C hastity resisted the urge to fling her morning tea at her father as he paced the floor at the head of the breakfast table. Her three sisters—Jessica especially, who seldom sat more than five minutes without causing some small havoc—managed to keep neutral expressions when he bemoaned his advanced age.
Chastity bit back a laugh when Jessica silently mouthed his words as he said, "I have no male heir; therefore, it is your responsibility to marry and give me an heir to carry on my title." Three years ago, Chastity would have interrupted the speech. Now, however, she waited as he added, "I am old. Don't I deserve to go to my grave knowing the title doesn't end with me?”
“Papa, please,” Lucy, the youngest, interjected as she always did, “we cannot bear to hear you talk as if you will die tomorrow.”
“For all we know, I may,” the duke replied with his usual dramatic flair. He turned his stare onto Chastity. “You will marry.”
In the past, Chastity had answered with a dozen different arguments. 'I am young and carry your title. I have plenty of time to find a suitable husband.' Or, 'Would you doom me to a life shackled to a fortune hunter?' Today, she said, “What will become of my sisters if my husband doesn't care for them as we do?”
Lucy smiled affectionately at him. “You cannot blame Chastity for wanting to find a man as kind as you.”
Lucy, only seventeen, was by far the wisest, for she understood the power of flattery on a man. This time, however, even her shrewd maneuverings failed to move their sire.
He stared down at Chastity, eyes bright with an intelligence untouched by his fifty-five years. "Ye have put me off for five years, Daughter. No more. You will marry within two months."
"Two months?" Olivia blurted. "It cannot be done."
He ignored Olivia. “You are twenty-four years old, Chastity, and well on the shelf."
This argument was familiar, but she couldn't halt the retort. "Even were I grayed with a grizzled chin, I would still have suitors. Few men care about age or beauty when a title is included. I will always have my pick of marriageable men."
His eyes blazed. "Then pick one—or I will."
He reached into his coat pocket, withdrew a document, and tossed it onto the table. It slid a few inches, then halted against a plate of eggs. Chastity caught sight of the header Robert Campbell Esquire, her father’s solicitor—and the words ‘Marriage License’ below his name.
She snapped her gaze onto the duke. "You wouldn't dare."
Olivia picked up the document and unfolded it. Her eye caught on the word ‘Bride’ and— She looked up. “Oh dear, that is your name.”
Olivia turned the document toward her. Chastity’s gaze shifted to Olivia’s place-keeping fingertip where her name was written. Olivia scanned ahead to the groom’s name. Blank. Maybe their father wasn’t serious, after all, but only meant to frighten Chastity.
She looked up. “At least the groom’s name isn’t recorded.”
Chastity shot to her feet, heedless of the napkin that dropped from her lap. "You would marry me to some stranger?"
The duke shrugged. "Not a stranger. Lord Hathaway comes to mind. As you well know, he expressed an interest in marrying you this last year."
“Eww.” Jessica shuddered. “He’s old.”
Chastity curled her fingers into fists. "Not to mention despicable."
“He is a very decent man, and he would take good care of ye."
"No doubt,” she muttered. “He is twenty-five years my senior, and would enjoy a young wife in his bed.”
"A man expects to enjoy his wife’s charms."
She started to reply, but he cut her off. "Marry, or I will sign these papers."
He didn't mean it. He couldn't. But the glint in his eyes revealed a determination she'd never before seen.
"Would you really see me wed Lord Hathaway?"
"He is a good man. I have no qualms with him."
Chastity leaned on the table for support. "And it matters not that I do not want him?"
"You do not want anyone," he said with an effort at calm.
“How could I want any of the men you have paraded before me these past years? They are greedy, stupid, weak-kneed idiots. That is the sort of man you want to sire your grandchildren?”
Jessica shoved aside a lock of red hair that had escaped her chignon. “There was Lord Everson. He was not weak or stupid.”
“Jessica.” Olivia cast a quick look at their father, but his expression revealed nothing of his memory of the fortune hunter who had raced with Chastity to Gretna Green four years ago.
"I would rather see the title die than marry—” Chastity broke off at the thunderous look in her father’s eyes.
“Rather than marry…” he repeated in a quiet voice.
She swallowed against a dry throat. “I will not marry Hathaway."
"If you haven't married another within two months, you will.”
“Two months?” Chastity blurted. Her head whirled.
Even Lucy blanched at the decree. “What of Lord Blakely?” she quickly asked. “He is preferable to a relic—er, gentleman—such as Lord Hathaway. He is only three years older than you.”
Chastity snorted. “He is an arrogant fop. His mother governs him.” The thought of his long white fingers touching her intimately soured her stomach.
Lucy exchanged a knowing glance with Olivia, then said, “Truly, papa, two months is unreasonable. Four months, at least. We cannot have even a decent wedding gown sewn in so short a time.”
"What of my sisters?" Chastity demanded. "Who will care for them when I am gone?"
“It isn’t Chastity’s fault that she spent the last eight years being our mother,” Jessica said.
Chastity started at the wistful note in Jessica’s voice. Did she still miss their mother so desperately?
Lucy patted Jessica’s hand. “Of course, it isn’t her fault, but perhaps we have stood in Chastity’s way of finding happiness.”
Chastity blinked. “What?”
“You have selflessly cared for us these eight years.” Lucy smiled gently. “You deserve a family of your own.”
“You are my family,” Chastity insisted.
"It is your duty to marry,” the duke said. “Your sisters will follow suit.” He waved a hand. “You only set an example for them in avoiding marriage."
The younger sisters cried out in protest.
"You know nothing of your daughters,” Chastity said coldly. “They are women of sense who will not marry out of obligation."
He nodded slowly. "Another notion you put into their heads."
Chastity pursed her lips. "I suppose you will marry them to some old reprobate if they don't follow your dictates."
“Chastity,” Olivia and Lucy said in unison.
"Your three sisters will have no trouble finding husbands,” he continued. “Olivia had two offers, but you said the men weren’t up to snuff, so she rejected them. It is because of you that she has no family."
The younger sisters gasped.
Chastity scooped up her teacup and hurled it at her father. Tea spewed across Olivia’s pale blue morning dress. He barely jerked aside as the cup whizzed a hair’s breadth past his nose then crashed into the marble hearth behind him.
He shifted his gaze onto the shattered china, stared for two heartbeats, then slowly turned cold eyes onto his daughter. “I tolerated your mother’s temper. I will not tolerate yours.”
A chill raced across her arms at the deadly quiet in his voice. Her heart pounded. “I will not marry Hathaway,” she whispered.
“Then marry another.”
He was serious. Her head swam. She couldn’t bear life with the moon-faced Lord Hathaway. If she didn’t find someone else— She felt sick.
Lucy jumped to her feet and hurried around the table to her. “Look, Papa, you have upset her. Come.” She eased Chastity back onto her chair. “You must not worry about us,” Lucy said. “We are old enough to care for ourselves. We are all going to enjoy a season—this is to my first, remember? Who knows, we might find husbands of our own. We wouldn’t want to leave you all alone. You may search for a nice gentleman when you chaperone us this season.”
Chastity looked at her. “What did you say?”
“I said, you will probably find a very nice gentleman this year at some ball we attend.”
Not bloody likely, she thought. Despite Lucy’s youth, she was too wise to fall for the first handsome man who whispered pretty nothings in her ear. Jessica had no intention of marrying—ever. Olivia— Shame stabbed. Was her father right, had she doomed Olivia’s last two offers? Bah! The men were not worthy of her sister, nor had they understood her bluestocking ways. The fact no other gentleman had offered for her only demonstrated the male sex’s insecurities. Olivia found more pleasure in her books than she would in a man. She would be miserable with anyone who insisted she give them up.
Chastity looked at the duke. "What if I agree to marry?"
A hard glint appeared in his eyes. “Refuse and I marry you to the first man who proves he can use a sword.”
Her fingers itched to snatch up the saucer and hurl it. “Use his sword, you mean.”
“As you will,” he muttered.
She forced calm and said, “I have a proposition.”