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Forbidden to Love the Duke(9)

By:Jillian Hunter

“One about my three disrespectful sisters and what became of them?”

“What are we to do, Ivy?” Lilac dropped from the bed to play with the three puppies whining at her on the floor.

Ivy sighed. Unless a gentleman with a heart or purse of gold could overlook Lilac’s awkward gait and dreamy nature, Lilac, for all her fair looks, was liable to end up on the shelf for the rest of her life.

Perhaps it was Rue, with her sultry eyes and ink black hair, who would suffer the most heartbreak. Rue was a young lady of extremes. Hadn’t she threatened to take a sword to that intruder in the garden? Sometimes Ivy couldn’t decide which characteristic was Rue’s fatal flaw—her heritage, her deep passion, or her beauty.

“We can’t hide in this house forever,” Ivy said. “Someone will take it from us as the debts mount. We need a source of income other than Rosemary’s writing.”

Rue rolled across the bed. “Why don’t we sell off the rest of the paintings?”

“Because Foxx rehung them to cover the water damage that the Flemish tapestries we sold were hiding,” Ivy said. “And now the paintings are damaged.”

“I’m starving,” Rue said. It hadn’t escaped Ivy’s notice that she had gone slim and whiter than melting snow lately. But then everyone in the house had been forced to take in their clothes with the exception of Lilac, who thrived on apricot syllabubs in cream given them by a local farmer whose wife remembered their mother’s past kind deeds.

Ivy stood up. “I feel a little faint-headed with hunger and desperation myself. We’ve spent the last of our money settling Father’s debts and legal disputes. We’ve sold off heirloom by precious heirloom. Mother’s pearls are the only valuable possession left to us.”

“No,” Lilac said. “It’s a rule. Nothing goes that carries her warmth. She wore them against her skin.”

“The pearls will only see us to the end of autumn, if then,” Ivy said. “I’ll have to go to London, and after that, there is only one sacrifice left to make. I’ll find a position.”

Rosemary pulled her braid loose and shook her head. “You can’t. It’s too humiliating.”

“It’s not as humiliating as going hungry,” Lilac said. “If we can’t feed ourselves, we won’t be able to support the staff. We’ll be beggars.”

“Are you willing to let out the house to strangers?” Ivy asked, a lawyer negotiating at an empty table.

Rue wrinkled her nose. “No one would want to stay here. I wouldn’t mind acting as a maidservant, but I’d lose my temper at the first guest who complained about the service. I would give it a try to save the manor, though.”

“What sort of position do you have in mind?” Rosemary asked in a pinched voice.

“A governess. In a house nearby, if possible. I don’t want to be far from home.”

“No,” Rosemary said as if Ivy had announced she would become a professional chimney sweep or vampire. “I’d as soon sacrifice my head. Can you imagine working in a house of someone we once knew? What if one of our old friends hires you? They’ll laugh at you behind your back. An earl’s daughter.”

Rue sent Ivy an encouraging smile. “There must be other ways to earn money, Ivy. But I’ll be at your back and your front. No one will ever marry us. Do what you need to do. We will follow your lead.”

Rue had a point, of course. The four of them might once have soared in society, eligible daughters of a nobleman with pristine names and plump dowers. But several witnesses swore that Lord Arthur had been cheating at cards during the masquerade ball. The last thing he told Ivy was that he’d been desperate to win back enough money to pay back the “few” debts he’d kept secret from the girls.

In fact, Ivy had heard the servants whispering that he’d been cheating for months, and not one gentleman stood up for him before or after the duel. His family was tainted by association.

His daughters loved him, of course, despite the damage he’d done to the family name. After his funeral Ivy and Rosemary reviewed his account books and had charted his decline from the time of Mama’s death. They soon learned he’d wagered away their dowries as well as his other estates and mortgages in Sussex.

The only hint the sisters had prior to his death of any financial troubles was the sudden disappearance of the rare book collection from the library. A third of it had been saved due to Rosemary’s penchant for “borrowing” books and hiding them in her room.

The earl died without a will or male heir, leaving his daughters an old manor house and a sea of debts. The four sisters, who had been invited to more social affairs in a month than one could cram into a year, received curt notices of cancellation. After all, no one expected them to attend a party while in mourning.