The Duke Before Christmas – Bianca Blythe

PORTIA TATE DASHED through the foyer toward the steps leading to her bedroom, ignoring the butler’s disgruntled look. Cranston cleared his throat noisily. The sound thundered through the room, as if he were practicing for the stage. The butler had long ago mastered the art of gravitas and was always finding opportunities to showcase it. Portia swallowed her sigh and turned toward him. He gave a smug smile, as if she should applaud his discretion, even though Portia personally would prefer he simply say her name when he desired to speak with her. “Sir Vincent would like to see you,” Cranston said soberly. “Thank you, Cranston.” “He’s in the library.” Portia nodded. She shouldn’t have spent so much time at Daisy’s. “Perhaps you should tell him that I’m here,” Portia suggested. “I know it’s evening now. I’m—er —sorry I’m late.” “Everyone is sorry you’re late.

” Portia’s cheeks heated. “I haven’t forgotten about the ball. I’ll be down soon.” “I suggest you change your clothes. Mrs. Jones is waiting for you upstairs. There is no need to damage Sir Vincent’s library.” “Er—naturally. Thank you, Cranston. I’ll be right down.

” Portia gave Cranston a bright smile, but the butler’s face didn’t echo her expression. Portia turned to the staircase and reminded herself she was happy, no matter if, after over a year, Sir Vincent’s servants still viewed her with suspicion. She was lucky Sir Vincent had taken her in after her parents died. Other guardians wouldn’t have moved to London so she might have a season. She moved up the staircase, careful to lift her hem to lessen the possibility of mud spread, though not to a degree that might cause Cranston’s thick eyebrows to make any further athletic ventures across his lofty brow. Sir Vincent had bought the townhouse for his new, now dead, bride, and there was something appealing about the high ceilings and white moldings, so prevalent in the 1790s. Unfortunately, Sir Vincent had never spent much time in it after that, and had filled it with heavy dark wood furniture from two centuries ago, the ones which he thought might be comfortably transported from his estate in Northumberland without excessive worry about the risk of highwaymen and treacherous ditches. The dark furniture squatted awkwardly, as if uncomfortable against the painted walls, and suspicious of the occasional gilt embellishment. Portia flung her bedroom door open and forced her features to form an apologetic look. Her lady’s maid rose from a wooden chair and shoved a book into the pocket of her skirt.

Portia’s stomach sank. No doubt, Jonesie had been waiting far too long. On the bed lay Portia’s yellow gown. “I’m so sorry I’m late, Jonesie,” Portia said. Jonesie’s blue eyes shimmered. “It’s fine.” She patted her skirt and leaned toward Portia. “I was reading a book.” “Was it a good one?” “It had an adventure on the seas, and a handsome hero.” “That sounds splendid.

” Portia said as Jonesie helped her undress. “Daisy and I lost track of time. I hurried through Hyde Park—but got a bit lost.” “You went there in the dark?” Jonesie halted unbuttoning Portia’s afternoon gown, as if Portia’s statement had been sufficiently shocking to render them to stone like in some Nordic legend. “I assumed a carriage had dropped you here.” Fiddlesticks. “It wasn’t dark most of the time. And I wasn’t that lost.” Gusts of wind blustered noisily, filling the silence. “Do you want to attend the ball?” “It would be terrible to stay in the house,” Portia replied.

For a moment, Portia thought her lady’s maid might protest. After all, Portia had only just arrived from a lengthy visit with her dear friend Daisy. Instead, Jonesie inhaled, as if being in the same room as Portia required copious quantities of oxygen. “Very well, Miss.” Jonesie assisted Portia into the shimmering yellow fabric. “I doubt Sir Vincent would mind if you desired to stay home after all,” Jonesie mused. “Nonsense,” Portia said. “I already wrote Sir Seymour’s wife that I would come. I can hardly not make an appearance.” “Yes, she is bound to be overwrought with despair should you be absent.

” Jonesie brushed Portia’s hair firmly, then pulled it into a simple chignon. Portia stared at Jonesie. “Was that irony?” A sense of humor was not something she associated with Jonesie. Nobody in Sir Vincent’s house laughed. Her maid gave a tight smile and finished arranging Portia’s hair. Finally, Portia exited her room and proceeded down the steps. Cranston assessed her, and she shivered. Perhaps she’d lived here for over a year, ever since leaving finishing school, but the servants still made her feel like she was a bumbling, unwelcome guest. When she’d arrived, she’d imagined marrying a peer, and having all the servants marvel that they’d underestimated her. She’d imagined men calling at the house, and Sir Vincent escorting them into the drawing room for tea and interrogation.

But no dashing peers carrying glossy black walking sticks had ever arrived. Nobody had arrived. Her heart clenched. No doubt, Sir Vincent simply wanted to speak to her about something trivial. Perhaps he didn’t want to remain in London for Christmas. Or perhaps he doesn’t want me to have another season. She should have found someone to marry her. That was why Sir Vincent had taken her to dressmakers to get fashionable clothes. In truth, the clothes would have been more fashionable if they’d waited until they’d arrived in London to purchase them. Apparently, the styles the dressmakers lauded in Newcastle were not the same ones typically seen in London ballrooms.

Portia had suspected that, since Matchmaking for Wallflowers and similar material aimed at women had extolled dresses with wide hems, equipped with abundant flounces and ribbons. Still, Sir Vincent had liked the idea of Portia dressing like a Greek goddess, and Portia had acquiesced to the dressmaker’s enthusiasm. London had reacted with less enthusiasm. Apparently, Greek goddesses were considered dull. Since Portia could hardly go about telling people about the time she’d clambered from her school window in order to visit the nearby village for a festivity, or the time she’d spent playing with the neighborhood boys over summers when her father was still alive, long after they’d begun attending Harrow, she had to allow herself to be called such things. Dull. Provincial. Fortunately, other members of her finishing school were also debutantes, though unfortunately, most of them were now married. Next season she wouldn’t have the advantage of being new. There would be a slew of younger women, with fresher faces, whose eyes sparkled more at the majesty of each ballroom, for whom the exact pattern on the ceilings would be novel.

Portia sighed and entered the library. Sir Vincent glanced at her from his red leather armchair. “Have a seat, my dear.” “Very well.” Her voice squeaked, even though her nervousness was absurd. Sir Vincent had taken her in after her father had died. Perhaps he never chuckled, and perhaps his eyes never twinkled, but he was a kind man. She’d been lucky to have him as a guardian. Other people had fared worse when their parents had died. Some people had considered it odd he was unmarried, but it was hardly his fault his wife had died.

Death was a misfortune and not an etiquette lapse. Perhaps Sir Vincent had never had his own children, but that was the sort of thing that happened when one’s wife died in childbirth. It was a tragedy, not lessened by the normalness of it. People seemed more drawn to stories of winter drownings in lakes that were less frozen than they appeared or malaises brought on by unassuming insects crawling about the banks of the Nile. Portia was fortunate her father’s cousin had taken her in. Certainly, she hadn’t had any other relatives. Father had been wise to arrange for Sir Vincent to be her guardian, should anything unseemly happen to him. Unfortunately, it had. Portia sat opposite her guardian. “Cranston mentioned you wanted to speak with me.

I was late. I’m sorry.” “Oh, I didn’t want to discuss that,” Sir Vincent said, and Portia’s back eased. “My aim is to make you happy,” Sir Vincent continued. Portia nodded. This wasn’t the first time Sir Vincent had said this, but he hadn’t said it so passionately since Portia had first been called to the headmistress’s office on that horrible day. Sir Vincent had traveled to the school to deliver news of her father’s death himself. “What did you want to tell me?” Sir Vincent suddenly glanced at his lap. “It’s about your father’s will.” “His will?” Portia had not expected Sir Vincent to say that.

Perhaps she’d thought Sir Vincent might express the importance of not leaving the townhouse without informing her, or of repeating various negative things the servants had said about her, but she hadn’t thought he’d mention her will. “My father died four years ago.” “Yes, indeed.” Sir Vincent scratched the back of his neck, even though she was certain she’d been informed in finishing school that neck scratching was unaristocratic. Sir Vincent always seemed to do an excellent job at doing the proper thing, even when that involved taking in the daughter of a distant cousin. “As you know, your father was a wealthy man,” Sir Vincent said. “Yes.” “He’s always provided for you, even after his death.” “Yes.” “That will continue, whatever happens.

” Sir Vincent’s gaze was oddly serious, and he sighed, blowing out a plume of ashy smoke from his thin lips. “I promise.” She nodded. “It just won’t continue to the same extent.” This time, Portia jerked her head toward him. The rim of the desk was suddenly much less interesting than before. “Excuse me?” “You might not be the heir to your father’s estate, but your father had set aside a large—very large —quantity of money for you.” “I know.” Sir Vincent’s face reddened. “Unfortunately, you will only receive that money if you marry.

” “Excuse me?” “Before the end of the year.” Sir Vincent didn’t meet her gaze. “I don’t understand. How is that possible? Where will the money go?” She drew back. Had it been…lost? Had vandals broken into the bank where it was stored? Had some ship carrying expensive spices sunk? Or had Sir Vincent invested it poorly? She disliked the faint suspicion that grew in her, but she could not banish it. What was Sir Vincent speaking about? “Should you not marry promptly, the money will be donated to your father’s former school in Scotland.” She blinked. “Do they require money?” “It seems as a child your father dreamed of seeing a building with his name on it on the school grounds.” “I-I don’t understand.” “Your father thought very strongly of the importance of male and female roles.

He didn’t want you to inherit money without the guidance and wisdom of a male companion in your life.” Portia stilled and drew her legs underneath her chair. “Accounting—truly, any mathematics—is a skill better suited for males.” “Because they’re allowed to learn it.” Sir Vincent frowned, and a line appeared between his eyes and moved up over his brow, like an enemy’s ship’s mast. “Has a solicitor looked at the will?” Portia asked. “Perhaps there is something someone could do. Some clause.” Sir Vincent nodded, and his gaze drifted to the side. “I thought of that.

Wills are complex documents. But—er—in this case, there is no leeway.” “Oh.” Portia’s shoulders slumped down involuntarily, and she forced them up. She wasn’t going to let Sir Vincent see her unhappy. They might live in the same house, but they were scarcely family. He was still a man to be intimidated of and grateful to. If she ever forgot that, she could trust the servants to remind her. “That’s one reason why I didn’t tell you sooner,” Sir Vincent said. “I was hopeful the will was not as severe as indicated.

” “So it’s quite severe?” she asked. Sir Vincent nodded. “As you know you have a fortune of two thousand pounds a year. Should you not marry, that fortune will be limited to fifty pounds a year.” Her eyes widened. “Fifty pounds a year?” He gave her a sad, understanding smile she immediately despised. “It is possible to purchase less expensive gowns.” “Of course.” “Most women make their own clothes.” “Er—yes.

” “And you have many clothes left.” “Oh, indeed. But I only meant—” “That fifty pounds a year is not much to live on?” She nodded. “You can be a companion to someone,” Sir Vincent said. “Or a governess, if you prefer.” She must have contorted her face, for he smiled. “Companion is better,” he said. “You can read books to some elderly woman in some idyllic manor house.” “You mean remote,” she said miserably. He scrutinized her.

“Of course, there is another option.” “Oh?” she asked, her voice eager. He tapped his long fingers languidly over the leather top of his satinwood desk. “I almost hesitate to bring it up.” “I’ll consider any option,” she said. “Well,” Sir Vincent said gamely. “You can marry…me.”

.

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