Lady Tabitha Kerr stood just outside the door to her father’s sickroom, trying to catch her breath. Although he had never been particularly demonstrative, her father was a good man. She knew this. It was why she had spent a lifetime trying her hardest to please him. And yet what the marquess was forcing his only child to do would confine Tabitha to a life of misery.
She rolled back her shoulders. She could no longer postpone the inevitable. She was a lady now. It was time to act like one. Tabitha tapped her knuckles against the door. It opened instantly. Mr. Hudson Frampton had beaten all other servants to the soft knock. Or else he’d been standing within reach of the handle, which was unlikely. Her betrothed’s guard dog never left his employer’s side, except to follow a direct order. Mr. Frampton always seemed to be everywhere at once, and capable of absolutely anything.
At the moment, he was gazing at her gravely. His solemn expression did nothing to lessen his distracting handsomeness. He was no gentleman, and it showed. His brown hair was a little too long, his cravat creased carelessly, his strong jaw already shadowed with stubble at three o’clock in the
afternoon. The omnipresent air of danger emanated from his conspicuous muscles.
He looked like a highwayman, not a viscount’s man of business. Though perhaps the two roles were not so dissimilar. A highwayman robbed passing carriages. Lord Oldfield’s infamous man of business had his fingers in every investment opportunity in London, often reaping greater rewards for the viscount than enjoyed by the poor souls who owned or executed the various operations.
“He’s waiting for you,” Mr. Frampton said softly, his dark brown eyes unreadable.
“Don’t you mean they’re waiting for me?” Lady Tabitha murmured, her correction tinged with bitterness. Viscount Oldfield might be Mr. Frampton’s employer, but both men were in the sickroom of Tabitha’s father.
Mr. Frampton’s dark eyes glittered. “You are, of course, correct. My apologies.”
“It’s all right,” she mumbled under her breath.
It was not all right. Life as she knew it would soon be over. The father she adored, dead. And the sly viscount of equally advanced age standing at the marquess’s bedside… would soon own Tabitha outright, thanks to the legal glories of holy matrimony.
Mr. Frampton stepped aside to let her in.
Tabitha pasted on a smile and went straight to her father, passing both the odious Viscount Oldfield and the kindly physician Dr. Collins in her hurry to kiss her father’s pale forehead and assure herself he would not be leaving her this day, at least.
“Daughter,” the marquess rasped. “A welcome sight for sore eyes.” Her own eyes stung. That was one of the kindest things he had ever said to her. Perhaps confronting his mortality had likewise caused him to cherish the sole familial connection he had left.
“Always my pleasure, Father.” She lifted his frail hand in hers and sent a questioning look toward the physician.
“Stable,” Dr. Collins pronounced, loud enough for the marquess to hear. Then he dropped his white-whiskered mouth to Tabitha’s ear. “But not for long. A month or two, at best. And at worst…”
She pulled her ear away before she could hear the rest of the good doctor’s diagnosis. Tabitha patted her father’s hand instead. A wasting disease was one of the worst ways to die. It stretched on too long. Day after day of knowing death was coming, wiggling its hook in a little more with each passing breath.
It had been two months already. When her father was first diagnosed, they had thought the marquess might hold on for six more months, mayhap another year. But he grew weaker by the day and had been bed-bound for over a month, unable to rise without assistance. This past week, her father had ceased being able to feed himself. The effort of lifting a cup or a fork was too much. Every limb trembled, and every part of him ached.
Tabitha hated seeing him like this. He’d once been so vibrant. Afternoons spent fencing with his friends, or riding his favorite stallion in the park. As much as she appreciated having the opportunity to say goodbye, watching her father die a little more each day was torture.
For his sake, she wished a swift end to his suffering. But for her sake… Father’s inevitable demise was the worst thing that could happen. “You haven’t… greeted your… betrothed,” rasped the marquess. Tabitha gritted her teeth behind a brittle smile and turned the pleasantest face she could muster toward Viscount Oldfield—who, it must be noted, had not greeted her either.
According to legend, such lack of manners was one of the many reasons their families had warred for generations. Both sides believed the other beneath them. Neither side was willing to bend.
Until Father. Bless him and curse him.
Tabitha did not curtsey to her betrothed. “Lord Oldfield. Please forgive my tardiness in greeting you.”
The viscount ran his eyes over her as though he were imagining her naked. “Bah. I’ve no need for a wife who talks,” he murmured, too low for her father to overhear.
Yes. This man thirty-plus years her senior desired her for reasons unrelated to conversation.
Such was her impending marital bliss.
She turned and dropped to her knees beside her father’s sickbed. “Papa, surely you can see—”
“This union will heal a centuries-old rift,” he reminded her, sensing the direction of her plea and putting a stop to it before she could embarrass them both in front of the viscount. “You should be proud to be a vessel of peace.”
A vessel. That was exactly what she was going to be. A hard, empty vessel for Lord Oldfield to fill at his whim and to use as he saw fit. Such unceasing attentions might break her.
“He’s a lord,” the marquess said hoarsely. “You should be grateful I’ve given you to such a fine friend. You might recall that Oldfield saved my life. I can never fully repay him for that. From the moment he and I first guarded the trenches together—”
Another war story. Heaven save her, Lady Tabitha had heard them all, dozens or hundreds of times each.
Father and Viscount Oldfield had met as British soldiers stationed together in the French revolutionary war, in the early 1790s. They’d both been raised to despise the other’s family, but nonetheless had become unlikely friends, united against a common foe. And when it had mattered most, Oldfield had been there for the marquess.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Father continued.
Tabitha wanted to scream, You wouldn’t betroth your daughter to your brother, much less whilst still in the womb, but she held silent. It didn’t matter what she said. Father was the marquess, and his word was law.
“Besides,” her father said gently. “You’ve always hated to see people upset or at odds. Your marriage will wipe clean a century of bigotry and prejudice. You should be proud to play such an important role, daughter. You love to restore peace. And a titled match makes you the envy of your peers. You have better fortune than most.”
Yes, yes, all of that was true, but…
Still on her knees at her father’s side, Tabitha cast a despairing glance up at Viscount Oldfield. He leered at her, displaying the multicolored teeth jockeying in his mouth. He’d lost several in the war. All of which had been replaced by teeth scavenged from the French corpses littering the battlefield.
She would get to think of that every time the viscount kissed her. Tabitha shuddered. She couldn’t help it.
“It’s your turn to serve the greater good, daughter.” Father tilted his head toward the viscount. “Can you procure a special license?” “No!” Tabitha scrambled to her feet. “I cannot marry yet. I’m not ready. This is… It isn’t a good time. In fact, I won’t have a free moment for a fortnight. I’m…” What could she conceivably be doing that would be more important than marrying a viscount? “I-I’ve already promised to attend the May Day festival in Marrywell. It lasts a week, and I must leave by morning to arrive for the opening ceremony.”
Father held her gaze, then cast his exhausted eyes up toward Dr. Collins. “If we read the banns first, what are the chances I will live long enough to attend the wedding ceremony?”
Tabitha sagged with relief—and guilt. She did not wish to disappoint her father or to cause him pain. A good daughter knew her duty and
fulfilled it without question. Was she being selfish by not rushing into an unwanted marriage with a lecherous roué over twice her age? “Shall you last another three weeks, milord? I should think so,” said the physician. “You’re not quite at death’s door yet.”
“But I have arrived outside its residence,” the marquess said dryly, only to be wracked by a rattling cough.
Viscount Oldfield jerked his gaze toward his attack dog. “Hudson, see that the first banns are read tomorrow.”
Mr. Frampton nodded. “It will be done.”
Lady Tabitha let out her breath. The banns would be read three consecutive Sundays. Fifteen days total, from the first reading to the last. It was not much of a reprieve, but it was at least something.
“Oldfield,” rasped the marquess. “Procure a special license as well. If I should worsen faster than expected…”
Tabitha swallowed. Her final fortnight of freedom would be curtailed in a second if there was cause to believe her father unable to hold on for the full reading of the banns.
“Consider it done,” Mr. Frampton assured both men, without looking at Tabitha.
The marquess’s pale blue eyes found his daughter. “Daughter…” “I know, Father,” she murmured. “I promise to make you proud.” Even if it destroyed any hope of her own happiness.
Seeing his only child wed to his old comrade-in-arms was the marquess’s literal dying wish. The marriage would bring peace after generations of fighting. And the promise had already been made.
Only a monster would prioritize her own selfish preferences above the wishes of her dying father and the peace and happiness her sacrifice would bring future generations.
She sighed. A daughter’s duty was to her father. Any other, less privileged young lady wouldn’t even view this marriage as a sacrifice.
Viscount Oldfield was wealthy and titled. An unattainable dream, for most. A coup Tabitha had lucked into from birth, no effort required. She was fortunate. The envy of debutantes everywhere, who would take her place at the altar in a heartbeat.
Tabitha wished she could let them.
“As it happens,” said Viscount Oldfield, as he resumed his open leering, “I have plans to attend the May Day festival as well.”
The viscount dipped his eyes toward Tabitha’s bodice. “You can ride with me.”
An eight-hour drive trapped in a private carriage with him? Untenable. “Of course,” the viscount continued, “I cannot leave until Wednesday —”
Tabitha seized on the opening. “I cannot wait that long. I’ve several appointments to keep, and must be off at first light. I’m very sorry the timing doesn’t—”
Viscount Oldfield gestured at Mr. Frampton. “Go with her.” “What? There’s no need to send your—” Attack dog. “—man of business,” she protested. “Mr. Frampton belongs with you. Besides, I already have a maid. One who is well-versed in playing chaperone.” “Tabitha,” gasped the marquess. “Do as your future husband commands. You will soon vow to love and obey him. It wouldn’t hurt to start practicing that obedience now.”
She ground her teeth behind a tight smile. “Very well. I’ll take Mr. Frampton. We’ll meet you at the festival, Lord Oldfield.”
His eyes still hadn’t left her bodice. “See that you do.”
Tabitha nodded woodenly. Her fortnight of freedom had become anything but free. Instead, she was trapped.
Tomorrow’s long journey was the beginning of the end.