Heartless

Signet Eclipse ISBN 978-0-451-46973-1

This is the opening chapter of the book.

"Faith, child," Lady Sterne said to her goddaughter, "'tis time you gave some thought to yourself. Always it has been your family—first your mama, God rest her soul, and then your papa, may God rest his, and always your brother and the girls. Well, now Victor is of age and has come into his inheritance, Charlotte has married, Agnes is as pretty as a spring meadow and is like to marry as soon as we have presented her to some eligible gentlemen, and Emily… Well, you just cannot make yourself a martyr to your youngest sister. 'Tis time you looked to your own interests."

Lady Anna Marlowe smiled and watched her younger sister at the other end of the gallery being fitted out for fashionable clothes suitable to be worn in London. Bolts of fabric, mostly silks and shimmering satins, were piled on tables, some of them partly unrolled. There was some excitement about the scene and about the anticipation of seeing the clothes made and worn, she had to admit.

"Agnes is eighteen, Aunt Marjorie," she said. "I am five-and-twenty. On the shelf, one might say."

"And I vow that is where you wish to stay," Lady Sterne said sharply. "Life slips by fast, child, and increases in pace as one gets older, I swear. And life can become filled with regrets for what one might have done in the past but did not do. 'Tis not too late for you to seek a husband, but in another year or two perhaps it will be. Men do not look for breeders among women who are staring thirty years in the face—and men of course look for breeders when they choose mates. You have a great deal of love to give, Anna. You should now be looking to giving it to a husband and to receiving love in return—and position and security."

That last point hit home. Victor, Anna's only brother, had recently celebrated his twenty-first birthday. With university days behind him and his title still new to him—he had been the Earl of Royce since Papa's death a little more than a year ago—he was soon to return home to take up his responsibilities there. And he was newly betrothed. Where did that leave her? Anna wondered. And Agnes and Emily? Suddenly their home did not seem quite home any longer. Not that Victor would turn them out, or Constance for that matter. But one did not like to intrude upon a newly married couple in their own home—especially not in the status of spinster sister.

She was a spinster. Anna clasped her hands rather tightly on her lap. But she could not marry. The thought brought with it the familiar shortness of breath and coldness in her head. She fought off the dizziness.

"I brought Agnes to London at your urging, Aunt," she said.'Tis more likely that she will find an eligible husband here than in the neighborhood of Elm Court. If she can be settled, I will be content."

"Lud, child," her godmother said, "I urged you to bring your sister, not send her. I intended that you both find husbands. But you most of all, Anna. You are my godchild—my only one. Agnes is nothing to me except the daughter of my dear Lucy. For although you are all sweet enough to call me aunt, I am no such thing, you know. I see that Madame Delacroix has all but finished with her measurements." She got to her feet. "I will have you too decked out properly for town, my dear. Excuse my bluntness, but you look quite rustic. Even your hoops—they should be twice the size they are."

"Large hoops look quite ridiculous," Anna said. Ridiculous, but wondrously feminine and pretty, she thought treacherously. And her godmother had just reminded her that there was no real tie between her and Agnes. Could she be expected to take Agnes to all the social events at which it was to be hoped she would attract a husband? Was not that Anna's responsibility? And would it not be wonderfully exhilarating to dress fashionably and to go about in society just a few times? Just for a short while?

I will return. And of course you will be here when I do so. You will remember, my Anna, that you are mine? Body and soul? The voice was as vivid in her head as if the man who had uttered them stood at her shoulder and spoke the words now. They had been spoken a year ago at Elm Court. A long time ago and a long way away. He would not come back. And even if he did, it would surely do no harm to enjoy herself a little before he did. She was only twenty-five. And really there had been very little enjoyment in her life. Surely just a little… It was not as if she was going to be in search of a husband. after all. She knew very well that she could never marry.

"Well, perhaps," she said, getting to her feet to stand beside Lady Sterne. "I could have a few new clothes made so that I will not shame you if I do venture out with you once or twice."

"Lud, child," her godmother said, "'twould be difficult for you to do that when you have such beauty. Nevertheless, fashion is of importance. Come." She linked her arm through Anna's, and moved her forward across the room. "Let us proceed before you change your mind."

Agnes was flushed and bright-eyed and was exclaiming that she could not possibly need all the clothes Madame Delacroix claimed to be the bare essentials for a young lady of quality making her first appearance in society. Anna's heart went out to her sister. She was eighteen years old and had been in mourning for two years—first for Mama and then for Papa. Even before that Mama had been ill with consumption and Papa had been—well, he had been ill too. And there had been the poverty. There had been very little chance for Agnes to enjoy her youth.

"Lud, child," Lady Sterne said to Agnes, "'twould not do at all, you know, for you to be seen in the same dresses time and time again. Madame knows her job. Besides, she has had strict instructions from me. And now 'tis Anna's turn."

Lady Sterne had insisted from the start that she would bear all the expenses of the few months to be spent in London. It would be a dream come true for her, she claimed, to have two young ladies to take about and introduce to society. She had never had children of her own. Anna had brought some money with her—Victor had insisted that she take some from the estate though it would be years before he could expect to make it prosper again. And perhaps he never would if… But Anna refused to pursue the thought. She was not going to think of any of that for a month or two. She was going to give herself a chance to heal a little. She had told her godmother that she would keep a strict account of all that was spent on her and Agnes, that she would consider it a loan to be repaid when she was able.

And so, after all, she found herself being taken into the capable hands of Madame Delacroix and measured and poked and prodded and pricked and draped. It seemed that she stood still for hours while discussing with the two older ladies fabrics and trimmings and designs for petticoats, stomachers, open gowns, closed gowns, sack dresses—it was all very dizzying. She was laced into stays far tighter than she was accustomed to and looked down in some embarrassment—and some fascination—at the way they pushed up her breasts, making them seem larger and more feminine. And she was tied into whalebone hoops so wide that she wondered how she would pass through doorways.

She enjoyed every moment.

How wonderful, it was, she thought. To feel young and free. Not that she was either in reality. Youth had passed her by. And as for freedom…well. She felt slightly nauseated for a moment when she remembered just how very much she was not free. If he should come back from America as he had sworn he would… But she was not trying to break free forever. Merely for a couple of months. Surely he would not begrudge her that much time even if he knew about it.

How wonderful it would be to feel youthful and free for two whole months.

"I vow, child," Lady Sterne said when the fitting was finally over, "the years are falling off you by the minute. You have had a hard time and have remained devoted to your family throughout. Now it is time for yourself. And 'it not too late. As I live, I am going to find you a very special husband."

Anna laughed. "'Twill be enough to attend a few balls and concerts, Aunt," she said. "I will remember it all for a lifetime. I have no need of a husband."

"Pshaw!" said her godmother briskly.

 

"Egad, but you made us all look like bumpkins tonight, lad," Theodore, Lord Quinn, said, slapping his thigh with delight as he seated himself in a deep chair in his nephew's library and took a glass of brandy from his valet's hand before the man was dismissed. He laughed heartily. 'Twas the fan that really slayed 'em."

Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon, was neither drinking nor sitting. He stood elegantly propped against the marble mantel. He raised the fan to which his uncle had just referred, a small ivory and gold affair, and opened it to waft languidly before his face. "It serves to cool one's brow in a warm room," he said. "It has a purely practical function, my dear."

His uncle was in a mood to be amused. He laughed afresh. "Pox on it, Luke," he said, "'tis pure affectation as are the powder and rouge and patches."

His nephew raised his eyebrows. "You would have me appear in society half naked, Theo?" he asked.

"Not me, lad," Lord Quinn said. He took a sizable mouthful from his glass, savored it for a few moments on his tongue and then swallowed. "I have spent time in Paris and know how men dress and behave there. Though even there, as I remember, you have a reputation for leading fashion rather than following it. "Tis perhaps a good thing that you also have a reputation as a deadly shot and swordsman, or it might almost be thought…"

"Yes?" The clear gray eyes of his nephew narrowed slightly and the fan stilled in his hands. "What might almost be thought?"

But his uncle merely laughed and looked him over from head to toe with leisurely appreciation. His amused eyes took in the powdered hair neatly set into two rolls on either side of the head, the long hair caught behind into a black silk bag and tied in a large bow at the nape of his neck—it was his own hair, not a wig—the austerely handsome face with its dusting of powder and blush of rouge and one black patch; the dark-blue silk coat with its full skirts and silver lining and lavish silver embroidery; the tight gray knee breeches and white silk stockings; the silver-buckled shoes with their high red heels. The Duke of Harndon was the very epitome of Parisian splendor. And then, of course, there was the dress sword at his side with its sapphire-jeweled hilt, a weapon with which his grace was said to be more than ordinarily adept.

"I refuse to answer, lad," Lord Quinn said at last, "on the grounds that I do not fancy having the tip of that sword poking out from my backbone. But it was kind of you to leave White's Club early tonight. You will be the topic of conversation there for the rest of the night, I warrant you." He chuckled once more. "The fan, Luke. Zounds, but I swear Jessop very near swallowed his port, glass and all, when you first drew it out and opened it."

"If you will remember, Theo," Luke said, fanning himself again, not participating in the laughter, "I left Paris with the greatest reluctance. You talked me into it. But I'll be damned before you also talk me into becoming the typical English gentleman, stalking about my land with ill-fitting frock coat and staff in hand and hounds at heel and English ale in my stomach and English oaths on my lips. Don't expect it of me."

"Hark ye, Luke," his uncle said, suddenly serious. "If I had to persuade you to come back home, 'twas only because you would not take the responsibility on your own shoulders and everything is like to go to wrack and ruin at Bowden Abbey in your absence."

"Perhaps," the Duke of Harndon said coldly, "I do not care the snap of two fingers what happens to Bowden Abbey and all who live there, Theo. I have done well enough without them for the past ten years."

"Nay, lad," his uncle said, "I know you better than most. Cold you may appear to be when you are not charming the ladies and coaxing the most lovely of them into your bed, and cold you may have the right to be after the unjust way you were treated. But I know that the Luke of ten years ago is still in large measure the Luke of today. You care, lad. Besides, there is such a thing as responsibility. You are the Duke of Harndon now and have been for two years."

"I never looked for such a position," Luke said, "or expected it, Theo. There was George older than me, and George married ten years ago." There was something resembling a sneer in his voice for a moment. "One might have expected there to be male issue in the eight years before his death."

"Aye," his uncle said. "But there was only the one son, stillborn, Luke. Like it or not, you are the head of the family, and they need you."

"They have a strange way of showing need," Luke said, fanning himself slowly again. "If 'twere not for you, Theo, I would not even know if any of them lived or all were dead. And if they are in need, they may be sorry if I begin to answer it."

"'Tis time for old wounds to be healed," his uncle said, "and the awkwardness of a long and mutual silence to be overcome. Ashley and Doris were too young to be held responsible for anything that happened, and your mother, my sister—well, your mother is as proud as you, lad. And Henrietta…" He shrugged expressively, unable to complete the sentence.

"And Henrietta is George's widow," Luke said quietly, his fan still.

"Aye." Lord Quinn sighed. "You have begun badly, lad, leasing this house instead of taking up residence at Harndon House. "Twill be thought strange that you live here while your mother, brother, and sister are there."

"You forget, my dear," Luke said, looking keenly at his uncle from beneath half-lowered eyelids, "that I care not one fig for what people think."

"Aye, 'tis so." Lord Quinn drained his glass. "But you have not even called on them."

Luke sat down at last, crossing one leg elegantly over the other. He set down his fan and withdrew an enameled, jeweled snuffbox from a pocket. He set a pinch of snuff on the back of one hand and proceeded unhurriedly to sniff it up each nostril before replying.

"No," he said, "I have not waited upon them yet, my dear. Perhaps I will do so tomorrow or the next day. Perhaps not."

"And yet you came home," his uncle reminded him.

"I came to England," the duke said. "To London. Perhaps I came out of curiosity, Theo, to find how it has changed in ten years. I grew restless and bored in Paris. Perhaps I have grown tired of Angélique. Though she has followed me here. Did you know?"

"The Marquise d'Étienne?" Lord Quinn asked. "Sometimes known as the most beautiful woman in France?"

"None other," Luke said." And I would have to agree with public opinion. But she has been my mistress for almost six months. I usually make three the upper limit. Mistresses are not easy to shed after three months. They become possessive."

Lord Quinn chuckled.

"Of course," his nephew said, "everyone knows that you have kept the same mistress for ten years or more, Theo."

"Fifteen," his uncle said. "And she is not possessive, Luke. She still refuses to marry me whenever conscience prompts me to broach the subject of matrimony."

"A paragon," Luke said.

"You will return to Bowden?" his uncle asked casually.

"You would make a masterful conspirator, my dear," his nephew said. "First one small step and then another until your victim has finally done all you set out to persuade him to do. No, not Bowden. I have no wish to return there. I have no love for the place."

"And yet," his uncle reminded him, "'tis yours, Luke. Many people there depend upon you, and word has it that 'tis not being run as well as it might. Rents are high and wages are low and cottages are falling into disrepair."

The Duke of Harndon fanned his face again and looked at Lord Quinn with keen eyes. "I was called a murderer ten years ago," he said. "By my own family, Theo. I was twenty years old and as naïve as—well, complete the simile for yourself. What is as incredibly naïve as I was at the age of twenty? I was forced to flee and all my abject, pleading letters were returned to me. I was cut off without a penny. I made my own way in life without help from any of my family, except you. Am I now to go back to make everything right for them?"

His uncle smiled, and it was a gentle smile, without any of the humor he had shown earlier. "In a word, yes, my lad," he said. "And you know it too. You are here, are you not?"

The duke inclined his head to acknowledge the hit but made no reply.

"What you really ought to do," Lord Quinn said, "is take a wife, Luke. "Twould be easier for you to return, perhaps, if you were married, and 'tis time you set about producing heirs."

His nephew's stare had become icy and haughty. "I have an heir," he said. "Ashley may succeed me when I die as I succeeded George."

"There is frequently dissension between brothers when the one is the other's heir," Lord Quinn said.

"As there was between George and me?" Luke fanned his face slowly. "But it was not because I was his heir, Theo. And until he was four-and-twenty and I twenty, we were the best of friends. I never remember coveting the title despite what must have been said afterward. There was one specific cause of our quarrel. I very near killed him, did I not? One inch lower, the physician said. One inch. I was a poor shot in those days." There was coldness, almost bitterness in his voice.

"This is spring," Lord Quinn said. "The time when almost the whole of the fashionable world is in town, Luke. The perfect time for selecting a bride eligible for a duke's bed."

"This duke is not in search of a life's partner," Luke said. "The very thought is enough to make me shudder." He shuddered rather theatrically to prove his point.

"You may wish to consider it, nevertheless, after I have taken my leave," Lord Quinn said, getting to his feet and stretching. "Tis time, my lad."

"And yet," Luke said, "you are almost twenty years my senior, Theo, but it has never been time for you? You have retained your bachelorhood into the fifth decade of your life."

His uncle chuckled. "I had the misfortune to fall in love with a married lady," he said. "By the time she was widowed it was too late to get my heirs on her anyway. But perhaps it was not too late. Who knows? No matter. I am a mere baron. And I do not have a passel of unruly relatives breathing down my neck."

"And I do?" Luke said, closing his fan and getting to his feet to see his uncle on his way. "They must be taught, Theo that 'tis not to be tolerated. No one breathes down my neck unless she is specifically invited to do so."

His uncle laughed heartily once more. "Take a wife, Luke," he said. "Egad, 'twill be the answer for you. Take my word on it. And get sons on her as fast as it may be done. I will keep my eyes open and see who is available this year. I will choose you the prettiest, lad, provided she has the rank and breeding to go along with her looks."

"Thank you, my dear," his nephew said languidly, following Lord Quinn into the hall, "but I make it a habit to choose my own bedfellows.. And truly, rarely for more than three months at a time." He grimaced as a footman stepped forward to open the outer door. "Must you ram your hat on your head as if to glue it to your wig? Did you not know that hats were not meant to be worn on the head but to be carried decoratively beneath the arm?"

His uncle threw back his head and guffawed inelegantly. "Pox on your French ways," he said. "You are living in an English climate now, my lad, where a hat is not an ornament but a head warmer."

"Heaven forbid!" the duke said fervently. He turned back to the library as the door closed behind his uncle.

A bride. He had never seriously considered taking one even though he was thirty years old and had unexpectedly been elevated to high rank on the death of his brother two years ago, only three years after the death of their father. At least, he had not considered taking a bride since ten years ago. He did not particularly want to think about that.

Marriage was not for him. Marriage meant commitment. It meant belonging to someone and having someone belong to him. It meant children and the ties they would bring. It meant being bound, body and soul. It meant being vulnerable—again.

He was not vulnerable now. He had spent ten years—well, nine anyway, if he remembered that for that first year he had whined and pleaded and then staggered into a life of wild, self-pitying debauchery—carefully cultivating an invulnerability. He had amassed a fortune entirely by his own efforts, first by gambling and then by careful investments. He had made himself into the complete Parisian gentleman so that he was not only accepted everywhere but even sought after in the very highest circles. He had learned how to attract the most beautiful and fashionable women and how to make love to them and how to get rid of them when he tired of them. He had acquired expert instruction on the art of swordplay and on the skill of pistol shooting and had made himself deadly with both weapons; he had learned how to be charming in manner but steely of heart. He had learned that love was not to be trusted, even when it was the love of one's own family—especially then. He had learned neither to expect nor to give love.

He knew that he had acquired the reputation of being a ruthless and a heartless man. It was a reputation he coveted. It was how he wanted to be seen by the world. It was how he wanted to be.

And was he now to consider taking a wife? Merely because his uncle thought it a good idea? When had he allowed his uncle to make his decisions for him? Actually, he thought, propping himself against the mantel again and staring absently across the room, if he was to answer that question honestly, he must confess that he had frequently taken his uncle's advice. At Theo's suggestion he had gone to France and eventually given up the hope of coming home to resume the life he had known—it seemed rather laughable now that he had been intended for the church and that he had wanted the life of a clergyman for himself. It was at his uncle's suggestion that he had gone to Paris to make a new life for himself. And it was at Theo's suggestion that he had come home—well, partly home, anyway. He had come to England, to London. He was not sure he would be able to go all the way home to Bowden Abbey.

Henrietta was at Bowden. His sister-in-law. George's widow.

If he had a wife, perhaps he would find it more possible to go home. The thought came unbidden.

But he did not want a wife. And he did not want to go to Bowden.

Except that Theo had reminded him of his responsibilities there, of the people who depended on him even apart from the members of his own family. Devil take them all, he thought. What were they to him? They were his father's people. George's people.

And now his own.

He had never wanted to be the Duke of Harndon. He had never envied George his position as eldest son. He had been quite content to be merely Lord Lucas Kendrick. Perhaps the Reverend Lord Lucas Kendrick. He smiled ruefully, though the expression was perhaps more sneer than smile. Poor naïve boy. All eager at the age of twenty to enter the church, to marry, and to live happily ever after.

Well, he decided, he would force himself to see his mother since she was in town, and Doris and Ashley too. There were apparently problems with his sister and brother, if Theo was to be believed, problems that his mother seemed unable to deal with, problems that he would have to handle. And he would handle them too, by God. But the problems at Bowden would be solved at long distance. He would appoint a new steward, perhaps, and get rid of Colby. Better still, he would summon Colby to London and allow him to speak for himself.

He would not marry. He would tell Theo so in no uncertain terms the next time he saw him. One had to be very positive with Theo or else one found oneself willy-nilly doing what the man wanted one to do. Theo really had missed his calling in life. He should have been a diplomat.

Luke had returned to England in order to make an appearance there as duke and in order to wait upon his mother and brother and sister while they were in London. He had come in order to assert his authority where it needed to be asserted—and only where there was need. He had come out of a grudging sense of duty—and, yes, perhaps out of some curiosity. But he did not intend to stay. As soon as he was decently able, he would return to Paris where he belonged, where he was happy—as far as a man without a heart could be happy, that was. Actually he did not look for happiness. If one was happy, one could also be unhappy and would be sooner or later. It was altogether more desirable to steer clear of either extreme.

© Mary Balogh