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The summons Lady Artemis Dearing dreaded had come at last.
Scooping up her small nephew, she pressed her lips to his silky hair, which was the same honey-golden shade as his late mother's. If only she could absorb some of his innocent optimism and headstrong courage! She needed both, desperately.
Oblivious to his aunt's distress, the child wriggled in her arms, chortling with the simple joy of being alive and loved. For an instant, his sunny spirits made Artemis forget her lingering grief and worries for the future.
With the tip of her little finger, she traced the shape of his mouth and his dimpled chin, which reminded her so keenly of her brother. It comforted her to know that part of her sister and brother lived on in this dear child. She must not fail him as she had failed them.
"Please, my lady," said the housemaid who'd been sent to fetch Artemis, "the master wants you to come straightaway. He'll only be in a worse humor if you keep him waiting."
"Of course, Bessie." The fragile bubble of happiness inside Artemis collapsed at the mention of Uncle Henry. Having waited fifty years with little hope of inheriting the Bramber title and estate, the new marquis seemed impatient to make up for lost time. "Can you watch Master Lee for me? I daren't take him with me and if I leave him in his cot, he'll only cry."
Cry indeed. He would scream at the top of his sturdy little lungs. He was still too young to understand that such outbursts were unseemly. The last thing Artemis needed during her interview with her uncle was Lee's piercing shrieks echoing through the decorous stillness of Bramberley.
"But, my lady " Bessie backed away with a regretful grimace " I'm that far behind with my work already. The master wants the State Apartments aired and dusted, floors scrubbed and windows washed. How am I to get that done on top of all my other duties when I'm being sent to run messages and pressed into service as a nursemaid?"
Artemis stifled a flicker of vexation. A few months ago, none of the servants would have dared refuse an order from the mistress of the house. Since her brother's death, so much had changed at Bramberley.none of it for the better.
"Please, Bessie?" Artemis hated to stoop to bargaining, but she had no choice. "I will not be long, I promise. And once Lee is asleep tonight, I will come and help you scrub."
"That wouldn't be fitting, my lady!" The offer seemed to shock Bessie into agreement. "Very well, I'll take him, but I reckon he'll cry anyway, being away from you. You've got him well spoiled."
Perhaps she did indulge the poor child, Artemis admitted privately, but how could she do otherwise for a tiny orphan everyone but she seemed to wish had never been born? How could she keep from clinging to the last person in the world she had left to love?
"If you take him down to the Green Gallery and let him walk from one chair to the next, he'll never notice I'm gone." Artemis gave the child a final kiss, then thrust him into Bessie's arms. "Just keep a tight hold on his leading strings so he doesn't fall."
Brushing past Bessie, she rushed from the nursery. Lee was less likely to fuss if she left him quickly, while Uncle Henry was more apt to fuss if she kept him waiting.
Artemis arrived in the library out of breath with her heart racing. After taking a moment to compose herself, she knocked, then entered at her uncle's bidding. As she crossed the threshold, she inhaled the dry, musty aroma of old parchment and leather. That smell revived heartening memories of her adored father.
Her two uncles sat in a pair of matched brocade armchairs. Artemis willed her knees not to tremble as she made a respectful curtsy. "You wished to see me, Uncle Henry?"
"I did, my dear." The Marquis of Bramber pressed his long, thin fingers together and rested his chin upon them. "I have some very encouraging news to share. After the past year of bereavement and scandal, the Dearing family may soon put all that unpleasantness behind us."
Wrenching as the events of the past year had been, Artemis did not want to put them behind her. That would be like turning her back on the memories of her brother and sister. Since she knew better than to contradict her uncle, she stood in composed silence, waiting for him to continue.
He did not keep her in suspense. "I have made Mrs. Bullworth an offer of marriage, which I hope she will accept."
"Mrs. Bullworth?" Artemis could not keep her tone from betraying surprise and distaste.
She had heard plenty of gossip about Harriet Bullworth over the years. The former actress had been kept by a succession of gentlemen before marrying a wealthy banker three times her age. After his death left her a rich widow, Mrs. Bullworth had made no secret of her intention to buy her way into the highest peerage possible.
The prospect of such a brazen adventuress usurping the place that had belonged to a succession of the most refined ladies in the kingdom horrified Artemis.
"You heard correctly." Uncle Henry's iron-gray brows contracted in a severe frown that brooked no argument. "The lady is a most suitable choice for many reasons, not least of which is her comparative youth. The duty of propagating the Dearing line has fallen to me and I will not shirk it. A man of my years looking for a younger bride is in no position to pick and choose. Particularly when the size of his fortune does not match the luster of his pedigree."
Duly chastened, Artemis lowered her gaze. "I understand, Uncle. Of course I want the Dearing line to continue."
Her show of deference seemed to appease her uncle. "I knew I could count on your support, my dear. You have always been a paragon of loyalty and duty. If only your unfortunate brother and sister had followed your example, we might not have found ourselves at this pass."
Any gratit ude her uncle stirred by praising her loyalty, he forfeited by criticiztng her brother and sister. "Perhaps if you had not forbidden Daphne to see Julian Northmore"
Uncle Henry gave a dismissive flick of his fingers. "That is all water under the bridge."
Some long-suppressed spirit of rebellion made Artemis itch to seize a pair of heavy bookends and hurl them at her uncle. Prudence restrained her. Now that Uncle Henry was head of the family, she could not afford to antagonize himfor her nephew's sake as well as her own.
"You have been a model of familial duty," Uncle Henry repeated. "Caring for your sister and her unfortunate child. I am certain the family can depend upon you to act for its greater good."
Artemis sensed a lurking threat in her uncle's praise. "What greater good might that be?"
"The one of which we just spoke, of course, and you endorsed." Uncle Henry sounded impatient. "My finding a wife and begetting an heir."
At the risk of annoying him further, Artemis asked, "What do your plans have to do with me?"
"You must appreciate Mrs. Bullworth's position, my dearthe impropriety of her living at Bramberley under the same roof as an illegitimate child."
Uncle Edward gave a fastidious shudder. "Not to mention the harm you have done your own reputation, keeping the child with you for so long."
"I have always been perfectly scrupulous about my reputation, Uncle. I fail to see how caring for my dead sister's child should damage it. As for Mrs. Bullworth's propriety" Artemis bit her tongue to keep from saying something that might make Uncle Henry lose his temper. "I sympathize, of course, but you cannot turn Daphne's child out of Bramberley. He is barely a year old. He has nowhere else to go, any more than I do."
"You will always have a home at Bramberley," said Uncle Henry. "But the child must go. I should have insisted upon it sooner, but I feared being parted from her infant might be the death of your sister. Now that she is gone and the boy is weaned, surely some place can be found for him."
The fear that had stalked Artemis since her sister's death now pounced, threatening to rip her wounded heart to pieces. "Please, there must be some other way. Bramberley is such a vast place and so much of it unoccupied. Could I not move with Lee to a room in the north range? No one would ever have to know we were here."
"I would know." Uncle Henry looked thoroughly shocked at her suggestion. "I mean to give Mrs. Bullworth my word of honor that the child will not be living under her roof, and I refuse to be foresworn. You know as well as anyone, the word of a Dearing is sacred."
"Surely our responsibility to an innocent child of our own blood is sacred, too? If he cannot stay at Bramber-ley, find us a little cottage on the estate or give me some money to take him farther away." It would be a wrench to leave this sprawling old mansion crammed with rich history. But giving up the child, who was her only remaining link to her brother and sister, would be a hundred times harder.
"Out of the question." Uncle Henry seemed surprised and vexed by her retuctance to bow to his wishes. "It would reflect badly on the family when we most urgently need to restore our good name."
"I cannot hand him over to strangers," Artemis protested. "He is such a little fellow and so attached to me since his mother died."
"Attached? Nonsense!" The marquis turned up his nose. "A child that age is more vegetable than animal. As long as it is clothed, sheltered and given adequate nourishment, it will be reasonably content. By the time the boy is old enough to reason, he will have long forgotten you."
If that were true, the thought did not comfort Artemis. Even if Lee forgot her, she would never forget him or cease to yearn for him. Perhaps because he was so small and helpless, so entirely dependent upon her, she'd permitted him to creep into her aloof, sol...