"'Tis sorry I am to be the bearer of ill tidings, Miss Gabby."
More than sorry, Jem Downes sounded positively miserable over the news that he had crossed an ocean and parts of two land masses to bring her, Lady Gabriella Banning thought. His rheumy brown eyes met her widening gray ones sadly. Behind him, the aged butler, Stivers, bowed himself out, closing the door with a muffled click. The smell of damp from Jem's clothes overrode the faint scent of sulfur from the coal fire and tallow from the candle sputtering at her elbow. Jem's hat was in his hands; his travel-stained clothes were splotched with moisture and dotted with shiny-wet raindrops from the unrelenting downpour outside. His boots and trousers were flecked with mud. In the ordinary way of things, the family's lifelong servant would never have dreamed of presenting himself to her in such a state. The fact that he had not waited for the morrow, or even to put off his soiled apparel, spoke volumes about his state of mind.
Almost unconsciously, Gabby braced to receive the blow. Her lips compressed and her spine stiffened until she was sitting regally erect behind the massive desk tucked into the corner of the estate office, to which she had retired after dinner to go over the household accounts. Until this moment, her biggest worry had been whether or not just a few more shillings could be squeezed from the estate's already pared-to-the-bone expenditures. Jem's words caused her heart to give a great lurch, and effectively drove the family's financial picture from her mind. Nevertheless, she fought to preserve a calm demeanor. The only outward sign of her sudden anxiety was her rigid posture, and the convulsive tightening of her fingers around the quill she held. Conscious of this last, Gabby carefully put the pen down near the ink pot, and placed her pale, slender hands flat upon the open ledger in front of her.
Outside, thunder crashed with enough volume to penetrate even so deep within the fortresslike walls of Hawthorne Hall. The fire in the hearth flared suddenly, no doubt because windblown raindrops had found their way down the chimney. To Gabby the sudden thunderclap and the subsequent surge of light and heat seemed almost portentous. With difficulty she repressed a shudder. What now? she thought, staring hard at Jem. Oh, dear Lord in heaven, what now?
"You have seen my brother?" A lifetime of living with the meanest sort of bully had taught her the value of maintaining an outward imperturbability, no matter what disaster was about to befall. Her tone was as cool as hock.
"Miss Gabby, the earl is dead." Clearly aware of the terrible import of his news, Jem twisted the soft felt hat in his hands until it was almost unrecognizable. Fiftyish, with short grizzled hair and sharp features, he had the slight, wiry frame of the jockey he once was. At the moment his posture, hunched under the weight of what he had to tell her, made him seem even smaller than usual.
Gabby drew in a short, sharp breath. She felt as though she had sustained a physical blow. Rejection of her plea, even a reprimand for daring to make it, if Marcus was in personality anything like their father, she had been prepared for -- but not this. Her half brother, Marcus Banning, who, upon their father's death some eighteen months before had become the seventh Earl of Wickham, was a mere six years her senior. Two months previously, when it had become obvious that the new Earl was in no hurry to come to England to claim his inheritance, she had sent Jem with a letter for her brother to the tiny island of Ceylon, where Marcus had lived most of his life on a tea plantation owned by his mother's family. In it she had explained their circumstances as concisely as she could, and asked Marcus for permission -- and funding -- to take their sister Claire to London for her long overdue come-out.
She had sent Jem off with little hope. Still, something had to be done. Claire was already nearly nineteen. Gabby could not bear to think of her sister marrying Squire Cuthbert, the stolid, middle-aged, long-widowed owner of the neighboring property, who was her most persistent suitor, or Oswald Preston, the local curate, by default. Both, in their different ways, were top over tail in love with Claire, and, having been unwelcome at Hawthorne Hall during their father the sixth Earl's lifetime, were now frequent visitors. Claire was kind to them because kindness was an integral part of her nature, but the thought of her wedding either the portly squire or the sanctimonious Oswald was enough to make Gabby ill.
"My brother is dead?" Gabby repeated slowly. A knot formed in her stomach as the ramifications began to ricochet through her head. "Jem, are you certain?"
A foolish question. Ordinarily she would never have asked it. Jem was not likely to make a mistake about something so enormous as the death of the new earl, after all.
Jem looked, if possible, even more miserable. "Yes, Miss Gabby. Certain sure. I was there when His Lordship met his end. He was out with a party hunting a tiger, and the beast charged from cover when none expected it. Someone fired in a panic, and the shot struck him. He was gone just like that. Nothing to be done."
"Dear God." Gabby closed her eyes, feeling suddenly light-headed. In the months since her father's death, she had both hoped for and dreaded the coming of Marcus, the half brother she had met just once in her life. Everything would be changed with the advent of the new earl: her position, and that of her younger sisters, was bound to alter. For the better, she had hoped, although, as fate had taught her to, she had feared it might be for the worse.
But what could be worse than seeing Claire, and Beth after her, suffer the same fate she had herself? To be alternately bullied and ignored by a father with an abiding contempt for females and not even the smallest scrap of natural affection for his offspring; to be kept so short of money -- and this when their father was a very rich man -- that the amount of food on the family table was ofttimes insufficient; to be left to wither away on the vine with scant prospects for a husband or children or any life beyond the vast isolated acreage of Hawthorne Hall?
Suddenly Gabby knew what could be worse: to lose their home entirely, and the funds that had allowed them to live adequately if not well in it. To be forced to leave Hawthorne Hall, to make their own living as -- and this was if they were fortunate -- governesses or companions. Beth was too young to take up any post, Gabby realized as she tried calmly to consider it, and Claire -- would anyone hire Claire? Claire, whose beauty was so arresting that she turned heads when she did no more than walk down the streets of York, which was the nearest town of any size? No respectable woman would be likely to offer employment to Claire, Gabby realized with a deep sense of forboding. At the ripe old age of twenty-five, with her nothing-out-of-the-ordinary looks and the limp that had resulted from an accident she had suffered at age twelve, she herself was the only one of the three who was in the smallest degree employable. Would she be allowed to keep her sisters with her in any position she was fortunate enough to obtain?
Not likely. Almost assuredly not. Especially not once a prospective employer set eyes on Claire.
What were they to do? The question curled, cold and snakelike, around Gabby's heart, bringing near panic with it. Suddenly Squire Cuthbert and Mr. Preston began to seem almost like lifelines in a raging sea. Certainly, if faced with the choice, Claire would consider marrying either better than being cast upon the world with little more than the clothes on her back.
But wait, Gabby told herself firmly, trying to quell her rising fear, it was early days yet. There had to be other alternatives. It was just that none had as yet occurred to her.
"Did he leave -- a family? A son?" A last faint hope fluttered in her breast as Gabby opened her eyes to look at Jem again.
"His Lordship was unwed, Miss Gabby, and childless, I think. Doubtless he would have chosen a proper English bride when he came home to take his place as earl."
"Yes." Gabby took a deep, steadying breath. Whatever was to become of her and her sisters, there were immediate steps that had to be taken, people who needed to be notified of the earl of Wickham's death. She had so recently performed the same functions after the demise of her father that she felt quite like an old hand. Mr. Challow, her father's chief barrister, would need to be informed, for one, and Cousin Thomas...
Gabby went cold at the thought.
With Marcus's death, the earldom and all that went with it passed to the nearest male heir, the Honorable Thomas Banning, son of her father's late cousin. Her father had loathed Thomas, and Thomas, together with his horrible stiff-necked wife Lady Maud and their two simpering daughters, had returned the earl's animosity with interest. She had seen him and his family perhaps half a dozen times in her life, most recently at her father's funeral. He had been barely civil to her and her sisters, and his wife and daughters had not been even that.
She, Claire, and Beth were now at Thomas's mercy, Gabby realized with a sick sensation in the pit of her stomach. Her father, in his terrible misogyny, had made no provisions in his will for his three daughters, as she had learned to her dismay only at the time of his death. They had no income, no funds of their own. They had been left totally dependent on the generosity -- or lack of it -- of the new earl.
Not for the first time, Gabby wondered if her father, upon dying, had found himself in hell.
Terrible as it was for a daughter to entertain such a thought, she could not help but feel that, if so, it was a reward well earned by the misery he had caused, and continued to cause, those whom he should have most cherished in life.
Perhaps Thomas would allow them to continue to live at Hawthorne Hall, Gabby speculated without much hope. It might please his wife to have Matthew's miscellany, as she disparagingly called Gabby and her sisters because each was the offspring of a different, subsequent countess of Wickham, as dependent poor relations.
But then Gabby thought again of Claire, and knew even that faint hope was misplaced. Maud would not want Claire within a mile of her own whey-faced daughters.
"Miss Gabby, His Lordship writ you a letter."
At Jem's words, Gabby's attention focused on him again.
"A letter?" Her voice, she was surprised to discover, revealed no hint of her distress.
"The night before he -- before he was took. He was on the trail after that tiger I told you about when I caught up with him, away off in the wilds with just those heathen native servants of his. He called me into his tent and gave me this to give to you." Jem fumbled in the leather pouch that hung at his side, and extracted a slightly crumpled and stained letter, which he passed to her.
Gabby took it, broke the seal, and spread it out. It was a single sheet containing just a few lines scrawled in a firm black hand. Another sealed sheet, wrapped inside the first, was revealed as she unfolded the missive. This she set aside.
My dear Gabby, the letter began,
My own knowledge and the tales I have heard of our father lead me to believe that you have, if anything, understated the case in which you have been left. I beg your forgiveness for not attending to the matter earlier. Indeed, I freely confess that I have been remiss in not seeing to the welfare of my sisters, and hereby give you permission to take our sister Claire to London for the Season. You do the thing up in high style, and draw on my funds as needed and at your discretion. A letter to that effect is enclosed, which I suggest you present to Messrs. Challow, Mather and Yadon, attorneys at law, with my compliments. As it happens, my circumstances are such that I find myself viewing a trip to England with favor, and may join you in London myself before many weeks have passed. I look forward to furthering our acquaintance, and to reacquainting myself with Claire and baby Beth, at that time.
Yours most sincerely, Wickham.
Unexpectedly, Gabby felt a lump form in her throat as she stared down at the bold script. Her brother sounded both likable and as if he were disposed to have a care for them, and this sheet of paper, along with his scarce-remembered visit to Hawthorne Hall when she had been no more than eleven, was all she was ever to know of him.
It seemed hard. But then, she had learned, such was life.
The other sealed letter was indeed addressed to Messrs. Challow, Mather, and Yadon, she saw as she picked it up, then glanced again at Jem.
"Gabby, Gabby, is that Jem you're talking to?" The library door flew open without warning. Lady Elizabeth Banning, an exuberant red-haired fifteen-year-old still faintly round with puppy fat, burst into the room. Like Gabby, she was dressed in the unrelieved black of mourning for their father although the obligatory period of time for such had passed, for the simple reason that they were the newest gowns any of the sisters possessed. The dispersal of funds for the purchase of mourning garments had been reluctantly allowed by Mr. Challow after the death of their father, although by rights, he said, he should not be approving any expenditures at all without the sanction of the new earl, whose funds they now were. Even continuing the minimal allowance that had in the past permitted Gabby to run the house had been the subject of some debate within the law firm, he told her, with the consensus being that, without notice from the new earl, the best course of action was to let things go on as they had been until they received instructions to the contrary.
"Oh, Jem, it is you! What did our brother say?" Beth's spaniel-brown eyes had fixed on Jem at once, sparing Gabby the need to answer her original inquiry. She bore down on the pair of them, firing questions as she came. "Did you find him? Did you give him Gabby's letter? What did he say? Can we go? Can we go?"
"I'm sorry, Gabby, I tried to stop her, but you know how she is," Lady Claire Banning said with a sigh as she followed her younger sister into the room. Not even her sober black gown could detract from Claire's dazzling combination of silky raven curls that spilled in charming profusion over slender shoulders, huge, thick-lashed golden-brown eyes, porcelain-pale skin, and perfect features. In addition, her figure was round where it should be round, slim where it needed to be slim, and altogether delectable. "She just could not contain herself one moment longer."
If Claire could just have her season, Gabby thought, looking at her sister almost achingly, she would be overrun with eligible gentlemen wanting to marry her. The sad thing was that here, right under her own hand, was the very instrument that would have given Claire the future she needed, that she was entitled to by right of birth, that she deserved.
Marcus had granted permission for Claire to have her season. He had practically given Gabby carte blanche to fund it, too.
But Marcus was dead. The letters he had sent were now no more than worthless scraps of paper. As soon as Cousin Thomas was apprised that he had become the earl of Wickham, they would be very fortunate indeed not to be cast out of Hawthorne Hall forthwith.
A growing despair knotted Gabby's stomach. What she had to tell her sisters was too, too cruel. If only, she thought, throat aching, Marcus had survived just a scant three more months, just until Claire had had her season....
"For goodness' sake, Jem, can't you talk? Did you or did you not find our brother?" Beth demanded, bouncing like an excited puppy around the man who had taught her and her sisters to ride and hunt and fish and enjoy almost every imaginable outdoor pursuit. Over the years the sisters had come to regard him as coconspirator and friend rather than servant, and were on terms of disgraceful intimacy with one who was in actuality no more than a groom.
Jem looked even unhappier than before. "That I did, Miss Beth, but...."
He glanced helplessly at Gabby, who looked down at the letter in her hand and took a deep breath, willing herself to sound composed as she broke the dreadful news.
At that moment Beth spied the letter, and with a quick movement and a gleeful cry snatched it from her sister's hand.
"Beth, wait...." Gabby groaned, grabbing for the letter, but speech was more of an effort than she had imagined and her protest was too strangled to deter her sister, who danced out of reach with a tantalizing grin. To learn how close all their hopes had been to being realized could only make the truth harder to bear....
"Oh, Beth, try for a little decorum, do," Claire put in crossly, throwing herself down in a chair near the fire and trying to pretend that she, too, was not vitally interested in the contents of the sheet that Beth now eagerly perused. "I declare, I've never in my life seen such a hoyden as you're turning into."
"At least I don't break my neck craning it to look into every mirror I pass." Beth retorted, glancing up for a moment to glare at her sister. Then as she returned her attention to the letter her face broke into a beatific smile and she looked at Claire again. "Oh, Claire, you're to have your season! Our brother says we're to go."
Claire's eyes widened, and soft color rushed into her cheeks as she sat up straight in the chair. "Beth, truly?" Her gaze flew to her older sister. "Gabby?"
She sounded almost afraid to believe that so wondrous a fate could be hers.
As indeed, Gabby thought, looking at Claire with a sudden sharp sensation that she could only conclude was heartbreak, she was right to be. What she would not give to be able to provide this one thing for Claire....
At that moment the fire popped as loudly as a sharp clapping of hands and flared again, higher and hotter than before, momentarily drawing everyone's startled attention to it. The color of the flames tinted the pale skin of Gabby's hands an eerie shade of red, she saw, glancing down at the letter to the barristers that still rested beneath them. She had no doubt that her face was turned the same, suddenly most appropriate, hellish hue.
Because the most dreadfully sinful notion had just occurred to her....
"Read it for yourself." Beth thrust the letter at Claire, then perched on the arm of her sister's chair, watching the older girl's face with an air of jubilant expectancy. When Claire reached the end, she gave a little squeal of excitement. The two younger girls put their heads, one bright red and one raven black, together and began reciting the words aloud with increasing glee.
As her sisters read, and the fire died back down, Gabby made a decision. She was, she discovered with some surprise, a true Banning after all. Gaming ran strong in their blood, and now it was her turn to wager all on a daring throw of the dice. She stood, a too-thin woman of no more than medium height clad in head-to-toe black bombazine, her untamable chestnut hair dragged into a reasonably neat chignon at her nape, her pale, squarish face with its small, straight nose and decided mouth and chin brought to sudden vivid life by the fierce resolve that glowed from her usually calm gray eyes, and walked with the deliberate care she had learned to take to conceal her limp around the desk until she reached Jem's side.
"Have you told anyone else of this? Talked to anyone on the ship, perhaps, or since you landed in England?" Gabby asked for his ears alone as they watched her sisters poring over the letter once again. Jem looked wretched as, finishing the missive for what must have been the dozenth time, both girls looked at each other and began to chatter excitedly. Gabby's whisper turned urgent. "What I am asking you is, who else knows of my brother's death?"
Servant and mistress were of much the same height, and their eyes were nearly on a level. Jem glanced at her, his brow deeply furrowed.
"No one in England, Miss Gabby, save you and me. I wouldn't be talking to strangers about family business, on the ship or anywheres else, now would I? A few know in Ceylon, I reckon, but mostly natives and such."
"Then I am going to ask you to do me a very big service." Gabby spoke rapidly, before her nerve could fail her. "I am going to ask you to pretend that you left my brother's side immediately after you received these letters, and never witnessed his death at all. I am going to ask you to pretend that, as far as you know, the earl is still alive and in Ceylon and will be home in his own good time."
Jem's eyes widened. As he met her determined gaze, his lips pursed in a soundless whistle.
"Miss Gabby, I can do that, and for you I will willingly, as you knows, but the truth of it is bound to come out sooner or later. Such like that always does, and then where will we be?" Jem's low voice was both alarmed and cautionary.
"In no worse case than we are right now, and perhaps a great deal better off," Gabby said firmly. "All we need is just a little time, and a little luck."
"Gabby, aren't you excited? We're going to London," Beth exclaimed rapturously, springing up from the arm of the chair and dancing forward to envelop her oldest sister in a suffocating hug. "Claire will have her season, and we'll get to see the sights. Oh, Gabby, I've never been beyond Yorkshire in my life."
"None of us have," Claire chimed in. Her eyes were glowing with anticipation and her step was light as she joined them, although, conscious of her status as a mature young lady, she refrained from jumping up and down with the heedless abandon shown by Beth.
"London will be a treat for all of us." Gabby, returning Beth's hug, managed a credible smile. A sideways glance showed her that Jem was looking at her with as much alarm as if she'd suddenly grown horns and a tail.
"Does this mean we can have some new gowns?" Claire sounded almost wistful. Claire loved pretty clothes, and had upon many occasions spent hours poring over the fashionable sketches in such publications as the Ladies' Magazine that, banned from the house by their father, still had chanced to come her way. Without being overly vain, Claire was very aware of her own beauty, and such matters as the latest hairstyles, or the design of a gown, were important to her. She had longed for a season in the worst way, but given their circumstances had known that her chances of ever having one were remote. To her credit, she had been very good about the prospect that it was never to be. But now -- now she could have one after all. Despite the risks, Gabby was suddenly fiercely glad to be able to provide Claire with such a chance.
"Certainly we may," Gabby said, refusing to look at Jem again as she well and truly threw caution to the wind. "An entire new wardrobe, in fact, for each of us."
The fire in the hearth popped loudly and flared again just then, causing Gabby to jump. As her sisters exclaimed more over their unprecedented good fortune, Gabby could not forbear casting the hearth a sideways, slightly nervous glance.
Why could she not escape the feeling that, no matter how pure her motives, some sort of hellish bargain had just been made?
Copyright © 2001 by Karen Robards