Chloe Winter took a moment in the hall of Miss Carstairs' Seminary for Young Ladies to compose herself and to check her appearance. It was unheard of for a student-teacher, even one who had spent all her life at the school and was more like a daughter to Miss Carstairs than an employee, to be summoned to the Best Parlour. That room, with it's yellow-striped wallpaper and velvet curtains, its silk-covered lounge and mahogany chairs, was reserved for the interviewing of the parents and guardians of pupils. If she was to come face-to face with a parent, it was essential that she present herself at her best.
Fortunately the hall, being a necessary passageway to the Best Parlour, was also elegantly equipped and besides the highly-polished oak floor, the Chippendale half-moon table and the well-chosen watercolours, it boasted a large gilt mirror. This useful object reassured Chloe that her duties with the junior girls had not left her with ink-stains on her plain blue muslin or with her ribboned cap disarranged. She was surprised to see as well that all her chestnut curls were respecting the restraints she had put upon them and were safely out of sight.
Rafe laughed at the number of pins she needed to use to subdue her hair and delighted in pulling them out..... But no, she had resolved to put Rafe out of her mind.
When she was ready, she scratched upon the oak door and was summoned to enter. As she made her curtsy, the gentleman with Miss Carstairs stared at her with such unusual intensity that Chloe knew she was blushing. Was it possible that some pupil had made a complaint against her? His thin lips seemed to pull in his whole face and his eyes burned with what could only be anger. After the first shock of his glare faded she became aware that his creased, dry skin and boniness declared him to be old. More likely a grandparent than a parent. It took some effort to withdraw her gaze from his and it was then that she became aware that Miss Carstairs was struggling with a strong emotion. Her normally soft lips were tight and her plump cheeks were almost pale. Aunt May was furious! That was so unusual that Chloe felt a shock of alarm.
"Chloe, my dear." Miss Carstairs' said in clipped speech that was another indication of her anger, "this is the Duke of Sunderland. His Grace wishes to speak to you."
Chloe caught her breath and knew she must have paled for Miss Carstairs trotted over to her.
"Do not upset yourself, my dear," said the older lady. To the Duke she added, "She is unused to dealing with men of power such as yourself, Your Grace."
Chloe managed to speak for herself after only a slight pause and hoped that her colourless tone would not be obvious to a stranger. "In what way can I serve you, Your Grace?"
The Duke opened his mouth to speak and then glared at Miss Carstairs. "Well, woman! On your way! I'm not going to discuss personal business in front of you!"
Chloe's shock at this rudeness was submerged in relief that Miss Carstairs' rage was directed at the Duke and not at herself. The older lady became a even paler, her lips even tighter as she said in that untypically clipped voice,
"You can hardly expect me to leave Miss Winter here unchaperoned with you, Your Grace, especially as you refuse to give me any idea as to this 'personal business'."
"What? What?" Spots of angry colour flared in the Duke's cheeks as he turned on older lady. "Do you think I have designs on the gel's virtue? That's rich! Ha! Good Lord! Even if I had the mind, Ma'am, at my age I'd accomplish little in a parlour in the middle of an afternoon! Go away, if you please. The walls here are thin enough. If I attack her she'll doubtless shriek and you'll hear her. Go away, I say!"
Chloe hoped Miss Carstairs would send him to the devil but she knew that it wasn't possible. Though she chafed sometimes at the power of rank and fortune in the world a Duke was not to be offended lightly, not when the good lady's business depended upon a her reputation among the upper circles of society. Jaw clenched, Miss Carstairs informed the Duke he could have just fifteen minutes and stalked out.
The Duke only acknowledged her surrender with a "Humph" as he sat down with a flip of his nut-brown coat-tails. Chloe felt certain this was not due to tact but to the fact that objection to his slightest wish could never be taken seriously. Once seated he subjected her to a coldly analytical stare. The anger had faded but the intensity had not. She forced herself to keep her chin high and return his look.
"Well, you appear a lady, I'll give you that. And pleasant featured enough. Take off that cap and let me see your hair!"
"I cannot imagine why I should, Your Grace," she retorted flatly, making no move.
He snorted. "Spirit too, hey? That's good. You'll do as I say because I'm your father, that's why!"
Chloe gaped. There had been too many alarms, too quickly. If his presence had been a shock, this totally unexpected announcement was devastation! Blackness seemed to crowd in on her vision and she knew she was in danger of fainting. She sat down abruptly, never caring that he had not given her permission, and sank her head in her hands. Gradually the sickness receded and she looked up. "I cannot have heard you correctly, Sir."
He sneered. It was definitely a sneer. "Is your hearing faulty? I was perfectly clear, Miss. I am your father. You're aware you're a bastard, ain't you?"
She answered automatically. "Yes, sir. My birth has never been hidden from me."
"Call me 'Your Grace' until I give you leave to do otherwise, Miss! Do you know who your mother is?"
"Yes, Your Grace."
"Well, who is she?"
Some of her natural spirit was returning to Chloe and she answered with a grim smile. "With respect, Your Grace, if you don't know you can hardly claim to be my father!"
"What!" The colour flared in his sallow skin again. "You're impudent! Your mother, Miss, is now Lady Fourtnoy. She was Mrs. Godstone when she bore you. She is also cousin to Miss Carstairs."
This evidence convinced her that he had the truth of it and Chloe dropped her head once more into her hands, this time to hide the tears gathering around her eyes.
"Good heavens, gel, what's this?" the Duke snapped in exasperation. "Anyone would think this was bad news! If your bastardy comes as no shock, I cannot see why you despair at this elevation in rank and prospects!"
"No, I don't suppose you can," Chloe said flatly as she straightened and resolutely gathered her resources to face the total ruin of her already fragile dreams. The face of her sweetheart, mouth wide in an irreverent grin, came before her as if there was a portrait there. Sadly, firmly, she banished it - forever, it would seem - and blew her nose forcefully. If the Duke would at least stop barking at her she might manage better, she thought. "Do I gather you intend to acknowledge me, Your Grace?"
"Good God, no! That wouldn't serve at all." For the first time the Duke looked away. "Fact is I have a problem and you, my dear, are the solution."
And a mighty problem it must be, thought Chloe, to have raised me to 'my dear'. She said nothing, however and waited for him to continue.
"What I have to say to you is confidential. In fact I shall deny it if it suits me. D'you understand?" At her nod he continued. "I have reason to believe, more reason than before I should say, that my heir is no flesh of mine."
Chloe's attention was caught. "The Marquis of Hawkeston?"
"Know your peerage, do you?"
"Two of your granddaughters are educated here, Your Grace," she explained, pleased that her emotions seemed to have found a dead-spot of stability and her voice was under her control again. "The Marquis has visited his nieces on occasion."
"Met him, have you? What do you think of him?"
Chloe bowed her head, hoping she was not colouring up. The implications of this complexity of relationships was tantalising. She wished he would give her a moment's peace to think. One thing was clear. She must not become known as his daughter. "He is so far above me....," she murmured.
"Of course he is. Except that he might be your brother!"
Chloe's head jerked up. "But I thought you said....."
The Duke's mouth twisted in a sour touch of humor. "That's right, he ain't. Damned coil! Three hundred years of pure bloodlines, broken by that damned hussy I made my Duchess. I always knew the younger two weren't mine but to play me false with my first! Of course he wasn't me first. Two little ones died...." He trailed off, obviously trying to decide how much blame attached to his dead duchess and how much to fate.
Abruptly the Duke came back to the business in hand. "Y'see my problem, though?"
"You mean to disown the Marquis?" Chloe asked faintly. Was this good news or bad for herself and Rafe? Or was it irrelevant. Before she had time to untangle the skeins of thought the Duke's harsh voice broke in again.
"Are you pigeon-witted? Who would inherit then? My damned nephew! Disown, indeed! Hawkeston may be a damned care-for-nothing and an impudent pup to boot but he's better than that damned idiot!" After a simmering moment he sat back and said conversationally, "No, no. You're to marry Hawkeston and then your children will carry the bloodline. Hey? What do you think of that? Hey?"
Chloe had heard about eyes bulging with surprise but until this moment she had never experienced the sensation. But her eyes did feel as if they were pressing forward, trying to escape the lids. To hide her emotion, she again hid her face in her hands. The Duke's voice resonated self-satisfaction and something approaching good humor. "Clever, ain't it? Damned clever. Well, Miss Winter, what do you say to your good fortune, eh?"
Chloe's control had evaporated. She could not say anything and a few mewling sounds escaped her.
"Hey there," the Duke said in the nearest approach to humanity he'd shown thus far. "No need for all this. A bit overwhelming, I know, but you'll learn. And you don't need to fear Hawkeston. He'll toe the line. He knows most of the money's not entailed, y'see. He'll treat you right. You just make sure there's a couple of healthy heirs in the nursery before you spread your wings!"
In her outrage at this suggestion, Chloe jerked up her head and showed the Duke her red face and tearing eyes. "Oh!" she wailed and buried it again.
He shook his head. "Middle-class mind," he muttered disapprovingly "Got it from your mother, I suppose." He heaved himself out of his chair. "I'll call Hawkeston and have him say his piece, then you'll feel more the thing."
With a great effort, which included biting down hard on her thumb, Chloe regained control of herself. After another brisk blow in her handkerchief, which she kept protectively before her face, she forced out some words. "Your Grace, why on earth do you think I will go along with this plan?"
He looked at her as if she belonged in Bedlam. "Because if you don't the reputation of this school won't be worth a farthing before the year is out. A word from me and the best pupils will be gone so fast you'll feel the wind."
She stared. Shock brought her to her feet and helped her to achieve her equilibrium. "You are a terrible man," she said clearly.
With a humourless smile and a jab of a boney finger he said, "I am a powerful man. Remember that," and stalked out.
Chloe stayed still for a moment, stunned, but then the whole interview came back to her and she bit her lip. Helpless, she turned and rested her head on her arm on the marble fireplace mantle.
It was this sight that the Marquis regarded thoughtfully when he entered the room and closed the door softly behind him. It was obvious that the Duke could never have found reassurance of his paternity in the young man's looks. He was tall, with broad shoulders and his buff pantaloons showed strongly muscled legs. His skin was fair, just lightly tanned, and his eyes a clear blue framed by dark lashes of which a girl would be envious. In contrast his hair was burnished gold.
He nervously ran his fingers through it, destroying its careful arrangement, and cleared his throat. Chloe could not help herself. She wailed and gave herself over to her emotions. He looked at her heaving shoulders in horror for a moment and then he grinned.
He walked over and grasped her firmly, obliging her to turn and expose her face, the tears of mirth still streaming.
"Well, Miss Winter? Are you going to become my wife?"
Chloe collapsed against him. "Oh, Rafe, you wretch. Of course I will!"
It took resolution but she soon drew back from a most satisfying kiss. "If you don't tell me how this all came about, I will die, Rafe. And, I might say, why you didn't warn me? When the Duke said I was his daughter I nearly fainted with horror. If our marriage was difficult before, that put it out of reach forever!"
He guided her to the lounge where they could sit together. "I didn't expect my father to swallow the hook and set off with it at such speed. My plan was to come down here alone but he wouldn't have it. I've been out there in a nervous fret wondering just what was happening. If you'd let it escape that we were in love, he'd have smelt a rat. The whole faradiddle is thin enough as it is!"
"Do you mean that it isn't true?" she gasped.
He grinned and her heart turned over. She loved him so much that it hurt. "That's it. At least, I don't know if I'm legitimate or not. With my mother's track record the odds are against it though even she must have obliged my father occasionally. But you're not my father's child."
"Then how in heaven did you convince him that I am?"
The Marquis did not answer for a moment, being busy removing her cap and easing the pins out of her hair. "That's better."
Twirling a curl lovingly around a finger, he said, "I met Lady Fourtnoy in Town and struck up a conversation simply because I knew she was your mother. Do you know, she's quite a character but selfish to the bone. I knew that anyway since she'd left you here as a child and never bothered her head again except to have her man of business send Miss Carstairs an allowance. But it's not just you. She's the same about everything. But as she boasted of her lively youth she let fall that my father had been one of her lovers. The whole plan came to me in a moment. I forged a touching letter from my mother revealing my 'bastardy' and left it where my father would find it. Then when I knew he'd read it and was feeling aggrieved, I delivered a letter to him from Lady Fourtnoy informing him of the existence of his daughter, you. The two clicked together as I had hoped and here we are. But rather faster than I had expected. I'd thought he would have checked around more but the old curmudgeon is desperate both for his bloodlines and for a grandson. Which reminds me....." He produced a handsome old ruby ring. "The family betrothal ring."
He pushed it onto her finger and sealed it there with his lips. "I have dreamed of that ring on your finger, Chloe."
After a pleasant interval Chloe drew back sharply. "But, good heavens, Rafe! We might be brother and sister!"
"Oh no," he assured her with a laugh. "My father's affair with your mother was after you were born. But in his attempts to pay back my mother for her behaviour, his own became so outrageous that I doubt he has a notion of date and year for any of his flings."
"Then why did Lady Fourtnoy write that letter?"
The Marquis pulled her back into his arms. "She's a gamester. If it's in your blood, I'll beat you, my sweet for I've no mind to be another Devonshire! I played Piquet with her and beat her to flinders. Then I traded her notes for the letter. She was happy enough with the exchange and she'll hold her tongue. She's an honest enough reprobate."
"So the bloodline might be broken after all. Poor Duke." The genuine sadness in her voice made him laugh.
"Only you could be so warmhearted! My dear father would have cut me off if I had married you without his permission and I'll bet he'd have ruined this school if you'd not played along. And if he thinks the line's unbroken he should remember that we got the dukedom in the first place because an ancestor was a royal mistress!"
"I had tried to resign myself to giving you up," said Chloe, happily snuggling within his arm. "When you told me how proud your father is and that the fortune is not entailed I knew we could not marry."
"What nonsense. If it had come to that I would have married you and told him to keep the money. But it seemed worth making a push for it all. Though I don't care tuppence for being the Duke, I do love the Abbey and I wouldn't much like having to watch it fall about our ears."
"Our ears. Oh, I do like the sound of that!"
"Talking of ears, I think I hear interruptions coming. Back in character?"
She nodded and they moved apart so that when the Duke entered, followed by an astonished Miss Carstairs, they found an uneasy-looking pair before them.
"Well?" barked the Duke. "Is it done?"
"Yes Father," said the Marquis with a perfectly straight face. "I have prevailed upon Miss Winter to agree to becoming my wife."
Whereupon another wail escaped the future duchess and she sank her face once more into her hands.