Nate sat in the drawing room at Stephen’s country estate and forced himself to focus on his book. He had been unsettled since learning that Clara had invited the Linwoods. He did not miss his sister’s pleased smile. She was in a fair way of losing her heart to the young master. It would never do. She must marry far higher than a mere mister to remove the stain in their family tree. Marriage for love was not a possibility for either one of them. He had thought she understood that, but he should have known her tender and naïve heart could not comprehend such coldness. He dreaded the conversation he would soon have to have with her.
Since the first night he awoke dreaming of Sylvia Linwood, it had occurred three more times. It made no sense to him, and he adamantly refused to be bewitched by a lady with such poor manners and grace. If only the young heiress whom Clara had selected for him and now sat to his right would appeal near as much.
“I love nothing so good as a novel,” Lady Hannah said.
“They are diverting,” Nate replied as he infused as much disapproval as possible into his tone.
“What? Do you not like them?”
Nate did not answer at first and attempted to make a great show of turning the page to his own volume. “When one seeks entertainment they are immensely useful.”
“I see,” Lady Hannah said. “What do you seek then, Duke?”
At the moment, he sought solitude and silence. He craved peace for he knew any minute, it would be entirely cut up with Sylvia under the same roof as him. No, he mentally chastised himself. He was in no danger of her. He could control himself better than his father had. He was not doomed to repeat his predecessor’s errors.
“One reads a historical account to gain knowledge, I presume,” he answered.
Lady Hannah sighed and returned to her book. He ought to try harder to woo her. She had blonde hair as he had said he desired, but it did not seem as radiant as he had seen on another lady. Her eyes were blue, but they lacked the various colors one found in the sea.
Nate mentally shook himself. It did not matter what she looked like. She came from an old, well-respected family. On her father’s side, they were a line of marquesses, and her mother descended from an earl. She was rumored to have twenty-thousand pounds. She and her twin sister were heiresses to a massive fortune and large estate. The title would go to her uncle or a male cousin. The Edgecumbes had been of no importance in Parliament, but that only ensured there were no known scandals and they managed to keep their heads during shifting political climates.
Lady Hannah herself was accomplished. She could embroider, draw, play pianoforte and harp, sing, speak French and Italian, dance, move gracefully. He had conversed with her at a few other occasions, and she was always perfectly polite. He thought he had seen a sign of wit once or twice and she seemed capable of directing conversation and putting people at ease.
She was the perfect candidate for his wife. If only he could abide to be near her for more than five minutes at a time. There were worse things, he reminded himself. At least she understood when he tired of talking and did not stubbornly continue to force him to speak. Nor did she encourage the others in the room to break his peace. Surely that would bode well for a marriage.
Soon, Nate heard the noise of a carriage on the gravel drive. He steadfastly resisted looking out the window. He did glance at the clock. Linwood was exactly at his promised time. Well, that was in favor of him.
Lady Hannah stirred beside him and went to the window, a few others followed. “Oh, it’s Sylvia!” Hannah cried.
Another young lady laughed. “Do you remember the time she climbed the great oak tree in the square at the school? Goodness! That was nearly ten years ago! I do not know that I have seen her in four or five years, at least.”
Miss Linwood was climbing trees while at school? He would have to ask Clara about it, but he was surprised the school allowed it. Certainly, it was forbidden by the time Laura attended.
Amongst the crowd at the window was his sister. Laura smiled with the rest of them, but there was something more in her eyes when she turned and looked toward the door as the others did. Nate thought it was affection. She cared far too much for the young baron. If his sister climbed trees at such an age, then what other inelegant, indecorous things was she up to? For that matter, did she cease them? If the sister could not behave properly, then the brother would never be an appropriate match for Laura.
The housekeeper arrived with the Linwoods in tow. Clara made introductions to those that that did not already know one another. Sylvia met with the approval of several young men, and Nate could see why. There was something different about her today than he had noticed at their first encounter. Although they had been traveling, her dress seemed more fashionable, her hair was arranged in a more becoming way. Rather than sharp looks, she greeted the others with pleasant smiles. A coral necklace played off the hue of her complexion. She looked five times prettier than he had recalled and she was difficult enough to forget at the time.
When they met, she seemed like an angry kitten, hissing and clawing unable to do any damage. Now, she sat amidst a group of young men and bestowed encouraging expressions indiscriminately. He was worth ten times as much of most of the men in this room and yet she would not look his way. After a quarter of an hour surrounded by swains and dandies, Sylvia excused herself to her chamber. It was nearly time to dress for dinner.
Beside him, Lady Hannah remarked, “I see history could not hold your attention, after all, sir.”
Nate nearly started at the voice. He had not noticed when she returned to her seat beside him. A sly glance to his left showed the lady smirked as she flipped a page. He recovered in time to hear Linwood offer to walk with Laura in the garden. He ought to have been paying more attention to them, or at least Lady Hannah, and worrying less about Sylvia. He was on the verge of inviting himself to accompany the couple when a Lord Blithfield approached him. Several men were withdrawing to the library to discuss political matters and the recent unrest in the factories in the North. As he had inherited many, he knew more than many the trials the manufacturers faced. Relieved for an excuse to leave Lady Hannah behind, even if he could not scare Linwood off from his sister, he happily accepted the offer.
In the library with the other gentlemen, Nate shoved all thoughts of courtship aside. His father had jilted an earl’s daughter and eloped with a manufacturing heiress. As such, Nate inherited a dozen mills, some of notable size.
“Lord Blithfield and the Duke of Russell are the only ones present who have any stake in the unrest, I believe,” Clifford said after he had poured a round of drinks.
“If they pass a movement through the house, then it will affect us all,” a voice came from the door.
Nate turned to see a gentleman he knew all too well enter. They were close in age, but Lord Brandon appeared more noble, elegant. More like what a peer should look like whereas Nate’s blood had been mixed with the hardy stock of the middling class. He towered over other men, and his shoulders were far broader. In his opinion, he looked like a clumsy oaf rather than a graceful courtier.
Nate knew the young earl well. He had been his constant tormentor at school, not the least because Brandon’s aunt was the lady Nate’s father jilted. The entire Brandon family hated the Russells. Nate had been taunted by many of his classmates because his mother came from trade, but Brandon was the ringleader, the strongest, and the most vicious. Nate glanced at Clifford who mouthed an apology.
“Of course, those of us from trade like Russell will feel it more keenly,” Brandon continued. “Although, they are conditioned and born to such lot. The cost of industry, I suppose.”
“Brandon,” Clifford nearly growled, “they are speaking of killing owners. That is far more serious than a poor return due to market changes. That is not so different than when tenants cannot pay their rents.”
Brandon sat and crossed his legs. “Those sorts of things never affect me.” He shrugged. “It is my right to obtain their rent. Even when evicted, the law upholds they must pay the debt. If they did not set aside the monies for it, then it is not my concern. Perhaps they could spend less time at the tavern and more time in the field.”
Nate clenched his fists and forced himself to breathe slowly. Was there no mercy or kindness in Brandon? Every winter tenants often had to choose between starvation and making rent. The war affected them all. Every other peer Nate knew had adjusted their rents. “Could not the same be said that we can moderate our spending and lifestyle and allow for a lower rent?”
Brandon threw his head back in laughter. “Moderate our lifestyle? Oh, Russell, if ever I could forget that you do not come from our ranks, talk like that would remind me. You always were too tender-hearted and preaching of moderation. I would have thought all my beatings might have taught you to leave such dreams behind.”
Brandon looked around the room, taunting the others to stand up to him. No one ever did. Still, Nate would not avert his eyes or humble himself before the bully.
“You will find, Brandon, that we left the schoolroom days long behind us,” Nate said. “You would insist on showing no humanity to the poor and hungry. Ask yourself how well that turned out for France. If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I have matters of business to address.”
Nate bowed and exited the room. It was not the first time he had seen Brandon since Eton. He was surprised he had been invited to Clifford’s, but Nate assumed there were reasons for it.
Instead of returning to his chamber to look over his correspondence as he had said, he left for the stables. With each stamp of hoofbeats, he recalled the merciless punches and kicks of Brandon. He remembered the other boys circling around and calling him names, cheering his tormentor on.
He grew strong from it, however, and before he left the school, he was able to thrash Brandon. For a time, he thought that was all he had wanted in life. All he needed to feel free would be to attack his abuser, and he would find justice. It had brought him no lasting peace, however. As he left Eton for University and later the House of Lords and high society balls, the taunting never ended. His high rank gained him admittance, but his mother’s low birth status made rumors follow him wherever he went.
In a meeting like they just had, he was one of the few who owned mills. He had not invested in them as an adult. Nor had his father. No, he inherited them from his mother. His maternal grandfather had amassed quite a fortune from his mills in the North of England. He personally oversaw the running of each one. He purposefully opened them near each other so he could visit every week. Nate might be a Duke, but he was no more removed from trade than a shopkeeper’s daughter.
Calming, he forced himself to take deep breaths and slow the horse. He had not been alone in that schoolyard. He had made friends. Blithfield often came to his aid. Nor was he still at school. His rank afforded him far more protection than when he was merely the heir.
He had a plan, and he would see it come to fruition. The first step was to marry well and to someone politically important. Before too long, the world would know the Duke of Russell’s name as a politician, not from a long-ago scandal. He alone controlled his destiny, and his past would no longer define him.