Elizabeth was stupefied. "What are you talking about?" "I'm talking about your marriage," he explained with his reckless grin. "You're twice as beautiful as Bertie's sister. With your face and Havenhurst as your dowry, you'll be able to make a marriage that will make all England buzz. That marriage will bring you jewels and gowns and beautiful homes, and it will bring me connections that will be worth more than money. Besides," he teased, "if I run short now and then, I know you'll throw a few thousand pounds my way from your pin money."
"We are short of money, aren't we?" Elizabeth persisted, too concerned about that to care about a London debut. Robert's gaze dropped from hers, and with a weary sigh he gestured toward the sofa. "We're in a bit of a fix," be admitted when she sat down beside him. Elizabeth might have been barely seventeen, but she knew when he was gulling her, and her expression made it clear she suspected he was doing exactly that. "Actually," he admitted reluctantly, "we're in a bad fix. Very bad."
"How can that be?" she asked, and despite the fear beginning to quake through her, she managed to sound calm.
Embarrassment tinted his handsome face with a ruddy hue. "For one thing. Father left behind a staggering amount of debts, some of them from gaming. I've accumulated more than a few debts of that sort of my own. I've been holding his creditors and mine off for the last several years as best I can, but they're getting nasty now. And it's not just that. Havenhurst costs a bloody ransom to run, Elizabeth. Its income doesn't match its expenses by a long way, and it never has. The end result is that we're mortgaged up to our ears, you and I both. We're going to have to mortgage the contents of the house to payoff some of these debts or neither of us will be able to show a face in London, and that's not the worst of it. Havenhurst is yours, not mine, but if you can't make a good marriage, it's going to end up on the auction block, and soon."
Her voice shook only slightly, but inwardly Elizabeth was a roiling mass of bewilderment and alarm. "You just said a London Season would cost a fortune, and we obviously don't have it," she pointed out practically.
"The creditors will back away the minute they see you're betrothed to a man of means and consequence, and I promise you we won't have a problem finding one of those."
Elizabeth thought the whole scheme sounded mercenary and cold, but Robert shook his head. This time he was the practical one: "You're a female, love, and you have to wed, you know that all women must wed. You're not going to meet anyone eligible cooped up at Havenhurst. And I'm not suggesting we accept an offer from just anyone. I'll choose someone you can develop a lasting affection for, and then," he promised sincerely, "I'll bargain for a long engagement on the basis of your youth. No respectable man would want to rush a seventeen-year-old girl into matrimony before she was ready for it. It's the only way," he warned her when she looked as if she was going to argue.
Sheltered though she'd been, Elizabeth knew he was not being unreasonable about expecting her to wed. Before her parent's death they'd made it very clear that it was her duty to marry in accordance with her family's wishes. In this case, her half-brother was in charge of making the selection, and Elizabeth trusted him implicitly.
"Fess up," Robert teased gently, "haven't you ever dreamed of wearing beautiful gowns and being courted by handsome beaux?"
"Perhaps a few times," Elizabeth admitted with an embarrassed sidewise smile, and it was something of an understatement. She was a normal, healthy girl, filled with affection, and she'd read her share of romantic novels. That last part of what Robert said had much appeal. "Very well," she said with a decisive chuckle. "We'll give it a try."
"We'll have to do more than try. Elizabeth, we'll have to pull it off, or you'll end up as a landless governess to someone else's children instead of a countess or better, with children of your own. I'll land in debtors' gaol." The idea of Robert in a dank cell and herself without Havenhurst was enough to make Elizabeth do almost anything. "Leave everything to me," he said, and Elizabeth did.
In the next six months Robert set about to overcome every obstacle that might prevent Elizabeth from making a spectacular impression on the London scene. A woman named Mrs. Porter was employed to teach Elizabeth those intricate social skills her mother and former governess had not. From Mrs. Porter Elizabeth learned that she must never betray that she was intelligent, well-read, or the slightest bit interested in horticulture.
An expensive couturier in London was employed to design and make all the gowns Mrs. Porter deemed necessary for the Season.
Miss Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones, former paid companion to several of the ton's most successful debutantes of prior seasons, came to Havenhurst to fill the position of Elizabeth's duenna. A woman of fifty with wiry gray hair she scraped back into a bun and the posture of a ramrod, she had a permanently pinched face, as if she smelled something disagreeable but was too well-bred to remark upon it. In addition to the duenna's daunting physical appearance, Elizabeth observed shortly after their first meeting that Miss Throckmorton-Jones possessed an astonishing ability to sit serenely for hours without twitching so much as a finger.
Elizabeth refused to be put off by her stony demeanor and set about finding a way to thaw her. Teasingly, she called her "Lucy," and when the casually affectionate nickname won a thunderous frown from the lady, Elizabeth tried to find a different means. She discovered it very soon. A few days after Lucinda came to live at Havenhurst the duenna discovered her curled up in a chair in Havenhurst's huge library, engrossed in a book. "You enjoy reading? "Lucinda had said gruffly-and with surprise-as she noted the gold embossed title on the volume.
"Yes," Elizabeth had assured her, smiling. "Do you?" "Have you read Christopher Marlowe?" "Yes, but I prefer Shakespeare."
Thereafter it became their policy each night after supper to debate the merits of the individual books they'd read. Before long Elizabeth realized that she'd won the duenna's reluctant respect. It was impossible to be certain she'd won Lucinda's affection, for the only emotion the lady ever displayed was anger, and that only once, at a miscreant tradesman in the village. Even so, it was a display Elizabeth never forgot. Wielding her ever-present umbrella, Lucinda had advanced on the hapless man, backing him clear around his own shop, while from her lips in an icy voice poured the most amazing torrent of eloquent, biting fury Elizabeth had ever heard.