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"'Tis sorry I am to be the bearer of ill tidings, Miss Gabby."
More than sorry, Jem Downes sounded positively miserable over the news that he had crossed an ocean and parts of two land masses to bring her, Lady Gabriella Banning thought. His rheumy brown eyes met her widening gray ones sadly. Behind him, the aged butler, Stivers, bowed himself out, closing the door with a muffled click. The smell of damp from Jem's clothes overrode the faint scent of sulfur from the coal fire and tallow from the candle sputtering at her elbow. Jem's hat was in his hands; his travel-stained clothes were splotched with moisture and dotted with shiny-wet raindrops from the unrelenting downpour outside. His boots and trousers were flecked with mud. In the ordinary way of things, the family's lifelong servant would never have dreamed of presenting himself to her in such a state. The fact that he had not waited for the morrow, or even to put off his soiled apparel, spoke volumes about his state of mind.
Almost unconsciously, Gabby braced to receive the blow. Her lips compressed and her spine stiffened until she was sitting regally erect behind the massive desk tucked into the corner of the estate office, to which she had retired after dinner to go over the household accounts. Until this moment, her biggest worry had been whether or not just a few more shillings could be squeezed from the estate's already pared-to-the-bone expenditures. Jem's words caused her heart to give a great lurch, and effectively drove the family's financial picture from her mind. Nevertheless, she fought to preserve a calm demeanor. The only outward sign of her sudden anxiety was her rigid posture, and the convulsive tightening of her fingers around the quill she held. Conscious of this last, Gabby carefully put the pen down near the ink pot, and placed her pale, slender hands flat upon the open ledger in front of her.
Outside, thunder crashed with enough volume to penetrate even so deep within the fortresslike walls of Hawthorne Hall. The fire in the hearth flared suddenly, no doubt because windblown raindrops had found their way down the chimney. To Gabby the sudden thunderclap and the subsequent surge of light and heat seemed almost portentous. With difficulty she repressed a shudder. What now? she thought, staring hard at Jem. Oh, dear Lord in heaven, what now?
"You have seen my brother?" A lifetime of living with the meanest sort of bully had taught her the value of maintaining an outward imperturbability, no matter what disaster was about to befall. Her tone was as cool as hock.
"Miss Gabby, the earl is dead." Clearly aware of the terrible import of his news, Jem twisted the soft felt hat in his hands until it was almost unrecognizable. Fiftyish, with short grizzled hair and sharp features, he had the slight, wiry frame of the jockey he once was. At the moment his posture, hunched under the weight of what he had to tell her, made him seem even smaller than usual.
Gabby drew in a short, sharp breath. She felt as though she had sustained a physical blow. Rejection of her plea, even a reprimand for daring to make it, if Marcus was in personality anything like their father, she had been prepared for -- but not this. Her half brother, Marcus Banning, who, upon their father's death some eighteen months before had become the seventh Earl of Wickham, was a mere six years her senior. Two months previously, when it had become obvious that the new Earl was in no hurry to come to England to claim his inheritance, she had sent Jem with a letter for her brother to the tiny island of Ceylon, where Marcus had lived most of his life on a tea plantation owned by his mother's family. In it she had explained their circumstances as concisely as she could, and asked Marcus for permission -- and funding -- to take their sister Claire to London for her long overdue come-out.
She had sent Jem off with little hope. Still, something had to be done. Claire was already nearly nineteen. Gabby could not bear to think of her sister marrying Squire Cuthbert, the stolid, middle-aged, long-widowed owner of the neighboring property, who was her most persistent suitor, or Oswald Preston, the local curate, by default. Both, in their different ways, were top over tail in love with Claire, and, having been unwelcome at Hawthorne Hall during their father the sixth Earl's lifetime, were now frequent visitors. Claire was kind to them because kindness was an integral part of her nature, but the thought of her wedding either the portly squire or the sanctimonious Oswald was enough to make Gabby ill.
"My brother is dead?" Gabby repeated slowly. A knot formed in her stomach as the ramifications began to ricochet through her head. "Jem, are you certain?"
A foolish question. Ordinarily she would never have asked it. Jem was not likely to make a mistake about something so enormous as the death of the new earl, after all.
Jem looked, if possible, even more miserable. "Yes, Miss Gabby. Certain sure. I was there when His Lordship met his end. He was out with a party hunting a tiger, and the beast charged from cover when none expected it. Someone fired in a panic, and the shot struck him. He was gone just like that. Nothing to be done."
"Dear God." Gabby closed her eyes, feeling suddenly light-headed. In the months since her father's death, she had both hoped for and dreaded the coming of Marcus, the half brother she had met just once in her life. Everything would be changed with the advent of the new earl: her position, and that of her younger sisters, was bound to alter. For the better, she had hoped, although, as fate had taught her to, she had feared it might be for the worse.
But what could be worse than seeing Claire, and Beth after her, suffer the same fate she had herself? To be alternately bullied and ignored by a father with an abiding contempt for females and not even the smallest scrap of natural affection for his offspring; to be kept so short of money -- and this when their father was a very rich man -- that the amount of food on the family table was ofttimes insufficient; to be left to wither away on the vine with scant prospects for a husband or children or any life beyond the vast isolated acreage of Hawthorne Hall?
Suddenly Gabby knew what could be worse: to lose their home entirely, and the funds that had allowed them to live adequately if not well in it. To be forced to leave Hawthorne Hall, to make their own living as -- and this was if they were fortunate -- governesses or companions. Beth was too young to take up any post, Gabby realized as she tried calmly to consider it, and Claire -- would anyone hire Claire? Claire, whose beauty was so arresting that she turned heads when she did no more than walk down the streets of York, which was the nearest town of any size? No respectable woman would be likely to offer employment to Claire, Gabby realized with a deep sense of forboding. At the ripe old age of twenty-five, with her nothing-out-of-the-ordinary looks and the limp that had resulted from an accident she had suffered at age twelve, she herself was the only one of the three who was in the smallest degree employable. Would she be allowed to keep her sisters with her in any position she was fortunate enough to obtain?
Not likely. Almost assuredly not. Especially not once a prospective employer set eyes on Claire.
What were they to do? The question curled, cold and snakelike, around Gabby's heart, bringing near panic with it. Suddenly Squire Cuthbert and Mr. Preston began to seem almost like lifelines in a raging sea. Certainly, if faced with the choice, Claire would consider marrying either better than being cast upon the world with little more than the clothes on her back.
But wait, Gabby told herself firmly, trying to quell her rising fear, it was early days yet. There had to be other alternatives. It was just that none had as yet occurred to her.
"Did he leave -- a family? A son?" A last faint hope fluttered in her breast as Gabby opened her eyes to look at Jem again.
"His Lordship was unwed, Miss Gabby, and childless, I think. Doubtless he would have chosen a proper English bride when he came home to take his place as earl."
"Yes." Gabby took a deep, steadying breath. Whatever was to become of her and her sisters, there were immediate steps that had to be taken, people who needed to be notified of the earl of Wickham's death. She had so recently performed the same functions after the demise of her father that she felt quite like an old hand. Mr. Challow, her father's chief barrister, would need to be informed, for one, and Cousin Thomas...
Gabby went cold at the thought.
With Marcus's death, the earldom and all that went with it passed to the nearest male heir, the Honorable Thomas Banning, son of her father's late cousin. Her father had loathed Thomas, and Thomas, together with his horrible stiff-necked wife Lady Maud and their two simpering daughters, had returned the earl's animosity with interest. She had seen him and his family perhaps half a dozen times in her life, most recently at her father's funeral. He had been barely civil to her and her sisters, and his wife and daughters had not been even that.
She, Claire, and Beth were now at Thomas's mercy, Gabby realized with a sick sensation in the pit of her stomach. Her father, in his terrible misogyny, had made no provisions in his will for his three daughters, as she had learned to her dismay only at the time of his death. They had no income, no funds of their own. They had been left totally dependent on the generosity -- or lack of it -- of the new earl.
Not for the first time, Gabby wondered if her father, upon dying, had found himself in hell.
Terrible as it was for a daughter to entertain such a thought, she could not help but feel that, if so, it was a reward well earned by the misery he had caused, and continued to cause, those whom he should have most cherished in life.
Perhaps Thomas would allow them to continue to live at Hawthorne Hall, Gabby speculated without much hope. It might please his wife t... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.