He assumed he didn’t look as aghast as he felt. “Very thorough. And very direct, Miss Pennington. I appreciate your forthright attitude.”
“I imagined you would.” A self-satisfied smile curved her small mouth. He didn’t trust a woman with a small mouth. Melisande’s was wide and generous. “I thought St. Paul’s would be the logical choice for the ceremony. Westminster Abbey is inconveniently located—” she made it sound like a personal affront “—and we would have to wait until next spring for a proper date.”
“You’ve already checked?” he said faintly.
“I am a thorough woman. I presume you will leave these petty details to me? I am more than capable of dealing with them.”
“I am sure you are,” he said. He could stand it no longer—he reached for the teapot. Cold tea was better than none, but Miss Pennington, eyeing him with disapproval, took the teapot from his hand.
“If you feel in need of a reviving beverage I will ring for fresh water. Your servants are not what I would call remarkable. The old man who brought me in here is far past the age of usefulness. He should be replaced with someone younger.”
“That would quite break Richmond’s heart.”
She looked at him, for the first time honestly confused. “Is there any particular reason why his feelings should be considered in the matter? One needs to be practical about such things.”
“Indeed,” he said slowly. She didn’t ring for fresh water, and he knew there was no way he was going to be able to pour himself tea without her wresting the pot from him once more. He settled back to suffer in silence.
“I am glad we’re agreed upon that.” A trace of smugness now tinged her small mouth. Melisande hadn’t liked her, he recalled. In fact, she’d referred to the woman as “a mean-spirited piece of work.” Unfortunately apt.
“While we’re on the subject,” the mean-spirited piece of work continued, “we should come to an understanding on other matters. I would expect to run my household with no interference from you. I have been trained my entire life to run a gentleman’s estate, and the size of yours should offer no challenge at all.” Thus with a few words she dismissed his admittedly impressive estates and inheritance. “We would, of course, expect to have children, and I would scarce deny you the marriage bed, but you have a certain reputation for…lasciviousness. No gentleman would ever insult his wife by making her suffer such lewd attentions, but I wanted to make it clear from the outset that I will countenance no displays of lustfulness. We will come together in the hope of being fruitful. I rather thought three children—any more and it hints of ill manners. An heir and a spare for you, and a daughter I can raise and mold in my own image.”
Christ, he thought, aghast. Two Dorothy Penningtons in this world beggared description. Two in his own family was insupportable.
“One cannot always control the sex of one’s offspring,” he ventured.
She frowned at him. “The word gender is more genteel. You will find I am a very forward-thinking woman, my dear Rohan. Our country is headed for a correction, a move into more circumspect times, where language will be tempered and behavior will be just as it ought. The ramshackle times of our fathers is past.”
More’s the pity, he thought. He schooled his expression into one of polite interest. “And did you have any other thoughts about our future together?”
“Of course.” He half expected her to whip out a list, but apparently she’d memorized it. “This house is too small for a proper town residence. It does fine for a bachelor, but would scarcely do for entertaining, and I am not fond of the address. I thought a house in the vicinity of Grosvenor Square might be nice.”
“Indeed,” he said noncommittally. He loved his house.
“I have yet to inspect your country estates, but since we won’t be spending much time in either one of them I doubt it matters. I’m a city woman, dear Rohan. I dislike the country and all form of sports. I do hope you don’t hunt.”
“I do occasionally,” he admitted, though he had his own misgivings about the sport.
“You will cease. And another thing. I suppose I should handle this delicately, but I believe in facing things with no roundaboutation, and we may as well start out as we mean to go on.”
“Indeed,” he said politely.
“Your family.” She concealed a delicate shudder, but just barely. “I realize we must certainly continue an association with your parents, and while your father’s past is reprehensible, your mother appears to be beyond reproach, and she has provided a civilizing effect, just as I expect to do with you.”
He was a far cry from the wild young lord Adrian Rohan in his heyday, but he decided that silence was best at this juncture. He simply bowed his head in seeming acquiescence.
“However, the rest of your family is another matter. While I have no quarrel with your brother Charles and his unexceptional wife, your other siblings have proven themselves to be…shall we say, undesirable…company.”
Shall we say, take a damper, Benedick thought with a certain amount of savagery. He plastered a smile on his face. “Indeed?” he said in an encouraging tone.
“We both know your sister has proven herself beyond the pale more than once,” she continued. “She was ruined, and yet, instead of retiring to the country and living out her life in genteel obscurity she chose to stay in London, her very presence an affront to decent women. And then, to marry that awful man who is no more than a…a criminal! At least she has the sense to keep out of London. I gather she drops babies like a peasant. We shall need to cut that connection entirely. You would hardly expect me to acknowledge her socially. I have my own reputation to consider.”
“And you think it isn’t strong enough to withstand association with my sister? I wonder you even considered my suit in the first place,” he said evenly.
“I did think long and hard on it,” Miss Pennington admitted frankly. “But I knew you abhorred your sister’s choices as much as I did, and would be more than happy to cut the connection.”
“And my brother Brandon?”
She made a face, as if she’d tasted something unpleasant. “Indeed, I gather he’s been in town, though thankfully he’s kept out of the public eye. It’s a very difficult situation. I know the poor boy has suffered dreadfully for his country, but we really can’t expect our guests to have to look at his disfigurements and still manage to have a pleasant evening. We can entertain him when we’re in the countryside, of course, as long as we have no houseguests and our children are kept in the nursery. But you must understand my hesitation. I prefer to be surrounded by beauty.”
He wondered what would happen if he took the teapot and dumped its contents on her head. “I understand you completely.”
“Then we’re agreed,” she said, too well-bred to sound too overtly smug. “I would like a ring to signify our betrothal. Something discreet, valuable but not too flashy. I’ve chosen one at my jewelers—I’ll give you the direction and you may pick it up tomorrow.”
“You’re very thorough, but I’m afraid I’ll be busy tomorrow. I have to go into the country.”
“Not that wretched house party that my brother is attending? I’m not sure I approve. I think in the future you should use your influence to help my brother get a post in the government. Nothing that requires real labor, more a social nicety. You can do that, can’t you?”
“I can,” he said. Where I would or not is a different matter.
“Then you may fetch the ring next week. I’ve had my secretary draw up an announcement, and she will send it to the papers as soon as I return home.”
Christ’s blood, he thought in horror. He had to move fast or he’d find himself leg-shackled to his worst nightmare. She’d give him children. She’d leave him alone. He would never care about her. Exactly what he’d been so sure he wanted. Now he wanted to drown her in the Thames.
She was already preparing to leave. She rose, casting her gimlet gaze his way. “You may kiss me, my dear Rohan.”
He’d rather kiss a charging boar. “One moment, Miss Pennington,” he said politely, heading for the door, prepared to send Richmond on a hunt. It was easier than he expected. Richmond and his sister were hovering by the door, clearly eavesdropping, and the Scorpion lounged nearby on one of the love seats in the hallway.
Miranda’s expression was a cross between amusement and doubt, and he felt a moment’s shame. She really thought it was possible that he might repudiate her for someone like Dorothea Pennington. “Well, my dear,” he said to her, “are you prepared to meet my fiancée?”
Her expression was stricken. “I gather she doesn’t wish to meet me.”
“Nothing good comes to those who eavesdrop. Usually.” He swung open the door and ushered his sister’s very pregnant form inside, leaving the door open for his brother-in-law and Richmond to observe.
Miss Pennington’s face had frozen, making her look like a startled hake. “Miss Pennington,” Benedick said smoothly. “I don’t believe you’re acquainted with my sister, Lady Rochdale. She is quite my favorite sibling, even if I haven’t always cared for her choices, and when I marry again I would want her as one of the bride’s attendants. Mind you, she’ll most likely be in some stage of pregnancy, given her alarming level of fecundity, but dressmakers know how to adjust for such exigencies. Her husband, of course, will be one of my attendants, though I expect my baby brother, Brandon, will stand up with me as well. We’ve always been very close.”
Miss Pennington’s mouth opened and closed without a word issuing forth, and Benedick continued on. “Of course, Brandon is currently dealing with an unpleasant addiction to opium and alcohol, but I imagine we’ll be able to prop him up long enough to get through the ceremony. Your own brother has been keeping company with the Heavenly Host, so I doubt his behavior has been much better, but the two of them can keep each other company, can they not?”
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