Dear Cici and Father,
I have come to Devon and married a duke. And I'm more tired and hungry than I have ever been in my life. Please let me come home.
Compromised and wedded on the same day, Lady Miranda was fast finding married life not to her taste. A decaying manor and a secretive husband were hardly the stuff of girlish dreams. Yet every time she looked at dark, brooding Marcus Radwell, Duke of Haughleigh, she felt inexplicably compelled--and determined--to make their marriage real!
"Of course, you know I am dying." His mother extended slim fingers from beneath the bedclothes and patted the hand that he offered to her.
Marcus Radwell, fourth Duke of Haughleigh, kept his face impassive, searching his mind for the appropriate response. "No." His tone was neutral. "We will, no doubt, have this conversation again at Christmas when you have recovered from your current malady."
"Only you would use obstinacy as a way to cheer me on my deathbed."
And only you would stage death with such Drury Lane melodrama. He left the words unspoken, struggling for decorum, but glared at the carefully arranged scene. She'd chosen burgundy velvet hangings and dim lighting to accent her already pale skin. The cloying scent of the lilies on the dresser gave the air a funereal heaviness.
"No, my son, we will not be having this conversation again. The things I have to tell you will be said today. I do not have the strength to tell them twice, and certainly will not be here at Christmas to force another promise from you.'She gestured to the water glass at the bedside. He filled it and offered it to her, supporting her as she drank.
No strength? And yet her voice seemed steady enough. This latest fatal illness was probably no more real than the last one. Or the one before. He stared hard into her face, searching for some indication of the truth. Her hair was still the same delicate blonde cloud on the pillow, but her face was grey beneath the porcelain complexion that had always given her a false air of fragility. "If you are too weak...perhaps later..."
"Perhaps later I will be too weak to say them, and you will not have to hear. A good attempt, but I expected better."
"And I expected better of you, Mother. I thought I had made it clear, on my last visit to your deathbed--" the word was heavy with irony he could no longer disguise '--that I was tired of playing the fool in these little dramas you insist on arranging. If you want something of me, you could at least do me the courtesy of stating it plainly in a letter."
"So that you could refuse me by post, and save yourself the journey home?"
"Home? And where might that be? This is your home. Not mine."
Her laugh was mirthless and ended in a rasping cough. Old instincts made him reach out to her before he caught himself and let the hand fall to his side. The coughing ended abruptly, as though his lack of sympathy made her rethink her strategy.
"This is your home, your Grace, whether you choose to live in it or not."
So if fears for her health would not move him, perhaps guilt over his neglected estate? He shrugged.
Her hand trembled as she gestured towards the night-stand, and he reached for the carafe to refill her glass. "No. The box on the table."
He passed the inlaid box to her. She fumbled with the catch, opened it and removed a stack of letters, patting them. "As time grows short, I've worked to mend the mistakes in my past. To right what wrongs I could. To make peace."
To get right with the Lord before His inevitable judgement, he added to himself and clenched his jaw.
"And recently, I received a letter from a friend of my youth. An old school companion who was treated badly."
He could guess by whom. If his mother was planning to right her wrongs chronologically, she had better be quick. Even if she...