Mistress of Two Fortunes and a Duke

By Tessa Candle

Romance

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113
10 mins

Chapter 1

Tilly Ravelsham smiled at the rays of morning light peeking from the corner of the window, passing through the crystal jars on her table and casting little rainbows about the room. One of them played mischievously across the nose of Mr. Rutherford, her paramour, who was dozing beside her. She grinned and fought the urge to wake him by kissing it.

It was the first time in a month she had slept in her own bed. She loved Amsterdam, but this last trip had been exhausting, in part because it was dominated by tedious visits with her fiancée's puritanical grandfather. And then they had carted him back to London.

Grandfather Fowler was sickly, but wished to attend the upcoming nuptials of his heir—or his would be heir. There was first the little matter of matrimony and conceiving a child. Controlling old tyrant. She yawned and returned to watching the rainbows.

The constant travelling about was growing extremely tiresome. It was good to be home, and it had been an especially nice surprise when Rutherford, whom she missed more than she liked to admit, sneaked in through her bedroom window.

She finally gave in to temptation and kissed Rutherford on the cheek to wake him, then rolled over and popped a confection into her mouth from the tray by the bedside. He stirred beside her.

She beamed when his beautiful hazel eyes opened. “Mmm. Last night was just what I needed, darling. I see your technique has not suffered while I was away. And it is lovely to wake up to such a luscious specimen of manhood.”

Rutherford smiled sleepily, then, as an afterthought, his entire face pursed into a scowl. “But it seems to me that you could have given a fellow a little more notice of your departure than merely sending a letter posted from the port before you made the crossing. Dear Stallion, off to the continent. Back in a trice. Ta-ta!”

“What, and have to look at a face like that for a fortnight before I left? I think not.” She traced a finger affectionately over the scar on his bare shoulder.

He had been wounded last season while rescuing their mutual friend, Lady Aldley, from an abduction. The site was completely healed now, but the silver scar tissue formed a lopsided heart. It lent such an air of intrigue to his already intriguing, smooth, muscular and irresistible torso.

Tilly had hungered for him the whole time she had been away. But he had seemed a little blue-deviled when she returned. There had always been a slightly dark, sardonic twist to Rutherford's humour, but now it seemed short on the humour and long on the dark twist.

Rutherford was still pouting. “You know you don't love DeGroen. Why should you cart off and visit his relations at their whim?”

“Well, there is the trifling matter of our being engaged, I suppose.”

“Do not remind me. I beg you.” He rubbed the scar on his shoulder unconsciously, as if to soothe the little, lopsided heart.

“You do realize my parents were in Amsterdam, as well? And you know how important cultivating the relationship with Mr. DeGroen's grandfather is for our future prospects.”

“You mean for your and Mr. DeGroen's future prospects. Quite. Inheriting all that extra money is not to be resisted. But how much ruddy money do you need, Tilly? You are already as rich as Lucifer. Why can you not just marry for love?” His eyes were wide, and his long lashes had tangled themselves together in the night. He looked, for a moment, like a little boy lost.

Tilly sighed. He looked so worn down that her heart twinged, but it was hard having this discussion with Rutherford over and over again. She wondered if she should just give him up, let him move on and be happy with someone else, someone with a less complex and secretive life.

He had seemed like a Corinthian rake in Lord Byron's clothes when she first met him. Invincible, completely indifferent to her engagement, roguish and ready for some fun. But he had since shown himself to be quite conservative in his views and idealistic in his hopes about marriage.

It was very sweet, but with a life like hers, Tilly could not afford anything as messy as true love. “You know very well that I am disinclined to marry for . . . affection. Marriage is about status, property and money. I am not a fanciful young girl, and I have never concealed this from you.”

“No.” His face was glum as he stood and began to dress. “You have been perfectly clear. I have just been foolishly kindling a little flame of hope that you would get tired of committing adultery and would commit to me instead.”

“I am not committing adultery.”

Rutherford laughed, then winced at how bitter it sounded. “What do you call this then?”

“If you must give it a label, it is fornication.” She ate another sweet and contemplated whether she should tell him that she was not deceiving Mr. DeGroen. She dismissed the idea, as it would require explanations that she could not give. “And although the Church of England inexplicably seems to think the topic worthy of mention in wedding vows, the ten commandments could not be bothered to forbid it.”

“You have a convenient interpretation of holy scripture.”

She tossed her head and snorted. “Does not every one?” She was distracted for a few moments, watching him dress. It was almost as alluring as watching him undress, even if his choice of colours was shockingly loud. “And having attended church every Sunday whilst in Amsterdam, as well as having my fill of all the pious conversation Grandfather Fowler's failing health would permit, I find myself feeling quite devout.” She assumed her blandest, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth smile.

He rewarded her with a real laugh. “One of these days you will be struck by lightning, you saucy little libertine fraud.”

She wiggled her brows and pertly replied, “That is the risk one runs in consorting with the god of thunder.”

He fastened his trousers, then gave her a cheeky smile.

Could she give up this beautiful stallion of a man? It was surely in his best interest for her to do so. But as much as Tilly needed to have her intrusive little fingers in the lives of others for their own good, she was growing weary of always putting everyone else's happiness before her own.

As he finished putting on his clothing, he turned to look at her. His eyes were full of love and sadness. A beam of sunlight penetrated the partly open curtain and lit up his chestnut brown hair where it curled adorably around his ears. Rutherford sighed. “I wish I could stay, darling, but I must go see Aldley.”

“It is just as well. I am to go pay call on Grandfather Fowler and see that he is settled in.” She winced at Rutherford’s expression as he rubbed his shoulder. Thoughtless. Why did she mention it? Her upcoming marriage was a dagger in his heart, and she knew it. He had to get used to it, but there was no need to keep throwing matters in his face. “Tell Lady Aldley that I miss her, and will come to call soon.” She paused. “And I missed you, too, Rutherford.”

Rutherford's smile fell flat. “Welcome home, my dearest one.” He left.

She covered her face with her hands. This was supposed to be diverting, not painful. Why did watching him leave pull at her heart, so? Tilly shook her head and began to straighten herself. She could not be all maudlin. There was a lot to do today.

She sighed. There was a lot to do every day. She rang for her lady's maid.


Chapter 2

Rutherford went home and had his valet, Smythe, freshen him up before stepping out in his smart barouche and four. He brought along his two favourite dogs, Dolly, his best pointer, and Mack, the bloodhound who had helped locate him when he was injured the previous year while rescuing Lady Aldley.

Mack had saved his life and obtained a special place in his heart. Dolly was in a delicate condition, and Rutherford found in her a glimmer of happiness and hope for the future. He did not wish to be away from her for the long hours he would be at Aldley House. Aldley would surely understand.

He thus arrived at the Aldley home in style, with dogs, and only a little fuzzy from the previous late night and the dose of laudanum he had taken for the pain in his shoulder. Funny how it always seemed to flare up when he thought of Tilly's upcoming wedding.

He knew it was dangerous to keep using the medicine, for he had seen the effects of opium on Lord Aldley's brother-in-law, Lord Essington. But it was the only thing that helped his blasted shoulder when Tilly had left suddenly for Amsterdam.

“Rutherford! Good to see you!” The Earl of Aldley came to the door to greet his guest personally, then stood back and examined Rutherford's clothing. “And hard to miss you in that colourful ensemble. I see you have brought your dogs. Did we have some hunting appointment that has simply slipped my mind?”

“Of course not. But I could not leave them behind, for I have the most wonderful news.” Rutherford smiled stupidly. “My bitch is pregnant!”

Aldley squinted in momentary confusion at his friend, then cast his eye to Dolly's belly which Rutherford was rubbing. “Ah, yes. Oh, I see. Well, that is excellent news, Rutherford. Wonderful. When is she due?”

“I should guess about a month from now. I had her bred just before Tilly left town.” Rutherford frowned at the memory. He had wanted to share the experience with her, but discovered she had abandoned him. It was stupid, really. It wasn't a decent topic for a young lady. But then Tilly was no prude. He was certain that she would have seen the fun in it. Except that she was gone, left town without a word, and only sending a quick note from Dover.

He had taken a few stabs in his time, but that one had really hurt. He rubbed his shoulder, then stopped himself and petted Dolly and Mack instead. At least they were loyal. They would never abandon him.

He recovered and stood, slapping on a smile for Aldley. “The sire is a champion pointer. Samson they call him. Cost me a pretty penny for the appointment, but her babes are going to be champions, too.” He scratched Dolly's ears and cooed to her. “Isn't that right, little princess? The best little pointer babies in all of England.”

“Em. Not babies, old boy, pups.” Aldley laughed, and gave Rutherford a quizzical look of superiority. “Get a hold of yourself, man.”

Rutherford waved the comment aside and continued to beam at the future mother of his grand-puppies. “Not planning to offer me a drink, then?” he drawled lazily.

“Yes, of course.” Aldley ordered champagne, and led Rutherford through to his den.

“Champagne, hmm?”

“Yes. I did not interrupt your announcement, for I did not wish to steal your thunder. And, frankly, the juxtaposition did not quite seem flattering to my wife. But I believe champagne is in order, for the countess and I are also expecting a new addition.” Aldley could no longer contain his joy, and grinned openly at Rutherford.

“Ah. Congratulations, Aldley. That is wonderful news.” Rutherford had been suspicious before, but as nothing had been announced, he had let himself believe that Aldley was just as devoid of paternal prospects as Rutherford was. But now—well, he would not permit himself to be jealous. He would not. Such thoughts were unmanly.

“Yes, only you must not say anything about it, for no one knows yet. And I cannot get Lydia to enter her confinement, so we have to be discreet. I love her to distraction, but she has a will of iron.”

“A proper countess, then.” Rutherford smirked. “I am not sure what you expected. She is an original, Aldley. She climbed trees for sport when you met her. Of course she would object to sitting about at home.”

Aldley scowled. “You would take her side. You sport loving people all flock together. At least I have persuaded her to stop riding.”

“Well, that is good.” Rutherford looked glum, but the champagne had arrived, so he raised an ironic toast. “To the women. May God preserve us from madness.”

“To the women.” Aldley nearly agreed.

Rutherford savoured the drink and let the bubbles tease his nose, then finished it without realizing what he had done. Aldley refreshed his glass, and Rutherford continued, “Forgive me if I am not wholly sympathetic, Aldley. But the woman I love refuses to marry me, so I cannot think that you have it so terribly hard.”

“Do not take this the wrong way, Rutherford, but I think you complicate things unnecessarily. I like Miss Ravelsham, truly I do, but I hate to see you so miserable. You are hardly yourself half the time. Why do you not just give her up and find someone respectable to marry?”

“I do not wish to marry someone respectable. Respectable maidens are total bores.”

Aldley scoffed and refilled both glasses. “You sound like that rakehell that got blackballed from White's last month. And good riddance.”

“Lord Screwe? I should imagine some hell fire club would suit him better. I am not so corrupt as all that, but surely you of all people understand how much more fun interesting women are.”

Aldley wore his best sternly superior earl expression when he replied, “I will try to ignore the implication that my wife is interesting.”

The earl gave Rutherford a quizzical look over the rim of his glass as he sipped his champagne. “But if you are indeed so devil-may-care as that, then why should you marry at all? A man of your energies will surely tire quickly of the marriage state. It sounds like a recipe for more of your listless ennui, and I shall have the brunt of your doldrums. You are barely tolerable as it is.”

“You are quite droll, but this is nothing to the point. It is not that I wish to be married. It is that I wish to marry Miss Ravelsham.”

“Well then, not to be blunt, but you had best get on with it, for she is scheduled to marry another rather soon.”

“I know it.” Rutherford's practised air of cool patrician boredom slipped away entirely, and he raked his hands though his hair. Dolly and Mack nuzzled his legs and stared up at him with adoring brown eyes. He patted their heads. “I have tried and tried to convince her. She is immovable.”

Aldley opened the door and ordered another bottle. “I feel for you, my old friend.” Then he smiled cheekily. “Have you considered getting yourself abducted? I understand Miss Ravelsham is compelled to help others when they find themselves in such straits. If someone absconded with you, she would no doubt marry you just to save your reputation.”

Rutherford lowered his lids into a lazy glance. “Your wit is truly diverting, Aldley.” Still, Rutherford thought his friend might have a point. After all, he was wounded and convalescing in bed when Tilly first started flirting with him. Was it possible that she had been attracted to him because he was helpless?

It seemed far-fetched. Still, being direct with her had got him nowhere. Other than compromising her virtue, he had never tried stratagems to trick her into accepting him. He scratched his chin thoughtfully.

“I can see the clockwork turning. I meant it in jest.” Aldley shook his head. “I hope you are not seriously plotting a feigned abduction.”

“No. I believe after last year, we have all had quite enough of abductions for a lifetime.” Rutherford rubbed his shoulder. “You never thanked me for rescuing your wife, you know.”

“Well, let me do so formally now. Thank you, Rutherford, for saving Lydia from that filthy swine Delacroix. But I had thought for a Corinthian buck like you, heroics were their own reward.” Aldley chuckled. “Besides, she was not yet my wife. And at the time I was persuaded that you were trying to steal her away, while I was trotting about the continent, trying to recover my ramshackle brother-in-law. That must be some excuse for my forgetting to thank you.”

“Ah, Lord Essington. Have you heard much of him, lately?”

Aldley's brows furrowed. “No, and I am becoming a little concerned. I thought for certain the loose screw would have crawled his way back to London by now.”

“I should think that his absence would be glad tidings.” Rutherford helped himself to more champagne.

“It is. But with some people, when they are too quiet one begins to wonder what they are up to.”

“Hmm. Quite. Shall you drive out to Essington Hall and check in on your sister?”

Aldley rubbed his chin. “I am afraid I cannot bring myself to leave Lydia alone for so long as that. Not while she is in the family way. It would be hard enough if she were confined. But as long as she is out in the world, I cannot stop worrying. She actually chastised me this morning for smothering her.”

Rutherford's lips pursed as he drawled, “I really cannot imagine.”
“You are rather smug for a man who will not stop petting his dog's belly for more than five minutes at a time. I wonder how Smythe manages to dress you.” Aldley paused to lift a brow at Rutherford's attire. “On the other hand, that might explain your hideous green waistcoat. What vile, daltonic genius has possessed Smythe to pair that with a beet red shirt and gold neckcloth?”

“I instructed him on the colour choice. It is a la Lord Byron.”

“Oh, indeed?” Aldley's nose twitched. “I believe you may have exceeded your goal.”
“True, you know nothing of the art of fine dress, and go about wasting perfect tailoring on depressingly bland colours. You and that Beau Brummel dandiprat. I cannot abide him. Puts a person to sleep with his attire and then rouses him into wakeful irritation with his rude comments and his damned quizzing glass.”

“I am no follower of Mr. Brummel. But I believe there must be some alternative between dangling after dandies with upstart pretensions and,” Aldley waved a hand at Rutherford's clothing, “whatever this is.”

Rutherford flicked an imaginary crumb from his sleeve and replied with an air of boredom, “I am sure there is, for people who like half measures. But you know me well enough to know that I am not such as these.”

“True. You tend to pursue things at full force.” Aldley smiled. “I shall just hold out hope that you are some day seized by a profound love for dove grey, or perhaps an everyday sort of blue.” He shook his head. “But where was I? Ah yes, I was about to share my wonderful idea with you.”

“Indeed?”

“I thought you might need a little distraction. Get out of London, stop dangling after Miss Ravelsham, that sort of thing.”

“My friend you are always thinking of my wellbeing. You are truly too good. Might I venture a guess that the destination you have chosen for my restorative journey is Essington Hall?”

“Rutherford!” Aldley grinned in mock surprise. “What a marvellous idea! I had not thought of it, but it would be an excellent opportunity both to relax your nerves and to see how my sister is faring with her dirty-dish of a husband.”

“Quite.” Rutherford held up his empty glass to Aldley. “How fortuitous that I thought of it.”



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