“What do you mean?” she whispered.
“Blackmail,” Uncle Robert said in a grim voice. “We have been paying Davenport for years.”
“But why?” Lucy asked. What could they have possibly done to warrant blackmail?
Her uncle’s lip curled mockingly. “Your father, the beloved eighth Earl of Fennsworth, was a traitor.”
Lucy gasped, and it felt as if her throat were tightening, tying itself into a knot. It couldn’t be true. She’d thought perhaps an extramarital affair. Maybe an earl who wasn’t really an Abernathy. But treason? Dear God…no.
“Uncle Robert,” she said, trying to reason with him. “There must be a mistake. A misunderstanding. My father…He was not a traitor.”
“Oh, I assure you he was, and Davenport knows it.”
Lucy thought of her father. She could still see him in her mind-tall, handsome, with laughing blue eyes. He had spent money far too freely; even as a small child she had known that. But he was not a traitor. He could not have been. He had a gentleman’s honor. She remembered that. It was in the way he’d stood, the things he’d taught her.
“You are lying,” she said, the words burning in her throat. “Or misinformed.”
“There is proof,” her uncle said, abruptly releasing her and striding across the room to his decanter of brandy. He poured a glass and took a long gulp. “And Davenport has it.”
“I don’t know how,” he snapped. “I only know that he does. I have seen it.”
Lucy swallowed and hugged her arms to her chest, still trying to absorb what he was telling her. “What sort of proof?”
“Letters,” he said grimly. “Written in your father’s hand.”
“They could be forged.”
“They have his seal!” he thundered, slamming his glass down.
Lucy’s eyes widened as she watched the brandy slosh over the side of the glass and off the edge of the desk.
“Do you think I would accept something like this without verifying it myself?” her uncle demanded. “There was information-details-things only your father could have known. Do you think I would have paid Davenport’s blackmail all these years if there was a chance it was false?”
Lucy shook her head. Her uncle was many things, but he was not a fool.
“He came to me six months after your father died. I have been paying him ever since.”
“But why me?” she asked.
Her uncle chuckled bitterly. “Because you will be the perfect upstanding, obedient bride. You will make up for Haselby’s deficiencies. Davenport had to get the boy married to someone, and he needed a family that would not talk.” He gave her a level stare. “Which we will not. We cannot. And he knows it.”
She shook her head in agreement. She would never speak of such things, whether she was Haselby’s wife or not. She liked Haselby. She did not wish to make life difficult for him. But neither did she wish to be his wife.
“If you do not marry him,” her uncle said slowly, “the entire Abernathy family will be ruined. Do you understand?”
Lucy stood frozen.
“We are not speaking of a childhood transgression, a Gypsy in the family tree. Your father committed high treason. He sold state secrets to the French, passed them off to agents posing as smugglers on the coast.”
“But why?” Lucy whispered. “We didn’t need the money.”
“How do you think we got the money?” her uncle returned caustically. “And your father-” He swore under his breath. “He always had a taste for danger. He probably did it for the thrill of it. Isn’t that a joke upon us all? The very earldom is in danger, and all because your father wanted a spot of adventure.”
“Father wasn’t like that,” Lucy said, but inside she wasn’t so sure. She had been just eight when he had been killed by a footpad in London. She had been told that he had come to the defense of a lady, but what if that, too, was a lie? Had he been killed because of his traitorous actions? He was her father, but how much did she truly know of him?
But Uncle Robert didn’t appear to have heard her comment. “If you do not marry Haselby,” he said, his words low and precise, “Lord Davenport will reveal the truth about your father, and you will bring shame upon the entire house of Fennsworth.”
Lucy shook her head. Surely there was another way. This couldn’t rest all upon her shoulders.
“You think not?” Uncle Robert laughed scornfully. “Who do you think will suffer, Lucinda? You? Well, yes, I suppose you will suffer, but we can always pack you off to some school and let you moulder away as an instructor. You’d probably enjoy it.”
He took a few steps in her direction, his eyes never leaving her face. “But do think of your brother,” he said. “How will he fare as the son of a known traitor? The king will almost certainly strip him of his title. And most of his fortune as well.”
“No,” Lucy said. No. She didn’t want to believe it. Richard had done nothing wrong. Surely he couldn’t be blamed for his father’s sins.
She sank into a chair, desperately trying to sort through her thoughts and emotions.
Treason. How could her father have done such a thing? It went against everything she’d been brought up to believe in. Hadn’t her father loved England? Hadn’t he told her that the Abernathys had a sacred duty to all Britain?
Or had that been Uncle Robert? Lucy shut her eyes tightly, trying to remember. Someone had said that to her. She was sure of it. She could remember where she’d stood, in front of the portrait of the first earl. She remembered the smell of the air, and the exact words, and-blast it all, she remembered everything save the person who’d spoken them.
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