Lady Hannah’s Holiday – Jane Charles

HOW LONG WOULD it take before Ashton Grell no longer felt as if he were prying when opening the post addressed to the Marquess of Wingate? He’d been the Earl of Stalter his entire life and only became Wingate a month ago and was still adjusting to the new title and responsibilities. He tossed the recent correspondence onto the scarred, wooden desk and leaned back in the chair. Leather and wood squeaked, protesting beneath his weight. Not that Ashton was a large man. He might be taller than average, but he carried no excess weight. Perhaps it was his stature that caused the chair to protest since his father, who’d sat in this very place for decades, had been a slight man in comparison. However, the former Wingate’s personality had been that of a giant, a tyrant who had made living in Maywood Manor unpleasant at best, hell at worst. Ashton had always known that one day he’d become the next Wingate, but he also assumed that he’d have time to gradually come to the position as his father aged and slowly handed over more duties. Though, if Ashton were to be honest, his father had held onto every last detail involving the investments and estates and had shared little. Even if his father had lived to be a doddering old man, in all likelihood, Ashton would have been kept in the dark until the man passed on. Except, his father hadn’t lived into senility, and Ashton was left to manage the mess that had been left in the wake of his father’s sudden and unexpected death. “How do you intend to enjoy your last days as a bachelor?” Ashton glared at his younger brother, Chadburn. “As I’m not yet betrothed, nor am I courting anyone, last days is a bit melodramatic don’t you think?” “Perhaps,” Chadburn shrugged. “Or perhaps not. You have a duty to your title—an heir and a spare.

Mustn’t shirk that.” “I also have a younger brother. Three actually, so why should I suffer an uncomfortable marriage when any one of you might fall in love, marry and produce sons one day?” Chadburn snorted in response. Not that Ashton blamed him. None of them really believed in love and thank God he wasn’t required to marry as their parents had— arranged. The two had got on so poorly that Ashton was amazed they had managed to be in each other’s company long enough to produce not only the two necessary sons, but two more and a daughter. From hatred blooms passion? Was it possible to lust after someone you despised? Not that he wanted to think of either of his parents lusting. Ashton shook away the disturbing thoughts and sipped from his brandy. “As I have no such luck, I will need to put my mind to marriageable misses,” Henry Simpson, formerly the Marquess of Broadridge and now the Duke of Eldridge, announced as he entered the library. “I was blessed with only a sister, and since my father’s brother only managed to produce daughters, all duty falls to me.

” Ashton supposed he should refer to his good friend and cousin twice removed as His Grace, but they’d been close since they’d been on leading strings and it seemed odd to address him as anything other than Henry. They’d even come into their titles the same day. The former marquess was now buried in the family cemetery, alongside Ashton’s Aunt Corliss, the woman who had murdered both her brother and her uncle that same awful day. Ashton rubbed the bridge of his nose and wished he could get the images out of his head. Aunt Corliss had always been disturbed but Father had refused to place her in an institution where she could have received proper care. Instead, she had lived in the dower house, surrounded by servants and guards. On that fateful day, after the late Duke of Eldridge and Henry had arrived for a visit, she’d broken free, found Father’s dueling pistols and shot both men while they sat taking supper, all the while screaming how they’d ruined her life and any chance at happiness and children of her own. She then had darted from the dining room, rushed up to the nursery on the top floor and thrown herself from one of the windows. It had all happened so quickly that none of them had had time to react or make any attempt to stop her. So that she’d not be buried at the crossroads, they’d all claimed she’d fallen instead of having committed suicide.

Aunt Corliss had been lost and confused most of her life and the family, despite the circumstances, wished her peace for eternity. Chadburn poured brandy into a glass and handed it to Henry before looking back at Ashton. “As I’m next in line, I’d appreciate it greatly you doing your duty and not kicking up your toes before your eldest son has reached the age of majority.” “I’m only thirty. There is still plenty of time for me to marry and produce heirs. I see no rush.” Henry laughed and lifted his glass. “I completely concur with your assessment.” Chadburn chuckled and then took a drink. “My advice is to marry on your own terms while you can.

” “Own terms?” Ashton asked. “The ladies and their mamas hounded both of you when our fathers were alive. It’s going to be worse now.” Ashton should remember to stand beside his cousin at any event. After all, why set your cap on a marquess when there was a duke available. With any luck, Ashton would be ignored completely. And, once the ton learned the state of his finances, if they ever learned, he’d be ignored despite the title, unless there was a father of an heiress looking to purchase a title for his daughter. Ashton’s stomach clenched. It was better not to marry at all and let a brother or nephew inherit than live a life of misery like his parents. “Or, we may be shunned,” Henry suggested.

Chadburn snorted. “You’re a duke without a blemish to your character.” “Unless one fears that madness may run in the family,” Ashton offered. He wouldn’t be surprised if some parents discouraged their daughters from seeking introductions. “Then there is the scandal. At least the murders didn’t take place at the height of the season. Talk of our families would have been on everyone’s lips,” Henry grumbled. He hated to be the focus of the ton as much as Ashton, both preferring to remain unnoticed, which had been nearly impossible given their rank as future heirs to titles. Yes, next spring was going to be miserable, unless Ashton decided to forgo London entirely, which he might do and for reasons that had nothing to do with misses and matchmaking mamas. “Good God, London is going to be hell,” Chadburn groaned.

“I don’t think there is any amount of time that could pass to make Society forget how our fathers died.” He took a drink and frowned. “I may decide to avoid it completely. As the spare, there is little interest in me, and I’d rather not be fodder for gossip.” “Yet, the ladies prefer you to me,” Ashton reminded him. While Ashton may hold the title, Chadburn had always been a favorite. At least his brother wouldn’t argue if Ashton decided to keep the family at Maywood Manor for the Season. Not that it mattered, he supposed. Chad was old enough to make his own decisions. “It’s my charm.

” Chadburn grinned. “They can’t resist me.” Yes, Chadburn was charming, flirtatious and all things Ashton was not. Then again, Chadburn could afford to be freer and more relaxed, and unrestricted to pursue what or whoever he wished. “What are your plans?” Ashton asked. Chadburn shrugged. “I’ve not settled upon anything.” “You are eight and twenty,” Ashton reminded him. “Are you threatening to cut off my quarterly,” his brother demanded in false fear. Ashton chuckled.

“Hardly that.” At least not yet, but it might become a necessity. “But do you intend to live with me the rest of your life?” At that, his brother’s smile slipped. “In truth, I have no idea what I wish to do. I failed as a tutor, and being a vicar wasn’t the best choice of vocation.” He leaned forward. “Perhaps you could give me one of Father’s unentailed properties. I promise I shall not squander the opportunity.” Perhaps that was exactly what Ashton should do. It wasn’t as if their father hadn’t acquired a number of holdings during his life.

Ashton had reviewed the list just this morning and it was impossible to manage them all. Nor could his father, given the state of their affairs. For so long Ashton had thought they were wealthy, but even that had been hidden from him and he either needed to work a miracle or sell off what he could. However, giving an estate to Chadburn was not out of the realm of possibilities and his brother might just eventually earn a profit, no longer need his quarterly, and have a home of his own. At the scratch on the door, Ashton called for the servant to enter. His ever-efficient butler entered carrying a silver tray with a missive set precisely in the middle as his father had required. “The post has arrived.” “Thank you, Jones.” Ashton took the letter and glanced at the seal. “Why in the blazes is the Duke of Danby writing to me?” “If it is the same correspondence I received, he’s inviting you to spend Christmas at Danby Castle,” Henry suggested.

“It’s only August,” Chadburn reminded them. “Does Danby always plan so far ahead?” WİNGATE, PLEASE ACCEPT my condolences on the passing of your father. I understand it came about by the most horrific circumstance and for that you have my sympathy. As this is a trying time, I wish to extend an invitation for you and your siblings to join me at Danby Castle this December for the Holiday Season. It cannot be easy to reside at your estate surrounded by the gruesome reminders of how your father met his end. Christmas is a time when family should be together and as two of your cousins are now married to great-nephews of mine, I feel it is only right that we all be together for the holiday. Furthermore, we must discuss how I can assist you in navigating Society in the coming spring. You have a duty to your younger sister, Lady Eve, and I fear rumors surrounding your father’s death, along with your aunt’s involvement, will ruin any chances for her marrying. Your father failed Lady Eve. She should have been settled more than three years ago and I am happy to assist in bringing this unacceptable plight to an end.

Therefore, you will be expected to attend me at Danby Castle on twentieth of December in the year of our Lord, 1817. Danby ASHTON LET the letter drift to his desk as he frowned at his cousin. “When and whether Eve marries is not Danby’s concern.” Chadburn snatched up the letter and quickly perused it. “At least he’s warning you of his plans,” Henry offered. “Are you certain his only concern is for Eve?” Chadburn glanced up from the letter with suspicion in his light eyes. “I don’t trust Danby.” “Father hated him with every part of his being,” Henry reminded his cousins. “I should go for that reason alone.” He raised his glass as if the very idea brought humor.

“I wonder if the ground moves when one turns in their grave?” Henry had fought being under his father’s thumb from the moment of birth and thwarted him whenever the opportunity arose. “There is no reason why you cannot discuss the spring after Twelfth Night.” Chadburn dropped the letter back onto Ashton’s desk and sipped from his glass. “It isn’t as if our relatives will be present. Jillian is in Barbados with Storm and they are unlikely to return to England anytime soon.” As Jillian was Henry’s only sibling, there was no reason for him to travel to Yorkshire, other than for the pleasure of thumbing his nose at his deceased father. “Isabella is also on the island.” Along with her husband, Nathaniel Storm. “The rest of the Storms are acquaintances, but certainly not friends,” Ashton added. Isabella was a daughter of another deceased aunt.

Ashton’s father had only two sisters and no brothers, and all three siblings were now gone. Chadburn narrowed his eyes and leaned forward. “Just how many unmarried relatives does Danby have?” Ashton shifted questioning eyes to Henry. “I know only of Storm’s younger siblings. There are five in all, four of them female.” One of them being Lady Hannah Storm whom Ashton had been quite taken with last spring. If only her dragon of a mother had given him an opportunity to at least call on Lady Hannah, he might have discovered if they suited. Instead, they’d only enjoyed chance meetings. Despite his argument to Chadburn, that there was no rush to marry and produce heirs, Lady Hannah had been the first miss Ashton had given thought to courting. Perhaps he should consider celebrating Christmas at Danby Castle, as it was very likely that Lady Hannah would be present.

Except, he wasn’t in a position to court anyone and might never be. As much as he wished to pursue Lady Hannah, it wouldn’t be fair to her, especially if he landed in debtors’ prison. It was bad enough that his family would suffer from the embarrassment, he’d not inflict the same on a wife. “You do know what he is doing,” Chadburn stated. “Danby, I mean.” Ashton just shrugged and Henry looked at him blankly. “His Grace has spent the past several years manipulating first his grandchildren and then his great-nieces and nephews to see that they are wed. Danby hated Henry’s father as much as Eldridge hated him, but I’d bet my quarterly that it’s Danby’s intention to marry his relations to the two of you and then enjoy the satisfaction of besting Henry’s father.” While Ashton might wish to renew his acquaintance with Lady Hannah, he had no intention of being manipulated by the Duke of Danby. “Do you really think that’s his plan?” “He said as much in his reference to Eve.

” Chadburn snorted. “Then to bring the two of you to the castle—a bachelor duke and a bachelor marquess…” Except, if Eve married, it would be one of Ashton’s concerns erased, as she’d be settled and able to distance herself from him.

.

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