The Liberation of
Miss de Bourgh excerpt
In his eight and twenty years
no one had ever had the arrogance of manner to threaten Charles St.
John, the Earl of Seaton. Until now. Now he was being subjected to
appalling threats—not from a powerful man, but from a woman. Lady
Catherine de Bourgh was a thoroughly unpleasant woman, to be sure.
Lord Seaton recalled the time
in Bath when his trembling mother, head down to obscure recognition,
hurriedly crossed Milsome Street to avoid having to address the
woman who considered herself only barely beneath royalty (even
though Lady Catherine had failed to attract a husband from
the ranks of the aristocracy).
As his carriage passed
through the gates of Lady Catherine's Rosings, he thought of the
woman's abrasive letter to him. Though he had committed it to
memory, he remained in the dark about just what it was she wanted
from him. Her nasty letter had ensured that he would endeavor to
make the half-day journey from London to Kent and present himself
before the widow, if for no other reason than to satisfy his
His coach drew up in front of
Rosings’ portico. A cold wind cut into him as he disembarked and
climbed up one of a pair of curving steps to reach the home's main
floor. Although the late Sir Lewis de Bourgh had not been
aristocratic, this exceedingly opulent country house with its vast
size and rows of pedimented windows was as fine as that of a duke.
But, then, bankers as successful as Sir Lewis sometimes were
as rich as dukes. Clearly, the de Bourghs were more rich than mere
earls like he, whose losses on the exchange coupled with his late
father's gaming debts had rather decimated the Seaton fortunes.
The wide door swung open
before Seaton reached the top step, and a footman dressed in scarlet
livery greeted him. "Lord Seaton?"
The earl nodded.
"Lady Catherine has
instructed me to show yer lordship to the library."
They passed through the main
hall—a huge chamber with soaring ceilings—continued down a marble
corridor, and came to a walnut-paneled library. Even though he had
never been introduced to the woman, he immediately recognized the
tall, formidable looking woman who stood warming herself near the
fire as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She was possessed of a hawk-like
nose that seemed in perfect harmony with what he had learned of her
character. Though he knew her to be close to the age of his mother,
Lady Catherine appeared older. Silver threaded her dark hair, and
the bitterness etched into her face bespoke many years of
That her rank was inferior to
his in no way lessened the pride emanating from her as she peered at
him with dark, menacing eyes. He suddenly understood his mother's
desire to steal away from a confrontation with Lady Catherine, for
he felt exactly the same at this very moment.
He stood in the doorway,
offered a curt nod, and said, "At your service, my lady."
With the stiffness of a
queen, she offered her hand to kiss.
Could she not have the
courtesy to say something like, How good of you to come, my lord?
He moved to her and effected an air kiss several inches above the
back of her hand, cursing himself for coming.
"You may sit down," she
Seaton was not accustomed to
being commanded, but nevertheless did as she ordered and sat in a
high-backed, upholstered arm chair near the fire, grateful for the
warmth. It was beastly cold.
His hostess continued to
stand, her stern gaze boring down on him like an immovable judge
upon King's Bench. "While we may not have formally been introduced,
I knew your mother well, and I believe my daughter once saw you at
The woman had a daughter? He
had no recollection of ever having met a Miss de Bourgh.
Neither Lady Catherine's
purported connection to his mother, nor a supposed fleeting glance
between himself and this woman's offspring could explain the vicious
summons that had compelled him to come here today.
"Forgive me, my lord, for the
ruthless means I employed to ensure that you would heed my call."
There was nothing in her stern face that indicated any measure of
He frowned. "You must know it
is impossible for me to buy back the mortgage on Seaton House at
"Of course I know that! Why
else would I have procured it from the man to whom your father owed
a great deal of money?"
She wanted something from
him, and he feared he would be obliged to perform an unsatisfactory
service in order to regain ownership of the Cavendish Square house
that had been his family’s for a hundred years.
What a pity his father had
left the estate so vastly in shambles. "Pray, my lady, what is it
you wish from me?"
A flicker of softness passed
over her craggy face and vanished as swiftly as it had come. "If you
will oblige me, I shall give the mortgage to you—and, later,
a great fortune as well."
It suddenly occurred to him
that the woman was going to demand he marry her daughter. Why had he
not suspected earlier that the woman had a homely daughter to force
upon him? Had not half the mothers in the ton tried to foist
their plain daughters upon him these past several Seasons? The
fathers, too. Seaton had turned down hundreds of thousands of
guineas’ worth of dowries since the very day he had succeeded.
That this woman had gone to
such severe measures to obtain a husband of rank for her daughter
indicated desperation. How ugly Miss de Bourgh must be!
He had no intentions of
shackling himself to Miss de Bourgh. His seething gaze drilled hers.
"My only child is dying." Her
voice broke on the words.
Guilt bolted through him. "I
am very sorry." He still did not understand what he could do to
assuage their suffering.
"I should like for Anne's
last few weeks to be happy ones. My girl was never able to have a
proper Season, owing to the ill health that has plagued her
throughout her life. I believe she always wished to wed a peer." A
faint smile played at her lips. "It's been said my Anne could adorn
the rank of duchess rather than be adorned by it."
Then why in the blazes had
she not married a bloody duke? He had a very good idea why such a
marriage had not occurred.
"If you will make my Anne
your countess for her final weeks on Earth, I will make you my heir.
And I will, of course, give you the deed to the Cavendish Square
His insides squirmed. "So you
want me to wed your daughter before she dies?"
She glared at him. "You have
no idea how privileged you are to receive an offer such as mine. As
our only child, Anne is. . . " Her breath hitched. "Was
scheduled to inherit Rosings, all the land that goes with it, as
well as our vast banking interests. May I remind you that if you
refuse me, I will claim the house on Cavendish Square. How, then, my
lord, will you present your unwed sisters? Not to mention how you
plan to go about dowering those young sisters."
Were it just himself he had
to consider, he likely would have marched away from Rosings right
then, but he did have his sisters' futures to provide for. By honor,
he was obliged to see to the girls' needs first and foremost. How
could he present them without the house on Cavendish Square?
Under normal conditions, he
would never have considered marriage to this woman's daughter—or to
anyone's daughter for mere money or property. Where the de Bourgh
woman was concerned, he would not have united himself to this
woman's family even for the greatest fortune in the kingdom. But, he
had to own, this was a most intriguing situation. If Miss de Bourgh
was only going to live for a few more weeks, it wasn’t as if he were
going to be shackled for life to this most unsatisfactory woman's
daughter. But for just a few weeks. . .
One had only to look at the
opulence surrounding them at Rosings for proof of the de Bourgh
fortune. At last—that is, after Miss de Bourgh died and the
prescribed mourning period was over—he would be in a position to
offer for Lady Harriett Lynnington, the only girl he had ever
fancied himself in love with.
The very idea of profiting by
this grievous situation made him feel beastly. Good lord! What was
the matter with him? Charles St. John, the Earl of Seaton, had never
before directed his thoughts on so mercenary a trajectory.
"I should like the
inscription on my daughter's tomb to read Anne, Countess of
Seaton, beloved daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Sir
Lewis de Bourgh. It was always my plan that only a peer would do
for one of such distinguished birth."
It struck him as odd the
woman should turn her thoughts to so morbid a subject, odd that it
was her feelings, rather than her daughter's, which were
being considered. Uncharitably, when she had alluded to Miss de
Bourgh's distinguished birth he found himself trying to recall a de
Bourgh ancestor with rank above that of a lowly baronet, but he was
unable to do so. He did recall that Lady Catherine's birth was
considerably higher than that of the wealthy man she had married.
"Is Miss de Bourgh aware of
"Not yet. You were my first
choice, and though I am accustomed to getting what I want, I was not
certain of your compliance."
"Does Miss de Bourgh have no
say in the selection of her own husband?"
"Why should she? She has
never had to tax her strength with thoughts that I could undertake
for her. My daughter knows I will always serve her best interests."
He felt even more sorry for
the dying young woman. With so overbearing a mother, how wretched
her short life must have been.
Seaton was actually
disappointed to learn the marriage was not being sought by Miss de
Bourgh. It would have been far easier for him to enter into such an
alliance by consoling himself that he was making a dying lady's
romantic dreams come true.
"Is your daughter
sufficiently in command of her faculties?"
Lady Catherine's dark eyes
widened. "Of course she is! I will have you know that my daughter is
possessed of a well-formed mind that marks those of superior birth."
He held up his hands. "I
meant only to inquire if Miss de Bourgh's infirmity has stolen away
her ability to communicate."
"She is weak. Very weak. But
she manages to speak tolerably well."
"What is the nature of the
lady's illness, if I might be so bold as to inquire?"
Lady Catherine effected a
dramatic shrug. "She is on the tail of a long decline."
"And a physician has
proclaimed her prospects without hope?"
She nodded solemnly. "I had
Fortescue, who you must know is physician to the Duke of Clarence.
If at all possible, I always prefer connections with the Royal
Family. Only the best for my girl." She effected a grave
countenance. "Fortescue said he must prepare me for the worst."
What was he to do? Despite
that Lady Catherine was a nasty piece of work, how could he deny
her? The poor woman's heart must be in tatters. Miss de Bourgh was,
after all, her only child.
One little niggling doubt
clung to his befuddled mind. What if this sickness was a sham to
secure his title for the lady's perfectly healthy daughter? It was
the kind of deceit a woman like Lady Catherine was likely to employ.
"I must see Miss de Bourgh before I can give you my answer."
"Allow me to speak to her
* * *
Anne smelled her mother's
overpowering fragrance, and her eyelids slowly lifted. There stood
her mother, peering down at her, a lively expression in her dark
gaze. "You have a caller, my dearest."
No one ever called upon her.
She could not recall a single time in her five and twenty years when
someone had come to see only her. She tried to sit up from her
reclining position on the long sofa by the drawing room fire, but
she was too weak. "Pray, Mama, who?"
A completely self-satisfied
smile covered her mother's face. "It's Lord Seaton. I remember you
commenting upon how handsome you thought him when you saw him at
"But I do not know him. We
were never introduced."
"Oh, fi! It matters not. The
earl must have been satisfied with what he saw of you. Such breeding
as you have, my dear, sets one apart. I believe he's quite taken
with you for he's come to beg for your hand in marriage."
That her mother's comment did
not cause a fatal rent to her heart must be proof that she was not
as gravely ill as she had been led to believe. For nothing in Anne's
life had ever shocked her more. "There must be an error. It has been
six years or more since I glimpsed his lordship. He surely has
mistaken me for another lady."
That stern look that always
frightened Anne appeared on her mother's face. "There has been no
mistake. Lord Seaton wishes to pay his addresses to you."
It's not me he wants but
my fortune. Her pale eyes widened. She
drew her shawl more tightly about her, but her shivering would not
"Yes, of course! He's come
all the way from London."
"Should I not contrive to—"
She started coughing. When she finally stopped, she finished. "Make
myself more presentable?"
"You are lovely just as you
are. His lordship is aware that your health is not robust. I'll go
and invite him to address you." Her mother spun on her heel and
stormed to the door.
Anne wanted to ask if she
might be permitted to refuse his lordship, but her desires had never
been either consulted or encouraged. She was accustomed to doing
exactly what Mama wanted her to do. Clearly, Mama wished for Anne to
become a countess.
It would take someone with a
much stronger backbone than Anne to stand up to the formidable woman
who was her mother.
As she awaited the handsome
earl, her teeth began to chatter.
* * *
He looked up as Lady
Catherine returned to the library, a smug look on her narrow face.
"If you will come this way, my lord, I shall introduce you to my
He stood and strolled to the
"I ask that you not mention
the short time she has left. I could not bring myself to tell her. I
want her to know only happiness until she succumbs to her
He nodded gravely.
In the drawing room, Miss de
Bourgh lay on a floral sofa near the fire. He had no recollection of
ever before seeing her, but perhaps her illness had greatly changed
her appearance. To be sure, this young woman looked almost childlike
in her emaciated state. She was as pale as she was thin, and her
skin was snowy white, deeply veined with blue. In fact, there was a
blue cast to her exceedingly pale skin.
As soon as he saw her, he
knew the mother was not trying to deceive. Miss Anne de Bourgh would
not be long for this world. His heart went out to the frail
Lady Catherine said, "My
lord, may I present my daughter Anne."
He moved to the sofa and
sketched a bow. "We have not previously been introduced, Miss de
Bourgh, but I seem to recall having seen you before." What could it
hurt to tell a lie to a pitiable, dying girl?
She attempted to clear her
throat. "I believe we were both at Lady Jersey's a few years back."
He forced a smile. "Indeed!"
An awkward silence followed.
Lady Catherine, who had
remained standing beside them, broke the chill. "His lordship wishes
to see you in private. I shall take my leave." She tossed a glance
at Seaton. "You do not have to stand there. You may sit."
He dragged a chair to sit
beside the slightly built wisp of a girl. "I say, Miss de Bourgh,
you must not respond to me in a manner calculated to please your
mother. I am going to ask you something, and I desire you to give me
an honest response."
"Yes, my lord," she
"I have come today to beg
that you make me the happiest man in kingdom by consenting to become
my wife, but you must only accept me if it is a connection that can
bring you happiness. Do not accept me because you want to
make your mother happy."
She did not respond for a
moment. Unaccountably, his insides churned. Was she going to reject
"I will accept you, my lord,"
she finally said in a quivering voice.
He felt as if he had turned
into molten butter. He took her slender, bluish hand within his.
The door to the chamber burst
open. "I was listening at the door," Lady Catherine said as she came
striding into the room. "I could not be happier over the match. I
must send for Collins at once and have him see to getting the
special license." Lady Catherine sighed. "Were my dear Anne in
better health, I'd wait until such time as we could procure the
Archbishop of Canterbury himself to perform the ceremony, but since
Anne's so weak, a quiet wedding at Rosings will answer our needs
Were it not for the grievous
circumstances, he would have lost patience with Lady Catherine a
half hour earlier. He kept telling himself he had to suffer the
loathsome woman's company for only a few weeks.