his gaze steady on Eleanor while she gazed back at him. This was serious, and the sooner he understood that, the better.

“Stanton,” he said quietly, “please escort Lady Penelope upstairs to Mrs. Bevins, and then inform Cook that dinner will be slightly delayed.”

18 / Suzanne Enoch

The Duke of Melbourne understood.

“At once, Your Grace.”

“I don’t want to go,” Peep protested, even as the butler moved around to pull her chair out from the table. “I want to help Aunt Nell.”

“No, you don’t,” her father replied. “Upstairs. I’ll have your dinner sent to the playroom.”

The butler and his charge exited, and after one look from Melbourne, the two footmen who’d remained behind also made themselves scarce. It would have been more fair if Sebastian made Zachary and Shay leave, as well, but of course they’d all hate to miss an opportunity to gang up on her. Eleanor folded her hands in her lap and waited, and tried to ignore the sick flutter of butterflies in her stomach. She’d thought this out; she could do it.

Once the door closed, Sebastian turned his attention to the folded paper in his hand. He opened it, read perhaps a line, and looked up at her again. “This is ridiculous.”

“It is perfectly serious, I assure you. As am I.”

Shay reached for the paper. “What does it—”

The duke avoided his brother’s grasp. “In the interest of saving time, allow me. ‘I, Eleanor Elizabeth Griffin,’”

he read aloud, “‘being of sound mind and body, do hereby declare the following. I—’”

“Sounds like a bloody last will and testament,” Zachary muttered, sending a look in Eleanor’s direction. “Hope it’s not prophetic.”

“Don’t interrupt me,” Melbourne said, his clipped voice the only indication that he was less than tranquil. “‘I am of legal age to make my own decisions. I am competent to make my own decisions. I am aware of the consequences of poor decisions, and I am capable of taking responsibility for any and all of my decisions, poor or otherwise.

Sin and Sensibility / 19

“‘Further to this point,’” he continued, “‘I hereby request—no, insist—on being permitted to make my own decisions without restriction, up to and including the selection of a husband. No further tyranny or bullying will be tolerated, or I shall be forced to note in public my dissatisfaction with my treatment in this household.’”

Eleanor thought Sebastian’s voice shook a little as he read that part, but her own nerves were unsteady enough that she couldn’t be sure. At any rate, he didn’t hesitate to continue. “‘In consequence, I hereby absolve my brothers, Sebastian, Duke of Melbourne; Lord Charlemagne Griffin; and Lord Zachary Griffin of any responsibilities for my life from hereon, and in the event of any untoward circumstance, shall make clear to anyone necessary that the other members of the Griffin family are not to be held at fault in any way, form, or manner for my actions.’ We then have the signature, dated 23 May, 1811.”

For a long moment no one spoke. From his overall tone Eleanor couldn’t tell whether Melbourne was reading a list of laundry items or a declaration of war with France.

Her brothers were easier to decipher, though she almost wished she couldn’t do so. Zachary, the closest to her in age and temperament, looked aghast, while Shay’s jaw was clenched tight with obvious anger. Well, she’d thrown down the gauntlet. The only question was who would take it up first.

Finally Sebastian’s dark gray eyes lifted again to meet hers. “‘Tyranny’?” he repeated slowly, curling the word into something that made her flinch.

“When you refuse to listen to my side of a story, or to take into account my feelings or wishes, and instead make sweeping declarations which are counter to any hope of happiness on my part, then yes, I call that tyranny.” She 20 / Suzanne Enoch

sat forward. Vesuvius was erupting; look out, Pompeii.

“What would you call it, Your Grace?”

“We’re your older siblings,” Shay bit out. “It is our obligation, our duty, to offer guidance and to—”


Offer
? I hardly th—”

“I would assume that in addition to your absolute freedom you would require a continuance of your monthly allowance?” the duke interrupted, as though she and he were the room’s only two occupants.

Ah, the threats
. “I’m not removing myself from reality,”

she responded. “This is not some flight of fancy. I will merely be making decisions on my own behalf. I have no wish to estrange myself from my family.” She’d known this would be the stickiest point, and she’d spent hours considering her response. “I insist that my choices be independent and free from your interference.”

“Interfe—” Shay started to say.

“Done,” Sebastian stated.

Charlemagne snapped his mouth closed. “What?” he blurted, his face darkening. “Melbourne, you can’t be serious.”

“I’m very serious.” The duke tucked her letter into his pocket. “Your independence is granted—under one condition.”

Ha
. She knew there would be a catch. “And what might that be?”

“I have no intention of letting your ‘declaration’ be bandied about in public, any more than I would permit you to publicly air your grievances with this household.

And whatever you put in writing, you cannot absolve this family from a scandal of your making. Therefore, if a scandal involving you comes to public attention, this agreement ends.”

Sin and Sensibility / 21

Eleanor took only a moment to consider that. She’d actually thought he’d have something much more heinous in mind. “Done.”

“I’m not finished. Not only will this agreement end, but once I’ve dealt with whatever trouble you’ve caused, you will agree to marry the gentleman of my choosing, without—”


What
?”

“Without delay, and without protest.” Sebastian picked up the bell sitting at his elbow and rang it. Immediately footmen appeared to begin placing dinner on the table.

“Did you think there wouldn’t be consequences?” he continued in the same even tone.

“You are…evil,” she sputtered, images of a dozen dull gentlemen crashing about in her skull.

“I am a tyrant, I believe,” he returned. “There’s always a price for freedom. If you wish to play, you must be prepared to pay. Are we in agreement?”

If she refused, he would use both her declaration and her cowardice against her at every opportunity. And he would probably force her to marry the first insipid man he encountered just to prove his point, anyway. Eleanor took a breath. The greatest difficulty in this was deciding to fight a battle when the outcome of the war was already a given. She was a Griffin, and she would never forsake her family. Any husband she selected would have to be at least marginally acceptable to Melbourne. But it was the moments before she made that decision—or before it could be made for her—that would count.

She at least had forced open a door. She only needed to go through it, and she could have a moment of freedom, and a voice in deciding her own matrimonial future.

“We are in agreement,” she said slowly.

22 / Suzanne Enoch

“No we are not,” Shay growled. “This is ridiculous, Melbourne.”

Blinking as though he’d forgotten his brothers’ presence, the duke turned his attention to the other side of the table. “Eleanor and I have made an agreement. You will honor it. Is that clear?”

For a moment she thought Shay might have an apoplexy, but with a strangled growl the next-oldest brother nodded. Zachary, looking as if he was torn between horror and laughter, followed suit. “By God, Nell, you’ve got a pair,” he murmured.

“A pair of what?” she asked sweetly, though she knew perfectly well what he was referring to. One didn’t grow up with three older brothers without hearing the occasional vulgarity, most of it involving the male—or female—anatomy.

Zachary only shook his head. “Jesus. Just be careful.”

“That’s the thing, Zachary,” she returned, “I’m free. I may do whatever I please”—she glanced at Melbourne—“as long as it doesn’t cause a scandal.”

“And heaven help us all,” Shay muttered.

“No,” Sebastian put in, as he calmly selected a prime cut of beef from a footman’s tray, “heaven help Eleanor.

Because we won’t.”

It was nearly one o’clock in the afternoon when Valentine dragged himself upright among the tumble of his down pillows and silk sheets. The Griffin clan and their squabble had indeed ruined what he’d hoped would be a private, decadent luncheon yesterday, but because of that he’d run across Lord Whitton and Peter Burnsey and a high-stakes game of faro at White’s. Fifteen hours Sin and Sensibility / 23

later and nearly a thousand quid richer, he’d returned home and to bed after sunrise.

“Matthews!” he bellowed, shedding bedsheets and reaching for a pair of buckskin trousers while clutching at his skull with his free hand to keep it from exploding.

His bedchamber door opened so quickly that his valet had likely been leaning against it. “Yes, my lord? Shall I have breakfast set out?”

“No. Get me a clean shirt.”

The trim valet nodded, diving into the nearest wardrobe. “You should eat something, my lord,” his muffled voice came.

Valentine scowled. “If you mention food or eating again today, I will have to shoot you,” he grumbled. Entertaining and profitable as the evening had been, Burnsey was one of the few men who could match him drink for drink.

The fact that Peter outweighed him by two stone probably helped, but he’d never been one to pass up a challenge.

“Yes, my lord. But Mrs. Beacon will want to know—”

“I’ll have luncheon at the Society. Now fetch my pistol.”

The valet emerged from the wardrobe. “My lord?”

“You heard me. I warned you, and now I have to shoot you, or everyone will think I’m not a man of my word.”

“But you’re not, my lord. A man of your word, I mean.”

“What?” Valentine downed the remains of the stale brandy left at his bedside. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.

Where’s my damned shirt?”

“Here you are, my lord.”

Valentine donned the shirt and sat at his dressing table to shave while Matthews laid out a dark gray jacket and a cream waistcoat, then threw open the heavy, dark curtains.

24 / Suzanne Enoch

“Very nice, Matthews,” he complimented the selection of wardrobe, squinting in the reflected light as he lifted the razor to his chin.

“Thank you, my lord. And I sharpened your razor last evening.”

At times Valentine wasn’t sure whether he kept Matthews about because of his supreme unctuousness or because he had half a suspicion the valet was trying to kill him. Readjusting his grip, he slid the razor along his face.

“Any news?”

“Well, Lord and Lady Arthorpe’s housekeeper has rather abruptly been relocated to the estate in Sussex.”

“Good God. I hope the infant won’t have Arthorpe’s nose.”

“We all hope so, my lord. And as you usually ask, I made a point of discovering that Lady Arthorpe and the earl are not at this moment on speaking terms.”

Valentine made a face. “Mary Arthorpe hasn’t bathed since last Christmas, I’d wager. I prefer less aromatic bedmates. Anything else?”

“Oh, yes. Mr. Peter Burnsey has closed the east wing of Burnsey House and dismissed nearly half his staff.”

“That explains why the idiot wouldn’t leave the game last night. I probably won his last twenty quid.”

“He should have known better than to wager against you, my lord.”

“Yes, he should have.”

That explained both Burnsey’s exceptionally heavy drinking and his own pounding skull, but not why the usually pragmatic gentleman had decided to wager what amounted to the remainder of his estate in a card game.

Valentine shrugged. God help the world if he ever became that desperate. All things considered, if armed robbery Sin and Sensibility / 25

BOOK: Sin and Sensibility
4.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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