“I-I want children,” Lucy said, latching on to the first excuse she could think of.

“Oh, you’ll have them,” he said.

He smiled then, and her blood turned to ice.

“Uncle Robert?” she whispered.

“He may not like women, but he will be able to do the job often enough to sire a brat off you. And if he can’t…” He shrugged.

“What?” Lucy felt panic rising in her chest. “What do you mean?”

“Davenport will take care of it.”

“His father?” Lucy gasped.

“Either way, it is a direct male heir, and that is all that is important.”

Lucy’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, I can’t. I can’t.” She thought of Lord Davenport, with his horrible breath and jiggly jowls. And his cruel, cruel eyes. He would not be kind. She didn’t know how she knew, but he wouldn’t be kind.

Her uncle leaned forward in his seat, his eyes narrowing menacingly. “We all have our positions in life, Lucinda, and yours is to be a nobleman’s wife. Your duty is to provide an heir. And you will do it, in whatever fashion Davenport deems necessary.”

Lucy swallowed. She had always done as she was told. She had always accepted that the world worked in certain ways. Dreams could be adjusted; the social order could not.

Take what you are given, and make the best of things.

It was what she had always said. It was what she had always done.

But not this time.

She looked up, directly into her uncle’s eyes. “I won’t do it,” she said, and her voice did not waver. “I won’t marry him.”

“What…did…you…say?” Each word came out like its own little sentence, pointy and cold.

Lucy swallowed. “I said-”

“I know what you said!” he roared, slamming his hands on his desk as he rose to his feet. “How dare you question me? I have raised you, fed you, given you every bloody thing you need. I have looked after and protected this family for ten years, when none of it-none of it-will come to me.”

“Uncle Robert,” she tried to say. But she could barely hear her own voice. Every word he had said was true. He did not own this house. He did not own the Abbey or any of the other Fennsworth holdings. He had nothing other than what Richard might choose to give him once he fully assumed his position as earl.

“I am your guardian,” her uncle said, his voice so low it shook. “Do you understand? You will marry Haselby, and we will never speak of this again.”

Lucy stared at her uncle in horror. He had been her guardian for ten years, and in all that time, she had never seen him lose his temper. His displeasure was always served cold.

“It’s that Bridgerton idiot, isn’t it?” he bit off, angrily swiping at some books on his desk. They tumbled to the floor with a loud thud.

Lucy jumped back.

“Tell me!”

She said nothing, watching her uncle warily as he advanced upon her.

“Tell me!” he roared.

“Yes,” she said quickly, taking another step back. “How did you-How did you know?”

“Do you think I’m an idiot? His mother and his sister both beg the favor of your company on the same day?” He swore under his breath. “They were obviously plotting to steal you away.”

“But you let me go to the ball.”

“Because his sister is a duchess, you little fool! Even Davenport agreed that you had to attend.”

“But-”

“Christ above,” Uncle Robert swore, shocking Lucy into silence. “I cannot believe your stupidity. Has he even promised marriage? Are you really prepared to toss over the heir to an earldom for the possibility of a viscount’s fourth son?”

“Yes,” Lucy whispered.

Her uncle must have seen the determination on her face, because he paled. “What have you done?” he demanded. “Have you let him touch you?”

Lucy thought of their kiss, and she blushed.

“You stupid cow,” he hissed. “Well, lucky for you Haselby won’t know how to tell a virgin from a whore.”

“Uncle Robert!” Lucy shook with horror. She had not grown so bold that she could brazenly allow him to think her impure. “I would never-I didn’t-How could you think it of me?”

“Because you are acting like a bloody idiot,” he snapped. “As of this minute, you will not leave this house until you leave for your wedding. If I have to post guards at your bedchamber door, I will.”

“No!” Lucy cried out. “How could you do this to me? What does it matter? We don’t need their money. We don’t need their connections. Why can’t I marry for love?”

At first her uncle did not react. He stood as if frozen, the only movement a vein pounding in his temple. And then, just when Lucy thought she might begin to breathe again, he cursed violently and lunged toward her, pinning her against the wall.

“Uncle Robert!” she gasped. His hand was on her chin, forcing her head into an unnatural position. She tried to swallow, but it was almost impossible with her neck arched so tightly. “Don’t,” she managed to get out, but it was barely a whimper. “Please…Stop.”

But his grip only tightened, and his forearm pressed against her collarbone, the bones of his wrist digging painfully into her skin.

“You will marry Lord Haselby,” he hissed. “You’ll marry him, and I will tell you why.”

Lucy said nothing, just stared at him with frantic eyes.

“You, my dear Lucinda, are the final payment of a longstanding debt to Lord Davenport.”

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