The Archaeologist’s Daughter – Summer Hanford

William Greydrake, future Marquess of Westlock, lounged on the leather couch in Lethbridge’s London office, watching the attorney shuffle pages. The room, furnished in dark wood, was perpetually gloomy. It suited its occupant. “Have you any brandy?” William asked. “If I must endure your paper pushing, I should like a drink.” Lethbridge darted a look at the clock on his mantel. “It’s eleven in the morning.” “You’re the one who cried urgency. It’s inhumane to drag a man from his bed at this hour, and more so not to compensate for it with a snifter.” “I haven’t any brandy.” Lethbridge’s words were clipped. He pulled free a page. “You ought to. The old man pays you enough.” William could read the frown pinching the attorney’s already narrow features.

He’d seen the look often enough, on so many faces, to know what Lethbridge saw. A tailcoat creased from being worn all night. An untied cravat. William’s disheveled brown hair. His still shiny boots, propped on the furniture. He was the image of an indolent nobleman’s son. Owner of the world. Careless and carefree. It was obvious to anyone who saw William that he’d been out all night, likely gambling, drinking, and enjoying lightskirts. He wore his depravity proudly before the world.

That was how he arranged to appear. His reputation could even explain the occasional black eye. With the marquess’s men watching him, he must jealously guard his true nature, his actual dealings. The old bastard had well-ingrained the price of not conforming to his ideas of what a peer should be. William leaned his head back on the couch. He studied the ceiling until he properly blotted out the repercussions of falling short of the marquess’s expectations. He dropped his gaze and traced the dark wood paneling with his eyes, skimming over the small door that closed off Lethbridge’s record room. He adopted an indolent smile and focused on the attorney. “Exactly why am I here?” “Your father asked me to draw up a list of acceptable brides for you.” Lethbridge proffered a page.

“Brides?” Maybe he really did need that drink. “I have four more years of freedom. The marquess is of the opinion no worthy gentleman weds before thirty.” “He has changed his mind.” Lethbridge set the page down on the edge of his desk. “He wishes to ensure you marry correctly.” William drummed his fingers. “Why now?” Lethbridge drew in a breath, his expression more serious than usual, no mean feat. “Lord Westlock is dying.” Feet slamming to the floor, William came upright on the couch.

“Don’t toy with me, Lethbridge.” “I assure you, I do not.” Giddiness swept through him. “Are you certain? He’s sought a doctor’s opinion? A priest’s? We wouldn’t want to be wrong about this.” Could the joyous day finally be at hand? William grinned. A world without the marquess was wonderful to contemplate. “He is certain, as is his physician.” Lethbridge’s face remained bland, but his eyes went dark with disgust. “Don’t look at me like that, Lethbridge.” William stood, restive.

“The old man is a bastard and a half and you know it. He all but killed my mother.” Lethbridge dropped his gaze. “Your mother killed his heir, your older brother. She was ill, mentally unfit. The marquess could have seen her hang, but instead he installed her in a facility where she could get the care she needed. I’m sure they did all they could to help her.” “My mother was not a murderer, or mad.” William’s voice was low as he struggled for an even tone. “I’m sure you have fond memories of her.

You were what, four when she was removed? But I assure you, I’ve seen the papers. A competent doctor declared her unfit.” “Yes, I know.” A doctor the marquess paid off. “She was violent and unfit. The old man was wracked with grief. Too overcome to set eyes on me, he shipped me, a child of four, off to Mr. Darington in Egypt. Common knowledge.” And all a lie.

“Exactly. It therefore behooves you not to delight in your father’s decline.” “Tell me this, why was I such a terrible reminder? The world knows I am the image of the marquess. Nothing about me speaks of my mother.” Every mirror a reminder. “While you’re prevaricating, explain as well how the man can have the devil’s own luck with wives. One a mad murderess, one fallen to her death, and a third too ill to remain in England?” “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re insinuating. The marquess is a great man and worthy of your respect.” William ran a hand across his hazel eyes, in an effort at calm. Lethbridge was the marquess’s man through.

There was no sense arguing with him. Besides, if the old bastard really was dying, it would soon be moot. His spirit buoyed by the prospect of the marquess’s death, William pulled his composure about him. Eyes open, his attention caught on the page at the edge of the desk. A list of names. A few lines at the bottom. He crossed to scoop it up. “These are the women, then?” Lethbridge nodded. “He ordered you to sign it, to agree you will marry one.” William crossed to the fireplace.

Behind the clock on the mantel hung the dreariest landscape he’d ever encountered. Beneath, the fire wasn’t lit. That would make the room too inviting. Coals glowed red in the grate, though. Perhaps when he was alone, Lethbridge permitted himself to be comfortable. Leaning on the mantel, William studied the page. What a list. Diamonds of the first water, to be sure. Women with ice in their veins, all of them. The sort of women a man could never know happiness with, likely not even pleasure.

Diamonds had sharp edges, after all. His eyes caught on a name near the bottom of the page. Lady Lanora Hadler, the archaeologist’s daughter. “You said you drew this up?” “Your father left it to my discretion, after setting his parameters.” Lethbridge sounded proud. William cast a look over his shoulder, not hiding his disdain. Lethbridge smoothed back his stringy brown hair, used a kerchief to wipe the oil from his hand. Only the attorney would be proud to be asked to draw up such a list. The marquess’s toady, hopping at the chance to please. William reread the name.

The marquess would never have included Lady Lanora, only child of Robert Hadler, Duke of Solworth, a man much respected by the Royal Society for his work uncovering the secrets of Egypt. The marquess had no use for learned men, even dukes, but especially avoided Solworth. If anyone could uncover the secret of William’s past and tarnish the Greydrake name, it was the archaeologist. Interest tugged at William. He’d long wished for words with the duke. In Egypt, Solworth worked in parallel with his fellow archaeologist, Mr. Darington. A man William had never met, despite well-circulated information to the contrary. Darington, who lied for the marquess, yet, somehow, was the only man William trusted. Not that courting Lady Lanora would bring her father.

It was common knowledge the Duke of Solworth hadn’t set foot in England in a dozen years. More than that, William had spotted Lady Lanora across many a ballroom. Though she had alluring midnight locks, sculpted features and lush curves, she inspired little desire in him. If women of her caliber had ice in their veins, Lady Lanora’s were frozen solid. It was a wonder she could move, let alone with such grace, given how rigid she was. She struck fear into the hearts of most men. Those who dared ask her to dance generally fled after one set. William studied the coals in the grate, contemplating remembered glimpses of the black-haired beauty. His gaze caught on a scrap of paper in the ash, and he suppressed a start of surprise. The handwriting, so familiar, couldn’t be mistaken.

Darington’s. William knew Darington was a client, referred by the marquess. What could warrant burning? Surely not the list. Darington wouldn’t have anything to do with such high-handedness. Besides, the man wrote so often of his daughter, William had long since realized Darington hoped for the connection. Reading of her kind heart and generous nature, William often did as well, but Darington’s daughter wasn’t the sort of woman who would make Lethbridge’s list. Too low, and far too kind. William took the page back to the desk and dropped it onto the dark wood. “None of these women will have me.” “Perhaps if you mend your behavior.

” Lethbridge’s tone was tentative. William snorted. “The marquess requested a life bereft of sentiment or compassion, lived only for pleasure. Now, he wishes me to appeal to these?” He tapped the page. “Some would agree for your wealth. Some for your title.” “What if I refuse?” William sat on the edge of Lethbridge’s desk, carefree demeanor employed with practiced ease. “The old bastard asks much, after all. This isn’t like demanding I flaunt my circumstance among the ton. This is marriage.

Misery for all my days.” At least, it would be with any of the women listed. His eyes drifted to the fireplace and the words among the ashes. Lethbridge frowned, craning his head at an uncomfortable angle to look up at him. “Then the marquess requested I inform you he had me draw up a second will. He hasn’t signed it, but he shall, if you do not concede to his demand.” “Oh?” William drawled. “And what does this dreadful second will do that the first did not?” “Leaves your half-sister everything but the entailed ancestral lands, which will be bankrupted without the rest.” “Madelina? She’s sixteen. Who would run the estate?” “I would.

” Did William imagine the avaricious glint in Lethbridge’s mud-colored gaze? “You,” he repeated, tone flat. “I will be her guardian until she’s of age, or until I give her permission to wed.” Lethbridge squared his thin shoulders, snapped the stack of papers nearest him straight and set them back in place. “So, my choices are to thaw the heart of one of these diamonds, or end up a pauper on a bankrupt estate?” William had plans for the marquess’s money. It didn’t surprise him the old man had conjured up a final hurtle. “That is one way to see it, yes.” “It is the only way to see it.” William pushed a hand through his hair. “Fine, I’ll marry a debutant off your list. How difficult can it be to find one willing to become a marchioness?” “Excellent.

” Lethbridge opened a drawer and pulled out a neatly trimmed pen. “You made the right choice.” He reached for the inkwell and slid it across the desk to a spot on William’s left. He set the pen beside it. William wondered if Lethbridge was being thorough or intended to needle him by remembering he was left handed. The marquess considered it a defect in character. He’d paid many tutors to break the habit. Only, William’s writing instructors had failed. In all other matters, William could appear, as the marquess put it, respectable. His eyes sought the mantel clock.

He wasn’t actually one for drinking early, but it was drifting toward midday. Somewhere, outside of Lethbridge’s gloom-filled office, there was daylight to walk through, his club, and a bottle waiting. William felt a greater than usual need for a drink. His gaze drifted to the grate. He tried not to feel the loss of Darington’s daughter. She was a dream. He’d never met the girl. Besides, he could always hope the marquess died before he managed to win one of the diamonds. William took up the pen, and signed. “The marquess has given you a score of days.

After that, he will sign the new will.” Lethbridge had read William’s mind. William tossed the pen on the desk. He took delight in the ink blot, and how Lethbridge scrambled for his kerchief to wipe it up. “I surely hope that’s enough business for today,” William said. Lethbridge didn’t look up as he scrubbed at the ink. “There’s still the matter of Miss Chastity.” William frowned, on guard. “My mistress? What of her?” “If you’re to marry, will you be keeping her? Another payment for her townhouse is due.” Lethbridge’s eyes darted toward him, then away.

A test, William thought. The old man put the words in Lethbridge’s mouth. William contained a smile. He knew the correct answer. “Gads, man, what sort of question is that? I don’t see what marrying has to do with my mistress.” “You don’t mean to, that is, love your wife?” Lethbridge grimaced as the words came out. “I haven’t spent the past twelve years learning to be fashionable to ruin it all by falling in love. You can tell the marquess I said as much.” Besides which, William took his responsibilities seriously. Chastity would be maintained as she was until the marquess was cold and buried.

William would not give her up. No wife would change that. Chapter Two Lady Lanora Hadler, daughter of the Duke of Solworth, sat at the kitchen table in her father’s London home, shucking peas. Her best friend and maid, Grace, was opposite her, similarly engaged. Lanora’s hands flew as she stripped the ripe green pods, but Grace was still winning. Her pile was nearly gone. “Victory,” Grace cried, eyes bright, dropping a final pod onto the heap of shells before her. Lanora smiled. “I don’t know how you do it, or how you can be so nimble with peas and not able to stich a straight seam.” She kept working.

The peas were needed for dinner. “Practice.” Grace reached across the table and snatched some of Lanora’s. Lanora pushed a dark lock from her eyes. “You could practice sewing.” “But then you’d want me to do it. I prefer kitchen work. Someday, when you wed, you’ll set up your own home, and I’ll be your cook.” “I will never wed, but you are welcome to cook all you like once I convince Father I need my own home.” “Or that.

” Some of the cheer left Grace’s face. “I will convince him.” Lanora snapped a pod open with such vigor, some of the peas jumped out. “He must acknowledge I’m perfectly well on my own.” She made a vague gesture around the kitchen. It was a warm room, the plaster walls yellow in the morning light. The sunshine that spilled through the windows gave way to a view of the garden, hothouse and grounds beyond. Lanora knew the grounds were large for London, but had never fully taken to them. The ordered patch of earth was worlds away from the rolling hills and forest around her country home. She sighed, and slowed.

She didn’t hate London. She simply wished her father hadn’t decided she must have a season. She missed the people left behind, though many of the staff had made the journey with her and she’d come to know the London staff well. She missed the countryside, the tenants and freedom. Not freedom from oversight, for she was ordered about no more in London than the countryside, but of space and from the scrutiny of the ton. Lanora’s chaperone, her Aunt Edith, was even more opposed to London living than she was. The frumpy middle-aged sister to Lanora’s father, Aunt Edith was likely riding in the park even then. Riding or not, she wore mostly riding habits, and those about two decades out of fashion. To make London more tolerable, Aunt Edith had brought many of her terriers to town with her, the little monsters her one true love. Lanora found them enjoyable in the countryside, but they chafed at the small grounds, too little work making them ill mannered.

Still, their London cook said the larder had never been so vermin free. She plead endlessly with Aunt Edith to leave a few of the little mongrels behind. Likewise, the groundskeeper was impressed with the lack of small creatures ravaging his work. For her part, Lanora missed the songbirds. If a pair was foolish enough to remain on the grounds, the terriers would wait for the fledglings to leave the nest and snap them up before they learned to fly properly. “You’re wearing your dead-baby-songbird face,” Grace said. She took up the last of Lanora’s peapods. “I do wish new ones wouldn’t keep coming.” Grace shrugged. “It’s nature.

” She finished the peas and stood, gathering the shells for the bin. “I was thinking. I should win a prize for shucking more peas than you.” Lanora narrowed her eyes. “Such as?” “Such as, for today, you forget about Mrs. Smith.” A broad smile turned up Lanora’s lips. Mrs. Smith, the only wonderful thing about London. Not that the reason for her was good.

Poverty was never a happy circumstance, and poverty was what Mrs. Smith sought to alleviate. Rather, Lanora sought to alleviate it, in the guise of the widowed Mrs. Smith. Lanora was quite enamored with being unknown enough to wander the streets. At home, her midnight locks and deep green eyes were too easily recognized, even with a cap and spectacles. There were so many people in London, and the wealthy kept themselves so far above the rest, no one Lanora helped as Mrs. Smith had any notion who she really was. Mrs. Smith was much preferable to her evening role, duke’s daughter.

Maintaining that frigid façade was an endless strain. Lanora had little choice, though, if she wanted to survive the season unattached and go on to have a home of her own. All she wished was to keep living the unfettered life she’d enjoyed since her father began his work a dozen years ago. Besides, the smiling faces and pleasant conversation offered by her so-called peers were as much a pretense as her coolness. No one in London knew her, so how could they like her? Their warmth sprang from regard for her father’s title, or his wealth, or both. Perhaps even from his notoriety as a scholar, but never from caring for Lanora. She’d learned well enough from her charitable works at home the lengths to which his assets would drive people. For most, Lanora was a chance for money, renown or power, nothing more. “Now you’re wearing your, no-one-loves-me-for-who-I-really-am look.” Grace reseated herself.

“You know me too well.” Lanora sought her earlier light mood. “I know you very well. You’re like a sister to me, and I assure you there are many people who love you.” “Here, in this house, and in Father’s country manor, yes.” Lanora waved a hand toward the windows. “Out there? No. They will never come to know me. All they see is Lady Lanora, only child to Lord Robert, Duke of Solworth.” “You give them no chance to know you.

” Grace’s voice took on an imploring note, “If you would, you may find you come to enjoy the company of some of them. Perhaps even a gentleman. You’re too young to have decided never to marry.” Lanora let out a sigh. “Not this lecture. Not again.” Grace’s mouth flattened in a mutinous line, but she shrugged. “Well then, about Mrs. Smith–” “I don’t have all that bread sent to let it be distributed improperly. You know if Mrs.

Smith isn’t there to hand out what she paid for, the first people will take more than their share and sell it to those I mean to have it free. The rector of the church is too kind. He’s taken in by any story.” “You go too often. Too many of them know the Widow Smith now. What if one sees you elsewhere? Word will get back to the rest. The poor feed on gossip.” Only because they have no real food much of the time. “No one will recognize me.” “That’s not my true worry, as well you know.

” Grace’s features tensed. “Walking the streets of London alone is foolish for any woman, but you, a duke’s daughter, are in even more danger.” “Again, I assure you, no one will recognize me.” “Black hair is not common, and yours has been mentioned in the paper.” Grace looked triumphant, as if that point couldn’t be overcome.


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