Authors: Kathryn Anthony
THE CLARENDON ROSE
by Kathryn Anthony
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For my beloved TCN, with love always.
© 2004 Susan Deefholts
Cover Art by Razzle Dazzle Design
Model: Debby Gommeren
Photographer: Sanjin Pajo
Designer: Amanda Kelsey
The thick, linen paper bore exactly three words, written in a flowing script:
“The Berkely Rose.”
Edward William Somersby—lately Marquess of Southam and now Duke of Clarendon—frowned at the page, before redirecting his glare to the single, white rose that accompanied the missive.
A small envelope had been folded into the note.
The same script proclaimed its contents to be “Seeds:
The Berkley Rose”.
Given that the small envelope rustled when he shook it, Clarendon had little reason to doubt the claim.
A quiet tap at the study door interrupted his contemplations.
“Her Grace, the Duchess of Clarendon awaits your convenience in the Egyptian room,” the footman intoned.
Clarendon set the rose aside and frowned at the young man.
“You told her I am not receiving visitors?”
The footman looked uncomfortable.
“Her Grace says you have no right to refuse your own mother an audience.
She has ordered tea, Your Grace.”
Clarendon let out another sigh.
“So she’s dug her heels in, has she?” he muttered, glancing down at the papers and ledgers covering his desk.
Familiarizing himself with his father’s holdings was no mean task.
Fortunately, it seemed the books were balanced and that someone had done an estimable job of keeping everything in tight order over the course of his father’s decline—a small mystery in itself, as he could find no record of a steward being hired after old Keithly’s demise several years ago.
Pursing his lips, he gave the footman a curt nod.
“Tell her I shall join her shortly.
In the Egyptian room,” he added irritably.
At some point over the years, his mother had redecorated his private townhouse from top to bottom, using a variety of modish themes for each room.
Unfortunately, in Clarendon’s opinion, her enthusiasm far outpaced her taste.
As he stood, his gaze fell once more upon the mysterious rose.
He picked up the blossom, as well as the accompanying seeds, and handed them to the footman.
“Take these to the gardener.
Tell him to use or dispose of them as he sees fit.”
The Duchess of Clarendon rose at her son’s entrance.
“Mother,” he bowed over her hand with a perfunctory smile.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Your brother has gotten engaged to that hoyden.” She sailed over to sit on a hideous blue divan that featured a sculpted sphinx base.
The tea had arrived.
“Offered for her out of pity, I suppose.
I’m here to insist you put a stop to it.
If the marriage goes ahead, I am convinced I shall go into a decline.
Have I not suffered enough?”
Clarendon smothered a yawn.
His recent lack of sleep, combined with his mother’s harping monotone, made it difficult to concentrate on the substance of her complaint.
“To which ‘hoyden’ are you referring?”
With a nod, he accepted the tea she proffered, but after looking askance at the furniture, he declined to sit on one of the antediluvian monstrosities.
Instead, he contented himself with leaning against the mantelpiece.
From that vantage, he surveyed his mother with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
Before leaving for the war, he had regarded her melodramatic manner with tolerant amusement, but that had dried up somewhere on the Continent.
Still, time had been good to her.
She had hardly aged in the eleven years since he and Sebastian had first bought their commissions.
Golden curls camouflaged her smattering of white hairs and her blandly pretty features were only just starting to be undermined by lines of petulance and bad temper.
“That horrid chit your father insisted we raise.”
She took a delicate sip of tea.
“He was always inordinately fond of the girl, though heaven alone knows why.
Not even a blood relative.
And it seems she’s insinuated herself into your brother’s affections as well.
He was always too sweet-natured, that boy.”
Clarendon frowned, remembering some mention of a girl in his family’s letters over the years.
He had even seen her once or twice, before he left for the war—he had the vague impression of a plump, grubby face with solemn brown eyes peeping at him from a doorway during one of his duty visits, years ago.
He sought the girl’s name, but it eluded him.
“I’m not denying that the creature is practically on the shelf—and that the situation is unlikely to change, given her lack of looks and of prospects.
Of course, what can one expect, with such disgraceful parents?
Her father a scapegrace and her mother little more than a—“ the duchess broke off, shaking her head and taking another sip of tea.
“But the girl’s future is no business of ours.
Your brother has no right to sacrifice his chances of making an advantageous match because he pities the chit.”
Giving up on his attempt to recall the child’s name, Clarendon took a sip of tea.
“I should think that Edmund has the right to do as he will with regard to his choice of wife.”
“He is a younger son,” the duchess snapped.
“A detail of which I am well aware.”
“Your father has been unable to make proper provisions for him due to the entailments, and so Edmund must marry to advantage.
Otherwise, how is he to manage on just his allowance?”
“Do you suppose that I plan to cast him from the family fold and slam the door behind him?
Besides which, I was given to understand that Edmund has his own career plans.
Perhaps he has also been possessed of the radical notion that he might make his own way in the world without relying upon a wife’s fortune to set him up in comfort.”
The dowager set her cup and saucer on the table with a rattle and glared at her son.
“You can hardly fail to appreciate that marrying to advantage will do no harm.”
“If the marriage were undertaken for purely mercenary reasons, I could see the match doing much harm indeed.
The lady in question might prove to be of an objectionable nature.”
The duchess stood and began pacing, wringing her hands in agitation.
“Goodness, but wherever did you manage to acquire such outlandish views?”
Setting his cup on the mantel, Clarendon decided it was time to end the interview.
“I shall look into the situation and assess for myself the suitability of the match.
Rest assured that if I even suspect Edmund of undertaking this engagement with altruistic intentions, I shall exert myself to ensure that he realign his course towards a more mercenary destination.”
He gave a curt bow.
“Good day, Mother.”
He only fleetingly registered the expression of combined exasperation and bewilderment on his mother’s face as he stalked from the room.
Clarendon arrived at Loughton Manor in the early evening, the daylight just starting to fade in the wake of a fiery sunset.
He felt like a stranger, riding up the long, curving drive that led to the manor.
And indeed, he was not the same person who had left years ago out of a desire to experience exploits of high honor and adventure.
He entered without ceremony, glancing up at the frescoes of clouds and celestial beings painted on the high ceiling of the entrance hall.
The foyer had been well-maintained—as had those portions of the grounds he had revisited on his ride in.
Insofar as he could tell, it was unchanged from the place he remembered.
But try as might, he was unable to rouse even the smallest sense of homecoming as he looked around him.
Instead, all he felt was a bleak emptiness.
“Your Grace, hot water is at the ready, should you wish to bathe before dinner.”
Clarendon nodded at the butler, who had approached discreetly while the duke was getting his bearings.
“You’re looking well, Soames.”
The old retainer had served the Somersby family for as long as Clarendon could remember.
“A bath would be welcome indeed.
I imagine that Hawkins arrived without incident?”
“He did, Your Grace.”
Clarendon had sent his valet ahead with word of his impending arrival.
He suspected the news would send the household into an uproar of frantic preparations, as this was his first visit to the family residence in years, and so he made a point of spending some time riding about the grounds of the estate before presenting himself at the manor.
He nodded at the butler.
You may inform him that I shall be up to my rooms shortly.”
“Very good, Your Grace.”
Soames cleared his throat.
“Dinner will be served in the family dining room in two hours’ time, unless Your Grace has some other preference?”
That should do very well, thank you Soames.”
The butler bowed and glided away.
Despite his desire to wash the road dust from his clothes and hair, Clarendon found himself impelled towards the old library.
One of his father’s favorite enclaves.
Clarendon still ached from the knowledge that though he had left India as soon as he received Edmund’s letter, which had announced their father’s illness, he still hadn’t arrived in time to see the old man one last time.
To bid his farewells and give him what assurances he could that, despite appearances, the family holdings would be in good hands.
He remembered the old duke as a vital, strong man with a full laugh and a gentle smile.
Despite the war, with its constant reminders of mortality, some part of him had believed there would always be time to know his father better.
That here, in the safety and peace of the English countryside, time played by different rules.
He approached the library, his footsteps slowing.
How often, in years gone by, had he entered this room to find his father reading, settled in one of the comfortable leather chairs by the fireplace, a pipe clenched between his teeth as he glanced up from a particular passage to gaze into the hearth.
Steeling himself for a cold, deserted room, Clarendon turned the knob and pushed open the door.
To his surprise, a crackling fire prevented the chill of the late spring evening from encroaching upon the room.
He breathed in the familiar smells of slightly musty paper, aged leather and pipe tobacco.
He half imagined he could see the curl of pipe smoke rising above the high back of the worn chair his father had favored.
Blinking away such fancies, he moved silently over the carpeted floor towards the old chair, expecting to find it empty.
She was curled up like a cat, her knees pulled up against her chest as she sat sideways in the seat.
Her head was thrown against its high back, her broad face tranquil in repose.
His jaw tensed as he experienced a stab of desire as sudden as it was unexpected.
This sleeping woman had a ripe, voluptuous beauty that the fashionable standards of porcelain skin, rosebud lips and narrow face would never recognize.
Yet, the neckline of her dress revealed the merest hint of cleavage—the lights of the
would have regarded such a cut as demure to the point of being spinsterish.