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Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

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BOOK: The Smithfield Bargain
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Romayne crossed the navy blue carpet past the funereally dark wood furniture cluttering the spacious chamber. Made for durability instead of for comfort, the heavy tables and cushionless benches did not invite relaxing conversation. Even the fire on the huge stone hearth was muted, its blaze not reaching the mantel which was set higher than her head.

The Duke of Westhampton looked up from where he was perusing some papers on his oak table. Around his gray head rose the thick, blue smoke from the cheroots he favored. Its odor crept into every corner of the vast room and threatened to gag Romayne. Her grandfather did not rise, nor did Romayne expect him to, for he continued to think of her as a child. She longed to remind him that she soon would turn two-and-twenty and that many of her friends already were mothering their first newborn and several were rumored to be quickening with their second.

Coming around one side of the long table, she bent to kiss his cheek that always brought to mind the sensation of a clump of wrinkled paper. He patted her arm, but she expected nothing more from him. The duke never had been generous in showing his feelings for the only child of his only son, yet she knew he loved her as dearly as she loved him.

“I thought you were calling on that interminable bagpipe Lady Foxcroft this afternoon,” he grumbled in lieu of a greeting.

“I did.”

Glancing at the window to see the shadows that were lengthening with the afternoon, he nodded. “How is that gabble-monger? Did she set your head spinning with all the latest
on-dits
from Town?”

Romayne's smile became sincere as she drew off her gloves. Handing them to Clayson, she waited until the butler retired, closing the door behind him, before she said, “I think you shall be as intrigued as I was to discover that Lady Foxcroft had hoped that
I
might be bringing her tidings.”

“You? We have been away from London since the new year. What would you have had to tell her?”

Running her hand along the ornate back of a bench as she walked in front of the table that he tapped impatiently with his fingers, she tried to calculate the easiest way to broach this subject which might lead to fireworks between them. “Little things from about the countryside,” she answered. “You know. Things that always concern the gentry. Births, deaths, marriages … betrothals.”

The duke's bushy white brows knitted as a sarcastic smile settled on his thin lips. “Betrothals? Where might you have heard of such a thing? I recall hearing no such tidings among our neighbors.”

Unable to keep up her nonchalant pose, she came around the table again. The voluminous skirt of her riding habit swished along the carpet as she knelt by his chair. She put her hand on his gnarled, blue-veined one. “Grandfather, why did you refuse to receive Bradley when he called this afternoon?”

“Where did you see that insolent cur?” He muttered his prayers backward, not apologizing. Her grandfather never apologized for breaking the canons of propriety, although he expected her to be
comme il faut
. “Damnation take it! I should have curried his skin-coat so he would know to heed my command when I tell him he must have nothing more to do with anyone in my family. I do not want him sniffing about your skirts.”

Romayne struggled not to retort in Bradley's defense. Losing her temper would resolve nothing. Grandfather must stop seeing her as still in her infancy. She could make her own decisions, and she had. She intended to marry Bradley Montcrief. Clenching and unclenching her hands at her sides, she raised her chin so that her golden hair curved along her nape. She remembered Bradley's request to refrain from speaking of their conversation on the road, so she said only, “I know he planned to look in on you today.”

“To beg me to let him dangle about you, no doubt.” He shook his head. “You should not look surprised that I would give him his
congé
before he had the opportunity to make such a suggestion. I have no wish for my granddaughter to tangle her life with a man like him.”

“Dear Grandfather, you cannot mean what you are saying. Bradley Montcrief is a gentle and kind man.”

“Gentleman?” He snorted rudely. Rising and clasping his hands behind him, he turned his back on her as he walked toward the hearth. “Montcrief is no gentleman, and I vow that his
kind
of man is not yours. I intend you to wed a man who knows the meaning of honor and fidelity, not one who thinks only of plumping his pockets.” He faced her, his features rigid with fury. “Romayne, I forbid you to see that rake-jakes again.”

“I cannot accede to such a ludicrous command.” She stood and fisted her fingers on the top of his unadorned chair. Her gaze locked with his. “Grandfather, I have done as you have wished for every day of my life. Although we both know I have contested you in the past, you cannot deny that I have never balked at anything when it was important to you, but this request is beyond belief.”

“My request is simple, Romayne. You shall endeavor to do nothing to allow yourself to be in his company. If you have the misfortune to find yourself in Montcrief's company, you shall excuse yourself immediately.”

“No.”

The duke's steps were not slowed by age as he came to stand on the opposite side of the chair. He stabbed the air with the end of his cheroot. “Romayne, while you live in Westhampton Hall, you shall heed my injunctions.”

“I cannot.” Could he not see he was breaking her heart with his want-witted demands? She did not want to have to choose between her grandfather and Bradley.

“There shall be no more discussion of this. You have heard my order, and I trust that you will obey it. I trust as well that I shall not have to speak to Grange to be certain you obey it.”

He sat in the chair and reached for one of the papers on the table. Staring at him, Romayne blinked back the tears that pricked her eyes. Her grandfather could not be so unfeeling. Never had he failed to listen when she spoke of the longings in her heart. Perhaps she had not impressed on him how desperately she wished to become Bradley's wife.

Softly she said, “Grandfather, Bradley wishes to marry me.”

“That is impossible,” he answered without looking at her. “If marriage is what you wish and you decide you will not do the wise thing and wed George Newman, I promise I shall find you a suitable match on the Marriage Mart next Season.”

“I don't want the ‘suitable match' you have selected for me. I want to marry the man I choose is suitable for me.”

When he gave her one of his rusty laughs, she flinched. He dropped the page onto the table and raised his gaze to hers. “Romayne, I would agree, but choose another. Montcrief is not a suitable match for you.”

“Why?”

“The reasons are ones that I would not repeat in the presence of your delicate, feminine ears.”

“Grandfather—”

The duke's lips tightened into a scowl. “I will listen to no more of this unbecoming pleading. I forbid you to see Montcrief again. Do you understand?”

Tears battering against her eyelashes, she nodded. She understood that she had no choice but to meet Bradley that night to flee to Scotland to marry. Every hope of convincing her grandfather to comprehend her yearning to wed Bradley was dead.

The Duke of Westhampton watched in silence as his granddaughter ran from the room, reminding him of the impetuous child she had been. While she was a child no longer, she remained his responsibility. The door slammed after her, and he winced. He rubbed his fingers across his forehead where pain scored his skin.

Damn Montcrief for twisting her girlish heart with his well-practiced court-promises!

Rising, he walked to the closest window. He cursed again under his breath. That worthless Montcrief had filled her head with his bangers, the most recent clearly his failure to tell Romayne that he had spoken to the Duke of Westhampton of his wish to call on Romayne.

Blast that man! He was causing Romayne to consider a trivial fancy as something far more important. The young rakehell did not love his granddaughter, although he was beginning to suspect that Romayne might have an honest affection for her suitor. In the years since she had come to him an infant orphan, not once had Romayne battled him so bitterly.

He glanced toward the painted ceiling. He did not see the cherubs floating on a dusky cloud between the rafters as he thought of how, in her chambers on the upper floor, Romayne would be crying. He could hear the resonance of her grief in his heart, but no tears filled his aged eyes. With that knowledge a prick of surprise taunted him. He once had been able to cry as she would be doing, able to rend his heart at the injustices he perceived and was unable to right, even if it had been to his detriment as Romayne's obsession for Montcrief was to her. For a moment, he wondered if weeping would ease the familiar tightness cramping him. Then he knew this course of thoughts was useless.

Once he could have cried, but no longer. Too many tragedies had passed through his life until every tear within him had evaporated. He would not share his granddaughter's misery when she discovered that he was correct. Marrying Bradley Montcrief would destroy her life. He must prevent that, even if denying Romayne broke her heart.

Chapter Two

“It should not be long now.”

The words, spoken in a beloved voice, intruded oddly on Romayne's dreams. She did not want to wake, for she had been dreaming of the moment when she could speak her wedding vows with Bradley Montcrief. In a luscious dress of white silk, lace tippets dripping from its shoulders, she would put her hand in Bradley's as he slipped a ring onto her finger. She sighed. The dream was gone … for now.

Opening her eyes, she found herself surrounded by dark and cold instead of the warmth of her comfortable bedchamber. Fatigue weighed her eyelashes. So easily she could have crawled into her tester bed in her large room in Westhampton Hall and slept until Grange pulled back the gold drapes with the morning light. When the cushions against her aching back bounced, she moaned as her head bumped into the wall.

“Have you hurt yourself?”

Focusing her bleary eyes on the shadowed form sitting beside her in the cramped space, Romayne frowned. What was Bradley doing with her unchaperoned, if her bleary eyes were revealing the truth, in the middle of the night?

“Bradley, where are we?” Although she was eager for the day when she and Bradley could publicly announce the love in their hearts, she would be a widgeon to come to their wedding with her reputation tarnished by an unthinking ride alone.

Wedding
… The word stuck in her mind. Realization followed hastily, and she laughed nervously as she sat straighter. Her reputation was in no peril, for she and Bradley must have reached Coldstream on the far side of the River Tweed. When Bradley had suggested eloping to Scotland yesterday, she could have imagined nothing more romantic. The reality of the long, cold ride had destroyed such illusions.

“Are you still certain that this is what you wish to do?” came Bradley's whisper as if he could sense the course of her thoughts.

“Very sure.” She heard joy singing in her answer. Exhaustion was a small price to pay in exchange for the happiness of becoming Bradley's wife. “Are you?”

“Very sure,” he murmured. He folded her kid-gloved hand between his and smiled. When she leaned her head on his shoulder, the thickness of his greatcoat, which he wore against the frigid night beyond the carriage, could not soften his bony ranginess. “Go back to sleep, my sweet. I shall wake you when we have reached our destination.”

Closing her eyes, Romayne waited for sleep to return. Her happiness faded when she thought of her grandfather's dismay at her rash decision to flee with Bradley, but the duke had put her into a position where she had had to choose. She did not wish to remain a spinster in Westhampton Hall until she was as thin and old as Grange. If Grandfather had not been so adamant about her not marrying Bradley, she would be home now planning the wedding she had wanted.

Yet she loved her grandfather with every ounce of her being. That was why she had left a note for him.

Glancing at Bradley from beneath the wide brim of her bonnet, she hoped he would not be vexed at her unwillingness to follow his command that she should leave no clue behind of their destination. She could not bring herself to leave without informing the household where she was going. Her grandfather possessed a weak heart, and she must not let her joy bring him pain. The note was hidden where her abigail would find it only after an extensive search of her rooms.

“You are so quiet, my sweet,” Bradley whispered against her blue bonnet.

Silk rustled in her ear as she lifted her head from his shoulder. Brushing her gloved fingers against the rough wool of her pelisse allowed her an excuse to avoid meeting his eyes. “My thoughts are full of the future.” She winced, hoping he would not guess that she was being false with him.

When he chuckled, she discovered she had no need for anxiety. Bradley could not hide his unrestrained happiness. It was enough for both of them.

“We are within ambs-ace of being married,” he said in the same whisper. “They called me an addle cove for daring to aspire to marry the beautiful granddaughter of the Duke of Westhampton. So many told me that no woman with your luscious hair and crystal blue eyes would give a man like me as much as a second look. Yet here we are, my sweet Romayne and me.”

“Are we staying in Coldstream tonight? Is there an inn there?”

He laughed. “You need not worry, my sweet. I shall be taking care of you from this night forward.”

“I would like to know.”

“Why?”

Romayne was disconcerted by his question. Bradley usually enjoyed planning out their times together to the most trivial detail, and she had not suspected that he would balk at giving her an answer to a reasonable request. Then she felt a pang of guilt. He must be as exhausted as she was.

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