The Rejected Suitor (The Clearbrooks), страница 1
The Clearbrook Series
THE REJECTED SUITOR
Copyright © Teresa McCarthy, 2004
All rights reserved
First published in print by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., April 2004
Ebook, February 2012, Teresa McCarthy
Cover Art, LFD Designs For Authors
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, copied, or transmitted without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
How dare they do this! If they thought to dictate whom she would marry without a word from her, as if she were a mere child toddling about their knees, then they had better think again. This was intolerable!
Seated at the lavish dining table of Elbourne Hall, Lady Emily Clearbrook clenched the folds of her gown and leveled a withering gaze toward her four older brothers. "Did it ever occur to you, gentlemen, that I should have been consulted about this monumental decision?"
Without a word, her eldest brother, Roderick, the twenty-seven-year-old Duke of Elbourne, finally looked her way, blinked lazily, and lifted his wineglass to his lips.
Emily bristled. Guardian, indeed! That indolent look said it all. Roderick would not be moved. Advancement was impossible. Yet retreat was unthinkable. His guardianship of her was maddening.
Moreover, Clayton, Marcus, and Stephen were following his lead as if they always went along with his dictates, a ludicrous assumption to say the least. As for Roderick including all her brothers in this decision, it was a cunning move worthy of Wellington himself. They were acting as if she had four guardians now instead of one.
She softened her gaze, trying to conceal her turbulent emotions. "This entire arrangement is quite intolerable. If any of you had consulted me first—"
"Consulted you?" Roderick said abruptly, raising his right brow in censure. "And pray, why the devil would we be consulting you? You are our baby sister. There is no consulting to be done. The four of us will take care of the matter entirely. We are merely informing you of our decision."
"But Father would have let me choose," she said, impatiently.
Roderick's lips thinned. "Father died three years ago, leaving your future in our hands. Count yourself fortunate that all your brothers have returned home from the war intact."
Oh, she loved her brothers. Indeed, she did. But Roderick seemed to be using her vulnerability to his advantage, and she would not have it. "I am well aware that we have been blessed with a healthy homecoming, and I realize that you are doing what you think proper, but believe me, I am clearly able to look after myself and my future."
Her four brothers stared back at her with open mouths as if she had just pronounced her loyalty to Napoleon.
Inwardly she fumed. Though her siblings were all powerfully built men, and challenging them was a feat in itself, she would fight for her freedom. Never again would she be at the mercy of a man.
"I am merely seeking a compromise on this," she added impulsively.
"Compromise?" Roderick's dark eyes turned menacing. "There is no compromising to be done. We have made a decision. You must leave all the details to us. In fact, you should be happy that we are to partake in your choice in a husband." His tone suddenly became gentle. "It is for your protection and comfort, Em. We think only of you."
Emily knew her brothers loved her, but at that moment, all she wanted to do was box their ears, especially Roderick's. She would have laughed out loud if the situation had not been so vexing. But she did not need their help in setting on the path to disaster—certainly not since she had been there already.
"Let me understand, then. You believe that the four of you should partake in the choice of husband for me?" she asked calmly, her gaze sweeping over Clayton, Marcus, and Stephen as well. "Is this not correct?"
Four relieved smiles shot her way.
She clasped her hands tightly together. They had no idea that she could take care of herself. She had been on her own for three years. The scar beside her shoulder blade was proof of that. But without a doubt, informing them about a pistol ball ripping through her back while she had secretly worked for Whitehall would not only propel her brothers into a more frenzied state, but would also do nothing to further her cause.
"Daresay, Em, you understand perfectly." Marcus toasted his glass her way. "Knew you were not the kind of female to take offense."
At this point Emily's anger outweighed any patience she had left. "I will tell you this, dear brothers, that there is no choice to be made ... by any of you."
Marcus clanked his glass against his plate. Roderick let out a low growl. Clayton stared back in confusion, and Stephen pursed his lips as if waiting for the final cannon shot.
Emily did not disappoint him. "You must be insane. I am twenty! I believe that is old enough to know my own mind. So why in the name of King George should I be happy about you four simpletons choosing a husband for me?"
"Simpletons?" the brothers replied in unison, four dark heads snapping to attention.
"We are not simpletons," Clayton finally replied with a sigh, leaning forward as he helped himself to another slice of beef. "We are the most devoted of brothers concerned only for your welfare. Come now, Em, do not jest with us. This is an important matter."
So they seemed to think she was teasing them, did they? She doubted they had even heard her announce her age. Did they believe her just out of the school room? The ninnies. Perhaps they had not come back from the war intact at all. Well, they would be shocked to know that she could play their game, too.
Girding her resolve, she gave them a halfhearted smile. "Believe me, I understand your concern and am deeply touched. Though I have missed all of you since you took your stand against the Little Corsican, I cannot sit by and let you make this important decision for me. I am a full-grown woman, capable of making choices according to my own needs and wants, and I believe that it would be best for all concerned that you leave this most important choice to me."
"This is not a punishment, Em," Marcus said gently, "but a rite of passage so to speak. Important decisions should not be left to the weaker sex. You must leave these types of decisions to us wiser men."
Emily almost choked. Save her from the male mind. With a sense of the inevitable, she tilted her head toward Stephen. Her youngest brother had let out a muffled laugh at Marcus's pompous words. Though Stephen had avoided her gaze before, she knew that he would be her last hope. He had always given her the benefit of the doubt, but at the sight of his brown eyes growing wide with guilt, her chest tightened with dread.
"Peagoose," she muttered, narrowing her eyes on him.
Roderick leaned back in his chair and dabbed a white napkin to the corner of his mouth, setting the cloth down in neat, decisive folds beside his plate. "I will refrain from comment on your last retort, Em, because peagoose is debatable here."
Stephen's brows snapped together at Roderick's comment. "Peagoose? If you think—"
Roderick palmed his hand in the air, aborting Stephen’s rebuttal. "See here, Em," the duke went on, "we are not simpletons. We are your brothers and will only choose a suitable gentleman. You must see that."
Emily wanted to roll her eyes. Roderick's words were said in kindness, but they were also
"Indeed, we are not peageese or simpletons, Em," Stephen put in hotly, staring at Roderick, then back at Emily as if waiting for a reply.
Emily sat silently, her heart pounding. "Forgive me. The use of the word simpletons may have been the wrong choice."
Four sets of well-formed shoulders visibly relaxed. But she would not let them decide for her. No. She would think of something. She would never again be at the mercy of a man and have her heart dangling like a target for hunting season. She had learned her lesson all too well.
"Indeed, simpletons was a poor choice to describe such thoughtful brothers."
Curling her fingers around the seat of her chair, she was determined to set them straight. She paused, waiting to see that she had their attention. Oh, they were a handsome lot, with their hair colors ranging from blue-black to rich brown. They had been blessed with twinkling eyes of sky blue or chestnut brown as well. Healthy male specimens, they could send the most callous of women drooling like hungry puppies at their feet.
They also had no inkling that their baby sister had information about many of their escapades in Town, and they would turn quite pink with embarrassment if they knew she had knowledge of the London ladies who ran circles around them at the Assemblies and routs—among other places. Inwardly she smiled. Indeed, they had yet to realize that she was not one of those silly women to be led on a leash.
"So we are not simpletons in your opinion?" The question came from Stephen, whose lips quirked upward. He seemed to think himself cleared from the field of fire—and him, a commissioned officer, Emily thought wide-eyed. No wonder Napoleon made such a comeback.
"No, no." Emily raised a delicate brow, her eyes gleaming. "Not simpletons exactly ... I believe fools and half-wits would be more appropriate."
Roderick glared at her, Clayton frowned, Marcus choked on his wine, and Stephen blinked, clearly at a loss for words.
Emily pushed back from her chair and stood. "Mayhap now I finally have your attention."
With a muttered oath, Roderick shot from his seat, his eyes darkening with anger. "Indeed, you have our attention, madam. However, nothing you say changes the fact that, since Boney's no threat to us and Waterloo's behind us, an entire army of unfit suitors will be marching this way in hopes of an expedient marriage with you, and I won't have it!"
A throng of brotherly grunts rippled in the air.
"By Jove, disgusting thought," Clayton answered with a shake of his head.
"Mass of cork-brained suitors," Marcus replied, bringing his wineglass to his lips.
Stephen cracked his knuckles. "An entire army. Don't like that. Had enough of that in the Peninsula. No indeed."
"No indeed," Roderick said coolly, taking his seat as if everything were resolved. "Not a pretty sight. You will marry the man we choose, and that is final."
Emily's fingers curled into two fists. "Then I won't marry at all."
Roderick leapt from his chair, knocking over his wine. "By Jove, you will obey us!"
Emily faltered slightly at her brother's outburst. Never before had he been so adamant or insistent on matters concerning her. As a child, he had always indulged her slightest whim. But she was no longer a child, and his temper had run away with him. Roderick would never lay a hand on her, but now that he was home, as her guardian, he had control over her life whether she wanted it or not. It seemed he fought against the notion of her falling under the spell of a rake—not knowing, of course, that Emily knew all her brothers were categorized as such by the ladies of the ton.
No matter, their foolish idea of choosing a husband for her was one that had been gaining momentum ever since Roderick had seen her speaking to a couple of his gambling companions two weeks ago in Hyde Park. The very next day she had been sent home to Elbourne Hall.
But whether they believed it or not, she would not marry a man of their choosing. A marriage of convenience could be possible if her future husband agreed to her independence. But she would be the one to choose, not her addlepated brothers.
"I will choose the man I will marry, that is, if I ever marry in the first place," she replied firmly.
To her shock, Stephen gave her an acknowledging wink. What was his game? She was certain no one else had seen the mischief in his eyes. The noose around her neck began to loosen and her hope soared.
"Enough of this nonsense," Roderick said, throwing an agitated hand to the back of his neck and massaging it as he sat down. "See here, Em. The only choice you will have is the lace on your wedding dress. Now, take a seat and finish your meal."
Emily refused to sit down. Hovering over her brothers seemed to give her the edge she desperately needed. "I beg to differ. You cannot force me to marry a man I do not love or want. If there is a choice to be made, I will choose. Can you not understand?"
"Want? Love?" Roderick said with a cringe. "Hell's teeth, your womanly instincts are the very reason we will do the choosing. Have I not made myself perfectly clear?"
Stephen surveyed Emily, his eyes turning tender with concern. "Jupiter, Em, you cannot wish to marry that Fennington fellow? Man's a scoundrel. Odious dandy if I ever saw one."
Before Emily could answer, Clayton laughed. "Catch sight of that quizzing glass the man had? As large as a door knocker. Man's right eye looked three sizes bigger than the left."
Emily frowned. Mr. Fennington had been one of her latest suitors, and according to her brothers, the man had obviously chosen the wrong woman to woo. She held no interest in any particular man, but nothing she could say was going to change her brothers' wretched plan to find her a husband.
However, the more she thought about it, the more she realized Mr. Fennington had the qualities of a husband who would grant her the freedom she needed. He was a simpleton, as her father would say, a man a woman could wrap her ringlets about in one turn of the room.
"You smash that idiotic piece of rubbish or was that Roderick's doing?" Stephen turned his beguiling smile up a notch as he spoke to Clayton.
"Smash the piece?" Roderick chuckled, his demeanor obviously lightening with talk of a man who dared to run past the blockade of the Elbourne brothers. "We did no such thing. Chap would have no notion how to walk straight without the blasted piece hanging from his eye."
"Besides," Clayton added, "the fool needed the fanciful piece to see his way back to Town."
All four brothers roared with laughter.
Emily grasped the back of her chair in outrage. "Mr. Fennington was quite agreeable, and you four popinjays have no business jabbing your noses into my life."
The laughing stopped abruptly. Yet it was Roderick's smoking glare that made Emily flinch. She dropped her hands, wondering if she had gone too far.
"Agreeable?" Roderick snapped, his gaze narrowing in rage as he deliberately rose and strode toward her.
"For all it's worth," she said, backing toward the door, trying to ignore Roderick's approach along with the hardened glares of all her brothers now weighing heavily in her direction, "I t-told the gentleman that he should not have come to visit me here."
Roderick slapped his hand against his thigh. "Here or any other place! Confound it! James Theodore Fennington is a drunk and a cad. I will not have you wed the man, and that is final."
Emily lifted her head in outrage. "For your information, Papa said that I may choose."
"Papa is dead," Clayton snapped out. "He left you in our care, as your protectors in a way. We are of one mind on this, Em. You may not marry without our consent."
"Truly, this idea of yours is absurd," she went on, wringing her hands on her gown. "You cannot do this."
Roderick shook his head and walked back to his chair. "We can and we will." His tone was calm, but firm. "We have a say in this whether you like
Pausing, he cleared his throat and gently pointed his finger toward her seat. "Come now, Em. I daresay, if you had been there, you would have heartily agreed that it was rather comical the way Fennington gaped at me, eyes bugging out of his sockets like a pig ready for slaughter, especially after I told him that if any of us found him within earshot of you, I would call him out. The insolence of the man to think he could come a half day's ride from London and court you without our consent."
"Call him out?" Emily was horrified. Roderick's threat was absurd. He was a crack shot, and anyone who tangled with the Duke of Elbourne would be dreadfully stupid, or dreadfully maimed for life.
Stephen tipped back on his chair, popping an olive into his mouth. "Good riddance, I say. Man's an odious creature, not to be wed to any damsel I should think. Way I see it, we should all take to Town. Yes, that's the way of it. We find this mysterious suitor for Em before any more adventurers try to seek her out and be done with the whole matter before Christmas."
Emily turned toward Stephen, her eyes locking with his. Her strongest ally's betrayal squeezed her heart. One moment he seemed to be on her side, the next moment not. "I cannot believe that you would abandon me."
Stephen dropped his gaze to the table, fiddling with his fork. "Christmas is less than nine months away, Em. A long time to look over the prospects."
Her breath left her. So this was the meaning of that sly wink. He would find her a suitable husband. The traitor! "And what will you do if I do not comply with your wishes? Send me to Bedlam? I should sooner live in Paris as a milliner with my own little shop than marry a man you have chosen for me!"
Marcus flew from his seat. "You will obey us," he countered. "There is no question of noncompliance. Dare you take one foot outside England and I will take you over my knee."
Emily flinched when the brothers instantly stood, as if agreeing that Marcus's plan had a bit of sense to it. The deafening silence that followed sent her heart racing. Never in her life had she opposed all siblings at once. Well, not like this, and she usually won any kind of argument regardless.