“What you need, my dear, is a trip to the country.” Venetia Dunham lay stretched out on a chaise, a Gothic novel abandoned in her lap as she stared up at the intricate crown molding of the ceiling in her Mayfair townhouse. She lowered her gaze to the speaker, her grandmother, Gwendolyn Dunham, the Dowager Countess of Latham. She was Gran to Venetia, but Gwen or Lady Latham to everyone else. The old woman looked frail only because of her delicate bones and the walking cane she was never without. But anyone with even a passing relationship with the dowager countess knew that those bones encased a sharp tongue and an even sharper wit, and the cane was more of a weapon than a crutch, as many young men of the ton would attest to. She was Venetia’s constant companion, the salve to her aching heart when her mother died, and her delightful mentor and dear friend in the eleven years since. Though they were of different generations, Venetia and her gran had a bond that could not be shaken. “I mean it, Venetia. It has been a year since Andrew passed. We’re both out of mourning, and we need to escape that buffoon who has claimed his title. There are only so many things one can bear, and poor company is by far the worst.” Gwen sat with her back straight, her mouth twisted in a slight scowl. Her words held a cutting edge that bore a mix of impatience and sadness at the dreadful situation they found themselves in. Venetia smiled a little at Gran’s reference to her cousin, Patrick, who had become the new Earl of Latham.
When Venetia’s father had passed suddenly, she and Gran had become the unexpected guests to her late uncle’s son as he took over their townhouse as the new owner. Gran, who hadn’t seen Patrick since he was a boy, had spent five minutes alone with him after the funeral and had declared him to be a cad. Now, a year later, Venetia and Gran were living with him and the situation was quite unbearable. “If I have to hear any more about his plans to renovate the townhouse, I shall perish on the spot. A cardroom to replace the drawing room? Does the fool plan to run a gambling hell?” Gwen stamped her cane’s metal tip hard into the rug. “I think you’re right, Gran,” Venetia said gently. “We must go to the country, I only wish we could go to our old country house.” Patrick had sold it the moment he’d had a chance. That particular sale had been most injurious to Venetia. Her father had left a vast sum of money in Venetia’s possession under a trust managed by an old friend of her father’s, but the townhouse and the country estate, Latham House, were firmly in Patrick’s control.
The loss of the money had infuriated her cousin, but he’d held his temper in check. Venetia was relieved that marriage between first cousins wasn’t allowed, or else she would have been worried that Patrick would try to force a marriage simply to obtain her fortune. And marriage was the very last thing Venetia wanted. “One does not need to own a country house to visit the country.” Gwen removed a small folded letter from a pocket hidden in her skirts and waved it with a triumphant smile. Venetia sat up and set her book aside. “What is that?” “Our escape, my dear. It’s a letter from Marrian Hampton.” Gwen passed her the letter. Venetia stared at the letter’s signature; her lips parted as she scanned the contents.
“The Duchess of Devon?” “Exactly. She was a dear friend of your mother’s, and she has invited us to a house party in two days. I say we accept.” “But, Gran, are you up to the rigors of a house party? You’ve been unwell these last few months.” Venetia hadn’t missed Gran’s increasing reliance on her cane or the pallor of her skin. Andrew’s death had been especially hard on Gwen. Gwen waved away her granddaughter’s concerns. “Pish. I’m not unwell, but it serves me to appear to be.” “But why?” “If you must know, it’s Patrick.
I cannot stand him, nor do I trust him. And as I am your only trust worthy escort for public events, my absence due to ill health prevents you from spending time with him where he might drag you away to marry you to some friend of his. But I cannot always pretend to be on death’s door to keep you safe. At some point, he may send me away and hire a chaperone he can bribe to be absent for the moment he finds a way to get you compromised by one of those friends.” Venetia tried not to think about Patrick stooping so low as to trick her into marrying one of his friends. “Have you truly been feigning illness?” “Yes, for the most part. Aren’t I quite the actress?” Gwen’s giggle was so animated that Venetia’s concerns abated slightly. “Now, what do you say? Shall we attend this house party in the country?” Venetia examined the letter again, seeing quite clearly the duchess’s invitation. “I suppose it would be nice . ” Just then the drawing room door opened and Patrick strode in.
He wore a finely cut waistcoat and striped pantaloons, which quite dandified him. Selling her father’s country estate had lined Patrick’s pockets well, and he’d made it clear to Venetia and their grandmother that he wasn’t afraid to spend it. “Ah, Venetia, there you are.” Patrick smiled. “I was hoping you’d be up for a ride in Hyde Park with me. There are a few friends I would like to introduce you to, especially Mr. Bernard Kenyon. He’s a dear chap, quite taken with you, and he’s only glimpsed you from afar. I think you would suit each other well.” The entire speech was delivered quickly, and it was quite obvious that Patrick didn’t realize his motives were blindingly clear.
“Patrick, I told you—with my trust, I’ve no need of marriage.” Patrick’s smile withered, and a cold edge glinted in his eyes. “I know you think that will satisfy you, I’m the head of this family now, and it is my wish that you marry.” Venetia rose slowly from the couch. Her temper, which rarely flared, had sprung to life at her cousin’s threat. It seemed to her horror, Gran was right about her cousin. She’d been desperately not wishing to believe it but she could deny it no longer. “Patrick, let us lay our cards upon the table and speak frankly. You wish for me to marry one of your friends. I have no doubt the arrangement would be that you would have been paid by this new husband from part of my money he would acquire control of after the marriage.
I have the right of it, do I not?” Red suffused Patrick’s face as fury took over. “Now see here, Venetia. I have tried to be polite this past year, but my kindness is at an end.” He grasped her arms quite forcefully. His grip was so tight that Venetia gasped as pain shot up her arms. He gave her a violent shake, and Venetia was so stunned that she couldn’t react. But Gwen did. In a fluid motion, she swung her cane in a rapier-like arc to land between their bodies. “Release her, Patrick. Now.
” The steel in her tone clanged like a fencing blade. Patrick seemed to recover himself and released Venetia, then took a measured step back as he straightened his waistcoat and cleared his throat. “My apologies, cousin. That was undeserved. You hurt my feelings with your unwarranted accusations. I request again that you accompany me on a ride to meet Mr. Kenyon.” Patrick’s sudden and unexpected brutality had made one thing clear to Venetia—she and her grandmother could not stay here any longer. “I will go change into my riding habit, if you can give me half an hour.” It took every ounce of control to keep her voice light to prevent another angry outburst.
He was all pleasant smiles and joviality again. “Yes, yes, of course, cousin.” Then he looked to Gran. “Grandmother.” He nodded stiffly and left the room. Neither Venetia nor Gwen spoke right away, waiting until the sound of booted steps down the hall assured them that Patrick was out of hearing. “Good heavens.” Venetia wrapped her arms around herself. “You will not go riding with them. I will not allow it,” Gwen declared.
Venetia rubbed her trembling arms and after a moment reached out to take her grandmother’s hand in hers. “Gran, I must. And while I’m gone, you will see to it that we are packed and ready to leave for the country.” “I don’t want you alone with them. He could arrange to have his friend compromise you, or worse. For all we know, that man has a priest waiting there as well.” It was a valid concern, but Venetia thought—or rather, hoped—Patrick was not that desperate yet. Venetia dropped her arms to her sides and clenched her fists. “I am four and twenty. I have no need to let anyone force me into marriage simply out of a desire to avoid scandal.
Society can hang itself.” Her father had warned her before her first season that men usually did not like intelligent wives, nor wives who wanted to be considered a partner rather than a servant within the marriage. He’d warned her that many men would say pleasing things, and promise the moon, but that once married, she would find her wings clipped like a songbird trapped in a cage. The thought had so frightened her at seventeen that Venetia had happily avoided all but the most necessary appearances during her first season. She’d garnered no suitors due to her almost hermit-like behavior, but that had been her intention. It was better to be alone than to sacrifice her happiness simply to marry. Gwen sighed heavily. “My dear, listen to an old woman when she tells you that men like Patrick are dangerous, especially when they believe they stand no chance of getting what they want through civility. You must never assume you are safe from his schemes. Forced marriages can be achieved, and men of the cloth can be bribed.
No, I think we must find a solution, but I know you will make a fuss over it when I speak it.” Sudden realization of her grandmother’s intentions made Venetia shake her head frantically. “No, no, no, Gran.” “Yes, my dear. It’s time we find you a husband. One who is up to scratch, and one of your own choosing, of course. But more importantly, one who can give Patrick a good thrashing when we need him to.” She whipped her cane in the air as though whacking an invisible Patrick on the head. “You know my feelings on marriage. It is a trap, a devaluation of a woman’s already limited independence.
” “Yes, I know. But, Venetia, love, not all men are like that buffoon you call a cousin.” “He’s your grandson,” Venetia reminded Gwen. “Yes, and his father, was such a good lad. It makes one wonder if the poor man was cuckolded, because that boy is a terrible creature, and I would do anything to disclaim a connection to him.” Her grandmother covered Venetia’s shoulders with a gentle arm. “Go riding if you must, and I will have all of our things packed before you return. We won’t stay here another night, we’ll move out at once. We’ll go to the house party in the country, and I will find us a home elsewhere in London so that we won’t have to return here. With your trust, we will be able to afford something quite suitable.
” Venetia didn’t want to leave this house. It was her home, not Patrick’s, though she had no legal claim upon it. Patrick was free to tear it down to rubble if he so desired. “How can we manage, Gran?” Venetia asked in a quiet voice. She didn’t mean the question in matters of money. Patrick was their only male relative, and it would be expected that they would have some dealings with him, yet neither she nor Gwen desired that. Two women alone in society, the youngest soon to be an old spinster, although she hated the thought of men labeling her such when she felt neither old nor spinsterish. She felt as though the disapproving gaze of all London society would burn them to ash if they attempted to declare their independence from men. “How can we manage?” Gwen gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Because we’re Dunham ladies.
We stand tall in the face of adversity. We may bend when we must, but we never break.” Venetia tried to find a smile, but it never found her lips. She left the drawing room and headed to her bedchamber to change into her riding habit. She found her lady’s maid, Phoebe Upton, sorting out gowns on her bed. She was relieved not to have to ring the bell. Patrick had been attempting to reduce the staff, and Gran fought him on the matter frequently. He’d already terminated several of the upstairs maids, even though he was not the one who paid for their services. Each time this happened, Gran left the house to find the servants and bring them back. All of the servants now dreaded the ring of any upstairs bell.
For them it had come to toll their employment doom. It was another reminder that it was time to leave this house and escape its great unhappiness. “Afternoon, my lady.” Phoebe smiled. She was a lovely woman in her late thirties, and an experienced servant Venetia had trusted for years with the secrets of her heart. “Would you retrieve my riding habit, Phoebe? I am to go out with Lord Latham.” Phoebe halted abruptly before she reached the armoire. “You’re what?” Phoebe demanded, then apparently realized she’d overstepped and cleared her throat. “That is to say, what could he have offered to make that worth doing?” Venetia sat down at her vanity table and buried her face in her hands. She pressed hard against her closed eyelids until she saw flashes of white.
Then she breathed deeply and faced her maid. “I am buying us time, Phoebe. We are to quit this place. While I ride this afternoon, you are to assist the dowager countess with packing as much as you can.” “Now that makes far more sense,” Phoebe muttered. “Best to leave that man far behind.” The maid continued to mutter vigorously as she helped Venetia change into a blue riding habit with black braided frogging. When they finished, Venetia put her train over one arm and returned downstairs. Patrick was pacing at the entranceway, slapping his brown riding gloves against his palms. The harsh action of that single movement belied his congenial smile.
“There you are. We are running late. I told Bernard we would meet him at half past two.” “I’m so sorry,” Venetia apologized, though she didn’t mean it at all. She forced a smile so genuine that Gwen would have been proud. “Shall we be off? I had the horses brought round.” “Of course.” Venetia was helped into the saddle by one of the grooms, and then they headed for Hyde Park, which thankfully was not far. Venetia had not met many of Patrick’s friends. Between being in mourning for the last year and the fact that Patrick clearly preferred his club for socialization than with her and Gran, it meant they shared no social circles at all.
Given Patrick’s choice of friends, it was no doubt a blessing to avoid any connections with the majority of them. “Ah, there he is.” Patrick pointed at a distant rider at the opening to the park. A man astride a roan gelding waved his crop at them. Venetia tried to keep calm and remember that Patrick would not attempt some scheme in such a public place. He was a fool, but he was not stupid. Still, Venetia kept a tight grip on her riding crop. She would use it as a whip if they tried to manhandle her. “Hello, Bernard. May I present my fair cousin, Venetia? Venetia, Mr.
Bernard Kenyon.” The man, not unpleasant in looks, offered her a dangerous smile. “It is indeed my greatest pleasure to meet you. Patrick has done nothing but sing your praises. I find his description of you falls quite short, however. He failed to mention your sunny-colored hair or those rich doe-brown eyes. You are quite enchanting.” Simpering compliments, just as her father had said. But beneath those compliments, what lay in Bernard’s heart? Was he in league with her cousin to get her fortune? She’d wager anything that he was.