And I did, her father replied, but without his usual bluster. Brought her up as my own. You brought her up as my sister, James said flatly. He forced himself to cross the room and sit down. And all the time you were stealing from her. Not all the time, his father protested. Just in the last year. Or so. I just. I just borrowed from. It was easier when your mother was alive, the duke said, after a minute or two. She helped, you know. She had a level head on her shoulders. His mother had died nine years earlier, so in under a decade his father had managed to impoverish an estate stretching from Scotland to Staffordshire to London.
She already adores you; she always has. James ground his teeth. She thinks of me as her brother, as her friend. And she has no resemblance whatsoever to a stick. A glimmer of vanity underscored his words. Your mother always said that I was the most handsome man of my generation. James bit back a remark that would do nothing to help the situation.
He was experiencing an overwhelming wave of nausea. We could tell Daisy what happened. What you did. His father snorted. Do you think her mother will understand? In the seventeen years since Mrs. But James knew instantly that his father was right. His father, on the other hand, was cheering up. He had the sort of mind that flitted from one subject to another; his rages were ferocious but short-lived. A few posies, maybe a poem, and Theodora will fall into your hand as sweetly as a ripe plum. I cannot do that, James stated, not even bothering to imagine himself saying such a thing.
His father misinterpreted his refusal. He actually gave a little chuckle at the thought. James heard him only dimly; he was concentrating on not throwing up as he tried to think through the dilemma before him. The duke continued, amusing himself by laying out the distinction between mistresses and wives. It occurred to James, not for the first time, that there was no human being in the world he loathed as much as his father.
If I marry Daisy, I will not take a mistress, he said, still thinking frantically, trying to come up with a way out. I would never do that to her. Not much to think about, is there? The only thing James wanted at that moment was to get out of the room, away from his disgusting excuse for a parent.
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But he had lost the battle, and he forced himself to lay out the rules for surrender. I will only do this on one condition. His voice sounded unfamiliar to his own ears, as if a stranger spoke the words. Anything, my boy, anything! As I said, we can admit amongst ourselves that little Theodora is not the beauty of the bunch. The day I marry her, you sign the entire estate over to me—the Staffordshire house and its lands, this town house, the island in Scotland.
The entire estate, James repeated.
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But I will not be responsible for you and your harebrained schemes. I will never again take responsibility for any debts you might incur—nor for any theft. Then make your good-byes to Staffordshire, James said. There would be nothing left within two years, and I will have betrayed my closest friend for no reason. Your closest friend, eh? His father was instantly diverted into another train of thought. The duke harrumphed. I suppose if I agree to this ridiculous scheme of yours I can expect to look forward to daily humiliation.
You see, his father said, a smile spreading across his face now that the conversation was over, it all came well. Your mother always said that, you know. She deserves to be wooed and genuinely adored by her husband. Love and marriage may not come together all that often, but I will have no chance at all. Do you realize that?
If she learns that I betrayed her in such a callous way. A woman scorned, and all that. But if you already have an heir—and a spare, if you can—you could let her go.
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His father heaved himself out of his chair. No man in his right mind thinks that marriage is a matter of billing and cooing.
Your mother and I were married for the right reasons, to do with family obligations and financial negotiations. We did what was necessary to have you and left it there. You were always a healthy boy. Then he added, Barring that time you almost went blind, of course.
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We would have tried for another, if worse came to worst. Neither of us raised you to have such rubbishing romantic views, the duke tossed over his shoulder as he left the room. Having reached the age of nineteen years, James had thought he understood his place in life.
No one had ever taught him—and he had never imagined the necessity of learning—how to betray the one person whom you truly cared for in life. The only person who genuinely loved you. Because Daisy would learn the truth someday.
He knew it with a bone-deep certainty: somehow, she would discover that he had pretended to fall in love so that she would marry him. But, as is often the case when one tries to avoid a topic, the only thing her mind saw fit to review was a scene from said ball.
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But what could she possibly do about it? She stared despairingly into her glass. It was picked out in pearls and touches of pink, a combination that in her opinion did nothing but emphasize the decidedly un feminine cast of her profile. She loathed her profile almost as much as she loathed the dress.
Or pearls. There was something dreadfully banal about the way pearls shimmered. For a moment she distracted herself by mentally ripping her dress apart, stripping it of its ruffles and pearls and tiny sleeves. Given a choice, she would dress in plum-colored corded silk and sleek her hair away from her face without a single flyaway curl. Her only hair adornment would be an enormous feather—a black one—arching backward so it brushed her shoulder.
If her sleeves were elbow-length, she could trim them with a narrow edging of black fur. Or perhaps swansdown, with the same at the neck. Or she could put a feather trim at the neck; the white would look shocking against the plum velvet.
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That led to the idea that she could put a ruff at the neck and trim that with a narrow strip of swansdown. Or perhaps the wrist would be more dramatic. She could see herself entering a ballroom in that costume. No one would titter about whether she looked like a girl or a boy.