Jennings pulled at his collar, which had fit fine up until a few moments ago but now seemed intent on strangling him. A slightly built, middle-aged man with thinning hair, Jennings personified the stereotypical fussy secretary. The Duke of Marlborough valued him for his attention to detail, scrupulous honesty, and unflappable approach to every situation. Now, however, he was betraying his nervousness by pausing and running his hands through his sparse patch of hair before finally knocking on the closed door of the duke's office.
"Yes, what is it?" The voice was distracted and clearly irritated, and Jennings' collar seemed to tighten even more, until he was afraid his voice might squeak when he spoke and he was forced to clear his throat.
"Sir, I apologize for the interruption, but…"
"Jennings, I'm not half finished with the books and I've got three cargo manifests to check before the tide goes out and our ships are delayed another day. If this has anything to do with my mother's request, please let her know I will discuss it with her this evening and not before."
Gideon knew his voice was brusque, but the headache brought on by his monthly fight with his ledgers was hammering gleefully on the inside of his skull. Adding to the pressure was his mother's sudden desire to re-open their country home and host a large garden party fully two months before he'd planned to do so.
"Yes, sir, I will. But…you have a visitor, sir." Jennings cleared his throat again.
Gideon frowned at his secretary as the man's nervousness broke through. Jennings was never nervous, not even when an overexcited captain who'd been let go had appeared in the office with a rather large knife and a vague plan to regain his employment.
"A visitor? Fine, show him in then," he replied, closing the hated ledgers and sitting back from his desk.
"Yes sir, absolutely," the secretary nearly babbled as he backed out of the doorway. Turning, he ran his hand over the top of his head and forced down a vague sense of guilt about the fact that he hadn't warned his employer about who his visitor was.
A few moments later, Gideon found himself rising as a young woman entered his office. With the exception of his mother's occasional visits, the office of Gideon's shipping company had never been graced with the presence of any woman, much less a young and clearly unattached lady of rank.
"My lord, Lady Cameron to see you," Jennings announced, then retreated quickly.
Faith paused in the doorway, faltering for a moment before determination stiffened her spine and she entered the office without waiting for an invitation. The Duke of Marlborough was somewhat bigger than she'd anticipated. She'd known he was handsome - gossip assured her he was rarely without female companionship - but she'd been prepared to attribute his popularity to his title, at least in part. Seeing him for the first time, she realized that his title was likely a secondary consideration to the women he attracted. His hair was the color of roasted chestnuts and worn long enough that it could be tied back at his nape. When he turned his head slightly to acknowledge his secretary, she saw he'd apparently used a bit of string for this purpose. Rugged was the word that came to mind. And dangerous, although she admitted to herself that her current predicament may be influencing that impression.
"My lord, thank you for seeing me," she reached forward as she spoke, relying on a lifetime of training to steady her nerves. The small hand she held out was steady and betrayed nothing.
Automatically, Gideon took her hand in his across the desk and brought it to his lips briefly. "It is my pleasure, I assure you. However, I was not aware that I had any appointments this afternoon." He paused, suddenly wondering if his mother was behind this unexpected visit. The girl was attractive, if not beautiful. Her auburn hair was just a bit too red for current fashion, and she lacked the tall, willowy stature currently in favor.
"We didn't have an appointment, but I did need to speak with you rather urgently, and the nature of my situation made contacting you through traditional channels…well, ill-advised, I suppose you could say." Faith smiled and brought her hands together loosely in front of her. It was a battle to keep from gripping them tightly together, but long practice at hiding her true feelings served her well.
"I see," Gideon replied, motioning toward the tall chair opposite his desk as he sat back in his. He wondered what meaningless court intrigue she was playing a part in. Gideon had learned long ago that even the most innocent face could hide a viper, and while he enjoyed the company of women he held them at arm's length and refused to be drawn into their petty games. He waited silently for her to explain herself, watching her without expression.
Faith sat on the edge of the chair he offered and smoothed her skirt. She'd worn her favorite pale green gown in the hopes of appearing at least somewhat more attractive, but she was beginning to suspect she could have worn rags and it wouldn't have mattered. Worse, now that the moment had come to give him the reason for her intrusion, her stomach was knotting and she could feel her heart beating faster.
"I don't mean to sound melodramatic - I'm not, usually. In fact, my uncle often told me that my sense of drama was as stunted as I…" Color washed over her as Gideon lifted one eyebrow, and somehow that simply made her feel even more idiotic. She took a deep breath and tried again.
"What I mean to say is, I find myself in the position of needing you to make good on an agreement you signed quite some time ago. I had hoped to find another solution, but unfortunately recent events have convinced me that I have no other options."
At the mention of an agreement, Gideon sat up and looked more closely at the young woman sitting across from him. This was starting to feel less like court intrigue and more like an attempt to lure him into some kind of shady business deal. Since his father's death seven years ago, Gideon had been approached several times by associates who automatically assumed that he shared his father's predilection for gambling and questionable deals. The idea that this young girl was part of that world was somehow disappointing, though.
"As I've no memory of any agreement I have not honored, you'll have to enlighten me."
Faith fought the urge to squirm in her chair. Brown eyes shouldn't glow, but that's what his were doing and they made her feel as if she were a bug pinned to a collection board.
"I refer to your agreement to marry me, specifically to the betrothal you agreed to almost seventeen years ago," Faith said calmly, holding her breath as she waited for his reaction.
When he did nothing but raise his eyebrow again, she hurried on, "I realize that my arriving here unannounced is, well, a bit forward…but I felt that handling this situation in person and somewhat privately would be for the best."
Gideon said nothing as his mind raced back to that fall day when he was twelve. The day when he realized that his father was not the man he had childishly believed him to be. The betrothal had been nothing more than a way out of a sticky situation. A way for his father to clear his gambling debts before he lost everything. Gideon had not been made aware of the details but Liam, the son of his father's valet, had overheard his father discussing the situation with his wife and had told him what he knew. No mention had been made of the betrothal since, and Gideon now realized that no one had bothered to tell him his future bride's name - and he hadn't cared to ask.
"I apologize Lady…" he paused as he realized he'd now forgotten the name his secretary had mention only a few minutes ago.
"Cameron. Faith Cameron," she supplied.
"You don't sound Scottish," he remarked, and Faith lifted her eyebrow in an unconscious imitation of him.
"That would most likely be because I was raised in England." Her reply had just the slightest bite to it. It was subtle, but Gideon suspected her calm and demure attitude was a façade. What was hidden behind was the question.
Gideon sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. "So, let me see if I understand the situation so far. You are my long lost betrothed…"
"Hardly lost!" Faith bit her lip subsided as his eyebrow quirked up again. She found herself imagining reaching out and pressing it back into place with her finger, and forced herself to focus.
"Well, if not lost then…somewhat misplaced betrothed, and you have sought me out after seventeen years because you have suddenly discovered a desire to marry?" The sarcasm in his voice was thick and deliberately insulting and Faith let out a derisive snort before she could stop herself.
"Hmmm, you disagree with my assessment?" he asked, amused.
"My lord," and not by my choice, she thought mutinously, "our betrothal was agreed upon by our parents. Although I would have been perfectly content to live with and care for my uncle, recent events have…changed the situation. I'm afraid I must marry, and as quickly as possible. As we are already betrothed, you are my most logical candidate."
All amusement fled. His sense of disappointment was acute - Lady Cameron was not an innocent girl at all, but a cunning woman looking to hide the consequence of indiscretion.
"While I may sympathize with your…situation, I am not in the market for a wife or a ready-made family. And I would suggest that very few men are likely to be willing to accept the role of father to another man's…"
"Sir!" Faith nearly flew from her chair, offended horror painted on her face. "You misunderstand! I am not…I have not…ever! To suggest such a thing - why would you even…" In her anger and distress Faith began pacing around her chair, waving her hands to punctuate each statement, and apparently requiring no response as each thought was cut off by the one following. "He tried to warn me what you were like…I don't know why I thought…"
"Lady Cameron!" Gideon raised his voice to be heard over hers.
She spun around and glared at him. "Don't you ever raise your voice to me, sir!"
"I apologize - both for raising my voice and for assuming something that was apparently completely inappropriate. Please, sit down."
Faith closed her eyes and took a breath to bring her temper back under control. Her uncle had warned her repeatedly about her temper. She sat, but Gideon noticed that she once again was perched on the edge of the chair.
"Let's try this again. Until I can check with my mother, I will assume that you are indeed the person I was betrothed to. Why don't you explain the situation that has suddenly necessitated our marriage?"
"I apologize as well. I have a filthy temper, and I've not had enough practice controlling it. I shouldn't have flown off like that."
"Accepted. Now that we've both apologized for our apparently miserable upbringing, please explain your situation."
Faith's lips quirked at his unexpected humor, and felt some of her tension ease. "You may not be aware, but I was only two years old when we were betrothed." Gideon shook his head - no one had thought to mention her age, either. "Both of my parents were killed in a boating accident when I was seven, and I was sent to live with my Uncle Douglas and Aunt Charlotte, here in England. I was aware of our betrothal, but quite honestly it was assumed that you would not pursue it once your father passed away."
A sudden thought had Gabriel sitting forward. "Were you aware of the circumstances of the betrothal?"
"No, only that my mother and yours had been friends since they were girls, and that the betrothal was a favor of some kind." Gideon relaxed again, surprised to find that it mattered to him whether or not she knew what kind of man his father had been.
"At any rate, as time passed and you remained in London and began to build your shipping company, I was happy to stay with my uncle and care for him. My aunt passed away several years ago, and my uncle's health has never been good. I suppose I assumed I'd never marry, but I hadn't really given it much thought."
"I thought all young ladies dreamt of marriage," Gabriel commented.
"Well, ladies in court likely do, but I've never been and at any rate I've hardly the beauty to attract that sort of attention from the young men I have met."
Her statement was matter-of-fact, but for some reason Gabriel found himself offended on her behalf and he sought to reassure her. "Come now, you're quite…attractive." He winced at the tepid description, even as she laughed.
"Thank you for that…heartfelt compliment! But actually, several months ago a young man did express an interest. He was quite dedicated. He pursued me during outings with my uncle and at lunches and dinners with friends and neighbors." Something in her voice, and the way she phrased her description of the man's interest had Gabriel sitting forward and frowning.
"I…well I decided rather quickly that I was not particularly interested in him. I'm afraid I used our betrothal as an excuse, but he assured me that betrothals were broken all the time. Having already mentioned the betrothal, and being too cowardly to tell him that I simply didn't like him, I assured him that you would never agree to dissolve the betrothal."
"Did that persuade him to direct his attentions elsewhere?" Gideon wasn't surprised when Faith shook her head.
"No. In fact, I'm afraid it actually made things worse. If I'd only told him the truth!" Faith popped up from the chair again to pace. "I'm not usually that timid, but I simply couldn't bring myself to tell him I didn't want to see him - socially or otherwise! Especially otherwise!" Gideon saw her shudder. She might not have realized it, but her instincts had been warning her to avoid angering this unwanted suitor.
"What did he do?" Gideon asked the question quietly, but she jerked to a stop behind the chair as if he'd yelled it. Her face paled, but she didn't wonder how he knew to ask.
"He…he kidnapped me, actually." She took a deep breath as the memory of fear and helplessness threatened her composure. "He came to my room in the night and forced me to leave with him. I tried to reason with him, I reminded him that my uncle would be expecting me at breakfast and when I wasn't able to be found he'd certainly alert the authorities, but I suppose he didn't see that as a particular concern. After we'd ridden for several hours, I convinced him that I was starving and we stopped at a roadside inn." She began walking around the office, wandering to different items in the room to touch and examine them as she spoke, her voice and attitude suggesting this was simply an interesting story that had happened to someone else. Gideon was certain she didn't realize her hands were shaking.
"During lunch I pointed out that no clergy would marry us, but he assured me that there would be no problem. I realized he meant to…that he intended to…" Faith blushed hotly, "put me a position in which marriage was required."
"And he actually expected you to agree to this plan?" Gabriel asked, skeptically.
"No, I think…well I think my agreement wasn't any more of a concern to him than the authorities were. He asked me several questions about my family, and eventually my inheritance. I'd heard rumors when he'd first arrived in the neighborhood. Rumors that he was penniless and living on money his father gave him, but that his father was threatening to cut him off. I realized what he was after."
Faith nodded, "Exactly. I decided he wasn't entirely…stable. I told him I needed a moment of privacy, and he let me leave through the back door of the common room. I don't think it occurred to him that I might not come back. I found the innkeeper's wife doing laundry and explained my predicament. I was worried she might not believe me but the bruises convinced her."
"What bruises?" Gabriel frowned.
"On my wrists and arms. He'd yanked my wrists several times when I didn't move fast enough to suit him, and he had quite a hard grip on my arms as well. At any rate, it was lucky they were visible because I didn't have to waste time convincing her that my tale was true. Her daughter hid me in their wagon and drove me back to my uncle's home. I realized that I couldn't stay there, and that was when I realized that the only real solution was to make my cowardly lie true." Her wanderings had brought her back to her chair, and she stopped behind it. Gabriel wondered if she realized she was using it as a shield.
"I see. You think that by announcing our intention to marry, your overzealous suitor will move on to greener, more available pastures." He watched her bite her lip and frown.
"No. I think if that were going to work he never would have taken me in the first place."
Gabriel agreed, but he'd wondered if she'd thought her situation through that far. "Then what are you suggesting, exactly?'She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye, "Marry me."