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Authors: May Burnett

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A Priceless Gift: A Regency Romance

BOOK: A Priceless Gift: A Regency Romance
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A Priceless Gift

A Regency Romance

 

May Burnett

Chapter 1

 

Northumberland, 1811

 

“It looks like you’ll live.” Lucian contemplated the wan, clammy face of his old friend, so different from the fresh-faced boy with whom he had romped and played three decades ago. “Though, at the moment, that may not feel desirable.”

Mark Prendergast groaned and shut bloodshot eyes against the morning light. Almost noon light, in fact, for he had not woken from his drunken slumber for many hours.

“This is not like you.” Lucian kept his voice soft. “My servants tell me that it is the very first time you were found dead drunk in a ditch. They were scandalised to see the respectable Mr. Prendergast in such a state, but no doubt there is some good reason. I suppose you found out your Ellen played you false after all these years?”

Lucian had always regarded Mark’s early marriage for ‘love’ as the one example of marital fidelity and happiness among his wide acquaintance, but appearances were so often deceiving.

“Worse than that.” Mark turned his head to the wall. To Lucian’s dismay, a tear rolled down his unshaven cheek.

What could be worse than your wife of two decades playing you false? Finding out that your children were not yours? That you had a fatal disease and only weeks to live? Apart from the symptoms of inebriation, Mark seemed hale enough.

“Tell me,” Lucian commanded. “Perhaps it is not as bad as all that. Whatever it may be, it will not go any further.”

Mark did not immediately reply. At last he sighed deeply. “I suppose there is little point in trying to hide things at this point. It’s Amanda, my eldest.”

“What about her?” A swift mental calculation told Lucian that the chit had to be eighteen. A dangerous age. He had not seen Mark’s children for years, since an awkward
al fresco
luncheon when Mrs. Prendergast had made it clear that she only received him under protest. He vaguely remembered that Mark had several girls with reddish-brown curls as well as two sons who must still be in school.

“Ellen spent a few weeks with her brother’s family in Sussex recently. Sir Roderick and Lady Budleigh, you likely won’t know them. Amanda went with her, it seemed only natural now that she’s out. They’ve been back for five weeks. On Monday, Eve’s governess reported her suspicions of what turned out to be the dreadful truth. Amanda is with child. The poor girl is ruined. We are
all
ruined.”

“Not if you get the culprit to marry her.” Unfortunate, but such things happened with depressing frequency. With enough money, one could usually find a face-saving solution. Of course Mark did not possess a fraction of the resources Lucian commanded.

Mark’s hands clenched into fists. “If only it were that easy! Amanda thought she had a stomach flu. The news that she was with child came as a nasty shock to her. Ellen had never bothered to explain the signs.”

Lucian blinked. “But then how -?”

“According to Amanda, my cursed brother-in-law cornered her in a deserted part of the house and forced himself on her despite her protests and struggles. His own niece! Afterwards, he threatened her with ruin if she breathed a word to anyone, and she believed him. Well, it
is
ruin, right enough. As a married man, and related to boot, he is not in any position to make an honest woman out of her.”

“It was just the one time?”

“According to Amanda, but Ellen absolutely refuses to believe her. She cannot think her brother capable of such an action, says Amanda would have told her at the time if it had been true, and accused the child of lying. She was on the verge of throwing her out of the house if I had not intervened. Instead, I packed Ellen and the younger girls off to her sister Mary. It was not easy.”

Ellen was used to getting her own way, from what Lucian had observed. A bad business all around. “What will you do about Roderick?” Duels were illegal and falling out of favour, but surely such a crime could not be avenged otherwise, even if Mark was the sole support of his wife and five children. No wonder he looked desperate.

“What
can
I do? The bastard will deny everything, and if I bruit the matter about, the disgrace will only fall back on us. I love my daughter, Lucian. The only solution is to marry Amanda off to anyone who will have her now. That is what I tried to arrange last night.” He winced in memory.

From the way the night had ended in drunken stupor, his mission had not prospered. “Who did you have in mind?”

“That half-pay officer who rents Bell Cottage from you, Captain Lennox. When he heard the details he began to bluster that he was above selling his name, and refused to link his honourable family to a fallen woman. He offered to do it, in the end, if I tripled Amanda’s dowry from five to fifteen thousand pounds. I said I needed to think it over, to keep him quiet for the moment, but I simply don’t have that much. The school fees for the boys are considerable, and even if I could scrape together or borrow fifteen thousand for Amanda, there would be nothing at all left for her younger sisters.”

Mark’s voice was as bleak as his situation. That half-pay officer would not hesitate to spread the scandal all over the county if his demands were not met. “I am not acquainted with this tenant, but Lennox hardly sounds the kind of husband you would have wished for your daughter.”

“No, but at this point, what else can I do? He may make her life hell, but being an unwed mother with an illegitimate child would be much worse. I suppose he’ll make her give the child away. Anyone would.”

“It is hardly to be supposed she’ll want to keep it,” Lucian pointed out. “Not when she is only eighteen herself, barely out of the schoolroom.”

“Amanda is a good-hearted girl. Later she may come to regret giving up even this child. My first grandchild, dammit. I am not old enough for this.”

Mark was a year older than Lucian, thirty-nine, and when sober and well-rested he looked young for his age. Not a typical grandfather, no.

“How far along is the girl?”

“It cannot be much more than two months. She’s not showing yet.” Mark regarded him blearily. “Why do you ask?”

Lucian hesitated. He often acted on momentary inspiration and rarely regretted following his whims, but was he about to commit a great mistake? On the other hand, the situation offered a chance to atone for his inability to save Amaryllis. The names were even similar—Amaryllis, Amanda.
Then
he had been too young and ignorant to prevent a tragedy. And it was not as though he was about to make any great sacrifice.

“If the case is as desperate as all that, I could marry your daughter.”

Mark’s mouth stood open. “
You?
But . . . the title . . . it would save us, but have you
considered
?”

“Never mind about the title.” With luck, the child would be a girl, and the title would die out, as it should. “It concerns me more that I am twenty years your daughter’s senior.”

“As though that mattered at a time like this!”

“It may matter eventually. I had better talk to her myself before we buy a license.”

“You would do that? But what of her child?”

“It will have my name.”

Mark stared at him incredulously. “But if it is a boy, he will inherit the earldom!”

Lucian shrugged, unwilling to explain why he could not care less. “I suggest that you talk to your daughter. If she has no objections, we can marry immediately. As this is her home parish, a simple license from the vicar will do. The less prematurely this child arrives, the less gossip there should be.” Though there would inevitably be some talk. It was unfortunate that he had only arrived in Northumberland a week earlier, so any pretence that the child was truly his would not be credible there. In town, where it mattered, they would simply have to fudge the dates.

“About the dowry, Lucian—”

“Five thousand will be perfectly adequate, and there is no hurry.” Lucian would have told his friend he could keep even that, but the girl would not want to come to her husband quite empty-handed. Mark also had his pride, when not bowed down by disaster. “I shall settle a sufficient sum on her to ensure she’ll never want for anything.” Given the age difference, Amanda might well outlive him by a considerable margin.

“If you truly mean it, you have saved us. I shall never be able to thank you enough.”

“Amanda has yet to agree,” Lucian reminded him, though he had little expectation of a refusal. In her predicament, the poor girl had no viable options. She would be a countess, not a bad match for the daughter of a modest country squire. “Unless I hear from you to the contrary, I shall wait upon her tomorrow at eleven. In the meantime, I had better make sure that greedy captain keeps his mouth shut.”

“Will you? Err, can you?”

Lucian smiled grimly. “Leave him to me.”

Chapter 2

 

Amanda stood with her face towards the window, waiting for her father’s friend to call. She had seen Lord Rackington from afar a few times, when he visited his nearby estate every now and then, but could not remember ever speaking to the earl. Yet if her father was to be believed, within the week he would be her husband.

What was wrong with a man who remained unwed for decades and then decided to marry an old friend’s hopelessly disgraced and ruined daughter, sight unseen? A girl with her own uncle’s child inexorably swelling in her womb? At that thought, nausea threatened to return, and she took several deep gulps of air until her sick revulsion passed. She did not want any child and, most definitely, no child fathered by Uncle Roderick, whom she had grown to hate with white-hot passion.

What if the babe should turn out to be like
him
? The kind of man who appeared friendly and avuncular until he came upon you alone and defenceless? Who blandly explained the scratch on his face afterwards as having bumped against a tree? He was so unconcerned, so offhand, that Amanda herself had almost come to doubt her recollection of his brutality.

After that horrible quarter-hour, she made sure never again to be trapped alone with him. But that one time had been enough to take away all her choices. It was why she was even now waiting to receive the addresses of this earl she did not know except by reputation. And what a reputation!

All varieties of debauchery and vice were attributed to Lord Rackington.
Lord Rake
, some of their neighbours called him, though her father would never listen to anyone disparaging his boyhood friend. Would he expect her to participate in orgies? Perhaps he found it convenient to acquire a bride who must be forever grateful and humble, who would not be in a position to object to anything he might do or ask of her.

Not the kind of marriage she had dreamed of, but thanks to Uncle Roderick, her naïve hopes of mutual love and affection were forever out of reach. She had to be eternally grateful, her father had stressed, that Lord Rackington was willing to take her and even bring up that unwanted babe.

But try as she might, she did not feel grateful for that part. She would have to see it every day, unless she could yet convince the Earl to give the babe away to some farmer’s family. Surely he could not want it any more than she did.

The Prendergasts had never employed a butler, like more pretentious households, so it was the parlour maid who led Lord Rackington inside. Amanda heard voices from the direction of his father’s study. Five minutes later, her father brought his visitor to the morning room.

Amanda’s mouth was dry. With an effort, she refrained from wringing her icy hands. The Earl did not look precisely old—he was in his late thirties still, her Father had said—but so very different from the ideal young man she had dreamed of. Tall and elegant, he did not fit into their commonplace, slightly shabby room. If he was such an alien element in her native environment, would not
she
also be a misfit in his sophisticated world?

“Miss Prendergast.” The aristocratic drawl fit his bearing. “If you would be so kind to grant me a short interview?”

Kind?
As though she had any choice. At least he was polite, if not sincere. Amanda swallowed painfully. “Of course, my lord.”

Her father left then with an admonishing glance back. He need not have worried. She knew her duty.

“You are in an unfortunate position,” Lord Rackington said in a low voice. “From what your father said, through no fault of your own.” Was that a questioning look? Did he want her to confirm that she had been forced? She did not want to discuss the matter again, ever, especially with this overpowering stranger. She set her teeth and said nothing, but kept her eyes steadily on his.

After a moment, he went on, “Society demands a sacrifice in such situations, I believe, in the form of a wedding. Afterwards, it would be up to you to pick up the pieces of your life and see if anything can yet be made of them. Miss Prendergast, are you willing to entrust yourself to me?”

“I am obliged to you for your generous offer,” she said, her voice raw, “but I fail to see
why
you make it. We are strangers to each other. And I am with child.”

“I know.” He took her cold hand in his larger, much warmer one. “It needs a name.”

“I would prefer not to keep it,” she said fiercely. “It will always remind me of an occasion—and a man—that I loathe.”

“Yet your babe is entirely innocent of the sire’s offense. Your bitterness is understandable, but I hope you can overcome it in time. Sending the child away to live among strangers is not acceptable. Babes rarely survive under such conditions. You would have to obey me in this, and in other things.”

The assertion of authority was not unexpected. All men were like that. It was odd that the earl wanted to take on the child, but maybe she need not see it very often, once it was banished to a nursery.

The silence lengthened, grew distinctly awkward. “Well, Miss Prendergast, what is it to be?”

He had not answered her question—
why
he had offered for her. But she would have years and years to discover his motives. It was not as though she could afford to reject him. Unless she was respectably married, she could never see her friends and siblings again.

“Of course I accept, my lord. I have no other choice. I shall try to be an obedient and grateful wife.” She ended on a curtsy.

He quickly drew her up. “Very well,” he said, with a serious look, “let us inform your father of your decision. Under the circumstances, a quick, private wedding seems best, if that is acceptable to you?”

Again, that pretence that her wishes and choices had the slightest relevance. Amanda nodded tersely. “I shall consent to whatever my father and you agree.”

Would he insist on doing
that
with her? It was an essential part of marriage, but the earl was so strange, so cool and passionless, that she dared to hope he would let her sleep in peace, in her own rooms. She would submit if she had to, of course. But was it possible he offered for a woman already with child because he
could not
get one on her himself? No, she must not let optimism run away with her. He simply wanted to do her father a favour, though by all accounts they had rarely seen each other since their early boyhood.

She would find out what he wanted eventually. In any marriage, the man held the power; here it was simply more so. She had to make the best of it.

Lord Rackington was in no hurry to call her father back, it seemed, but looked her over thoughtfully, like a mare he had just acquired for his stables. A broodmare, already in foal . . . No, this man was not incapable—she felt his masculinity, leashed and hidden as it was under the elegant clothes and manners. A sudden wave of fear arose and was quickly suppressed. At least Lord Rackington did not look anything like her uncle—where the former was blond, red-faced and massive, her future husband was slim and dark of hair and eye.

It did not matter one way or the other. She would do whatever she had to do to survive.

BOOK: A Priceless Gift: A Regency Romance
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