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Forbidden to Love the Duke(8)

By:Jillian Hunter

“It is not your child. Children. Well, they are, in one sense, but—”

James stepped around the smaller man. “I’ll take that drink in my study. And I hope your explanation will not be of a nature that interferes with my plans.”

No. That burden apparently fell to Mrs. Halliday, his housekeeper, who startled the wits out of him when she ran up the side of the house wailing, “Thank heavens Your Grace is home.” Her red-rimmed eyes meant she had been weeping. But then the woman sobbed over scorched muffins and the obituaries of people she had never met.

He stilled. “There has been a death in the family?”

“Nothing is as bad as all that,” Carstairs said, giving the woman a look.

But clearly upsetting news loomed on the horizon. James considered jumping back inside his carriage and taking a ride to the village pub.

But no one had died.

The news could not be anything to run from. He would face it like a man.

Chapter 4

On most evenings, after a supper made from whatever the hidden gardens of Fenwick Manor had produced, Rosemary beckoned her sisters to her bedchamber to read from her latest work. Ivy had come to adore the tradition, but since this had once been her mother’s secret retreat and Mama had allowed her girls to play with her jewels and perfume, Ivy felt both her absence and her presence keenly whenever she entered this room.

“Anne Boleyn slept in this very bed for two nights when she was young,” Rosemary used to inform everyone who would listen when she was younger. “Imagine how the course of history would have changed had she lived.”

Ivy took pride in their history and their house. But this was the true heart of the house, where secrets were shared, children and stories conceived over the years.

Rosemary had claimed this chamber as her own the year she turned twelve and her mother had moved into a larger room. She found out from the servants the identity of its most notorious guest. On the first night that Rosemary had slept there, her sisters had gathered solemnly in the doorway and predicted that she wouldn’t survive to see the sunrise.

Not only had she survived, she soon lured the other girls to abandon their rooms to stay with her. Night after night they’d fall asleep in her bed, lulled by her early attempts at storytelling. It took their mother an entire summer before she caught her three other daughters sneaking down the hall one September dawn.

“So it is Anne Boleyn I have to thank for those circles under your eyes and nodding heads at supper.”

“No, it’s Rosemary,” Lilac said innocently.

“It’s Henry VIII,” Rue said with a yawn, and her mother, who might have punished them at any other time, seemed to take that under consideration and forgave the girls their conspiracy.

Where had those pleasurable years gone?

“I feel safer in here than anywhere,” Lilac admitted as they huddled together on the bed. Rosemary sat at her desk, writing with her quill, a smile of contentment on her face.

Whether the incident earlier in the day and the realization that they might lose their home provoked Lilac’s confession, her fear seemed reflected by Rue, who added, “So do I.”

“It has history,” murmured Rosemary, who for all practical purposes might as well be on another continent. “Don’t you remember who we are descended from?”

“Yes,” Ivy said, smothering a laugh. “You wouldn’t let us forget if we wanted to.” She cleared her throat. “The first notable personage in the family rose to prominence as a faithful bodyguard to Harri Tudur, who rewarded his English retainer with an earldom in Wales.”

“This gift,” Lilac continued, “included a castle on a seaside cliff that was pounded every winter by violent gales.”

“Then one December morn,” Ivy said, flapping her arms, “the birds took wing. The dovecote disappeared in the rock-strewn waves below.”

It was Rue’s turn. “The earl declared the castle uninhabitable. To mollify his loyal guard, Harri Tudur bestowed on him a charming manor house in Kent.”

“In exchange for which,” Lilac said, “the earl turned a blind eye when Harri took the earl’s wife to bed and a set of twins, one boy, one girl, was born of this clandestine affair.”

Rue finished with a grin. “The first Earl of Arthur might not have liked this bargain, but as it happened, his two natural children died in battle, and he and his wife were richly compensated for their discretion and devotion to the Tudur line. The end.”

Rosemary closed her book, put down her pen, and rose to stretch her arms. Her long braid swung between her shoulder blades like a pendulum.

Ivy sat up straighter on the bed, looking at Rosemary. “You aren’t about to launch into one of your ‘Horresco referens’—‘I shudder in relating stories’—are you?”