Excerpt from An Unwilling Bride

   
     Beth stopped before the large mirror hanging over a mahogany half-table and straightened her formal cap, tucking a stray brown curl back under it. To hold her position in the school in which she had recently been a pupil she found it useful to adopt severity.
     She stepped back to make sure her gray wool round gown hung smoothly from the high waistband and that no grubby or bloody fingers had marred it. Satisfied that Aunt Emma would have no cause to blush for her, she stepped over to scratch at the parlor door.
     When she entered she decided it was a parental matter, though she did not know the man who had risen upon her entrance. He was, she supposed, middle-aged, but had none of the vagueness of that description. He was tall, slim and elegant, with thinning, well-cut hair touched with silver at the sides, and very regular features. He was, however, studying her with more attention than was polite. Beth raised her chin slightly.
     "Your grace," said Miss Mallory in an odd voice, "allow me to present Miss Elizabeth Armitage. Miss Armitage, this is the Duke of Belcraven who wishes to speak with you."
     Beth dropped a curtsy but did not attempt to conceal her astonishment. She had never heard of the Duke of Belcraven and was sure there had been no daughters of that house in the school in her time.
     The duke was still inclined to stare and with something of a disapproving frown in it. Beth returned the look. She did not believe in kow-towing to the aristocracy, particularly if they were not parents of Miss Mallory's pupils.
     The man turned to the older woman. "I wish to speak to Miss Armitage alone, Miss Mallory."
     "That would be most improper, your grace," said that lady with immense dignity. She too was not one to grovel before the idle rich.
     "I have no designs on Miss Armitage's virtue, ma'am," he said dryly. "I merely wish to discuss some private matters. Whether she shares them with you afterwards will be at her discretion." The tone was mild but it was clear the duke was not used to having his wishes questioned.
     Miss Mallory gave in. Despite her egalitarian principles she was a businesswoman and it was no light matter to offend a duke. "I will leave the decision to Miss Armitage, then," she said at last.
     Under two pairs of eyes, Beth was not about to admit to any qualms about being alone with a quite elderly gentleman. Her principles were based on the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft—author of 'The Rights of Man' and 'The Rights of Woman'. She did not allow her behavior to be circumscribed by useless restrictions on the freedom of women."I have no objection," she said calmly, and waited as her 'aunt' left the room.
     "Please sit down," said the duke, as he resumed his own seat. "What I have to say to you, Miss Armitage, will seem incredible and perhaps alarming. I hope you will restrain any tendency to become emotional."
     Visions of a Napoleonic invasion flashed into Beth's mind again, for she could imagine nothing else which would be so distressing. But that was to be ridiculous. He was doubtless the sort to think that a woman will throw fits over every little thing. As she sat down—back straight, head high, hands in lap—Beth met his eyes, determined to prove otherwise. "I always restrain any tendency to become emotional," she said clearly.
     "Do you?" asked the duke with what appeared to be genuine, if uneasy, fascination.
     "Yes, your grace. Excessive emotions are tiresome for all concerned, and in a school for young ladies they are all too common."
     For some reason this very reasonable point of view seemed to take the duke aback and he started frowning at her again.
     "You did say, your grace, that you did not want emotionalism?" Beth queried, not above needling a little.
     "Not exactly, my dear," he said mildly. "I requested you to restrain your emotions, but I did not wish you without them altogether."
     This conversation seemed to Beth to be a waste of her valuable time. "Well then, your grace," she said tartly, "consider them restrained. You are not likely to know the difference."
     A smile twitched his lips and to her astonishment he said, "I like you, my dear. More than my... my other daughters."
     Beth frowned in puzzlement. "Other daughters? You have a daughter here, your grace? I was not aware of it."
     "You are my daughter."
     The words created their own tribute of silence.
     After a few heartbeats so noticeable she could have counted them, Beth straightened to look directly at him. She had wondered whether this moment would ever occur. Her tone was icy when she responded. "You do not, I hope, expect me to greet you with filial delight."
     He paled. "I never knew of your existence until a few weeks ago, my dear."
     Despite her earlier comments, Beth found herself in danger of excessive emotion. Fierce anger was stirring in her but she struggled to remain cool. "I would prefer that you not use any familiarity or endearment with me, your grace."
     Beth knew nothing of her mother except that Miss Mallory had once been her friend, but she had firm opinions on men who were careless with their progeny.
     "So, you are not prepared to like me," said the duke coolly, relaxing back into his chair and crossing one leg over the other. "As you wish. Do you question the relationship?"
     "I must," said Beth equally coolly, though she was rather put out by his acceptance of her hostility. She had expected more attempts at fondness, attempts she would have taken pleasure in spurning. "Though, as you do not seem to be in search of a devoted daughter to minister to your old age, it is difficult to imagine what could make you lay such a claim without cause."
     "Precisely," said the duke. "It is a pleasure to deal with a rational woman." His words, which would normally have pleased her, irritated Beth almost beyond bearing.
     "If you will read this letter," he continued, "it will provide some evidence. You may then wish to seek further confirmation as to your mother's identity from Miss Mallory."
     Beth took the letter reluctantly. She had thought she had long ago come to terms with her irregular origins and accepted the absence of parents. This sudden eruption of them was proving painful.
     She read the letter slowly and found emotion again threatening her composure. Bitterness. This was the first thing she had ever touched of her mother's, and the woman was now dead. The tone showed clearly that Mary Armitage had always regarded her daughter as a burden and a duty. There was no affection, no longing in the letter at all.
     Beth pretended to read long after the letter was finished, needing time to come to terms with it all. "Even if I am this woman's daughter, your grace," she said at last, "how can you be sure you are the father?"
     "Because of the woman she was," the duke said gently. "She was virtuous, and if you detect coldness in that letter it is only because you represented a constant reminder of a fall from grace. When we know one another better-"
     "I do not wish that!" It was intolerable that this man read her heart like an open book.
     The duke carried on. "When we know one another better, you may wish to ask me more of her and I will tell you."
     "I repeat," said Beth fiercely, "I want nothing to do with you, your grace. If you think to acknowledge me and dress me in silk and jewels, be clear there is nothing I want less!"
     "I am afraid at least some silk and jewels may be necessary." He smiled slightly, which made Beth inclined to throw a very untypical tantrum.
     She rose swiftly to her feet. "You are not listening to me."
     "On the contrary, Elizabeth, you are not listening to me," he said calmly. "Silk and jewels have a place at a wedding and that is what I intend for you."
     Beth drew herself up and assumed what she hoped was an annihilating sneer. "Of course you believe that all women seek only a husband. Well, My Lord Duke, I am a follower of Mary Wollstonecraft, and I believe a woman can and should live free of the shackles of matrimony and male domination."
     He reflected none of the outrage she had expected and hoped for. In fact, to her fury, he seemed to find some amusement in her words, though he replied to them seriously enough. "But even she, in the end, married to give respectability to her child. Could you not do the same? I would have thought you aware of the problems inherent in illegitimacy."
     Beth could feel herself coloring and hated him for it. Her lively discussions with Miss Mallory and a few other like-minded souls had not prepared her for this confrontation with a worldly and sophisticated man. "Since I do not intend to have children," she said awkwardly, "the matter will not arise."
     "But I intend you to have children, Elizabeth, and I am afraid it is necessary that they be born in wedlock."
     The conversation had drifted so far beyond any previous experience that Beth was forced to resume her seat and say weakly, "I do not understand you."
     "That, I must point out, is because you have not given me sufficient opportunity to explain, choosing instead to indulge in emotionalism."
     Beth gasped in outrage.
     "If," the duke continued, "you will calmly listen, I am willing to attempt to clarify matters."
     Beth resisted an astonishing urge to throw something at him. She had never been inclined to tempestuous behavior. With considerable effort she assumed an air of icy indifference. "Please do so, your grace. Presumably you will be the sooner gone. I am afraid you are mad."
     "That would be unfortunate, Elizabeth, as such things are often inherited." Beth stiffened and the duke broke off and raised a hand in a fencing gesture. A sweet smile lightened his face. "I apologize. You seem to have the ability to stir me to goading you. I foresee interesting times... No. Don't poker up again. Listen."
     Beth shut her mouth hard on her words. The less she argued the quicker it would be over. He could offer her nothing to tempt her to join the ranks of the decadent, idle rich. Nothing.
     "You are, without doubt, my daughter. I have two others who are married with children of their own. I had three sons. The oldest two were drowned many years ago, and the last, my heir, the Marquess of Arden, is not in fact mine."
     He paused as if to give her the opportunity to comment on the morals of the aristocracy. She was tempted but judged it wiser to maintain her silence.
     "The blood of the de Vaux," he continued, "has run pure through seven generations to the best of everyone's knowledge. I am reluctant to break that heritage. Your children would be its continuance."
     Beth frowned slightly, "But so are the children of your... your other daughters."
     "But they cannot inherit the title. I intend you to marry my son, so that his sons will be true heirs."
     "But that is incest," she said in horror.
     "No. There is no blood tie between you and no one need ever know that you are my child."
     Beth stared at him. "You cannot seriously expect me to agree to this. I understand your motives, though they are based on outmoded aristocratic pride, but they are no concern of mine."
     "I acknowledge that," said the duke calmly. "I am afraid I am going to have to be crude. I had hoped you would be sufficiently attracted by the life of wealth and elegance before you to need little persuasion but I can see that is not so. I admire your principles, Elizabeth, but I cannot allow them to stand in the way of my purpose. I have to say therefore that you should not underrate the power of the outmoded aristocracy. Miss Mallory has mortgages on this establishment and they are now in my hands. The amounts are modest and the lady will be able to meet her debts if the school continues to prosper. If, however, unfortunate rumors were to circulate about libertarian principles, moral laxity-"
     "That is unfair!" said Beth, shocked. "Our principles are our own and are only disseminated in the school to the mildest degree."
     "I know that. I am merely giving you fair warning of the kinds of weapons I can use to force your compliance. If that one fails I have others. A word from me to the parents of your pupils and Miss Mallory would be ruined. You will do my will, Elizabeth."
     Beth was so stunned she was trembling. She had always prided herself that she was free of being any man's chattel. She had rejoiced in her illegitimacy which made her no man's daughter. Now, suddenly, she was under the iron fist with no recourse.
     "I am sorry to have to distress you," said the duke and he appeared sincere. "I admire you and have no desire to break your spirit. But you must do as I say."
     "And that is not to break my spirit?" Beth whispered.
     "It is one reverse. It is a poor soul that cannot weather one reverse. I demand that you marry my heir, live in his house and bear his children. I insist on nothing more."
     "You merely want my life."
     "In one sense, yes. But you may conduct yourself as you please, educate yourself as you please, hold whatever opinions you please."
     "And what will your son say to that?"
     "He will accept it. In return, I think you will have to grant him the same freedom."
     "And what are his beliefs?" asked Beth caustically.
     "You will have to ask him," replied the duke. "It will give you something to discuss on long lonely evenings. But I suspect they encompass the admiration of a well-turned ankle, the knowledge of fine wines, and an ardent belief in the liberty of the aristocracy to do whatever they damn well please."
     It was a thumbnail-sketch of the worst type of libertine, the type she had always been happy to despise from afar. "You are marrying me to a monster!"
     "Not at all. I am marrying you to the most eligible, the most handsome, the most charming rogue in England."
     Beth hid her face in her hands. The man seemed to think she should be pleased by what he offered. A debauched fop! "If you have any feeling for me at all," she whispered, "be it fondness or guilt, I beg you not to do this. I am happy here."
     "I am truly sorry, my dear," said the duke gently. "I have no choice. Happiness is a transportable quality you know."
     "Not into the debauch you describe," protested Beth, raising her head. She knew there were tears on her face and was willing for once in her life to use this feminine weakness to gain her end.
     If the duke was touched by them he did not show it. "If the marquess conducts debauches it will be outside his home, I can assure you of that. I can control him and I promise you will suffer no insult. You may want to consider that one advantage of being very rich and of the highest estate is to be able to arrange your life to suit yourself. If you set up separate apartments and fill yours with poets, philosophers and artists, no one will be surprised. Once you are with child you may live apart if you wish. No one will object."
     "Not even my husband?"
     "Least of all him."
     Beth found that the most chilling statement of all. Where in this was Mary Wollstonecraft's ideal of marriage, one based on the highest moral standards, mutual respect, and friendship?
     "But I will have to submit to this man," she said faintly, "and bear his children."
     The duke nodded. "That is unfortunately true. There is no more impersonal way of achieving the purpose. I have to say however, though you may find it indelicate, that his expertise in that matter should make it possible to achieve the purpose with as little distress to you as possible."
     Expertise? Beth shuddered. Was that to be put in the scale against purity and respect? Beth knew her cheeks were red but she would not hide them again. "I really have no choice, do I? Are you not ashamed of what you are doing?"
     He made no reply, though she thought her words had reached him. She added rather helplessly, "What will Aunt Emma think?"
     "I suggest you pretend to be willing. If you tell her of the coercion involved she will be obliged to refuse to accept the sacrifice. I will only find other, more formidable weapons."
     Feeling bruised, Beth rose unsteadily to her feet. "What do I have to do?"
     He rose too and began to pull on his gloves. "I will send Arden down and you can become acquainted.
     He will, for common knowledge, fall madly in love and sweep you off to his family. After a suitable but short period you will be married."
     Beth had felt herself no longer capable of shock but that did stun her. "I am to live in your house? What will your wife think?"
     "She will be delighted," he replied. "She misses her daughters. We are all civilized people and if we are careful this can be managed without hurt to any party."
     Beth raised her chin. "Balderdash," she said and marched out to find Aunt Emma.
 
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