Scandalous Heiress – Cerise DeLand

Dearest Victor, I beg you to reconsider and sail home to Brentwood immediately. I need you to advise your brother. He’s determined to finally choose a bride and I daresay his current obsession is utterly unsuitable. Still entangled in that messy business with the Prince of Wales, Richard has not yet proposed to this girl. So there is that. But you would shudder to know her. Oh, indeed, she is one of those outrageous American girls, flirting with any and all. I see why she appeals to him, her manners so bold, her previous escapades recounted only in whispers. But Richard is determined to have her. A hoyden, she would make a mockery of all of us. You must make haste, my darling boy, to placate my fears and talk sense into Richard. You are the only one who can, who ever could. He says she’s perfect for him. But you know how it will all end. You know in his choice of women, he is less than—shall we say?—prudent.

This one is wrong from the eagle look in her eye to her sharp wit. He’d never tolerate her for a moment if her father were not disturbingly wealthy. And if you don’t consider that sufficient motivation to attend me, I urge you to come for Vivienne and Deirdre’s sakes. My granddaughters lack a sense of the cultured feminine and I wish to provide it. They approach the time when they must attend boarding school and you must not allow them to remain in that horrid uncivilized country past their age of refinement. Do come, mon cher. I need your help. With all affection, Your loving mother PRELUDE II Lord Victor Cole No. 20 Great George Street Quarter, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Shanghai International Settlement Jung Kuo, Middle Kingdom of China February 25, 1882 Dear Mama, Thank you for your recent missive. Oddly enough, it comes at a very serendipitous moment.

I agree with you about my daughters’ need for a bit of English sunshine. To sail at the end of March, I have arranged for my business partner and my Chinese comprador here in Shanghai to assume responsibilities until my return. I’ve ordered my servants to close my house for the coming year. You will be pleased to learn I’ve booked passage for the three of us, plus the girls’ Chinese nurse, on the Royal Empress out of Hong Kong March 10. If weather holds, and we encounter no tai-feng around the horn of India, you might expect to see us in June. Please be advised that I will stop in Joppa and Naples for a few days’ each to consult with my factors. I will send you notice of my progress from those ports. However, please do not take my arrival as any insurance that I might persuade Richard to look elsewhere for a bride. You and I both know how he is—stubborn like Papa. In the meantime, stave him off any hasty marriage or worse, eloping with her.

By the way, does she even like him? I’m certain he likes her dowry. Having heard of these American robber barons and their wily daughters, I imagine she welcomes the prospect of a title to match her friends’. Oh, well. For discussion after I arrive, eh? My love to you. Victor T CHAPTER 1 May 30, 1882 Brentwood Hall Somerset, England he sound of a woman’s laughter rang through him like the tinkling of chimes. Light, fantastical, amusing, Victor felt the trill of it in his bones but focused on his mother’s welcome. It had always been so easy to surrender to her crushing hugs. “Darling, oh, you do look marvelous!” She drew away, grinned at him and patted his cheek. “Such a long sea voyage can debilitate one.” “The carriage from the station in Bath was worse than our ship, I’m afraid.

” He sank into the cushions of the sofa. He hadn’t been so at ease since he left his own house in the British Quarter. “Oh, horrid, darling, but you’re home safe and sound.” She let her turquoise eyes feast on him while she hung onto his hands. Victor let her get her fill. He’d always loved her, his father and siblings and this sprawling Palladian mansion she’d made into a haven. Away from the rush of London, it was quiet. Blissful compared to the cacophony in the streets of Shanghai. “I’m so relieved you’ve come. Your Papa is upstairs in his sitting room, waiting to receive you.

He’s feeling more chipper this morning in anticipation of your arrival.” He squeezed her fingers. “I hurried from London as soon as I got your letter. He’s had another turn, has he?” “Since his poor spell last month, he’s become more frail of body as well as of mind.” She shook her head, her large eyes hooded and weary. For a woman of fifty-one, she still did not look her age. With hair bright as old gold and eyes of turquoise, she’d always been a vision. That of course was the reason she’d attracted the widowered seventh duke of Brentwood only three months after his first wife’s death. To hear them tell the story of their first meeting, they’d fallen in love in an instant in the bank where her father and the duke kept their accounts. Impetuous as the duke was known to be, his second wife matched his impulsiveness.

In the next month, he’d proposed and she’d accepted. Against all rules of mourning and decorum, they’d married two months later. Victor himself was the proof of their sexual attraction, his birth coming only months after their wedding. But his father grew older and his temperament had changed. Victor understood from his mama that his father’s recent memory lapses had only increased his rash behaviors and his brother and two younger sisters bemoaned their father’s ailment. The man had been a firebrand and they missed his humor and his determination. “He is much worse.” Her lower lip quivered, but she fought her tears. The fragrance of roses wafted into the conservatory from the open glass doors. So did the sound of that young woman laughing…and she did so with young children.

His own, he would wager. “Tell me about his attacks.” Victor was eager to learn about the man he’d revered all his life, unhappy to note the discussion concerned that man’s failing health. He didn’t want to insult his father, nor antagonize him. The first he’d never had reason to do, but his mother had written him that the second was now easy to do. “What does the doctor say? I must know before I talk with him.” “He seems to have moments when he is simply not with us. He stares into space, then suddenly returns, remembering bits of conversation from minutes before he drifted away. If you ask him about such lapses, he turns irritable. So you must be attentive to your conversation when he seems suddenly not to hear you.

” “Very well. I will.” “He has a proposition for you.” Victor sighed and brushed a speck of lint from his trousers. “The Welsh farms again? I don’t want to debate taking them over for him. I am no estate manager, Mama.” He’d gone to Shanghai years ago to make what fortune he could from business. That and to escape the detritus of Alicia’s scandals. His mother patted his hand and her marvelous eyes twinkled. “Not that.

Something else.” He detected skullduggery, not unusual for his parents. “What have you and he concocted?” “He will tell you. Swore me to secrecy, he did. When you go up, he’ll present it.” He shook his head. “I don’t care to argue with him.” “Then don’t. Listen to him.” She shook back her hair, her tiny pearl earrings dancing in the sunlight.

“You’ll be intrigued.” Will I? Few prospects catch my imagination. A long sleep by a quiet cove is the one that might. “For your sake, I’ll try to be.” “Not just for my sake, but yours as well. The girls too. I’m so glad you sent the girls up to us while you finished your meetings in London. They’ve been a delight. To your father. Me.

And Richard.” “Ha-ha!” shouted a woman from the garden. “I see you, Viv. You are out!” “No, no, no!” squealed his oldest daughter. Gales of laughter filled the conservatory. “Ah, Deirdre! I can fiiiind you,” called another female. “Who’s out there with the girls?” he asked, pleased that his daughters were having fun. The first young woman whose laughter drew him was not the only one in the mayhem outside. His mother leaned close, her conspiratorial expression also desperate. “Richard’s choice and her friend.

” He girded himself to greet the candidate to be the next marchioness of Ridgemont. She’d have beauty to match her money, no doubt about it. Richard would take no less. “I’m ready to meet them both.” “Ah, here’s tea,” his mother announced as Fawkes the butler appeared from the main house with a tray. “I assume you’re starved.” “I am,” he said with pleasure that he was about to eat. “Most especially for Cook’s lemon curd and raspberry tarts.” “Cook,” said the elderly butler as he gingerly bent to place the tray on the table before Victor’s mother, “made them first thing this morning for you, sir.” “I shall come down later to give her my thanks,” he said with a wink at the man he’d known all his life.

“She’ll appreciate that, sir.” The servant squinted through his rimless glasses, focusing on his duties to finish the tea presentation. “Will there be anything else, Your Grace?” “No, Fawkes.” She lifted the glass dome over a plate of tea sandwiches and shortbread cookies. “I see you’ve given us the items the girls adore.” “Cook likes to please them, too, ma’am.” The man excused himself and with careful steps, backed away. After he closed the door behind him, Victor sat back while his mother poured for him. “Fawkes seems to suffer from failing vision.” “He does,” his mother said and handed him his cup and saucer.

“He won’t admit it. I’ve asked Doctor Weeks to look in on him whenever he comes to visit your father. Glasses help but do not solve the problems age creates. I use them now myself.” “I do too. To read.” He sipped his tea and waited while his mother served herself. “Oh? When did that become necessary?” “A few months ago. Reading Mandarin calligraphy requires a sharp eye for the delicacy of the strokes. Miss one and you’ve misinterpreted so badly that you’ve insulted someone you wished to praise.

” “Poor dear.” “Oh, Mama, thank all under heaven, not poor at all.” “What you were meant to do there,” she said with pride, her chin high. “Exactly.” “How well have you done? Forgive my boldness to ask. Your father simply tells me you are your own man. ‘Good fellow. Solid.’” “I’m proud to say I’ve made a surprising fortune in Shanghai. I’ve enough to travel this year and next if I like.

Profit enough to improve the house in Hanover Square for Viv, Deirdre and myself.” His Chinese laborers dubbed him tai-pan, though he was less wealthy by half than most foreigners in the international settlement. “My reading glasses damage only my vanity.” She sniffed. “At thirty-one, you shouldn’t need spectacles.” “Nor you, my dear, at fifty-one.” “You flatter me. Keep doing that.” “I know where my bread is buttered.” “Rascal.

” She drank her own tea. “I hope you sent up all your trunks from London. I need you to stay with us, Victor. For the girls’ sake, for your father and me. A ray of sunshine.” “I have brought all our belongings with me. For an extended stay, yes. Hanover Square receives a fresh coat of paint and new upholstery in the public rooms. To tell you the truth, I relish the prospect of summer in the country.” Here, but most especially in the cottage near Brighton, quiet and secluded.

“The girls, I know will be charmed by you and Father. They need you and that perspective on family, I believe.” “And I’m thrilled to provide it. Your papa, even as ill-possessed of all his wits as he is, does too.” Victor could see the strain apparent in the lines near her eyes. “But Richard worries you.” “He does. He is…not himself at times.” His half-brother had always shown a wild streak. Impulsive, aggressive and stunningly self-centered, Richard nonetheless managed to charm as many with his generosity and his savoir-faire.

“Perhaps he is in love. That changes a man.” His mother fixed him with the stark look of reproof that alerted all in the family to her earnest intent. “He is changed. But not, I fear, by love.” Alarm shot through him. Richard had dealt with bouts of mania when he’d been at Cambridge. One May, Victor had had to calm him by forcibly bundling him off to the Lake Country. Whatever Richard’s symptoms now, he didn’t wish to be burdened with the knowledge of them so soon after his arrival home. A holiday was in order.

Rides in the forest, visits with old friends. Soft breezes on his face as he read a few new books which he could never get in Shanghai. Still, his mother needed him and he would rally to the cause. He always did. Victor set his teeth and brushed the crease in his trousers. “You’ve set me a great task.” “You always were the one to soothe us all. The one to solve our riddles. Our desperate situations.” He sipped his tea.

Would that I had been as successful solving my own challenges. “You’re much too confident.” She lifted a shoulder. “And you know that I have reason to be. Did you not dissuade your brother years ago from eloping with that draper’s daughter?” “He can be head-strong. But he’s not foolhardy. He wouldn’t have married her.” “She had a girlish beauty to commend her.” His mother arched two pale, finely plucked brows. He laughed.

“My dear, she was endowed with many attributes, none of which was a dowry.” “Precisely.” “Add to that, I’ve no idea what’s happening with the price of land or your production here, but I would wager, when Richard marries, he’d welcome a suitable marriage settlement made of sterling. Deliverable to his bank each year on January first.” His mother nodded in agreement. “He tells me we’re doing well here. In the black. Which is more than I can say for many whom we know and love. He does not tell me of his own finances at Ridgemont. So I worry.

But whatever his balance sheet—” she said with an index finger in the air, “he merits an heiress with suitable accoutrement.” “Indeed he does.” As the heir to their father, the seventh duke of the venerable centuries’ old title of Brentwood, Richard was the marquess of Ridgemont with lands of his own and income in his own right. In addition, Richard had always done a fine job of handling his shares of an export-import company dealing out of Bombay. “His foreign company brings him good profit.” “Still? He will not tell me.” His mother’s lips thinned. “I know Richard’s agent, Chiang Hsing-li in Shanghai. He’s shrewd and careful. I have checked Chiang’s books for Richard’s share in the Woochow Tea Company at least once a year for the past three, and he seems more honest than many.

” Other British investors in Woochow might not be so fortunate, but Victor knew Richard was getting a fair deal from his agent in Shanghai. Westerners in the China trade knew that every respected Chinese agent took ‘squeeze’ to supplement his income. From what Victor had estimated, Chiang’s take averaged two percent, significantly lower than the ten to fifteen that many stole. The duchess stared at him. “That comforts me. But he’s in quite a stew with this latest scandal. He has hinted to me that he needs a significant amount of cash. I am appalled at the rumors. And I am so glad you’re here to help.” Victor stifled his sigh.

No rest for the weary. Not yet. “Is Richard here? I didn’t have a chance to ask Fawkes when I came in.” Too taken with absorbing the sights and fragrances of home. “He went down to Bath four days ago to speak with his estate manager there. Urgent business of some sort. He promised he’d be home for dinner tonight or early in the morning. Our other guests arrive beginning tomorrow afternoon.” “Fine. And how long is this house party?” “Five days.

Richard insists.” His mother leaned close and lowered her voice. “I fear he’ll make an offer to this girl and use the party as the occasion to announce it.” “What of the girl’s parents? Has he gotten her father’s approval?” She cast a wary eye toward the door. “That’s the other thing. Neither one has arrived. Her father remains in London to negotiate some business venture and her mother declined, saying she was indisposed.” “Odd.” “Darling, they’re Americans. You’ve been away too long and cannot imagine what they do and don’t.

” He snorted. “Sweetheart, I know Americans. I’ve dealt with quite a few in Shanghai and they are not cave men.” The sound of laughter drifted inside. His mother tipped her head toward the door. “She’s come and brought along her friend, who added her family’s official chaperone.” “Oh? A good solution.” “No, no, no. A French woman. A countess of some forgotten place.

” “Mama, you’re being unfair now.” He feigned a grimace at her. She shrugged. “I know. You’re right. But wait until you meet her. Victor, this union must not happen.” “Don’t worry. Please. I’ll have a chat with her.

See if she favors our Richard and suits him.” “She won’t.” But if her money does, that’s the end of it. “Let’s be candid, Mama. If she loves him and can overlook his recent problems, she may be the very woman he needs. Have you any indication of that?” She inhaled and sat back, her imploring gaze on him. “She is forthright, I’ll say that for her. But I am glad you have hit the nail on the head with his scandals. I am so ashamed. Your father and I caused, I thought, enough of an uproar when we married during his year of mourning for his wife.

But that was the worst we ever did and much forgiven by society. But this. This is horrid.” Victor did not blink an eye. With nary a breath, his mother swept past his own scandals. Or rather his wife’s. She put down her cup and saucer to the tea table. “What do you know of this uproar?” He exhaled. No way around it, he’d have to discuss the issue that plagued his mother. “Only rumors.

The earl of Howitch’s son, John, outlined the matter to me when I dined with him in Naples a few weeks ago. From what I know, it is more fluff than substance.” At least the lady is not with child. “Sleeping with Wales’s mistress.” His mother fairly seethed. “Good heavens, was he using his head?” Another part of his anatomy. Victor frowned. “He does not continue to see her, I understand.” His mother sagged. “True, but it is all so very sordid.

” As infidelity always is.

.

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