“I will not.”
“You will. The contract is signed, and the betrothal announcement sent to the Times for issuance in the new year.”will not.”
Dianna Marshall gripped her knees through the soft linen of her gown to keep from leaping to her feet and stared at her father through the haze of pipe smoke swirling above the wide polished expanse of his desk. “You’ve signed a contract, and sent out an announcement, without my consent?”
“That is the crux of your confusion,” he murmured, his gold-trimmed pipe cupped in one long-fingered hand. “You think I’m seeking your approval. I’m not. It’s decided. You’ll marry His Grace next summer, and in good time, you’ll come to appreciate the magnitude of this fortuitous arrangement.”
Mama, ensconced under a blanket on the sofa near the hearth, splayed her slender fingers over the small mound that represented Papa’s latest—and likely last—hope for a male heir, silent signal that this was her priority, not her eldest daughter who, undoubtedly, should be beyond grateful a duke would offer for her. Dianna didn’t disagree. One of her childhood fantasies had been to be courted by a duke. Just not this duke.
“You can’t do this, Papa,” she said, shaking her head. “You can’t make me do this. It’s not fair. It’s not right. I’ve not made my debut, had a chance to meet anyone, anyone else whose suit you might approve—”
“Life is rarely fair, and His Grace more than suits.” He glanced at Mama, and Dianna held her breath. He was reconsidering his dictum, seeking silent counsel—His cold gaze raked back to her. “You’ll do well to remember that.”
“The only thing I’ll remember is how unfair you’re being.”
Seated, Lord Edward George Arvon Marshall, seventh earl of Ansmall, was intimidating. Standing, he was formidable.
Over six-foot-tall, his black hair razor-short at nape and ears, the longer strands on top slicked back with pomade, dark suit and white, collared shirt creased to stiff conformity, he exuded power. And expected obedience.
Her bravado wavered under the weight of his glacial glare, a tactic designed to chill even the most stalwart of his legislative opponents.
Except he wasn’t in London. And she wasn’t one of his political adversaries.
Fisting her hands, she locked her knees. She had no recollection of getting to her feet, but there she was, and there she would remain. He would respect no less.
A log shifted in the hearth eliciting a brief hiss of sparks, and bright orange glow that glanced off the thin white scar arced over his cheekbone, adding a hellish glare to his silvery-blue eyes as he narrowed them. “You,” he murmured, “will do as your mother and I bade, as you have been raised to do, and marry the man we deem best suited to enhance your position. Do you understand?”
No, she didn’t understand. But her mouth was too dry, and her situation too tenuous, to permit her to say so. She couldn’t marry without his consent for at least another two years. Even then she would need his approval of her choice of husband, if she wished to have any hope of maintaining her welcome at Ansmall Hall, which she very much did.
She and Papa might mix like oil and water, but she adored her sisters, and loved Mama. The prospect of being denied their company—this time Mama not only met Dianna’s gaze, she held it, her message quite clear: acquiesce gracefully, Daughter, and preferably with a smile.
Dianna clenched her teeth against a rush of bile.
“I’m glad to see you’re finally learning to control your tongue and exhibit a little grace,” Papa said. “Perhaps you’ll prove yourself duchess material after all.”
Duchess. Duchess of Blackburn.
The prospect should invigorate her. Yet all she felt was… ill.
“Why?” she rasped. “Why him?”
Papa arched a single black eyebrow. “I told you. He’s a good match.”
“But not the only good match. There are many wealthy bachelors in Britain.” Much younger bachelors. Few were dukes, true, but she would happily marry a marquess or earl, even a viscount was he someone who warmed her heart. The duke definitely did not warm her heart. He chilled it.
She’d only met him once, yet the memory clung to her like cobwebs. She remembered her gratitude for the combined material of their gloves that prevented her feeling his skin, which she knew had to be as dry and withered as his countenance, especially when he did not let go of her hand when she rose from her curtsy, but held on longer than seemed—to her, anyway—respectable, his heavy-lidded and disconcertingly dark brown, almost black eyes, searching her face.
“My God,” she whispered. “He already knew. At the King’s coronation. You and he had already discussed it. Discussed me. And he… he used the opportunity to appraise me. Like he might a horse at auction.” She struggled for breath, horrified by the gross betrayal. Worse, unaware of her status as available goods, she’d been on her best behaviour; polite, deferential. Demure. So much so, she’d fooled the duke into believing she’d make a respectable—biddable—wife.
“How could you?” she demanded. “How could you not tell me, before you introduced me to him, what you and he were planning? What did I ever do to make you wish to wound me so?”
“Wound you?” Papa’s rapier eyebrows converged over his nose that, like everything else within his purveyance aligned narrowly and perfectly, as though he had personally sketched the finished result before agreeing to his own birth. “I’ve landed you an opportunity any number of your peers would be over the moon with gratitude to have—”
“I’m not any of my peers, Papa, I’m—”
“I know exactly who you are.” He planted a hand on the desk, stabbed the stem of his pipe towards her with his other hand. “You’re mine. Mine to protect, mine to ensure the future of, mine to decide what is best for, and I’ve decided that this is best. And you’ll do it, Dianna. By God, for once in your life you will do as you’re told. You’ll marry the duke, or you will live to regret it. Now go.” He straightened, jabbed his pipe towards the door. “Go, before I do something we’ll both regret.”
Mama, chin tucked in the frothy lace collar of her nightdress and robe, stared at her wedding set she twisted to-and-fro on her slender finger. With her curly auburn hair slung in a single thick braid over one shoulder, and blessedly smooth freckled skin, she looked more like a child, than a mother. More schoolgirl, than countess.
Closing her eyes, and feeling a good century older than she was, and not near the obedient daughter she knew Papa preferred her be, Dianna hiked a breath, willed composure to her voice as she matched him glower for glower. “You think I won’t regret being forced to marry against my wishes?”
His nostrils flared. “Go,” he snarled. “Go, before I—”
“No buts,” he bellowed. “And no more discussion. No more dissent from you, or I will confine you—and your sisters—to this house, until you are safely wed. Do you understand me?”
She opened her mouth. And closed it. It was one thing for him to threaten to incarcerate her, but to cast the same restrictive net over her sisters for her disobedience? She couldn’t do that, make them suffer her penance. Lizzy would go absolutely mad could she not go outside, and although Elaina preferred the indoors to the out, she’d never forgive Dianna dragging her into Papa’s bad book. Not when Lainey prided herself on her adherence to the earl’s many and exhaustive rules.
The tendons ridging the back of Mama’s fisted hands quivered, the only indicator that she was not cast in stone, because she steadfastly refused to look up, or even breathe so far as Diann
a could tell.
“I told you to leave your mother out of this,” Papa said through gritted teeth. “This is my decision, and I’ve made it, and you will abide it.”
Dianna dragged her gaze from her mother and focused on the shrivelled snow-capped rosebushes in the garden outside the tall windows behind her father. She exhaled, relaxed her hands and shoulders.
There was nothing more to be gained from further argument. She would only enflame the situation, compel Papa to rage, a loss of control that might result in him dragging her off to the altar sooner than later. And she was going to need every single hour of every precious day between now and the planned wedding to figure out how to get out of the egregious arrangement. Dropping a grudging curtsy, she whirled, and fled the room.
Dianna and Jake’s love story continues in the sequel to My Dear One, My Own...