Gabriel waited until the last of the dinner dishes had been cleared and desert had been served to bring up the day’s surprise to his mother. She’d wanted to discuss opening the country manor, and although he had no intention of doing so he was willing to listen to her arguments. And, he admitted, he wasn’t ready to bring up a time that he knew she didn’t like to remember.
When his mother mentioned a good friend of hers, he took the opportunity to talk to her about Lady Cameron. “Mother, what was the name of the girl you betrothed me to, all those years ago?”
His mother looked at him without speaking for a moment, her eyes wide, before she regained her composure. “Gabriel, I can’t think what brought this up. Why would it matter now?”
“I was reminded of it today, and realized that no one ever told me her name, and I don’t remember seeing it anywhere.”
She sighed and looked at her half-finished tart. “Faith Cameron, Lady Cameron…if she hasn’t married by now.”
“You were friends with her mother, is that right?” he persisted.
“Gabriel, I can’t think what has brought on this sudden curiosity! What does it matter, after all this time!” She rose from her chair and dropped her napkin on the abandoned tart.
“She came to see me today, Mother.”
Gideon’s quiet statement had an alarming effect on his mother. She paled and sat heavily on her chair, her hand at her throat, then struggled for an air of nonchalance, “Oh really? Well, she must be visiting London with her husband.”
Gideon watched his mother with interest – this was not the reaction he’d expected. “She’s not married, Mother.”
His eyebrow quirked as she actually lost more color, and her hands wrung the napkin she’d picked up again. “A…a widow at that young age? How sad…” she trailed to a stop as Gideon shook his head.
“She’s never been married, Mother.” He watched her knot the fabric of the napkin. “She’d like to be though.”
“I don’t suppose…is she engaged then?”
“Yes,” his mother’s relief was visible. “To me, actually.” His mother sprang from her seat as if she’d been pinched.
“No! You realize you have no legal obligation…that after all this time with no indication that she intended to pursue the betrothal, she simply can’t expect that you are going to marry her!”
Gideon watched his mother, “Actually, I was thinking that it is past time for me to marry. As she pointed out, we are already betrothed so it’s convenient if nothing else.”
The duchess paced the room, reminding him strongly of Lady Cameron in her office. After a few moments she stopped pacing and faced him. “I simply won’t have it Gideon. If you can’t put her off then I will! The idea of her simply appearing out of nowhere and insisting that you marry her is completely ridiculous,” she stated emphatically, and fisted her hands on her hips to glare at him.
Gideon circled the table and took her by the elbow to guide her into the sitting room. Lady Marlborough sank onto the couch and barely resisted the urge to drop her head into her hands and cry.
“Mother, perhaps now would be the time to discuss my ‘betrothal.’” He poured himself a brandy he didn’t actually want and sat in a chair opposite the fire.
His mother sighed, and nodded. “I had hoped that we would never have to discuss this. Especially once Elizabeth – Lady Cameron’s mother – was killed with her husband. I thought it would be forgotten. I knew Elizabeth had no intention of pressing the betrothal, she’d merely agreed to it to save my pride.” Her hands knotted in her lap. “My pride! That’s what’s landed you in this mess! If I’d agreed to accept the loan she and her husband offered, you wouldn’t be facing marriage to some homely girl you’ve never met!”
Gideon’s laughter startled her. “I’d like to point out that you haven’t met the girl either, and yet you have already decided that she’s homely.”
Lady Marlborough sighed and relaxed back against the cushions. “You’re right, of course. It’s just that this is such a shock. Is…is she homely?” she asked.
“No, she’s not. She’s not beautiful, but…well, she’s not homely.” He shrugged and arrowed in on what he wanted his mother to tell him. “Explain the betrothal, Mother.”
She stared into the fire for a moment and wondered how to explain her husband’s weakness to her son. “How much do you already know?”
“Some, but not all. I know there were gambling debts, and that Father was around the manor more than usual. Everyone was a bit grim, and the servants walked on eggshells. After the betrothal, Father went back to London…and you didn’t.” He watched his mother carefully, and it seemed that for a moment her age sat heavily on her.
“Liam told you.” She didn’t need to see his nod to know she was right. They’d been inseparable as boys and Liam had always been talented at finding out things he wasn’t supposed to know. He was just as nosy now that he was Gideon’s valet.
“Your father…your father loved us very much. I want you to know that, to remember that.” She spoke with a peculiar fervency that struck at Gideon’s heart. “But, as much as he loved us, he was not a strong man. He was easily influenced and often didn’t think ahead to the consequences of his actions. When he was a young man, his rakish habits were exciting to me. After we’d married, and particularly after you were born, I began to realize he had no intention of changing those ways. He spent more and more time in London, gambling, and less time at home.”
She rose and walked to the dark windows to look out at the rain falling on London. “I begged him to spend more time at home, more time with us, and he would…for a time. Then he’d get bored or one of his friends would stop by and he’d be off again. I was frustrated, I suppose, so I wasn’t as loving toward him when he did come home. That didn’t help entice him to stay. Then suddenly, that summer you were twelve, he came home and didn’t leave. I kept expecting him to, but after several months he was still there, and I started to hope that he’d finally changed. Maybe that’s why it hurt so badly when I realized he hadn’t.
“Elizabeth had come home from Scotland to visit family and had gone to the jeweler to buy a gift for her aunt. She saw a broach she’d given me for my birthday - the year you were born, in fact - at the shop, and although the jeweler wouldn’t tell her who he’d received it from, she knew it was mine. She bought it and brought it to me, wanting to know why I hadn’t told her our financial situation was so dire. I stared at the jewels glittering on that broach, and my heart broke.” She sighed deeply and returned to the sofa to sit.
“I confronted your father when he returned that night. I wasn’t kind, or understanding, or gentle. You know my temper.” Gabriel smiled slightly and nodded. “When I was finished screaming at him he told me the truth. Not only had he lost every penny we’d had gambling, he’d signed away our home. If he couldn’t raise the funds to pay back the loans he’d gotten to cover the losses, we were going to lose everything. I was so angry, and so sad, I couldn’t think. I rode to Elizabeth’s home, just as I’d done when we were children and something had upset me. When I’d told her everything she offered a loan, but I knew we’d never be able to pay it back. I had some money I’d hidden from your father, my own money, but it wasn’t enough. I refused, and her solution was to suggest the betrothal to your father. I never expected him to agree, Gideon, but he did! And now your life is ruined because of his weakness!” Now she did give in to the urge to bury her face in her hands. Hot tears flowed as she felt Gideon’s weight on the couch next to her and his arm around her shoulders.
“Is that why you never returned to London with him? You couldn’t forgive him for agreeing to the betrothal?” He sighed as she nodded and turned to lean her head against his shoulder. “Mother, I’ve known about Father’s …weaknesses, for a long time.”
His mother jerked away and stared at him as her hands dropped to her lap. “What did you say?”
He nodded and took her hands in his. “He used to hide his gambling notes in my bedroom. He knew you wouldn’t look there.” He tightened his grip on her hands as she shook her head in horrified denial. “Three days after he died, one of his…associates…paid me a visit at my office. Father had been in business with him, of a sort, and he naturally assumed I would be interested in continuing that association.”
Lady Marlborough closed her eyes. “Oh, Gideon. And I thought I’d done such a good job of protecting you.”
“Mother,” he cut in sharply, “this is not your doing. And as far as Lady Cameron is concerned . . . well, I certainly know how to put a marriage-minded woman off if I’ve a mind to. But this situation is more complicated than a forgotten betrothal,” and he quickly explained Lady Cameron’s predicament.
“Well,” she said after a moment’s thought, “I must admit I’m having some difficulty imagining all of this.”
“I did some discreet checking after she left. Her uncle did indeed go to the authorities when no one was able to find her, and then dropped the matter the next day with no explanation. It was assumed that there was some sort of misunderstanding and that his age and infirmity led him to overreact. I also discovered that her unwelcome suitor is the Viscount Melville.”
The Duchess frowned, “I know that name. I’ve heard it somewhere.”
“The way your friends gossip, I would expect you’ve heard everyone’s name somewhere!” Gideon interjected wryly.
His mother slapped his arm, “We do not gossip, Gideon! We simply discuss current events. Events! That’s where I’ve heard of the Viscount Melville – his father sponsored a horse race and the Viscount was caught trying to poison a competitor’s horse.”
“From what I was told, his father has threatened to cut him off completely unless he marries and settles down,” Gideon said. “Apparently it occurred to him that marrying a woman with money would soften that blow.”
“The man is a lunatic!” his mother declared. “I don’t see how your marriage to a complete stranger is going to convince him to leave Elizabeth’s daughter alone. It seems to me that he’s already shown that he intends to have her at any cost!”
“Actually marrying Lady Cameron may not be necessary. If her reputation weren’t at stake I’d simply bring in the authorities, but if word gets out that she traveled with him to a roadside inn…”
His mother nodded, her face grim. “The fact that he kidnapped her won’t matter - she’ll be ruined in society. Even if she intends to bury herself in the countryside with her uncle, it would be a disaster. Her friends may stand by her, but the community? No doubt Melville is counting on that to keep her quiet.”
“That was my thought as well. The question at hand is what to do about it. Melville is sure to find her again, and next time he’ll have the confidence of knowing she doesn’t dare object.” Gideon rose and walked to the fireplace.
“What is she like, Elizabeth’s daughter?” his mother asked. “I saw her briefly at the betrothal, but she was just a baby at the time. I believe I remember pale hair, and unusual eyes?”
Gideon shrugged, “I don’t remember meeting her then. Her hair is darker now, but her eyes are still unusual...a sort of light green color. She’s animated – she talks with her hands just as you do. My impression of her was that she was intelligent…and more composed than I would have expected from a girl her age who’d never spent time at court.”
Lady Marlborough watched her son for a moment, then decided to take a gamble. “Well, I suppose ff we worked quickly, I believe we can have a wedding in two or three weeks,” his mother remarked thoughtfully, injecting a note of reluctance.
Gideon turned slowly to frown at his mother. “There are plenty of other options for handling Melville that do not include tying myself to a girl I’ve known less than a day. There’s no point in even discussing marriage until all other avenues have been exhausted.”
“Absolutely! I’m glad to see you’ve given this some thought.”
“Besides – the girl deserves better than to be married to a complete stranger simply because of one man’s insanity. She may not think she wants to marry now, but no doubt she’ll meet someone who will change her mind about that.”
“Very true, particularly after she’s spent some time in London society. You know how charming the young men can be!” Lady Marlborough stole a glance at her son’s face and hid a smile at the frown she saw.
“I doubt she’ll find a match in the young men here in London! She’s far too intelligent to put up with their inane chatter and meaningless lives.” He put his full brandy glass on the mantel, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants.
“You may be right, but even if she’s as plain as you described, I’m sure her money will motivate at least a few offers.”
Gideon’s hands fisted in his pockets as he turned back to his mother. “And how will that be an improvement? She’ll be in the same position with them as she was with Melville. And she’s not plain,” he muttered as an afterthought.
“She’s not? Well, after the way you described her I suppose I just assumed she was.” Lady Marlborough pressed her lips together to keep from smiling in delight at his defence.
“No, I mean she’s not beautiful – not in the typical way – but there’s something about her.” Gideon shook his head and continued, “She lights up somehow.”
His mother thought a moment longer and nodded as she reached her decision. She stood and crossed to the fireplace to lay her hand on his arm. Smiling up at him she said gently, “Gideon, I believe I’ve changed my mind. I think you should marry her…for her sake of course.”
He looked down at his mother’s face and remembered another face, pale and composed and brave. “Are you seriously suggesting I sacrifice my bachelorhood to marry a girl I don’t know, without even trying to resolve it any other way?”
“I am suggesting,” she replied, thinking quickly, “that a marriage of convenience…in name only…would protect her reputation as well as give you the authority, as her husband, to deal with Melville. Once Melville is taken care of, she can return to her uncle’s home and you can remain here with your business pursuits . . . without the added distraction of women who can’t resist trying for a prime catch such as yourself.”
Gideon stared down at his mother, and slowly nodded in agreement, “A marriage of convenience – a suitable response to a betrothal of convenience, I suppose.” Tension knotted his shoulders as he considered what his mother was suggesting. Reluctantly, he asked, “If I have her sent for tomorrow, how quickly do you think you can plan a wedding?”
She hid her smile, and considered. “Two weeks, minimum, for a proper wedding. You know…the country manor would be ideal for this, with all that space and the beautiful gardens.”
Gideon just shook his head and started for the door. “If I didn’t know better I’d swear this was all an elaborate plan just for you to have your way about the manor!” As he reached the doorway a thought had him turning back, “You realize, don’t you, that if I follow your plan the line will die with me. I won’t be providing you any grandchildren.”
Lady Marlborough shrugged but said nothing, and he turned back to cross the hallway and climb the stairs, calling for Liam as he went. He may be the image of his father, she thought, but her son was not weak. “Yes, you will.”