Mathilda, Duchess of Upavon, had reason to be alarmed. Her fifteen-year-old daughter was the object of attention from the notoriously handsome embodiment of every female's fantasy: Lord Westbury. Since scandal had shadowed Mattie's own life when she wed at sixteen, she vowed her daughter would not make the same mistake.
In truth, Lord Westbury's cursory call upon the schoolroom girl was all part of a lavish, under-handed plot to reclaim some land. But after one look at the lovely mother, his lordship began some scheming of his own....
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Lady Westbury put down her needlework to stare over her pince-nez at her son. It was not often that she either took the time to examine him, or had it, for Lord Westbury had the habit of residing in London, while she passed the year at his country seat. Just now, he was perusing the newspaper he favoured instead of obliging her with a game of whist; but as usual he had managed to turn down her invitation to play in such a manner as to get what he wanted while making his refusal seem the greatest compliment to her.
Ordinarily his skillful manner when dealing with her would have annoyed Lady Westbury immensely, but tonight she reflected that it was fortunate he had such address. Without exaggerating, she could tell herself that he was a credit to the Nortons in many ways. His face, for a gentleman of thirty who had lived for no other reason than to please himself, was remarkably free from signs of dissipation. Some, his mother conceded, might even call it handsome. His dark good looks had come from her family, of course, for the Nortons were never known for their beauty.
If there was a certain severity to the cut of his face, and something formidable about his tall stature, both of which gave him an air of authority, she could only approve them. Both had come from her. The only qualities he appeared to have got from his late father were his unfailing courtesy and his tendency to levity. The latter, of course, she deplored, for he often used it in thwarting her wishes.
Still, she mused, it was possible that an impressionable young lady might find something in it to admire.
It was time, Lady Westbury had decided, to take a hand in managing her son's affairs. It was allvery well for a young gentleman to have several years upon the town, but after a reasonable period it was his duty to stop enjoying himself and to think of his family instead. In this, Lady Westbury was perfectly willing to help, since now it appeared that in doing so she could kill two birds with one stone.
"It is good you are come home just now, William," she said to him in portentous accents.
Lord Westbury peered over his newspaper with a wary expression.
"My dearest Mama," he said, a thin veil of warning slipping over his eyes. "Such warmth overwhelms me. If I were a suspicious person, however, I daresay I should be alarmed by such a spontaneous burst of affection."
Rising to the bait, Lady Westbury picked up her stitching again and applied herself to it with force. "You say that to tease me, William. You know that I have always been most affectionate towards you--not but what you have often been unappreciative of the little attentions I've troubled to pay you. If I sometimes appear cold, it is merely a reflection of the dignity I feel to be due a peer of the realm. You will undoubtedly thank me for my forbearance in these matters one day."
"Undoubtedly," said her son.
Lady Westbury went on as if she had not heard him, "But how I am to show any affection for one who seldom visits and, when he does, only stays for one night, I cannot imagine!"
Perceiving that William had gone back to his newspaper, she called to him sharply and reminded him that she was still speaking.
Lord Westbury put down his paper with a sigh. "My most profound apologies, madam. You were saying..."
"I was saying that it is good you are here at this moment. You are undoubtedly unaware that the Dowager Duchess of Upavon has taken up residence at Westbury Manor."
"My deepest felicities," William said, turning back to his paper.
"You miss the point, foolish boy!" His fond parent lost all patience with him. "I insist you put down that paper and listen to me until I have indicated that I am finished speaking."
"I will listen with pleasure," Lord Westbury assured her, setting aside the favoured paper, "but I fail to see that the duchess and her residence have anything to do with me."
"Naught to do with you?" Lady Westbury arched her brows. "When I have told you repeatedly how your grandfather, the third viscount, lost that very piece of property to the sixth duke in a card game?"
"Ah, yes." William kept his eyebrows admirably still. "How foolish of me to forget that!"
"Just so," Lady Westbury said, mollified. "I am certain I have told you of the circumstances countless times. By all reports, your grandfather was not himself when he sat down to play, and the duke should never have taken advantage of him."
"Three sheets to the wind, wasn't he?" William inquired politely.
Her ladyship wrinkled her nose. "I really could not say."
"Rather the worse for a shove in the mouth as I heard it," William mused. Then, seeing his mother bristle, he added, "But perhaps it is unwise for us to speak of one of the Nortons in such a fashion. One should say rather that Grandpapa was a bit on the qui vive or simply 'ticklish.'"
Lady Westbury glared at him. "That is neither here nor there, William, and I will thank you to keep the language of the boxing parlour out of my drawing room."
He appeared to be going back to his newspaper, so she said quickly, "I have not finished. The point is that the property was taken from your grandfather under the most dubious of circumstances, and I have often felt it was a grave injustice to your family."
"Even though half the properties in England have exchanged hands under similar circumstances?"
"Nonsense!" Lady Westbury crossed her hands primly in her lap. "You would have it, I suppose, that we are a nation of drunkards and cardthieves! Not, of course, that I would ever refer to your grandfather in such a way, William, for I never had the pleasure of meeting him."
Lord Westbury inclined his head. "It would not be far from accurate, all the same."
Lady Westbury gasped. "I know what is due to your father's family, William, even if you do not!" She added petulantly, "But all of this is beside the point. You are trying to distract me."
William gave her his full attention, but his indifferent expression was far from encouraging. "Then by all means, Mama, let us come to the point so that we may retire to bed. I have a busy schedule tomorrow."
In the interest of progress, Lady Westbury swallowed a retort. "What I have been trying to say is that the duchess has taken up residence on that property which ought to have been yours. The old duke bequeathed it to her daughter. That is why you've come at such an opportune time."
William's eyes narrowed, and his manner became more distant. "What a peculiar set of statements. But somehow I feel certain you mean to enlighten me as to their relevance."
"Of course I mean to do so. So, you will oblige me, please, by showing some interest. If matters were just--which they never are--I should expect you simply to tell the duchess how grotesquely unfair it was to sever the property from your estate. But that would never serve." Lady Westbury dismissed this idea with a reluctant sigh. "No--the reason it is good you are home is because this will be the perfect time for you to fix your interest with Lady Pamela."
William's tone grew cooler. "Lady Pamela? Would she, by any chance, be the daughter in question?"
"Yes, of course."
"And may I ask how old the young lady is? I seem to remember that the Duchess of Upavon was considerably younger than her husband."
"That would be putting it mildly," Lady Westbury snorted, distracted by the opportunity for gossip. "As I recall, the gel was barely sixteen herself when the old fool married her. Quite a scandal there was about it at the time--and no wonder! It is shocking to think of a man of his consequence being trapped by no more than a slip of a gel! And for his money, no doubt!"
"Perhaps he wasn't trapped at all," William said mildly. "The way I heard it, the old duke was never fond of women. Perhaps he wanted an heir."
Lady Westbury scoffed. "Well! If he did, he made a great mistake, didn't he, by marrying such a young gel? She only bore him the one daughter, so what was the use in it?"
"He may have cared for her."
This provoked a titter from William's mother.
"What notions you do have, William! As if the old duke would marry for affection! I'm certain if it was affection he wanted, he could have got it anywhere. There are more important considerations for marriage, I can assure you."
This turn in the conversation brought Lady Westbury's mind back to her original purpose, and with a shake of her head, she chastised herself for letting the subject wander.
"But that is neither here nor there, William. The duchess's marriage need not concern us at the moment. It is her daughter I am speaking of!"
"As I recall," her son said helpfully, "you were about to tell me the age of this child with whom I am asked to fix my interest."
"She is fifteen or thereabouts--it does not signify. She is the owner of Westbury Manor, and her dowry will undoubtedly be attractive. The essential consideration is that she lives retired, for her mother is quite a recluse, which should give you a clear chance to establish yourself in Lady Pamela's affections without fear of competition."
Lord Westbury's lips curled upwards. "Your confidence in my charms is, as always, most gratifying, Mama."
"Don't be ridiculous, William! I am certain you are quite capable of convincing the young lady of the desirability of the match. You have no need to fish for compliments."
Given the plans she had formed on William's behalf, Lady Westbury was glad she had nothing to worry about with respect to his success with women. She preferred to hear nothing about his more distasteful exploits, but she was gratified to know that many a matchmaking mama considered her son, the viscount, an answer to prayer. Nor were their daughters loath to stand up with him at a ball or to be escorted by him into supper. But, so far, William had not shown a decided partiality for any one of his partners.
Lady Westbury had always thought it a shame that her handsome looks should be wasted on William. Gerald, her second son, had taken after the Nortons, which was unfortunate since, without the likelihood of inheriting a title, he had more need of a pleasing countenance to make an advantageous match. William, of course, having inherited the viscountcy needed no such enhancement.
Pursuing the subject, she added, "It will just be so much easier to fix your interest with Lady Pamela now before she is launched upon the world. Who knows what fancy might take her if she suddenly is exposed to society? I have never been one to believe in love matches, but I do hear the most alarming tales about girls these days."
Sensing the displeasure emanating from her son's side of the room, Lady Westbury stiffly offered, "If you doubt your own attractions, William, I must tell you that I have heard rumors of more than one broken heart that can be laid at your door. You are a tall, athletic man. Your taste in clothes is impeccable. And I am not so far removed from society that I do not know the value of a well turned-out leg."
Her son gaped at her in astonishment. His voice, when he spoke, sounded feeble. "Mama, you positively unman me! Such encomiums from you! I had no idea you thought me such a paragon!"
She gave him a spiteful look. "You are toying with me, William, and I will not have it! Just remember that I am counting on you to do your utmost to attach Lady Pamela!"
Lord Westbury carefully folded his paper and rose from his chair. He bowed low to his mother.
"I am extremely loath to disoblige you, as you must know, Mama, but I am afraid my schedule will not permit a courtship at the moment. I am due in town on the twelfth, and even you, with your highly flattering belief in my powers of attraction, cannot expect me to woo the young lady in just one day."
He seemed to think the discussion at an end, but Lady Westbury had prepared herself for just such a case of rebelliousness. She threw him a triumphant glance.
"To be certain, you cannot court her in one day. But you shall come with me to call upon them in the morning, for I have promised us both to the duchess!"
Lord Westbury stared down at his mother. These days, it was seldom that she managed to get the better of him, for he spent as little time at home as possible. It was a gentleman's prerogative to spend as many or as few days on his estate as he wished. William's infrequent visits, always unannounced, were enough to make certain that his property was being properly managed, but he had long ago decided that he would prefer to conduct his personal affairs without his mother's interference.
For the first time that evening, he smiled unpleasantly and appraised his mother in a way that made her shift uncomfortably in her chair.
"Very clever, Mama. You know me well enough to suppose that I'd not purposely put you to the blush. Very well, I shall go. But I should let you know that I find the notion of a man of thirty, pursuing a girl of fifteen, somewhat less than palatable. And she will have to be something far out of the ordinary to attract my interest. I have no mind to shackle myself to a child. Tomorrow evening, I shall be leaving again for London."
He bowed again and wished her a goodnight.
As he strolled to the door of the drawing room, Lady Westbury dismissed his last words and set about thinking how to overcome her son's absurd objections.