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Authors: Mira Stables

The Byram Succession

THE BYRAM SUCCESSION

Mira Stables

Ravishing beautiful Albertine Newton had everything except Cousin Albert’s huge inheritance. That was left to her mousy country cousin Alethea. And now Alethea was coming to London for her first season. Albertine wasn’t worried about any social competition—no one ever outshone her. Now suddenly she found that little Alethea had blossomed into a lovely and spirited young woman. Someone who enchanted the very eligible Damon Skirlaugh, the Duke of Byram’s heir. Alethea didn’t believe Damon’s interest in her was romantic, Albertine was afraid it was—but she was determined to put a stop to it...

 

ONE

“Now
pray
don’t fall into one of your takings, my love,” begged Mrs. Newton apprehensively. “It will not be so
very
bad, I promise you. I will admit that when Papa first broached the scheme I could not help feeling that you would not like it. But I have given a good deal of thought to it since then and I fancy it will do very well.”

Miss Albertine Newton’s beautiful eyes held an angry sparkle. “Do very well,” she mimicked crossly. Her mother flinched, and closed her own eyes. Best let the child vent her temper before resuming the attempt to make her see reason, since she would do so in any case. And how magnificent she looked, even in her anger, thought her doting Mama, stealing a cautious peep beneath lowered lids at the fulminating goddess who was striding up and down her bedroom floor in most unfeminine fashion as she poured out her angry tirade. It was a pity, though, that she permitted passion to mar the soft pretty voice so carefully cultivated by a long succession of governesses. Her mother knew from experience that it would be useless to try persuasion or even bribery until that strident note had abated.

“—how he could devise so outrageous a scheme, or you consent to it,” her daughter fumed. “Why should I be burdened with the milky-mouthed chit? So meek and so biddable—such a pattern-card of maidenly behaviour! I have always disliked her. And since Cousin Albert left her all his money I have positively detested her.
I
was the one who was saddled with his perfectly horrible name. The least he could have done by way of making amends was to leave me his fortune. Surely it was in hopes of just such a honeyfall that you named me as you did? I can think of no other reason! Albertine! Pah! It would take every penny of eighty thousand pounds to sweeten such a nauseous dose. And then he leaves it all to dear little Cousin Alethea, because, forsooth, her ‘modest demeanour and steadfast principles have earned his respect and affection’, whereas I—I, his godchild and namesake—‘appear to stand in no need of wealth, being already so richly endowed with beauty, brains and spirit’. The old curmudgeon! Just because I set him to rights once or twice about his management of his servants, who were utterly spoiled and idle.”

Mrs. Newton shuddered, remembering that last disastrous visit—the one which had caused dear Cousin Albert to change his Will. She herself had been sincerely attached to him, but naturally Albertine—and she must remember to call her Tina—had been out of humour at being dragged away from Town at the very height of her first season to wait upon the whims of a sick man. Cousin Albert had taken a fancy to have Maria and her daughter visit him for a while and nothing else would serve. Maria had protested their many engagements but the invalid, being convalescent, was inclined to be cantankerous. Parties and pleasurings could wait a little while. His godchild had all the best years of her life ahead of her while he was tottering on the brink of the grave. Surely they could spare a sennight, if no more, to cheer and hearten a frail old man who had but little pleasure left in life? And partly from sheer good-heartedness and partly because she had, indeed, nourished hopes that her daughter would inherit a part at least of that very handsome fortune, Maria had yielded to his wish.

She had regretted it bitterly. Albertine—the dear child was so young, so ingenuous, with not a thought for her own advantage or the punishment that her wilful behaviour might incur—had run the whole gamut of temperamental display from sullen rudeness to frank insolence. It was some time, now, since Maria had done more than try to manoeuvre her beautiful daughter into her more charming moods, and in this case her best efforts had proved unavailing. It was questionable which of the three of them was the most thankful when the visit ended.

“—the only sensible thing he did was to die at the right time,” said the sharp voice, and Mrs. Newton noticed automatically that the fury was subsiding. “But if you and Papa imagine that I shall permit my
second
season to be ruined because he would like me to nursemaid my cousin, you are sadly mistaken. You at least, Mama, are not without understanding. I have my own circle of friends and I will not impose upon them by attempting to foist my dull and dowdy cousin into their ranks.”

Mrs. Newton hastened to seize upon this promising opening. “No, indeed, my love. That would be
very
bad,” she said eagerly, “and quite unnecessary. Your cousin is used to quiet country living and could never endure the hectic round of gaiety that
your
season is likely to offer,” she went on with fond pride. “Papa wishes me to give an evening party to present her to the ‘ton’ and you will enjoy
that
, you know. I have been thinking about it, and it struck me that your cousin’s quiet ways and unobtrusive appearance would be an excellent foil for my darling’s gay vivacity.”

The last embers of wrath were extinguished. “Not that I need a foil to set me off, but there is something in what you say,” allowed her darling critically. “Though I don’t see why her parents cannot hire a house in Town for the season and take charge of her début themselves. Why should
you
be put to all the pains of chaperoning another fledgeling?”

Much encouraged by this unlooked for solicitude, Mrs. Newton explained that Uncle Clement could not abandon the care of his parish and that Aunt Verona’s delicate health made it impossible for her to undertake a prolonged sojourn in Town without his support. “Since her last illness, you know, the least exertion beyond the common quite knocks her up. If she had been in full health Alethea would have been brought out last year, but it was judged wiser to wait until Susan was of an age to supply the care and companionship that her Mama will miss when Alethea comes to us.”

“Also, last year, she had not inherited a fortune, and plain and dull as she is could scarcely hope to make an advantageous marriage. Now I suppose she will flourish her money-bags and shine us all down.”

“No, no, my dear,” soothed Mama. “Nothing of
that
kind. No one is to know of her inheritance. Her parents would not for worlds expose her to the lures of fortune hunters. While as for making an advantageous marriage, Verona herself assured me that they had no such thought in mind. It is just that they wish her to learn how to conduct herself in society. And despite her birth you must see that she has little enough chance of that at home, what with a mother too frail to take her about and a father too close to being a saint to care for worldly things. I shall take her to a few quiet parties where she will feel more at home than at the more dashing affairs that
you
prefer. Almack’s perhaps, if I can obtain vouchers. And I daresay she will enjoy going to the theatre. Clement has no objection to
that
, although he did say he trusted that the chosen piece would be of a moral or instructive nature and I’m sure I don’t know”—She broke off, a puzzled frown creasing her pretty, placid brow as she mentally reviewed the current theatrical attractions, none of which exactly fulfilled her brother-in-law’s stipulations. “Perhaps Shakespeare,” she said doubtfully, and turned again to the far more urgent business of pacifying her daughter.

“Verona has asked me to choose an entire new wardrobe for the child,” she began tentatively, “and not to skimp on anything. She knows how demanding a season can be.” A petulant pout welcomed this opening gambit. She went on hurriedly, “It will mean the most
lavish
orders for Madame Denise—and then there will be hats, from Serena. I shall drop a hint—in the most delicate way, of course—that they cannot expect such generous patronage without making some return. Such arrangements are perfectly commonplace. I daresay they will make substantial reductions in the cost of your gowns and bonnets. And since Papa has tightened his purse strings and vows you are too spendthrift by half, that will be a great relief to me. For I really could not endure to have you go shabby, my love.”

Anything less shabby than the appearance presented by Miss Newton would have been difficult to imagine. From shining red-gold curls to the tips of her little kid slippers she might have posed for an illustration in the Mirror of Fashion. Yet Mrs. Newton had good reason for her earnest declamation. Though it was an abiding grief to her that Providence had seen fit to bless her with but the one pledge of her husband’s affection, yet she took comfort in the knowledge that her only daughter was quite the loveliest girl in Town. Perhaps, if one preferred dark beauties, Lady Rosalie Hawtrey might be accounted her equal. Certainly she had no superior. Melting hazel eyes beneath slender dark brows, a wild rose complexion rarely seen in a red-head and a delectable figure, added up to a degree of feminine witchery that was potent indeed. Prolonged study might have revealed that, in repose, the rosy lips were too thin for perfect beauty; that the rounded white chin held promise of developing in maturity into lines of aggression strongly reminiscent of its owner’s formidable sire. But since the lips were usually composed into pretty pout or seductive smile and the chin sported a wayward dimple, there were few to note these minor defects. Any mother must feel that such perfection should go fittingly clad.

Regrettably, Papa held other views. His fortune was substantial. His household was furnished with comfort and elegance, his table supplied with the finest wines and every seasonable delicacy in addition to plain honest fare and he maintained a smart landaulet for the use of the ladies of the household as well as the town carriage. His wife and daughter were given what he considered adequate pin money. But he examined the household accounts with scrupulous care each month and any unwarrantable increase was sharply questioned. He was proud of his pretty daughter but he had equipped her at considerable expense for her début and it seemed to him unreasonable that he should be expected to disburse further large sums. All those slippers and fans and gloves could not possibly be worn out, to say nothing of a cloak lined with ermine that was fit for a princess, while a good manager would devise ways of refurbishing gowns so that they could be worn again without incurring the stigma of dowdiness or penny pinching.

At the heart of the matter was his disappointment that Albertine had not crowned her successful first season by accepting one of the several very eligible offers which she had received. He was prepared to come down handsomely in the matter of settlements and would have liked to see the girl comfortably established in a home of her own. He had a vague notion that his own home would be a more comfortable place when that happy denouement was achieved. His wife might speak of youthful high spirits and childish thoughtlessness, and one naturally left the upbringing of a girl to her mama, but for his part he would rather see a peaceful going-on than the alternating raptures, tantrums and sulks to which his daughter was addicted.

The thought of new gowns obtained without having to wheedle them out of Papa did much to reconcile Miss Newton to her cousin’s coming. So long as she was not expected to dance attendance on the visitor she was prepared to tolerate her presence. Indeed there were times when it might be quite advantageous to have Mama’s attention diverted from her own activities. It was not as though Alethea was likely to attract interest. She was just a brown mouse of a girl, thought Tina contemptuously, whose presence could be discounted. She began to wear a more complaisant air, and though a slight setback was caused by Mama’s rejection of her idea that some of her less successful dresses should be altered to fit her cousin so that she might have new ones, she quite understood the case when Mama explained that the bills for Alethea’s gowns would be sent to Papa, he having been named with Uncle Clement as trustee under Cousin Albert’s Will.

She even endured with comparative patience a close inquisition as to her plans for the day, and grew only a little restless when Mama pressed for an account of the proceedings at Almack’s on the previous evening. Since Mama had been obliged to journey into Kent to complete the arrangements for Alethea’s visit, she had entrusted her daughter to the chaperonage of her close friend and neighbour, Mrs. Grayson, who would in any case be in charge of her own daughter, Marianne. Mrs. Grayson was eminently trustworthy and Mama could perfectly rely upon Tina’s behaving very prettily. Her only anxiety was that some undesirable gentleman might attempt to scrape acquaintance with her while Mama was not there to ward off such dangerous marauders. There were plenty of them, even at so select a gathering as that presided over by Mr. Willis. By virtue of their birth they might be socially acceptable, but impecunious junior officers and handsome scapegrace younger sons were not suitable friends for her precious Tina.

Had she been less besotted she might have spared her pains. Tina set a far higher value on her charms than even her Mama had ever dreamed of. With prudent forethought that should have pleased her Papa she had carefully evaluated the matrimonial value of all the eligible bachelors. A dazzling smile, the hint of a wistful sigh, she might bestow, but that was all they would have of her, those charming but impecunious young men. Mama’s anxious exhortations were quite superfluous.

With obvious patience she rehearsed the names of her partners, those with whom she had exchanged polite small talk and those who had merely bowed to her. In rather more detail she described the gowns she had seen and the compliments that had been paid to her upon her own appearance.

Mama was satisfied up to a point. “Was not Sir John Boothroyd present?” she enquired wistfully. Sir John had been her favourite of Tina’s suitors, a pleasant-mannered young man, moderately good looking and not overburdened with brains but possessed of a comfortable fortune and heir to a beautiful old manor where she could just picture her lovely daughter queening it as chatelaine.

“He was there, Mama, but he did not ask me to dance.”

“Did he dance more than once with any other lady?” asked Mrs. Newton.

“He did not dance at all,” reported Tina, a smile of demure triumph curving her mouth. “Indeed I cannot imagine why he troubled to attend, since whenever I chanced to glance in his direction he was just standing watching m—the company,” she substituted hastily.

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