The Duchess (Montgomery/Taggert 16) - Page 56

By five o’clock, when it was time for tea with the duchess, Claire was a nervous wreck. She was dressed in her best lace gown, all the lace handmade in France. She had purchased this dress especially with the idea of meeting Harry’s mother.

Miss Rogers escorted Claire to the duchess’s door, then, with a little shake of her gray-haired, gray-faced head, as if to tell Claire that she, an American, would never live up to standards, she left her there.

“Thank you for the encouragement,” Claire muttered. She checked that her dress was straight, checked for the hundredth time that she had the little notebook and pencil she had been instructed to bring, took a deep breath, and put her hand on the doorknob.

The moment Claire walked into the enormous sitting room, she thought, This is where all the wealth is. It didn’t take a scholar of art to see that the paintings on the walls were old and very valuable. She recognized Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian. On carved, gold-leafed tables were objects of great beauty and great value. In the rest of the house the furnishings were dirty and torn, but in th

is room all was spotless. The silk that draped the walls and the windows was new and, to Claire’s experienced eye, astonishingly expensive.

Mother will be green with envy, Claire thought as she looked about the room.

But Claire’s eyes were soon drawn from the walls and the Aubusson rug to the woman sitting in the big chair near the silver tea tray. She was a stout woman, with steel gray hair severely pulled back from a handsome face. Claire thought that at one time the woman might have been pretty, but now there was a sternness about her that was…well, frightening. She was dressed in an expensive gown of dark blue silk, well cut, but at least ten years out of fashion. Below the dress Claire could see the heavy black boot on her left foot.

“How do you do, Your Grace,” Claire said, smiling at the woman.

The duchess did not smile back, nor did she ask Claire to sit down. Claire stood where she was, not sure what to do. She watched as the duchess poured a cup of tea and Claire stepped forward, assuming the woman was going to offer it to her.

She did not. The duchess lifted the cup to her own lips and began to drink.

Claire took a step backward, puzzled and feeling awkward.

“So, you plan to marry my son.” The woman looked Claire up and down. “Are you a virgin?”

Claire blinked a couple of times. “Yes, ma’am,” she whispered. “I am.”

“Good. I will not have my son marrying used goods.”

Claire swallowed. This was not how she’d imagined a duchess to talk. She took a step toward a chair across from the duchess, meaning to sit down, but the duchess paused with the cup on the way to her lips and looked at Claire in horror. Claire immediately straightened and did not sit down.

“I assume there is nothing wrong with you, that you can bear children.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Claire whispered. “I believe that I can.”

“The bearing of children is your first responsibility as the eleventh duchess of MacArran. You are to bear my son sons of his own. There should be a son produced within the first year of marriage and another son within the second year. After that it is up to my son as to what he wants.”

Claire could feel herself blushing. “I will do my best.”

The duchess picked up a saucer, put a small, iced cake on it, and began to eat. “Your second responsibility will be to take care of my son. While I am alive I will take care of him. I will see that he has what he needs and that he gets what he wants. But I will not always be here, therefore you will have to take over some of my responsibilities.”

Claire thought that by saying she would not always be here, she meant that after the marriage she would be moving to the dower house, a lovely place Claire had seen yesterday. Claire smiled. “I will never be able to replace you in Harry’s life and I’m sure he will visit you often. I’m sure that—”

The duchess gave Claire a look that made her take a step backward. There was sure fury and rage and…and, she wasn’t sure, but it looked as though there was almost hatred in that look. “Visit me? You are saying that you think my son will toss me from his house?”

“No ma’am,” Claire stammered. “I assumed that you would live in the dower house.”

The duchess gave Claire a look that was almost a sneer. “You want my rooms, do you? You want my rooms as well as my son? What else do you want?”

At the moment what Claire wanted most in the world was to leave that room and never see it again. “I meant no disrespect,” she murmured softly, her head lowered. She did not want to anger Harry’s mother, didn’t want her telling Harry that the woman he wanted to marry was an aggressive American.

The duchess watched Claire, then gave a sound as though she were mollified. “All right,” she said at last. “It’s better that you and I get along. This will be difficult enough as it is.”

Claire let out her pent-up breath and gave the woman a tentative smile. “I think it would be good for Harry’s sake if we became friends. He speaks so highly of you.”

“Of course he does,” the duchess snapped.

Claire tensed again. Everything she said seemed to offend the woman.

“Shall we get on with it?” the duchess said. “You must learn how to take care of my son.”

Tags: Jude Deveraux Montgomery/Taggert Historical
Source: Copyright 2016 - 2023