The tapping at her bedroom door roused Aldora, Dowager Countess of Denmere, from a reverie. For a moment, she felt the strange blend of sorrow and joy she’d felt when she’d read the letter from Ian Grey. She reached for a woolen wrapper. Moonlight shimmered around the edges of the partially open draperies and sent a path of light to the door. She turned the knob.
Greene, the elderly butler, stood in the hall. “My lady, the Earl has arrived. He’s supping in the library.”
“Do you wish me to wait and go down with you?”
She shook her head. With too few servants remaining at the manor house, the stoop-shouldered man did more than his share of work. “There’s no need. Go to your bed.”
After he left, she lit a taper and picked up the letter. Before leaving the room, she read the words again. This time, she held her tears inside. If Drew saw she’d been weeping, he would find a way to blame himself. A habit she believed stemmed from the way his father had heaped the coals of his own failures on Drew’s head.
Holding the candlestick high, she descended the broad and curving staircase. The study door was closed. She tapped lightly.
Drew stood behind a battered desk and held his hands toward the flames in the fireplace. Light from candles on the mantelpiece made his hair appear as black as lacquered ware from the Orient. His gray jacket molded the muscles grown firm from his labor on the estates these past two years.
She crossed the room. He turned. His eyes, the color of fine Persian turquoise, showed concern. “Aunt Aldora, are you all right?”
The unofficial title he’d bestowed on her years ago brought a rush of warmth and love. She placed the candle on the desk. “I never meant to give you fright, but I received a letter --”
“Demanding payment of yet another debt we have no way to prove is false.” His hands tightened on her shoulders. “Damn him for leaving you in such a state.”
Aldora stepped away. “The letter concerns another matter.”
“And that is?”
“Sorrow and hope.”
He slumped on a chair behind the battered desk he’d brought from the estate manager’s office. For years until it had been sold, a magnificent oak piece had graced the room. “Whatever do you mean?”
She opened the letter. “This is from Duncan Gordon of
. He rescued India and married her. Drew, I have three granddaughters.” Joy radiated from her eyes and filled her
“How do you know this isn’t a trick to foist some merchant’s chit on you so they can be presented to the ton? News of your daughter’s flight were wide-spread.”
She shook her head. “He mentions things only
And he sent me this.” She held a
locket. “I gave it to her on her twelfth
birthday. She always wore it.” Alice
“And now this merchant sends his daughters so you can bear the expense of them. How, when we can barely feed and clothe ourselves.” He scowled.
“Why are you so cynical? My son-in-law wants his daughters away from
. He suggests you marry the eldest girl and
become guardian of the younger ones.
They stand to have substantial fortunes.” India
Drew walked to the window that looked into the rear courtyard of the H-shaped house. He pulled aside the musty draperies and stared at the night sky. What else could he be but cynical? He had land he couldn’t sell, houses he couldn’t repair, and people dependent on him he couldn’t help.
Had Duncan Gordon married Aldora’s daughter? How could he be sure the girls were what they said?
“Perhaps he recently learned
is the daughter of
an earl and wishes to use your position to see her daughters marry well.” Alice
“I don’t believe that’s the reason. With the dowries mentioned in the letters, the girls can marry for love.”
“Love is a dream.” The words emerged clipped and cold. He’d never understood how such a vague emotion could turn a man or a woman into a fool. He remembered the many times he’d heard his mother cry about her love for his father. Then her love for another man had caused her to abandon her family.
He heard the rustle of Aldora’s skirts and inhaled the sweet smell of lavender. “He heard of Edgar’s death. He knows about the mountain of debts and how hard you have worked to discharge them.”
Drew turned. “Then why hasn’t he written before?”
died, he promised he would protect her
daughters from their grandfather’s greed.
That need has passed.” Alice
The tears that glistened in her brown eyes brought an ache of sadness to Drew’s chest. His questions about these girls didn’t matter. To see Aldora smile and for her to have the comforts she deserved, he had been willing to marry an heiress. Why not this one?
He patted Aldora’s shoulder. “Would this marriage please you?”
“You know it would.”
He nodded. “I need an heiress, and if the marriage will bring you joy --” He couldn’t say the words yet.
She brushed her hand over brown hair that was liberally sprinkled with white. “The directions for my son-in-law’s solicitor and business partner are in the letter. You must write him at once.”
He felt trapped by her enthusiasm. “I’ll return to
tomorrow and seek him out. Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Tristan would be delighted to have
your company.” London
She laughed. “La, Drew, I doubt that rascal would want an old woman meddling in his affairs.” She patted his cheek. “There is much to do.” Her radiant smile warmed him. “Three granddaughters. Nicola, Elizabeth and Margaret. This is more than I dreamed.”
For an instant, her smile faltered. He knew she thought of her four daughters, each lost in some tragic way.
“And you have me.” His need to have her confirm his importance to her startled him. He had neither right nor reason to feel threatened by these unknown chits.
The brilliance returned to her smile. “And you have brought me much joy.” She lifted the candlestick. “I’ll see you at breakfast. Oh, Drew, I must make ready for my girls.”
He felt a touch of regret that he hadn’t been the one to bring laughter to her voice. “There is time. The voyage from
is long.” India
“I know I must wait, but ‘twill be hard.” She closed the door.
He picked up the letter and read the contents. Marriage to an heiress was the only way to restore the estates depleted by the late earl’s gambling. Drew groaned. He had all but agreed to the union.
He crumpled the letter. Marriage to one of the coming Season’s heiresses would never bring the weight he felt pressing on his chest. He had intended his marriage to be one of convenience, providing a title for his wife and money and an heir for himself. How could he have that kind of marriage with Nicola Gordon when she was Aldora’s granddaughter?
The crumpled paper fell on the desk. Aldora would expect him to love her granddaughter. Love was an illusion. He could never love any woman, even Nicola Gordon. He would never allow her to have that power over him. Never!