The constant buzzing of a frustrated insect sounded through the humid drawing room. Its repetitive attempts to escape Mrs. Purcell’s monotonous lessons were as futile as my own.
The matron’s thin lips drew into a line. “And if the dinner is formal?”
“If the dinner is formal, I should refrain from speaking across the table; conversing only with the individuals on my right or left unless addressed first by another.” I remained motionless—ankles crossed, back straight, neck elongated, and hands cupped together. Beads of sweat rolled downward between my shoulder blades, but as much as I wished to grab my fan to disperse the moisture, I resisted.
Mrs. Purcell scanned my posture for any movement before finally giving her hard-earned nod of approval. “And how should you expect to be seated?”
I drew in a slow breath. “The seating is always according to rank.”
She lowered her chin and lifted her brow, urging me to continue.
“That is, with the highest-ranking lady positioned next to the host at one end of the table and the highest-ranking gentleman placed at the right hand of the hostess at the other end.”
“And where would you typically be seated?”
I quirked my chin upward. “I suppose it would depend upon the gatherings I typically choose to attend, Mrs. Purcell.”
Mrs. Purcell tsked. “And you were doing so well, Miss Crauford. See how you allowed the question to unsettle you? You must become proficient at concealing all emotions. Especially when slighted.”
My patience was already exhausted in this sweltering heat, but I had no desire for Mrs. Purcell to elongate today’s lesson as she had done the past several days. I righted the angle of my head and offered a reserved lift of the corners of my lips. “Of course. Forgive my momentary lapse.”
She released a pitying sigh, as though she disliked being the bearer of such information. Again. “You must understand. England’s nobility will not be forgiving of such transgressions in conduct, regardless of the triviality. The ton willingly shuns those within their own ranks for any number of blunders. Think how merciless they shall be to a mere nabob’s daughter—no matter her excessive sense of self-pride.” Her gaze swept across my freckled skin and landed on my red hair. “And your unfortunate coloring shall do you no favors.”
I bit back my so-called self-pride, refusing to allow Mrs. Purcell the pleasure of finding fault with me a second time. She was not aware that, despite Papa’s insistence on my attending an eventual Season in London, I was well on my way to making myself indispensable to him. He surely would not send me abroad when I was needed here in India, aiding him with his trading enterprise. With that satisfying knowledge, I forced out a saccharine smile. “And that is precisely why I am so grateful to be under your tutelage, Mrs. Purcell.”
She dipped her chin in acceptance, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to see the truth behind my words. “Very good, child. You will find that this, of all the skills I’ve taught you, will be most valuable to someone of your station. The affronts you will surely receive when…” Her words trailed off and she gave a noticeable swallow.
“When what?” I knit my brows, unable to decipher what she left unsaid.
“Never mind,” she said, busying herself with straightening her skirts.
I searched the lines of her downcast gaze, attempting to catch a glimpse of what she was not telling me; but when her steadied expression lifted, it was evident she was a master of the techniques she lectured me on. “Let us continue.”
“Miss Crauford,” she said, silencing me with her cautioning tone. “Please list the different ranks of nobility and how you would address each, elucidating courtesy titles also.”
I did not let my disappointment display outwardly. “Very well.” In anticipation of the ensuing spout I was about to offer, I allowed myself to go numb. “The highest-ranking peer is a duke—to be addressed as Your Grace or Duke. If married, his wife would be addressed as—”
A knock on the sitting room door filled me with hopeful anticipation.
The door opened, and Muthu stepped inside. “Forgive my interruption,” he said with a bow, directing his apology to Mrs. Purcell. “Mr. Crauford requests an immediate audience with his daughter in the study.”
There was no hope of repressing the smile that forced its way onto my lips, though I was careful to not let it grow too exuberant. “Tomorrow then, Mrs. Purcell?” I asked, standing.
She gave a tight nod in my direction. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“May I see you out?”
Mrs. Purcell’s eyes scanned my posture one last time before she shook her head. “I do not wish to keep your father waiting. Do give him my regards.”
“I shall.” I offered Mrs. Purcell the necessary curtsy. “As always, it has been a pleasure.” I glided toward the door, ensuring my movements were fluid enough to prevent any censure she might impart during tomorrow’s lessons. There was nothing I abhorred more than the task of practiced walking.
The sun beat down on the open-roofed courtyard. I stuck to the shade of the corridors, returning greetings to the countless servants who offered me salaams, until I reached the far side of the house where the study was situated. The door sat ajar, and I gave a gentle knock before pressing it open and peering inside.
The sweet smell of koosa grass greeted me, the wetted mat hung over the window nearly overpowering the smell of ink and old books. “Papa?”
He did not look up from the ledger he was analyzing. “Come in, Honora.”
I moved toward his desk, peering down at the papers before him. “Are those the predictions for the next shipment?”
His eyes lifted momentarily. “It should prove to be a lucrative one”—he paused—“if your recommendations are correct.”
A self-congratulating smile adorned my lips. “Have I advised you poorly yet?”
“Not yet,” he said, closing the ledger. In the daylight, the grey streaks of his hair contrasted against the darkness of the rest, adding to his striking appearance. He gestured to the chair across from him. “Have a seat.”
I did as he said and sent him a playful grin. “Do say you are finally taking pity on me and putting a stop to Mrs. Purcell’s daily torture.”
Papa studied me. “She mentioned you have made remarkable progress as of late.”
I dropped my shoulders a touch dramatically. “I’m hesitant to admit it, but I believe she has finally broken me after all these years. I could not endure one more of her consequences. Were you aware that she has asked the punkahwallah to stop fanning us during our meetings? She said that until I can appear perfectly pleasant in my discomfort, she would not allow them back in.” I lowered my voice. “There is something amiss with that woman.”
Papa’s lips curved upward at the corners.
“So, what did you wish to speak about, if not my freedom from Mrs. Purcell? A new business venture, perhaps?”
He considered my question. “Of sorts.”
“Of sorts?” I leaned forward in my chair. “Such intrigue. Do expound.”
He released a heavy exhale before glancing down at his hands. It wasn’t often Papa was hesitant to speak his mind, and I couldn’t help but feel ill-at-ease as I waited in the silence. His eyes finally lifted to mine. “It is time to return to England.”
My heart lurched upward in my chest, causing me to straighten. “England? For what purpose? Surely it is not for this next Season. It will be half over by the time we arrive.”
“No. Not the Season. I have been contacted with an offer too tempting to pass up.”
I gawked in dismay. “And what offer, might I ask, is so tempting that we are forced to leave our home?”
“India is not your home.” His eyes met mine with intensity. When I did not cower, his palm smacked against the desk, the sound renting the air. “Blast it. You are English, Honora!”
I took a steadying breath, knowing how it vexed Papa to see others unaffected by his outbursts. “English born, perhaps, but I have no memory of it. India is all I know.”
“I shall right that folly directly.” Papa leaned back into his chair, appraising me with a guarded look. “In truth, I have already discussed the arrangement with Captain Murray.”
“Captain Murray?” My words caught in my throat. “But he is set to transport our next shipment to England.”
“Indeed, he is.”
My stomach tightened at Papa’s acknowledgment. “But that departs within the week.”
His eyes held an unsettling resolve. “We cannot delay.”
Despite my rising panic, I would get nowhere if both our tempers flared—his always overpowered mine. Calm logic was the clearest course in helping Papa to recognize the error in his rash choice. “If we are not here, who will see to our next shipment?” I gestured to the ledger before him. “That one shan’t be ready to ship for another month. Surely you would not trust Mr. Hyde with such a task just yet.”
“Though Mr. Hyde is nearly ready, what you say is true. I need to be here for that shipment.” A wave of relief rushed through me as Papa stood and walked to the hearth, his hands clasped behind his back. “And that is why I will remain behind for now and take passage on a following ship.”
Frantically, I took in his profile, searching for some sort of indication that he had not made up his mind yet. But the firm set of his jaw informed me the matter was not up for negotiation. My pulse quickened, and I felt dizzy with the realization. “You would send me on that voyage alone?”
“May I at least bring Inayat?” I found it difficult to keep distress from altering my voice.
Papa’s eyes moved back to me. “England is not a place for an elderly ayah. You can hire an English maid when you arrive.”
I sat aghast at his refusal, and he abruptly shifted to face the mantel, his back now to me. It had always been easier for him to simply dismiss others’ emotions—particularly mine.
His hand traced the framed portrait of Mother resting atop the stone slab. Was he apologizing to her for his deplorable scheme? Perhaps he wondered what her response would have been to this offer he had received? The offer. “What was the offer, Papa?” I asked, realizing he had never told me.
“Me?” I repeated, certain I had misunderstood him.
“An earl, Lord Denhurst, has a son seeking a wife. You are now of marrying age.”
My thoughts attempted to make sense of the two unrelated facts. I stiffened. Did he imply I was to marry Lord Denhurst’s son, a man I had not even heard of before now? Surely not. “There are hundreds of young ladies in England, all of whom are—unlike myself—actively seeking a husband.”
“Lord Denhurst does not need any young lady for his son—he requires an heiress of extensive fortune. A fortune that is not tied up in her father’s estate, but is available for immediate use. And an heiress who has a good head upon her shoulders to ensure that fortune does not waste away a second time.”
Indignation pulsed through me with every thudding beat of my heart. There was always a purpose with Papa. “And what is it you will receive for offering up your only child to save this man’s estate?”
He turned, his appalled expression indicating that the answer should be obvious. “My daughter will be the wife of a viscount—a future earl. My grandchildren will be fully accepted within England’s nobility. All the wealth I have gained will be for a purpose.”
Heat enveloped me, whether from within or without I could not be certain. “A purpose?” I could no longer control the volume of my voice and I stood, moving toward him. “Position? Titles? You know I care for none of that.”
“Because you have been gone from England too long!” His voice boomed through the room, echoing in my ears as he closed the space between us. He now towered over me. “You are not capable of understanding the opportunity we’ve been given.”
“You mean the opportunity you’ve been given.” I knew I should disengage from this battle of wills, but I could not convince myself of it. I shook my head, demonstrating how appalled I was. “But I suppose I should not be surprised in the least. When have you ever cared about what I desire?”
His teeth clenched, and his nostrils flared. “And what is it you desire?”
I pulled back my shoulders, ensuring he would not think me defeated. “For one thing, not being sold off like a mere commodity in one of your business transactions.”
His eyes bored into me, entreating me to proceed with caution. “I’m afraid that is no longer an option. Lord Denhurst and I have both signed the marriage settlement. If one of your said desires is to be provided for, you will not have me break my word.”
I took a haphazard step away from him. “You would disinherit your own daughter for refusing you an indirect claim to nobility?”
His pointed finger rose within inches of my face. “Every single decision I have made these last twenty years has been for this very purpose.” His voice grew quiet—threatening—and his formidable expression allowed me a rare glimpse of the man so many others feared. “You will not thwart me in this.”
I bit my lip to keep it from quivering and looked away. Tears stung my eyes. “How could I? It seems I have already been sold.”
Papa turned from me and returned to his chair behind his desk. “If conditions are satisfactory for both voyages, you shall only have a few weeks to establish yourself and have your wedding clothes made before I arrive in England.” All emotion was gone from his tone, as he conducted the remainder of his business with me. “You shouldn’t need much else, as I’ve already seen to having several items of clothing commissioned for you—pelisses and such—for the colder weather you’ll encounter both during the trip and in England.”
I simply stared at him, unable to form words. How long had he been planning my departure?
He did not risk a look at me, but kept his sights on the closed ledger before him. “Lord Denhurst will see that a Common License is obtained so that the wedding can take place directly after I join you all at Grandview. I shall send word when I arrive in London.”
“And what of our house here? Are you to sell it?”
“I shall retain it and all the servants for the time being. Once I see you married, I may just return.” He opened the book and scooted his chair closer to the desk before he gave a flick of his hand. “You are dismissed.”
Without glancing back, I slammed the door behind me and managed a few staggering steps down the corridor. My mind reeled in an attempt to make sense of everything, to grasp the reality—I was leaving India. Was this what Mrs. Purcell had alluded to earlier? Had she known all these years of Papa’s ultimate purpose for me? The truth of it settled like a knife through my aching heart. All along Papa had intended to sell me to one of England’s aristocrats. And now, with my social and business training, I had unknowingly become his most valuable asset—the one possession that could secure his legacy. I wrapped my hands around my middle and leaned against the wall for support.
“Oh, my child.”
I followed the familiar accent to find the large, brown eyes of Inayat watching me from the parlor doorway. I bounded toward her beckoning arms and fell into them, no longer able to dam my anguish. She held my trembling body to her as my tears flooded out. “He is sending me away—back to England.” My breath hitched, and I could not even speak the other part—the part where Papa had sold me to a man I did not know.
“Come now, all hope is not gone.” Her warm, weathered hands wiped the hairs now plastered to my cheeks from sweat and tears.
“I don’t want to go, Inayat. I shall be lost in England with no one I know—my home is here with Papa and with you.”
She patted my hand as her gaze shifted between my eyes. “I have always told you that your soul could not decide where you belong—England or India. Perhaps this is your opportunity to find out.”
I let out a quivering exhale and shook my head. “I belong here.”
“And you always will. No matter where you are”—she lifted her hand from mine and pointed at her heart—“you belong here.” I wrapped my arms around her before I felt the warmth of her breath on my ear. “But that does not mean you cannot belong somewhere else also.”
I leaned more deeply into her, allowing her embrace to consume me once again. She had always been skilled at using her wisdom and compassion to coax me into submitting to Papa’s demands peacefully, but I had no desire to let her loving ways induce me to conform this time.
People scurried about the docks in one fluid motion, and I wondered if that would be a temporary effect of months at sea—seeing things as though they moved like waves upon the ocean.
I looked over my shoulder toward the gruff voice of the grandfatherly figure I had come to admire, adjusting my pelisse more tightly around myself to keep out the unbearable chill of a March morning. “Yes, Captain Murray?”
“I’m told that the servants from Grandview have finished loading your trunks.”
I nodded, unable to move as I scanned the familiar deck. How was it that nearly six months suddenly felt too short a time? “And you are certain I cannot make the return trip to India with you?”
The Captain reached out to pat my hand that clung to the ship’s railing. “I’d be happy to oblige if you weren’t the single most precious cargo on this ship. As it is, I am required to see you on your way to Grandview.”
“And your reluctance has nothing to do with my stalwart stomach?”
He chuckled. “Not everyone is fit for life at sea. Besides, with Mrs. Leenard having just departed, you’d find no fit company aboard.”
Mrs. Leenard and her matronly care had been a saving grace during my travels. When her sister had come to retrieve her a quarter of an hour ago, it had taken every ounce of restraint in me to not part ways in a fit of tears or beg the widows to allow me along. I released a pitiful sigh. “I suppose it is off to Grandview with me, then.”
“Do not sound so melancholy, Miss Crauford. You are set to be the envy of every unmarried woman in England.” My pout remained unchanged, causing Captain Murray’s eyes to twinkle and his tanned cheeks to round. “Despite your years abroad, you have proven yourself an impressive lady. Your betrothed is a fortunate man, indeed.”
His well-meaning compliment served as a reminder of what lay ahead—of the plan I had concocted during my travels to get myself home to India. My stomach knotted, but I pressed a smile onto my lips, unwilling to disappoint the dear man in his kindness. “Thank you, Captain Murray. For everything.”
“It was an honor to have you aboard my ship, Miss Crauford. Do take care of yourself.”
I met his gaze, a flicker of confidence taking hold of me. “I intend to do exactly that.”
His thick brows drew together, but I didn’t give him the chance to inquire. Flashing him a parting smile, I started down the gangway.
I managed well enough at first. Yet as I stepped onto the dock and headed toward the awaiting carriage, my chest tightened with discord. The constricting sensation expelled every bit of certitude I’d just held until it dissipated into the damp air around me. I drew in a shallow breath, desperate to retrieve any part of it. None returned.
“Miss Crauford?” The servant, whose blue liveries matched the opulent cloth on the coach’s driving box, approached me.
My palms were clammy within my gloves, and I mindlessly rubbed my hands against my middle. Did I truly have the tenacity to enact such a preposterous scheme? It wasn’t too late to simply comply to Papa’s demands and marry Lord Denhurst’s son. I wavered between two seemingly detestable options, when an image of India filled my mind’s eye. If I abandoned my plan now, I would likely never see my home again. Once Papa was in England, he would see me married, just as he said he would. That would not do. No, I needed to convince Lord Denhurst to revoke his offer, thus adhering to Papa’s admonition that I would not make him break his word, and to be on my way home before Papa arrived.
The man stopped when he was still a little way off. “You are Miss Crauford?”
“I will do anything to get home,” I whispered under my breath, rousing my courage. It was now or never, and never was not an acceptable option.
“I should certainly hope so.” I lifted my chin to an arrogant level, acting in complete opposition to Mrs. Purcell’s lessons.
“Otherwise I have made a very tedious voyage for nothing.” The man’s dumbfounded expression was proof I had chosen the correct vocal timbre to use—obnoxiously loud and fast with a grating quality that had been perfected in the privacy of my cabin over the last several months. “Have you come to take me to my soon-to-be husband?” I scanned his figure in a blatant appraisal, refusing to consider my own mortification so as not to risk a blush. “Or are you him?”
“Yes, miss,” he said, before realizing his error. “I mean, no.”
“Which is it?” I asked, swiftly closing the distance between us. “I would not mind the latter, for you appear to be a man worth crossing an ocean for, despite your obvious oversight of fashion.”
His gaze whipped to the coachman stationed atop the carriage before he returned it to the ground between us. “No. I’m only the footman. I’ve been sent from Grandview to collect you.” There was utter desperation in his voice.
“Collect me?” I scoffed in feigned offense. “As though I am your master’s possession? What an absurd and utterly infuriating notion. Pray tell me, do all men in England think so little of the female sex or is that a particular view of Lord Denhurst and his son?”
The servant’s face splotched red before the color congregated in his ears. “I beg your pardon, miss. I did not mean to imply that either believed such a thing.”
I assessed him for a moment, and his Adam’s apple bobbed with each swallow as he waited for me to speak. “Very well. Seeing as I plan to root out such barbaric perceptions immediately upon my arrival, I will not tell Lord Denhurst, nor my betrothed, of your misstep. Nor shall I tell them of your advances toward me.”
His head shot upward to reveal the panic in his eyes. “Advances? I do not know—”
“Shpp.” I said, reaching out my finger and placing it clumsily against his mouth. The warmth of his stiff lips penetrated my gloved finger, and it was then I realized I had never touched a man’s lips before. I pushed the thought from me. I could not dwell on the unnerving realization. I had chosen my course, and I would not vary, no matter the consequences nor the awkward situations that would arise. “Not another word. Your obvious infatuation with me will remain between us. For now.”
The servant turned so abruptly, it took me a moment to realize my hand still lingered where he had just stood. I took a step to follow when an odd feeling surged through me, nearly setting me off balance. I glanced at my feet and then over my shoulder, ensuring it was the ship bobbing on the water and not the ground beneath me. How strange. Attempting to overlook the disconcerting sensation, I hurried toward the open door of the carriage.
“How swift you are, sir,” I said, as I reached the footman with his downcast gaze. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were anxious to have me on my way.” I let out an obnoxious giggle, and the sound echoed through my head in an aggravating manner. “But I believe you made your feelings on the matter quite clear.”
He did not lift his eyes but offered a cautious hand for my ascent into the carriage. I purposely bumbled my way inside, but before I had an opportunity to comment on the exceptional aid he’d rendered, he closed the door.
I breathed in deeply, allowing the silence to surround me and calm my nerves. Despite the nagging guilt that twisted and turned within me, I felt a touch victorious. If it was the daughter of a detestable nabob that Lord Denhurst required, I would give him nothing less than the most eccentric one imaginable.
I stepped out into the bright daylight to find the servants already assembled in a long straight line along the drive, Father gesturing for me to hurry to where he, Judith, and Marie stood at the bottom of the steps. “They are just pulling in,” he called.
My gaze followed his to our coach turning onto the drive, rolling toward our welcoming party. The horses’ clopping hooves were unable to keep pace with the thudding in my chest. I had known this moment was unavoidable for over half a year, and yet I dreaded it more now than ever. But I had no choice. Not in this. Not in anything.
With unhurried steps, I made my way to where my family was gathered.
Judith, ever the observant sister, touched my arm gently and leaned in close. “She will be wonderful, Stanbury. I know it.”
Unable to offer anything else, I gave her a doubtful glance before returning my attention to the coach. For good or ill, the woman conveyed inside would change everything. And I was far less confident than Judith that the arrival of a nabob’s daughter would be for any of our good.
When the coach stopped before us, the footman rushed from his place on the rumble seat, only to hesitate at the unopened door. Hanging his head low, he took hold of the handle and, after a slow rise of his shoulders, he swung the carriage door open, offering his hand for assistance.
The rush of blood pulsing through me made my hands restless at my side. I fisted them to ease the unnerving sensation, awaiting a glimpse of her.
“Perhaps she did not come after all,” Marie whispered with far too much hope in her voice.
“Hush now,” Judith said. “I can see her skirts. She likely just needs a moment to gather herself.”
I shifted my weight impatiently, but she did not emerge.
“Graham,” Father stepped behind me, his voice low, “perhaps you should go see what the delay is about.”
“Me?” I hissed. “You were the one who brought her here. You go.”
Father huffed and took a hesitant step past me but stilled as a gloved hand finally emerged, taking hold of the footman’s offered support. The petite figure of a woman appeared in the doorway, her bonneted head lowered as she made her way down the steps with clumsy movements before finding her footing.
Her gaze lifted, fixing upon Father, and my breath hitched. She was nothing like I had pictured her all these months, and I wasn’t certain what to make of the realization. Though she was not exceptionally handsome, at least not in the traditional sense, she was striking. Red hair blazed beneath her bonnet, and her skin was covered in a blanket of freckles. I could not pull my eyes from her.
“Miss Crauf—” Father began, but Miss Crauford lifted a hand to silence him.
“Lord Denhurst.” Her high-pitched tone nettled unpleasantly, releasing me from my trance. “Your home is satisfactory, indeed.” She stretched her arms out wide as though in ceremony, gesturing to the house then the grounds. “I can hardly believe this will all soon be mine.”
Father appeared to be as stunned by her declaration as I was, the coloring draining from his face so it was nearly as grey as his hair. But perhaps this was a promising development. Surely he would not have me marry a woman who screeched like a barn owl and conducted herself in such an eccentric manner.
“Well, Miss Crauford, you pay us a … great compliment …” Father’s voice trailed off, and I waited for him to tell her he had made a mistake. “And … well, we are grateful you have come.”
“Not as grateful as I am.” Miss Crauford hitched up her skirts and moved closer, nearly tripping not once but twice as she made her way to us. “I had honestly resigned myself to spinsterhood, as had Papa. And to think how often he had declared that he couldn’t make a grand enough fortune to tempt a man to have me, yet here I am.” My jaw slackened at her brazen comments, and in front of so many people, but she didn’t even pause for a breath. “It seems that in his desperate search to be rid of me, a lord in dire financial straits should have been given precedence long ago.”
All eyes shifted to Father. Even the servants peeked up from their downcast gazes, and he looked unsure how to respond. “Well, I’m glad it worked out to all our advantage.”
A surge of anger rushed through me. No inheritance was worth such a sacrifice, and I would not play his pawn. And yet, even as I thought it, I knew I would. The pawn was the only piece I had been taught to play.
Father lifted a hand to where I stood with Judith and Marie. “Shall I make introductions?”
“Certainly.” Miss Crauford took hold of Father’s outstretched arm with both hands, grasping it awkwardly as one would hold a cricket bat. “I must admit I have thought often of this moment on my long voyage. I do pray your son is worth the journey, though even if he is not, his title and this house are sufficient reasons to enter into matrimony.”
I bristled at her declaration. Regardless of the truth of her words, I was aghast that she would say such a thing aloud.
“I think you will find him an admirable suitor.” Father stepped forward, noticeably surprised when she did not release his arm, and the pair awkwardly closed the small space between us. “Miss Crauford, I would first like to introduce you to my son, Lord Stanbury.”
Her eyes finally met mine, and her shoulders dropped a touch. “Lord Stanbury,” she said, dipping low in an off-balanced curtsy before pulling on Father’s arm to help right her. “How odd you do not share your father’s name. You are legitimate, are you not? I have no intention of marrying an illegitimate son.” She took in my astonished expression, her lips pressing together tightly, though the corners of her mouth seemed to be drawn upward. Did she find humor in this?
“Stanbury holds my lesser title,” Father said, breaking the ensuing silence. “The Viscount Stanbury.”
Miss Crauford’s brow drew low, wrinkling at the effort. “Should he not also be named Denhurst so everyone will know that he is your rightful heir?” Did she know nothing of how English peerage worked? I thought she was British.
“My surname is not Denhurst but Whitworth, a name my son and I share. However, we go by our titles.”
“How strange the way they do things here on the Island. But it is of no matter. I intend to call him by his Christian name, seeing as we will soon be wed.” She glanced toward me expectantly. “Well?”
I looked at Father in disbelief, but the unfeeling man was only nodding his head in encouragement.
“My Christian name is Graham,” I said, not hiding my irritation.
“Graham,” she repeated.
The sound of my name on her lips was jarring. Of all people, it should not be this gauche woman resurrecting my name. Only Mother had continued calling me Graham when at the age of fifteen I’d become The Viscount Stanbury. All the others referred to me as Stanbury, and it felt as though my given name had died with Mother.
“Well, it is a weak name, but I suppose there is no changing it now.” Miss Crauford released Father’s arm and took a step away from me, her eyes traveling from my feet upward in slow appraisal. I hardly knew what to do, so I just stood there until she sighed and shook her head. “On closer inspection, I suppose it is a fitting name for you.”
Marie scoffed behind me, saving me the need.
With one last disappointed look in my direction, she spun toward Father who watched our exchange with a wary expression. “Do continue with introductions, Lord Denhurst.”
“Yes, of course. This is my eldest daughter, Lady Judith Whitworth. And this is Lady Marie.”
My sisters dipped into graceful curtsies, and Miss Crauford offered another tipsy one. Gads. I could hardly watch.
Her large eyes blinked in quick succession as she shifted her gaze between my sisters. “It is a pleasure to meet you both. Though I do fear I have been given far too many names to remember.” Three. She’d been given only three, having already known Father’s. “Judith and Sara, was it?”
Marie glared at Miss Crauford. “It’s Marie. Not Sara.”
“Oh. Silly me. I have a very simple mind when it comes to such trivial matters, you know, but I shall do my best to remember. Judith. Marie.” She repeated the names slowly, tapping her temple each time she spoke a name aloud. “Judith. Marie.” She paused. “Oh, and you shall all call me Honora.”
“Well,” Father said, his tone more benevolent than I would have thought possible, “I suppose it makes sense to dispose of formality, considering we shall be family soon enough.”
Miss Crauford tipped her head to the side. “I am so glad you agree. In fact, I will begin calling you Father without delay.”
It was Marie’s hand that found my arm this time, as though she needed steadying at the impertinent display before us. I did not blame her.
A muscle in Father’s jaw tensed. “If that is what you wish, Miss Crauford.”
“Honora,” she said.
Father hesitated. “Honora.”
“And it is what I wish, Father.” She patted his shoulder as though she was an old chum of his and smiled. “Aren’t you glad you brought me here all the way from India?”
The disdain in her words was thinly veiled, and for a brief moment I wondered why that would be. Most ladies would be eager for a chance to be a viscountess—an eventual countess. And, all things considered, Miss Crauford should think herself fortunate just to marry, let alone to be given the opportunity to do so into a title. No, it could not be that she was upset about the arrangement, the advantage was all hers. She must simply be a shrew. Heaven help me.
Miss Crauford glanced at the servants as though only now realizing they were there. She clutched her hands together tightly behind her. “Who are the rest of these people gawking at me?”
“Our butler, here, is Jameson,” Father said, gesturing. “And our housekeeper, there, is Mrs. Platt—”
“So, they are all servants?” Honora interrupted.
He gave an affirmative nod.
With a slight lift of her chin, she shrugged. “Well then, there is no purpose in relaying their names, is there? I shall just clap when I need assistance.”
Even Judith seemed taken aback by her calloused suggestion, and the four of us just stood there dumbly, unsure how to respond.
“So, that is all? Introductions have finally concluded?” She avoided meeting any of our gazes as Father confirmed they were.
“I’d like to be shown to my room, then.” She clapped her hands twice, and a wide-eyed Mrs. Platt hurried to her side.
“This way, Miss Crauford,” Mrs. Platt said, hastening up the front steps. Without another word to us, Miss Crauford followed in her wake.
“She is awful!” Marie cried, when the two figures disappeared through the front door. “Father, you can’t truly expect Stanbury to marry such a dreadful creature.”
Father didn’t answer, pressing past us and up the stairs. “I’ll be in my study.”
We all stared after him, the servants dispersing as we processed what had just happened.
Marie gave an overdone pout. “You cannot marry her. It will ruin us.”
“Marie, you must not say such things,” Judith said. “I’m certain she is …” Her words trailed off. “Well, she is likely …”
“See,” Marie said, sending her a pointed look. “Even you can’t think of one decent thing to say about her.”
“That is not true. Her dress was absolutely stunning, so she likely has good fashion sense.” Judith threaded her arm through Marie’s. “But perhaps we should resume this conversation in the drawing room. I could use some refreshment. You may join us, if you wish, Stanbury.”
I barely glanced her way as I started forward. “I thank you, but I intend to speak with Father.” There was one thing I was certain of after that disastrous introduction—I had no intention of marrying that woman.