Sherrington Manor, Suffolk, June 1822
The summons came at precisely three-thirty in the afternoon. The Duke of Sherrington lay on his deathbed.
Lady Elizabeth Wilde, Sherrington’s eldest daughter, pushed aside her latest attempt at composing a novel and rose from her writing desk. A dutiful daughter would experience sorrow or possibly panic at the thought of her father’s imminent demise, but the most Lizzie could manage was resignation. This made twice this month, after all.
As she emerged from the sitting room, the soft patter of footsteps met her ears. Her younger sister breezed along the corridor from elsewhere in the manor, dressed in faded blue muslin that had seen too many washings—a sure sign she’d been hidden away with her paints. “Have you heard?” she panted.
“Just now.” Lizzie paused her stride so Pippa could catch up. “Has he even arisen from his bed today?”
“I don’t think so. What of Caro?”
“Caruthers will have sent a footman out to the stables.”
Almost like proof of Lizzie’s reply, the clomp of riding boots echoed in the entrance hall. Caro halted at the foot of the main staircase, slapping a pair of sturdy leather gloves across her palm. The skirts of her old riding habit dragged over the patterned marble floor.
Thank heavens she wasn’t clad in breeches today. Papa wouldn’t approve—but then, he didn’t come out of his bedchamber often enough to grasp the full extent of Caro’s disregard for convention.
“Oh good,” Pippa said. “Caruthers caught you.”
“Just before I had a chance to make my escape.” Caro pulled a face halfway between a smile and a grimace.
Pippa chewed at her lip. “Do you think something’s really the matter?”
“This time? I don’t know.” But an odd prickle at the back of Lizzie’s neck told her otherwise.
“Only one way to find out.” Gathering the skirts of her habit over an arm, Caro trailed her free hand over the ornately carved banister. Lizzie followed her sister up two more flights, while generations of previous dukes disapproved from their gilt frames.
At the top of the stairs, a liveried footman opened the heavy paneled doors to Papa’s chambers. Lizzie strode past an inlaid teak writing desk, several pages of neglected correspondence scattered across its surface. A pair of empty armchairs guarded a cold marble fireplace. She stopped before the entrance to the bedchamber on the opposite end of the sitting room, hesitating half a moment before rapping. Then she pushed open the door.
Lizzie braced herself for the musty, closed-in smell tinged with a keen medicinal undertone. Almost dwarfed by the cunningly carved columns of a tester bed shrouded in dark red velvet hangings, Papa lay back against a mound of pillows, the sheets pulled up to his chest. At his right hand stood a tea cart, but in place of the expected fine china and delicacies, an array of vials awaited his pleasure. Lizzie counted the tiny bottles.
Fourteen. Three more than last week. “You summoned us, Papa?”
Gray eyes blinked open. “Ah, there you all are.” At least his voice sounded strong. Warm and kindly, the way she always remembered it. “Yes, I thought it was high time we discussed a matter of great importance.”
Lizzie exchanged a glance with her sisters. A fortnight ago, he had begun the same way, yet he was still of this earth. Aged, abed, and frail to be certain, but he didn’t appear any closer to dying than he had then.
“What is it?” Caro asked. Already her body was leaning toward the door, as if she wanted to be gone from this stuffy bedchamber. Given her choice, she’d be anywhere but inside, galloping across the estate like the devil was after her.
“Why, the annual house party. What else?”
“House party?” Pippa parroted.
“That is not what Caruthers told me,” Caro protested.
“No,” Lizzie added. “He said your condition was far more serious.” Not that Papa’s duties would be any more onerous than greeting his guests and sitting at the head of the table at supper.
“It is,” Papa replied, “which is why I insist on holding the party. Naturally, I shall make a supreme effort to put in an appearance. Dr. Fowler has mixed me a new tincture to add to my regimen. He claims it ought to settle my stomach.” Papa rubbed his hand over the offending area. “The good Lord knows something has to ease my suffering at some point.” He stopped and looked at each of his daughters in turn. “I am counting on all of you to make the gathering a success.”
“Papa.” Lizzie reached for his hand. The skin beneath her palm was dry and papery. “Perhaps it’s for the best if we don’t host anybody this year. Next summer, when you’re feeling better, we can have as big a party as you like.”
His fingers tightened about hers as he straightened. “My dear. Indeed, all of you.” Once again, his fond gaze passed over each of them in turn. “Caruthers did not mislead you. It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that I surely will not last until next year.”
“Oh, Papa, no,” Pippa burst out.
“There, there.” Caro patted their youngest sister’s shoulder. “Papa’s been dying for the past decade, at least. I doubt he’s planning on kicking the bucket any time soon.”
Lizzie studied his lined face. Caro had the right of it, seemingly. Nothing off about his coloring, at least nothing that his extended periods in bed didn’t explain. She brushed back a few gray straggles from his forehead, the flesh beneath her fingers cool to the touch.
“What did the doctor say?” Papa’s usual dramatics aside, she wanted to be sure.
Papa folded his arms across his thin chest, looking distinctly petulant. “Nothing useful, that’s certain. He recommended a daily constitutional.”
“It might not do you any harm to get out of this chamber every so often,” Caro put in.
“Out of the question. How can you even suggest such a thing, given my gout?”
A furrow formed between Pippa’s brows. “Since when do you suffer from gout?”
Papa let out a little huff. “I could develop gout at any moment.”
“You could at least open a window from time to time,” Caro suggested.
“Oh, no. You never know what might be borne on the air. Very bad things for the state of my health.”
“What state is that?”
“My sour stomach. It’s been getting worse lately. And that’s not even taking my dropsy into consideration. And don’t forget the possibility of developing lung fever.”
“If it’s worse perhaps you ought to try something different.”
Lizzie pressed her lips together. Papa enjoyed exaggerating his condition. She could only hope this was one of those occasions.
“Your pardon.” Papa bowed his head. “The hour is difficult, but we must face the hard facts of the matter. And we absolutely must hold our party as planned.” He shifted on his pillows, reaching beneath the blankets to produce a sheet of paper. At the same time, his tone altered from solemn to the very definition of efficiency. “I’ve taken the liberty of making up the guest list.”
“Papa, you always leave that to me.” Lizzie took the paper. And why, if he was so seriously ill, was he troubling himself with such trivial matters as the guest list? If he mentioned overseeing the week’s menus, she’d know he was in fine fettle. As it was, the moment the party came up, her mind had automatically begun to sift through menu possibilities.
But the moment she scanned the page, suspicion replaced any notion of elegant meals and niggled in the pit of her belly. One after the next, rank upon rank, the list contained the names of men. Only men, unmarried to the last. And Snowley Wilde, her second cousin and Papa’s heir, topped them all.
“Oh, Papa, really.” She passed the page to Pippa.
He nodded. “I see you understand. It is my firm desire to see each of you settled before I slough off this mortal coil. We shall take advantage of our annual party for you to make your selections.”
As if they were attending the village fair in Lindsey Tye and choosing trinkets from the vendors’ booths.
The guest list rattled in Caro’s hand. “You would think, if any of us intended to entertain offers, we’d have done so over the course of any number of London Seasons.”
Six, to be precise, in Lizzie’s case. Five for Caro; four for Pippa.
A benign smile spread across Papa’s thin cheeks. “You will simply have to work harder at bringing a gentleman up to scratch. I’ve every confidence you will if you set your minds to it.”
Lizzie stared hard at her outspoken sister, willing her not to respond. She could already tell what Caro was thinking: You’re assuming any of us wish to bring a gentleman up to scratch.
Lizzie understood Caro’s reluctance to entertain suitors. She enjoyed the freedom of the estate too well to tie herself to a husband who might forbid her from riding across the fields at breakneck speeds. Not to mention her propensity for ditching her sidesaddle whenever she could manage the feat, in favor of riding astride—the better to jump five-foot hedges. If any of them took their family name to heart, it was Caro.
As for Lizzie herself, when Snowley Wilde topped the list of her marital prospects, no one could expect her to rush into a courtship.
Good Lord, Snowley. If she married him, she’d maintain Caro’s access to the land she loved, but as for the rest . . . That meant putting up with Snowley himself. Intimately.
Lizzie suppressed a shudder. Perhaps her reluctance came of knowing the man her entire life. Of recalling him with a finger shoved up his nose or the way he delighted in passing wind when he was twelve. He’d cackled with glee over what he termed his farts.
When she’d made her debut, she’d harbored fantasies of stolen kisses on terraces and gloved fingers trailing across her palm, the touch lingering an instant longer than propriety demanded, in the middle of a reel. At the very least, one ought to feel some inkling of attraction for one’s husband.
No doubt other gentlemen with whom she’d danced and taken turns about the ballroom had exhibited the same sorts of behavior as her cousin when they were younger. Thankfully, she didn’t possess personal knowledge of their doings. That extra layer of mystique made all the difference. She couldn’t close her eyes and call up an image of them as dirty, mud-loving little boys enamored of the sounds their body produced, snot, and bubbies. Every time another man laughed in her presence, she didn’t hear an echo of his unholy cackle.
And that was to say nothing of the fussy, fastidious man her cousin had grown into.
Papa cleared his throat. “If it will sweeten the deal, I will allow you to add a few more gentlemen of your choosing to the list of attendees. I will trust you to ensure they’re respectable. Naturally, you may add enough young ladies to round out the numbers.”
“I will agree on one condition,” Pippa said. “That we do not let Great-aunt Matilda hear a word about this.”
“She’ll be terribly disappointed if you don’t invite her,” Papa replied. “You know how she looks forward to her visits.”
Caro crossed her arms. “That is precisely why she cannot find out about the party. I still haven’t recovered from the last time she stayed with us.”
Neither had Lizzie. Not when their great-aunt had traveled with an entire separate coach full of trunks to house her extensive wardrobe. Not to mention the rather young, brawny footman to cart everything up to her bedchamber—and to see to Matilda’s personal needs. Or so their great-aunt had termed it with a wink and a titter worthy of the greenest society miss.
Pippa mimicked her sister’s stance. “If she brings Sven with her again, she’s sure to cause a scandal.”
Papa looked from one to the other. “Who is Sven?”
“Her footman.” Lizzie squared her shoulders and attempted to make herself look tall and bulky. “I’m not sure he even speaks English.” But Sven was probably able to perform his duties without a strong grasp of English. “Did you not notice she brought a manservant on her last visit?”
“I can’t say that I did.” Because he’d spent most of her visit in bed.
So, for that matter, had Great-aunt Matilda, but Lizzie could hardly point that out. “Even without the manservant the cut of her gowns is far too revealing for a woman her age.”
“No one wants to see that much wrinkly skin,” Caro picked up the argument. “She’ll frighten all our suitors off, and then where will we be?”
“On the shelf.” Pippa nodded sagely. “Perhaps I should learn to spin so I can be a proper spinster.”
Instead of answering, Papa crossed his arms over his belly and drew up his knees until he’d curled himself into a ball on the pillows. A long, miserable groan emanated from the depths of his chest.
Pippa gasped, while Caro’s eyes went round. A jolt of alarm pierced Lizzie through the gut, but somehow she managed to stop her hand shaking long enough to place it back on Papa’s forehead. The skin beneath her palm was cold and clammy. “Papa?”
“My . . . stomach.” Beads of sweat broke out on his upper lip. “Caruthers. My tonic . . . tell him.”
“Your tonics are right here.” Heavens, couldn’t he see the colorful array of glass vials? “Which one do you need?”
A rustle sounded somewhere behind her. One of her sisters had reached for the bellpull.
“Not those. No good. Caruthers . . . knows.”
Lizzie’s pulse hammered harder. “You mean you have other medicines?”
Papa only supplied her with more incoherent groans. Her sisters returned her panicked stare with similar expressions of their own. Papa had always been vocal in his complaints, but they’d never actually witnessed him in any real pain. His face twisted into a grimace that left Lizzie with no doubt this attack—or whatever it was—was real.
Thankfully, the butler came striding into the bedchamber. “Out with you.” Caruthers’s voice carried enough confidence to reassure Lizzie that he could manage this situation. “Now.”
She planted her feet. “What’s wrong with him?”
“His stomach pains him, as he most certainly has claimed.”
Caruthers fixed her with a glare he likely used to cow the junior footmen and scullery maids. “With all due respect, my lady, out.” His glower extended to Pippa and Caro. “All of you.”
Lips trembling, Lizzie crossed into the sitting room. The door closed with an emphatic click of the latch. Caro pressed her ear to the oak panel, and they all waited while the air in the outer chamber thickened.
The silence became heavier until all Lizzie could hear was her own heartbeat. A hand slipped into hers, and her fingers tightened about it reflexively. The weight of Pippa’s head settled on Lizzie’s shoulder.
“He’s actually ill.” Pippa’s whisper echoed through the stillness and pressed on Lizzie’s heart.
She closed her eyes against a sudden burning at their back. No dramatics this time. Papa had told them the truth. He was ill, perhaps dying, which meant they must take his wishes seriously.
Even when those wishes meant she had to consider Snowley’s suit.