No good news ever comes after midnight nor in a torrential rainstorm. Yet there Gerard Morrow, Earl of Norham, stood in his long shirt and his mother in her wrapper, looking anything but a duchess as their butler, Davies, accepted two letters from a rider. He waved the rider on to the kitchen door to get a hot cup of tea and to await the family’s reply.
Davies’ candle guttered from the breeze of closing the door, and the small group moved further into the Great House. The butler lit two more candles and turned with the letters in hand, extending one to the Duchess of Kyloe and the other to Gerard. “For you, Your Grace. And My Lord.”
The notes were damp from the rain and Gerard’s mother held it with shaking hands before handing it to her son. “You read it.” She shoved the letter to Gerard and waited, muttering, “That man. Love him I do, but he better not have gotten himself into trouble. Or worse. What’s worse though? Dead—that’s what. Oh, Gerard, tell me he’s not dead.” His mother’s French accent deepened when she was anxious, and at this moment it was thick as clafoutis.
There was no signature, but the stamp of the Duke of Kyloe in the wax from his father’s signet ring told Gerard who it was from. He read the note aloud to her, “Do not worry, my dearest Shamay. I’ll be home in a few days. It will all be settled then.” Gerard handed her the letter though she’d never learned to read—English or her native French. He knew things must be bad. His father had only penned three sentences to try to reassure her.
His mother stood beside him, her hands clutched to her chest. “What of the other letter?” she asked.
Earl Norham separated the seal and unfolded the letter. His eyes scanned it quickly, without reading it aloud to his mother. Gerard, do not read this to your mother. It is for your eyes—your ears only. Come to Scotland, now. Your future, your very life and mine depend upon your speed. Directions to Colvin Keep just over the border past Coldstream, were included at the bottom of the letter.
The Duchess’s hands grasped Gerard’s forearm, and her eyes pleaded to know what it said.
“Father wants me to come where he is.” Gerard hoped that his voice sounded nonchalant.
But something must have tipped off his mother. “Your Father needs you. Hurry. Change.” She pushed him toward the staircase.
He had been home less than six hours and three of those had been in sleep, having traveled home today from university. His mind whirled, half irritation and half disbelief before he turned up the stairs. His father should have been here to welcome him instead of stirring up some kind of trouble for himself across the border.
“Davies, send word to the stables to ready a good horse.”
Within minutes, Gerard was dressed, draped in an oil coat, and on his horse, riding through November rain toward Scotland. Wind blew against his cheek and rain pelted his back. At least he wasn’t facing into the storm.
What in the devil’s name is Father up to now? Gerard had been worried for a year now, too much gambling and drinking in public rooms. Mother tried to keep Father at home to lessen the whispers that inevitably started. Northumberland didn’t have real society, but his reputation was tarnished nevertheless. Gossip traveled to him even at Cambridge though London was several day’s travel.
His horse trotted along the dark road, and his mind whirled about his future. Gerard just hoped that he could have a grand tour before everything fell completely apart—a year. He’d even be satisfied with six months before he had to come back to take over the responsibilities his father should be shouldering. From what he’d seen of the house in the short while he’d been there, it needed care. Upkeep and repairs lagged behind. It seemed as if there were fewer servants than before, and the road was sorely unkempt.
How much had his father lost? He sucked in a cold breath. Apparently, enough to cripple the estate. Four months then, if he couldn’t have a year. He could visit France and Spain. He’d save Italy for a trip in the future.
It took several hours to get to Colvin Keep. Gerard’s eyes burned for want of sleep, and his legs were strained and weak from several days in the saddle prior to this fast flight over the border when he left his horse with the groom. The sun was turning the cloud-covered eastern sky a milky gray.
Before Gerard could mount the stairs, the Duke of Kyloe burst through the front door.
Relief tempered the worries Gerard had ridden with the last twenty miles. He looked over his father from head to toe. His health seemed good, no injuries, no illness. He didn’t even appear to be in his cups. He must have been sitting near a window, watching for his son’s arrival and quickly ushered him to the house.
“Well done. The note arrived in good time, as did you,” his father said, pulling him out of his coat as the butler began to remove it.
There was a cry upstairs before it was muffled behind a slammed door. It surprised Gerard more than startled him. The sound was more one of excitement than fear or pain. He supposed it could be insanity, but he hoped not.
“Come now, I’ve a brandy for you and someone important to introduce you to.” His father led him away.
The house was quite awake as he walked through to a back parlor. Several maids rushed past with arms full, and there were candles burning all along the way. His father’s host must have taken country hours to the extreme for there to be so much commotion before sun up. When they entered the room a large man was sitting in a chair near the fire; otherwise, they were alone.
His father cleared his voice loudly and said, “Charles, please allow me to introduce my son and heir, Lord Norham, Gerard Morrow. Gerard, this is the Marquess of Roxburgh.” The men exchanged greetings, then Gerard’s father commented to their host, “I haven’t spoken to him about our agreement yet, so if we could have a minute before meeting you in the chapel.” His voice trailed off with obvious expectation.
“Good then, I’ll leave you to it.” Charles nodded, downed his drink, and left, leaving Gerard alone with his father. He stopped at the doorway, pulling a watch from his pocket. “This business must be concluded within the hour, or honoring our original arrangement will be expected.” Then he closed the door behind him.
“The chapel?” Gerard looked toward his father. “And what agreement? Your letter made it sound like life and death. What have you done?” A scowl pulled on his lips.
“You’ll want this,” his father said, handing Gerard a glass of brandy.
Gerard set the glass aside without taking a taste. “Out with it.”
“I attended a card party of sorts at the seat of Lord Hume of Berwick. I was doing well, so I didn’t see trouble in allowing the stakes to rise.”
“How much?” Gerard interrupted. He didn’t need to hear the details, just the total of their losses.
“Well, there’s an easy solution to it all.”
“How much did you wager? Or should I say lose?” Gerard folded his arms.
His father gazed out the window as his hand that was resting on the back of a chair trembled. Without looking at his son, he replied, “All of it. And more.” Several long moments passed before he turned toward his son and said, “We are ruined.”
Gerard picked up the glass of brandy, downing it in one gulp. “Tell me I heard you wrong.” He slumped into the nearest seat.
“You will still own the family seat at Norham Castle, pile of rocks that it be, and the land when it is passed to you, but you will likely still be paying off my debt into your own old age. I have lost more than I have or can even reasonably get if I were I to sell everything of value and double rents on the land for decades to come. Upon my death, I will leave you the title, the responsibilities, and the abject poverty to go with it.”
Gerard was silent for a long moment trying to calm down. He had to breathe slowly through his nose to maintain his composure. “Father, do I even want to know why we are meeting the marquess in the chapel?”
Duke Kyloe sat heavily on a couch, dropping his head into his hands. “It’s the only way out. You’ve not heard him wrong. The marquess has made a generous offer—if you marry his daughter tonight, in moments really, the debt is dissolved.”
Gerard shot to his feet as a cold flame passed through him. He backed away from his father. “I will not. I do not consent. I’m but twenty-three. Why would you tell a man I would marry his daughter in the middle of the night?”
His father had truly wagered beyond all reason and sold Gerard’s life for the flip of a few cards. He wanted to run. To leave and never look back. Father had clearly lost his mind. He paced around, back and forth, trying to sort it out in his mind. “I leave in two days for my tour, it’s planned and arranged. James Cottrell is coming—he’s meeting me tomorrow at home.”
“There’s plenty of time for all that, you’ll see.” The old duke shook his head. “It’s not up to you. I’m afraid the bargain has been struck and accep—.”
Gerard cut him off, “Father, no. You realize that we are already spread too thin as it is since last time. What will you tell Mother?”
He stepped closer to Gerard. “I’ll tell her nothing of this. You’ll marry this night and free me of all my debt to Charles, and by extension you too, or we will never recover.”
If he gambled away what Gerard suspected he had, then it was true that Gerard would be heir of nothing but debt. Everything was lost. He raked his hands through his hair and continued his path, pacing the floor.
Gerard owned nothing outside of the estate and only then upon inheritance. If it were only him, Gerard might allow his father to crumble beneath debt in his old age. But it would affect his mother greatly. I can’t put Maman through that. His shoulders slumped. Annoyance and sorrow twined together in his gut. He was defeated before the conversation had even begun. “There really is no choice then. I’ll agree.”
“Of course you will. There is a dowry, but it will not be transferred until you two are living agreeably together.”
“Good. Then you can’t gamble away anything further while I’m gone. And I'm still going on my grand tour.” Not as grand as he’d hoped. Already he was calculating how long he could really be gone before his father was back up to no good at some Lord’s card table.
“You'll be a married man now, so behave yourself.”
“Are you serious? I’m the only person in this conversation right now with integrity. I don’t think you need lecture me. There are no worries there. I'm going with James.”
“He hardly removes my worry,” his father replied. “You've known each other since you were on leading strings. And his reputation is worse than mine.”
“Ha!” Gerard doubted that. “Nonetheless, he's coming, and he'll keep me straight.”
“See that he does. We've never had a Duke of Kyloe that wasn't madly in love with his wife.”
“Please, you've already ensured that I’ll fail on that account. I’m marrying someone I don’t know—never even seen.”
“Marriage is easy. Apply yourself to her happiness, and you’ll both have it.”
Marriage was easy? He wondered how easy all of this was for his mother. He wouldn’t have to worry about making this sham of a marriage work at the moment—that can come later—much, much later. Gerard wasn’t even going to be home. “I’m leaving after the ceremony and going on my tour the next day.” Gerard knew he had to travel from London on the full moon.
“There was no other agreement beyond the marriage contract and settlement. You’re free to do so, and she will live at home with her parents for a time.”
His father turned to leave the room, but Gerard caught his arm. “What’s her name?”
“I haven’t asked. We’ll hear it at the ceremony. At any rate, it will be Lady Morrow moments from now.” He drank the last of his cup and walked Gerard to the chapel to await his bride.