Nathaniel Spencer, fourteenth Duke of Kirkbourne groaned and rolled over in bed. A tattoo beat a steady rhythm inside his skull, his stomach was bilious and the world spun at an alarming rate.
Last night he had been in his cups—again. He knew he should take a more moderate attitude to alcohol but recently, staying sober had seemed somewhat pointless. Why stay sober if you were just going to end up dead at the side of the road—another silly young buck who had killed himself in a curricle race?
Damn Crosby! Why had he made the damned challenge? Nathaniel, or Nate as he preferred to be called, would never forget Crosby’s lifeless eyes staring up at him, or the crack of the pistol as a bystander put his horses out of their misery. And he would never forgive himself for being the man whom Crosby was racing.
Nate closed his eyes and willed his stomach to stop churning as he tried to recall the events of the night before. He had been at White’s for dinner and had moved to the card room. The brandy had been flowing, and Ormsby had suggested moving on to a less reputable gaming hell. He remembered the Earl of Brackingham tagging along for some reason that defied Nate.
He had no issue with Brackingham, but the earl was at least twenty years the senior of everyone else in their party. He had been coughing somewhat alarmingly, Nate recalled. He hoped the old man was not spreading disease around. The last thing Nate needed was to be laid up in bed—his mother fussing around him and pouring vile-tasting concoctions down his throat. There was another thing that took many young, seemingly healthy lives—fever. Curricles and fever—good reasons to get absolutely foxed if ever he needed any.
Brackingham! The name seemed to be prodding his tired and very painful brain—waiting for him to remember something significant from last night. He had a vague memory of playing vingt et un with him. There had been a ludicrous bet. Brackingham wagered his daughter’s hand and if Nate lost, he would have to marry the girl.
Nate had been on a winning streak. Bravado and alcohol made him foolish. He had a three and a queen. He sat up as the king of diamonds flashed before his eyes.
God, damn it.
The king of diamonds took him to twenty-three. His head swum and he tamped down the urge to cast up his accounts. Twenty-three. But surely a wager like that was a joke. It had to be. Brackingham did not expect him to marry his chit of a daughter, did he? Had he even set eyes on the girl before?
Again, some piece of information about the girl needled his brain. He had no recollection of dancing with her at balls. But then he hardly ever danced at balls. He had no plans to seek a leg-shackle on the marriage mart, so he steered clear and spent most of the evening in the card room.
God, he hoped she was at least old enough to have had her come out and this was not some medieval plan to marry a thirteen-year-old off to him. Eighteen was quite young enough—too young in his rather jaded opinion.
But no. He had no recollection of ever having set eyes on Lady… Lady what? He had no idea.
He fished in the pocket of his waistcoat, which he still wore, having obviously been so foxed when he had returned that he had either shooed his valet away or he had arrived so late the valet had been asleep. There was a note. A wager. He hoped he owed the man a vast fortune instead.
Marry Lady Sarah Steele. Dowry - £10,000. Meet Brackingham on 5th day of March to make arrangements.
Today must be the fifth of March. Yesterday had definitely been the fourth. Christ, he had to see if this was a big joke or, if not, was there any way he could inveigle his way out of it. He had no plans to marry. None at all. And that was that.
“Pardon?” Sarah cried as her father stood in the doorway to her room.
“The Duke of Kirkbourne has agreed to marry you,” her father said petulantly, tugging at his cravat and thus proving that he knew he was in the wrong.
“Why would he? I have never set eyes on the man in my life.”
John Steele coughed. Once, twice and then it became a paroxysm of coughing. Goodness, she should not be shouting at him, no matter how ridiculous he was being.
He was not well. His skin was grey and waxen these days, and he had been fretting about who would care for her once the inevitable happened. But now he had somehow engineered for a duke to marry her. How could that have happened? Had it not occurred to her father to introduce them first, at the very least?
“I… umm, well that is to say… he is an honourable man, Sarah. I picked him out personally. He has been a bit overindulgent with the old sauce recently. A nasty business. He blames himself, of course, but marriage is just the thing to bring him out of the doldrums.”
“He drinks too much?” she asked, her brows furrowing as she wondered exactly what her father was getting her into. “How old is he?”
Her father waved his hand in a vague gesture. “Yes, he does drink but the man has his reasons. I do not know his age. A bit older than you, I suppose.”
A bit older. That could be anything between five and twenty and five and fifty. Perhaps she could look him up in Debrett’s.
But at that moment, she heard a knock on the front door.
“Oh, that will be Kirkbourne now. Wait here until I call for you. I shall meet with him in the drawing room rather than my study so you can join us.”
“Papa, does he know about my legs?”
“I assume so,” said her father as he left the room.
Hell. The man may not know he had agreed to wed a cripple. How dreadfully embarrassing. He may think her feeble-minded because her legs did not work. He could be a brute and her defences against him would be useless at best.
Well, she was just going to have to give him the opportunity to get out of the marriage. But then she would be left alone when her father died. And what would become of her? The earldom would revert to the crown and so would all entailed property. And there was not much besides the entailed estate.
She placed her crutches in front of her, and holding onto them with one hand, she used her other to lever herself out of her seat. Her room was on the ground floor. It had been her father’s study until her accident. He had moved his desk to her old bedchamber and her bed was now underneath dusty, empty shelves. But it was better than footmen carrying her up and down the stairs all the time.
She sighed. She was not willing to wait for her father to call her until she learned her fate. She had better face the Duke of Kirkbourne and let him see exactly what he had agreed to marry.
Nate stood in the ground floor drawing room of Brackingham House on Brook Street, tapping his booted foot impatiently. He had to get this nonsense sorted, and promptly. Once he had dragged himself from bed, he had washed quickly and changed with the help of his valet before drinking some coffee to settle his headache. Not that it had worked.
It had taken him ten minutes to walk from South Audley Street to the house of his would-be father-in-law. The walk had at least cleared his head—somewhat.
How the hell had he got himself into this mess? He was going to have to find a solution other than alcohol to numb the pain of Crosby’s death if every father in the ton was going to use his drunken state to marry their daughters off to him. He hated to imagine why the earl could not have just let the girl loose on the marriage mart like every other young lady. Whatever was the problem, he doubted he could back out of the deal. After all, a gentleman honoured his wagers, no matter how foxed he was when he made them.
Surely there was no such thing as a woman who was so ugly that she could not find a man. He could always find an attractive physical quality in a woman, no matter how plain of face she may be. And her ten thousand pound dowry would sweeten the deal for any cash poor aristocrat.
Not him though. He had no need of money. But if he lost his fortune tomorrow, he was sure he could find any lady with a good dowry handsome enough.
A cough drew his attention to the doorway and he turned, ready to meet the earl. When Brackingham walked in, trying to stifle a cough, Nate blanched. The man was deathly pale, despite the coughing fit he was trying to suppress. The handkerchief he held to his mouth looked stained—with blood. The man was ill—gravely ill.
“Sit, sit!” barked the earl, in between wheezes. Nate did as instructed, despite the earl’s lower rank, and waited patiently until the older man caught his breath. He had not noticed last night how grey the man looked but then, he had been so far into his cups every prostitute in the gaming hell could have danced naked across the table and he probably would have been none the wiser.
“My memories of last night are rather fuzzy, My Lord.” Good God, what a terrible opening gambit. I would rather gouge out my eyes with a spoon than marry your daughter would have been better—if a tad hurtful.
“Did you find my note? I placed it in your waistcoat pocket, Your Grace.”
“I did. I remember losing a hand of vingt et un.” The man looked completely unashamed of his actions. It was truly incredible.
“Yes. You were on a winning streak too. You were bragging and well, I wagered my daughter’s hand. And you accepted the wager.”
“I was drunk.” What a feeble excuse.
“Ah yes. Alcohol is a terrible thing. It gets gentlemen into all kinds of pickles. You should stop drinking so much. It is very bad for you.”
As the earl’s gaze raked up his body, Nate tugged at the sleeves of his coat then rubbed under his eyes. He knew he did not look as dapper as was his custom. He felt a little rumpled and rather queasy. And no doubt he was stinking of stale brandy.
“My Lord, surely you would not hold me to that wager.” Pathetic again.
“If a man wagered his unentailed estate or the last of his money, would you accept his payment even if he was in his cups? Of course you would. Many a member of the aristocracy has been ruined because they wagered when drunk. Be grateful it is just a leg shackle I am forcing upon you and not ruin. Besides, you are an honourable man, Kirkbourne. I know you will do the right thing. A number of your friends and acquaintances were in that hell, were they not? It shall be the talk of the drawing rooms of Grosvenor Square this morning.”
The Earl took a deep breath and started coughing again. As he pulled the handkerchief from his pocket, Nate saw that it was most definitely blood that stained the linen.
He needed to know more about the daughter before he dismissed the idea out of hand. And the earl was right. Honour now bound him to ask for her hand. If he did not, the chit would be ruined. Damn the gossiping ton.
A thud behind him made him turn to look at the door. The first thing he saw was soft, flame-coloured hair framing a pretty face which had too many freckles and a pair of scowling red eyebrows. Her eyes flashed dangerously. Then his gaze dropped to a perfectly-sized bosom only just covered by a rather daring neckline. But it was to the side of her breast that his gaze now travelled. To the cloth and wood that made up the crutch that ran to the floor. Another crutch under the other arm.
Had she broke her leg or had some kind of fall? With painful slowness she dragged her feet one at a time over to the seat on which he sat. A furtive glance at her feet told him she had some form of leg braces on.
So this was why he had never seen her at a ton ball. He stood, suddenly remembering his manners, and she lowered herself down onto the seat beside him. He felt like a heel. Should he have offered to help? Why did no servant help her?
The reality of the situation struck home. The girl was a cripple…and he had agreed to marry her. Good God. He didn’t know if she could bear children, the principle reason for taking a wife as far as he could tell. Why was she a cripple? A disease? An accident?
As if she could read his mind she said “I fell from a horse when I was sixteen and broke a bone in my lower back. They said I was lucky not to die. Though of course, some would suggest I am hardly living at present.”
He swallowed, unsure of how to answer such frankness.
“Your Grace, this is my daughter, Lady Sarah Steele. Sarah, this is His Grace, the Duke of Kirkbourne.”
“Forgive me if I do not stand and curtsey, Your Grace,” she said caustically. My, she was a little viper. He liked her already. He liked women with spirit almost as much as he liked a horse with spirit.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, My Lady,” he replied as genially as he could manage. “It appears I lost a bet and agreed to marry you.” The words were out before he could stop himself. A flicker in her gaze made him feel uncomfortable before she spoke.
“No doubt you were in your cups, Your Grace.”
“I was indeed.”
“Well I would not want to tie you to a marriage to a cripple into which you have been forced against your will. If you could pull the bell, the butler will see you out.”
The old man had started another coughing fit and had turned from deathly white to dark red.
“Should I do something? Hit him on the back?” he asked looking from Lady Sarah to her father and back again. She sighed wearily.
“No. He should probably be in bed, but he is stubborn and he was expecting you.”
The earl stood suddenly and waved his free hand as if to excuse himself and hurried from the room, all the while hacking and coughing into the white linen. Lady Sarah turned her head, watching him go. When he rounded the corner and moved out of sight, she sighed again.
“Will he be all right?” She was looking out of the long French windows into the back garden beyond. She obviously did not want to meet his eye.
“Probably not, but it is what it is. His valet is very attentive and will ensure he sits down and rests until the coughing stops.”
Was she holding back tears? Was this all an act? And how sick was the earl?
“Is he… is he… dying?”
There was a moment’s silence where he could see her jaw working furiously even though her head was turned from him.
“Of course he is dying, Your Grace. We are all dying. He just happens to be closer than most to his last breath. Why do you think he wagered with you? He is not poor. He has no gambling debts. My dowry was not his last resort. He is a good man.”
“And he wants to make sure that I am cared for, and that I have a home and a family when… when…” She burst into tears.
Damn! How the hell did he deal with this? He withdrew his own clean, fresh linen handkerchief and waved it before her—a slightly awkward task since she had turned fully from him. He was not good with emotions.
Lady Sarah accepted the handkerchief and blew her nose. Well that at least proved they had been real tears. Had this been an attempt just to gain his sympathy, she would no doubt have only needed to dab at slightly moistened eyes.
He rose and began to pace. He always thought better when he was on the move.