Chapter Forty-Nine

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The stage was set. Haverford sat behind his massive desk, the light from the window streaming over his shoulders. Other chairs in the room had been removed or pushed to the wall. These visitors would not be invited to sit. He had offered to retain a chair for David Wakefield, the only other person who would witness the encounter, but he preferred to lean against the wall, almost out of line of sight for those who would be focused on the duke.

"Ready?" he asked, with a silent lift of a brow, and Wakefield nodded.

The butler read his master's command and slipped out the door. They would need to keep this to half an hour, to be sure of concluding before Cherry arrived back from the strategy meeting she and the ladies of the family were holding at Chirbury House. He had not told Cherry about the coming interview, because she would have told Bella, and Bella and Nick would have insisted on being present, tying his hands should it come to threats. And it undoubtedly would. Which meant his wife and friends would be cross with him. Again.

In the next room, Penchley awaited him with an updated list of possible replacements for Lord Bortham. They'd begun the list in Paris, and each day, weeded out those who would not be acceptable to one faction or another on the island or here in England, and those who were unable or unwilling to take up the post. They had to decide among those remaining in very short order. Rather, they had to decide on a firm short list of candidates to present to the Colonial Secretary.

He rubbed a tired hand from his eyes over the top of his head, then straightened again, smoothing his hair back into its accustomed fall and setting his face in the impassive ducal stare.

Lady Athol entered the room already talking, her husband trailing behind her. "This is unconscionable. How dare you send servants to drag us here when we had already explained we could not accept your invitation."

Behind the mask he wore, Haverford tried to detect traces of the sweet child he had often met at Nick's and Bella's, and for whom he'd once purchased ices at Gunter's. The sour lines engraved into this harpy's face left no hint of the innocent she had been. The foolish lecher she had wed tried to silence her. All rapacious lust and false bonhomie had drained from his expression, leaving it vacant.

"'Your Grace,'" Haverford said.

Lady Athol's mouth stopped mid-flow.

"You will address me as 'Your Grace.' 'This is unconscionable, Your Grace.' Lord Athol. Lady Athol. I have called you here to answer to some very serious charges before I deliver the case to your brother, Lord Athol, and your father and uncle, Lady Athol."

"Fetch me a chair, Athol," Lady Athol demanded.

"Have you no manners? You have not been invited to sit in my presence." Haverford's voice stopped Lord Athol's movement, and Lady Athol began another protest. "Nor will you speak, except in answer to a direct question."

Lord Athol had been jumpy from the start, in his twitchy face, his hesitant movements, in the defensive slump of his shoulders before he remembered to brace them again. Lady Athol had masked her fear with defiance, but it was there, in the anxious glance she cast from him to Wakefield, in the white clench of her jaw and her knuckles on her reticule. She opened her lips once more. Brave or stupid?

No, apparently, neither brave nor stupid enough to defy a direct order. She closed them without a word.

Haverford looked down at the stack of papers on his desk, patting the already straight edges as if to tidy them. Without lifting his head, he raised his eyes, glaring at Lady Athol across the top of his glasses. He kept his voice bland as he said, "I seek an explanation of a curious fact that has emerged from my investigation into the scurrilous attacks on my daughter's reputation."

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