"It looks like there might be." He paused to walk over to the doorway and steal a furtive glance down the hall, then he returned to her and confided, "Aaron-our coachman, that is and I both don't like the look of Mr. Cameron today. And there's one thing more," he stated, picking up the tea tray. "None of us who've stayed on here remained because of affection for Havenhurst." An embarrassed flush stole up his white cheeks, and his voice turned gruff with emotion. "We stayed for our young mistress. We are all she has left, you see."
His gruffly spoken avowal of loyalty made Alex's eyes sting with tears even before he added, "We must not let her uncle send her into the gloom, which is what he always does."
"Is there a means to stop him?" Alex asked, smiling. Bentner straightened, nodded, and said with dignified force, "I, for one, am in favor of shoving him off London Bridge. Aaron favors poison."
There was anger and frustration in his words, but no real menace, and Alex responded with a conspiratorial smile. "I think I prefer your method Bentner it's tidier."
Alexandra's remark had been teasing, and Bentner's reply was a formal bow, but as they looked at each other for a moment they both acknowledged the unspoken communication they'd just exchanged. The butler had informed her that, should the staff's help be needed in any way in future, the duchess could depend upon their complete, unquestioning loyalty. The duchess's answer had assured him that, far from resenting his intrusion, she appreciated the information and would keep it in mind should such an occasion occur.
Julius Cameron looked up as his niece entered his study, and his eyes narrowed with annoyance; even now, when she was little more than an impoverished orphan, there was regal grace in her carriage and stubborn pride in the set of her small chin. She was up to her ears in debt and sinking deeper every month, but she still walked about with her head high, just like her arrogant, reckless father had done. At the age of thirty-five he had drowned in a yachting accident, along with Elizabeth's mother, and by then he'd already gambled away his substantial inheritance and secretly mortgaged his lands. Even so, he'd continued to walk with arrogance, and to live, until the very last day, like a privileged aristocrat.
As the younger son of the Earl of Havenhurst, Julius had inherited neither title nor fortune nor substantial lands, yet he had managed by dint of unstinting work and vigilant frugality to amass a considerable fortune. He had gone without all but the barest necessities in his ceaseless efforts to better his lot in life; he had eschewed the glamour and temptations of society, not only because of the incredible expense, but because he refused to hang about on the fringes of the nobility.
After all of his sacrifices, after the Spartan existence he and his wife had led, fate had still contrived to cheat him, for his wife was barren. To his everlasting bitterness, he had no heir for his fortune or his lands-no heir except the son Elizabeth would bear after she was wed.
Now, as he watched her seating herself across the desk from him, the irony of it all struck him with renewed, painful force. In actuality, he'd spent a lifetime working and scrimping. . . and all he'd accomplished was to replenish the wealth of his reckless brother's future grandson. And if that wasn't infuriating enough, he'd also been left with the task of cleaning up the mess Elizabeth's half-brother, Robert, had left behind when he'd vanished almost two years ago. As a result, it now fell to Julius to honor her father's written instructions to see her wed to a man possessed of both title and wealth, if possible. A month ago, when Julius had launched his search for a suitable husband for her, he'd expected the task to be fairly easy. After all, when she'd made her debut the year before last, her beauty, her impeccable lineage, and her alleged wealth had won her a record fifteen marital offers in four short weeks. To Julius's surprise, only three of those men had answered his letters of inquiry in the affirmative, and several hadn't bothered to answer at all. Of course, it was no secret that she was poor now, but Julius had offered a respectable dowry to get her off his hands. To Julius, who thought of everything in terms of money, her dowry alone should have made her desirable enough. Of the dreadful scandal surrounding her Julius knew little and cared less. He shunned society along with all its gossip, frivolity, and excesses.
Elizabeth's question pulled him from his angry reverie: "What did you wish to discuss with me, Uncle Julius?"
Animosity, combined with resentment over what was sure to be an angry outburst from Elizabeth, made his voice more curt than normal. "I have come here today to discuss your impending marriage."
"My-my what?" Elizabeth gasped, so taken aback that her tight facade of dignity dropped, and for a split second she looked and felt like a child, forlorn and bewildered and trapped.
"I believe you heard me." Leaning back in his chair, Julius said brusquely, "I've narrowed it down to three men. Two of them are titled, the third is not. Since titles were paramount to your father, I shall choose the man with the highest rank who offers for you, assuming I have such a choice to make."
"How-" Elizabeth had to pause to gather her wits before she could speak. "How did you happen to select these men?"
"I asked Lucinda for the names of any men who, during your debut, had discussed marrying you with Robert. She gave me their names, and I sent messengers to each of them, stating your willingness and mine-as your guardian to reconsider them as possible husbands for you."
Elizabeth clutched the arms of her chair, trying to control her horror. "Do you mean," she said in a strangled whisper, "you made some sort of public offering of my hand in marriage to any of those men who'd take me?"
"Yes!" he bit out, bristling at her implied accusation that he'd not behaved in a manner befitting his station or hers. Furthermore, it may do you good to hear that your legendary attraction for the opposite sex has apparently ended. Only three of those fifteen men expressed a willingness to renew their acquaintance with you."
Humiliated to the depths of her being, Elizabeth stared blankly at the wall behind him. "I cannot believe you've done this."
His open palm hit the desk like a thunderclap. "I've acted within my rights, niece, and in accordance with your wastrel father's specific instructions. May I remind you that when I die, it is my money that will be entrusted to your husband and ultimately to your son. Mine."
For months now Elizabeth had tried to understand her uncle, and somewhere in her heart she comprehended the cause of his bitterness and even empathized with it. "I wish you had been blessed with a son of your own," she said in a suffocated voice. "But I am not to blame because you were not. I've done you no harm, given you no cause to hate me enough to do this to me. . . ." Her voice trailed off when she saw his expression harden at what he regarded as pleading. Elizabeth's chin rose, and she clung to what was left of her dignity. "Who are the men?"