The Heiress and the Hellion – Patricia Barney

“Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t die because you certainly wouldn’t have made it back in time for the funeral.” Jasper Hartwell, Marquess of Northanger, managed an impressive glower even propped back on pillows and clothed in a dressing gown. He had perfected this particular expression when Henry was about eight and had gotten plenty of use out of it in the two decades since. Henry wondered if Northanger practiced with other people when he was away, or if the glower had become so natural that it was easily picked up again when Henry came into Northanger’s company. “Nonsense.” Henry Hartwell leaned against the wall and examined the room. It hadn’t changed a bit in the years since he had seen it last, except for the man on the bed. The furniture was exquisitely crafted; it exuded formal British elegance on the outside and was sturdy as steel at the core. It suited Northanger. “You’re too stubborn to die before I could get home. I knew you wouldn’t be able to go without harping about that Shepherdess girl one last time.” “Shephard,” Northanger snapped. “Miss Laura Shephard.” “Shephard, shepherdess—what difference does it make? She was as dull as a sheep.” Actually, a sheep would have been far more interesting.

The girl’s brain had been filled with nothing but embroidery patterns and cotton fluff. Eleven months had passed and the memory still had the power to make him yawn. “I nearly reconsidered coming home at all, given how you foisted her on me last time.” “Miss Shephard is a sweet young lady of impeccable breeding, and you didn’t even give her a chance.” Northanger’s eyes, the same clear golden-brown as Henry’s, narrowed. “Besides, you didn’t meet her last time you were home. She was the time before that. Laura Shephard is now married to the Barron Harmont—who is several years younger than you, I might add.” “Poor Harmont. Come now—you wouldn’t want such a squeamish miss as the mother to your grandchildren, would you?” “Any grandchildren from you would be a miracle, no matter who the mother—” “Any grandchildren?” “Any legitimate grandchildren.

” “Always so particular.” Henry pushed off the wall and crossed the room to tug the light-smothering curtains open. He hated sickrooms. The stuffiness, the scent of illness and medicine that permeated the air, and, most of all, the lack of activity were intolerable. They were a particularly heinous form of torture for him when he was young, and they still made him want to squirm free. Northanger scowled and shifted his position so that he could better direct his wrath at Henry. “Well, someone has to keep the family respectable.” “I’m here, aren’t I? Besides which, I’ve kept up my end of our bargain for the past six years at least. For me, that’s downright pious.” “You’re six weeks late.

As for your piety, most of Society thinks you would be struck by lightning if you set foot in a church.” “Then I can’t logically risk getting married, now can I?” Henry propped himself up on the windowsill as he goaded his father. There were a few things he never thought to miss about home until he was back, and bantering with his father was one of them. It had been too long since he had sparred with the old man. It was a refreshing mental exercise as long as neither of them became too heated. “I would traumatize the poor girl standing opposite me and you still wouldn’t get your heir. I like to think of my continued childless state as my contribution to the Hartwell family respectability— so long as I don’t provide a future Marquess Northanger for you to groom, you don’t dare expire. I’m doing you a favor, really.” “That’s not the kind of favor I would have asked for. But, as usual, you can’t be bothered to take my opinion into consideration.

” “Oh, I consider it.” It would be impossible not to. Northanger wasn’t a man to keep his views concealed or allow his opinion to be ignored. Fortunately, Henry had years of practice circumventing Northanger’s intrusions. He gave his father a half smile and turned his gaze out the window. The glass was impeccably clean, but Henry resented the barrier all the same. He itched to open it and let the fresh air in, but the rules of a sickroom prevented it. If it had been Henry in that bed, he would have demanded the window open anyway. But Northanger was a man who always obeyed the rules, and Henry respected his father enough not to interfere—though it would be nice if every once in a while Northanger would return the favor. “Consider it and choose to do exactly the opposite.

” Northanger levered himself up against the pillows, jaw set tight at the effort. “Speaking of which, you are planning on staying long enough to hold up your end of the bargain, I hope.” “I knew it would get back to brides and heirs at some point.” Better to get this over with quickly. “Very well, who is the paragon I’m to meet this time? Nothing can be worse than the last one—Miss What’s-her-name, with the ungodly tall feathers in her hair.” “So, you do remember Miss Roth.” “Unfortunately, yes.” Between her hair, fan, and the trimming on her dress, a half dozen peacocks must have sacrificed their lives. High fashion could be a bloody affair. Northanger looked up at the ceiling as though imploring the heavens for divine assistance.

“Miss Roth is the reigning queen of her Season—there are dozens upon dozens of eligible young men right now begging for her to take a look at them, but I manage to get you the first shot at her and you treat her as if she’s a petulant child.” “Because she was a petulant child.” As far as he could tell, her interests didn’t extend beyond herself and her immediate social circle; every time she spoke it was to complain about something or insult someone. She had thrown a tantrum when he didn’t hang on her every word, regardless of everyone else present. What kind of man would willingly sign up for a lifetime of that misery? “Besides, she was barely out of the schoolroom. I’m not interested in stealing from the cradle.” Northanger stiffened against his mound of pillows. “May I remind you that your mother was twelve years my junior.” “Look how well that turned out,” Henry said dryly. “Your mother was a perfectly lovely lady—” “Who was perfectly restless until the day that she died.

” Henry drummed his fingers against the glass panes. There was no point rehashing the past or breaking open old wounds. It was a sunny spring day in Hampshire—the perfect type of day for a long ride or a walk, or whatever a proper exercise for a gentleman was. Whatever it was, he wished he was doing it instead of being cooped up here. “No. Save the little girls for the boys who let themselves be dragged along by their parents’ apron strings.” Color rose to Northanger’s cheeks and he pushed himself up on the pillows, scowling fiercely. “Taking your family’s reputation and your parents’ opinions into consideration doesn’t make you a child—true men shoulder their responsibilities. What is childish is running off at every opportunity —” The heated speech was cut off as Northanger’s breath ran out and a series of violent coughs rattled his body. Henry was at his father’s bedside in a few swift steps.

He used one arm to support Northanger’s back while the other held a clean handkerchief to his father’s mouth. Coughs shook the older man for several minutes before they subsided, and he was able to brush Henry away with an impatient hand. Northanger had always been a strong, capable man, and he would hate it if Henry showed any sign of sympathy or even acknowledged this new weakness. Neither man spoke as Henry returned to his spot near the window and resumed his impertinent pose, relaxed as he gazed out onto the garden and the fields and forests beyond, keeping his concern well hidden behind a facade of impudence. He had been hiding various emotions from his father for over a decade until it almost came as second nature. Still, concern for this father was new. Henry had been taken off guard by the letter informing him of Northanger’s grave illness. His father was such an imposing figure, physically and otherwise, that he had almost seemed indomitable. Henry had been in the West Indies at the time, and he had boarded a ship bound for England as soon as he had been able. The entire trip he had been torn between hardly being able to sleep for concern and the frustration of knowing the entire letter could be part of an outlandish plan on Northanger’s part to get Henry back where Northanger thought he should be.

It wouldn’t be the first time his father had employed elaborate methods to get his way. It hadn’t been until Henry had arrived in Hampshire and seen Northanger’s weakened state that he was able to breathe deeply again, only to be inundated by the guilt of not having fully believed his father’s letter. Now he struggled with a new concern for a man who had always seemed beyond such things. Northanger simply didn’t inspire concern—at least, not for him. For others who got in his way, certainly. There wasn’t a thing in Northanger’s domain that he didn’t control and, while he had the best interest of his people in mind, he didn’t accept dissenting opinions or actions. Rebellions were quickly overcome or crushed. Knowing that his father had things so firmly in hand in Hampshire was one of the things that made it so easy for Henry to leave. Even recovering from a grave illness couldn’t stop Northanger from trying to manipulate Henry. “If you stayed in England like a proper heir ought, then you would have met a nice girl a long time ago and we wouldn’t have to keep going through this.

” “I didn’t, however, and I am not,” Henry said, a bit more gently than he might have a few months ago. “So, who is the girl this time, and when is she coming?” There was a rustling of sheets and blankets as Northanger levered himself up against the pillows again. A little color had returned to his face; a red tint spread across his cheeks. “Since you refuse to consider the conventional choices I have laid before you, it’s not quite that easy.” “Good Lord, you don’t mean to tell me you’ve finally run out of women to thrust at me?” “Of course not.” “Fate wouldn’t be so kind—well, what is it, then? Did you lose your list of eligible women?” “I don’t need to consult a list—” “Are you trying to convince me that you don’t have one? I don’t believe it.” Northanger’s degree of organization and forethought was an extraordinary thing when it wasn’t being applied against a person. Northanger’s scowl resumed its place. “Hardly—the list is memorized. What the devil do you think I’ve been doing while cooped up in here these past few weeks?” “Plotting my demise, apparently.

” “Meeting with young women is hardly torture. But the one woman I particularly wanted you to meet…well, she’s not exactly available.” There it was again, that twinge of pink. Henry watched his father, trying to figure it out. If it were another man, he would swear that the color was a blush, but Northanger didn’t blush. Henry doubted it was possible. Aside from siring Henry, Northanger had never done anything worthy of embarrassment in his life. Any woman who could make Northanger blush was one Henry needed to meet. He repressed a grin and tried to appear disinterested. “What’s her name?” His father’s scowl deepened.

“It doesn’t matter. She’s not coming.” “She rejected your summons?” Henry could count the people to do that on one hand. What could the girl have done to merit his father’s embarrassment while maintaining her spot on his exclusive list of acceptable brides for the future marquess? “She didn’t reject it—she never responded.” “That sounds like a rejection.” “Nonsense. There could be dozens of reasons for her not to have replied. She lives in Northumberland, after all—practically in Scotland. Who knows how reliable the post is there? The letter could have been lost in the mail or a servant may have accidentally put it in the wrong pile or —” “Or she could have decided that she didn’t want to come down to Hampshire to meet your scapegrace of a son. What did you say her name was, again?” “I didn’t.

” Northanger closed his eyes and let his head fall back on the pillow. “And given that Miss Callaway never replied, it hardly matters now. I’ll just have to think of someone else—I assume you’re going to be here long enough for me to give the matter some serious consideration.” Henry fought down the urge to open the window and climb out it. The idea of being trapped here long enough for his father to seriously consider anything had him looking for the most immediate exit. Nothing good came from him and his father spending an extended time in the same vicinity; spending time in the same country was risky enough. There had to be some way for Henry to get out of here until Northanger had fully recovered. Once Northanger was well again, Henry would take the next boat off the too-small island of Britain. Until then, he needed an escape within. Somewhere far away.

“That’s not necessary,” Henry said, half a plan forming as he spoke. In normal cases, he wouldn’t even consider it, but given the alternative…well, even Northumberland had to be preferable to proximity to a scheming marquess with an open agenda. “If the girl won’t come here, I shall go to her.” Northanger watched the door shut behind his son and waited a few minutes before sitting up. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a second, for once grateful for the mound of pillows behind him. A talk with Henry was certain to cause annoyance and a devil of a headache, even in the best circumstance, let alone right now. His son was clever, proud, and stubborn to a fault. Just like his mother. If Northanger was completely honest, it was just like Henry’s father as well. Few people had accused Northanger of being modest and malleable.

The trouble was that Henry seemed to be uniformly set against everything Northanger represented. He might have been a bit too strict with him at times, but it had been necessary. The boy was flighty, prone to mischief, and rebelled at any sign of stability or order. No matter what Northanger tried, Henry would never stay still and focus on the things he should as Northanger’s heir. Henry had single-handedly created more scandals in the past ten years than the past ten generations of Hartwells put together, and he didn’t seem to feel a speck of remorse about any of it. No threat, bribe, or coercion seemed to induce him, and Northanger had tried them all. He could only hope that the next generation of Hartwells turned out more like their grandfather than their father…if he could convince Henry to stay in the country long enough to find a bride and start siring the next generation, that was. Fortunately, Northanger had a plan for that. A hint of a smile tugged at Northanger’s lips as a knock sounded at the door. “Come in.

” Cullen, Northanger’s valet, entered and pulled the curtains open. “Better?” “Much better.” Perhaps the darkness had been a bit much, but Northanger hadn’t wanted to take any chances with his flighty child. Besides, as impatient as he was for more light, more sun, more activity, these things took time. “Now, if you would please help me get out of this blasted bed.” Cullen was at his side in moments, ready to assist as Northanger pushed away from the bedclothes and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Cullen helped Northanger to his feet. Northanger grit his teeth against the weakness in his legs and willed himself not to wobble. He silently cursed the sweat that broke out down his back with the effort; he hated this weakness—hated it—and could only thank the Lord that it was temporary. The past few weeks had been a devil of a time, and though he wasn’t quite as weak as he let his son believe, he was frail enough to be constantly annoyed at himself.

The seven long steps to the chair by the fire felt like a marathon, and Northanger was breathing a little more harshly then he should by the time he lowered himself into it. Cullen hovered nearby; his expression remote. Northanger sighed. “Well, I assume you heard everything. What do you think?” Cullen didn’t bother denying the charge. He had been Northanger’s valet for ages, and Northanger viewed him as a friend despite their difference in circumstances. Cullen had a knack for gathering information and Northanger only thanked heaven that the man was just as good at keeping it to himself. Not even Cullen’s wife, a sensible, closemouthed matron that suited her sensible, closemouthed husband to a tee, would ever hear a word of the knowledge Cullen gathered in private. “I think he’s going to be gone by morning.” “That’s nothing new.

” Northanger regarded the empty fire grate before him. “What is the longest period he’s managed to stay here in the past decade? Three days, four?” “Two weeks.” Cullen wandered about the room straightening things—though everything had already appeared in order. “It was when he arrived from Southern Africa and you were in London while Parliament was in session. He left two days after you arrived back home.” “Ah, yes. He was packing his bags as soon as he heard me coming. That’s the time he left out the window, wasn’t it? In the middle of the night.” “Yes, I believe he objected to the footmen you placed outside his door.” Cullen’s tone was impassive, but Northanger felt like wincing at the memory.

Northanger had successfully negotiated agreements with some of the most powerful and intractable political and financial figures in the world, but when it came to his son he never failed to lose his equilibrium. That particular incident had been the impetus that forced them into their current arrangement. Northanger sighed. “He might not be home for much longer this time, but at least he’s going the right direction. What do you think about him and the Callaway girl?” “I think you are sending him very far away to meet her.” Satisfied with the rest of the room, Cullen went to the wardrobe and started refolding already meticulously folded cravats, eyeing each of the neckcloths carefully for any sign of a wrinkle or stain. “You must think she’s going to catch his attention.” “There is no doubt about that.” Northanger couldn’t help a satisfied smile. There was a good possibility that things with his son were going to work out better than he had anticipated.

He had been trying to get Sophie Callaway to visit for years—ever since she had first come out—but the girl had never replied. Having Henry go up to her might work out even better, though. “He’s going to be floored by her.” “Are you quite certain?” Unspoken was the fact that Henry had failed to be impressed by any of the other women Northanger had put before him. “As sure as I can be when it comes to Henry.” Which was to say, not at all. “But I think this is our best chance yet. This girl is different. She’s a mystery and a challenge—two things that Henry has never been able to resist.” Cullen nodded but said nothing.

“What is it?” Northanger asked, using his arms to lever himself up in his chair. He gathered his strength and moved to the spot near the window where his son had been sitting. Lord, how he missed the outdoors. He was nearly as impatient as Henry was for his son to leave so that he could start trying to walk outdoors again. If he showed any signs of recovery around his son, however, Henry was certain to vanish. “What about the scandal, sir? Miss Callaway may not have been in Society for a while, but it isn’t the type of thing people forget.” Northanger frowned and relieved his wobbling legs by sitting down on the window seat. “That scandal was ridiculous. I knew the girl’s grandmother well, God rest her soul, and I doubt that there was a word of truth in the rumors.” “Because children never differ from their grandparents—or parents.

” Cullen’s voice didn’t vary from his carefully moderated tones, but the sarcasm was clear. Northanger smiled at this. “True. But given Henry’s past, we aren’t really in the position to object to a little scandal or two. In fact, with any luck, her scandal might be the key to capturing Henry’s attention at last.”

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