Stephen Rawlings Mallory, fifth Marquess of Silverton, felt a familiar sense of resignation and boredom creeping over him. Of course, no one observing him would have known that he wasn't listening attentively to his uncle. Silverton had exquisite manners. He would never commit an act of rudeness unless the recipient of such an act deserved it.
"Are you listening to me, Silverton?" snapped General Stanton. "Have you even heard a word I said?"
"Of course I have, sir. You know how much I value your thoughts on this and any subject you may care to discuss."
"Don't try to pull the wool over on me, boy. I'm not your aunt or your mother, and I know you bloody well don't care what I have to say about you," his uncle retorted. "You're nothing but a popinjay who don't give a damn about what he owes to the title or to his family!"
Silverton's young cousin, Robert Stanton, had been sitting quietly in the corner, displaying uncommon good sense in keeping his mouth shut during his grandfather's tirade. But the unjust attack on his mentor and idol proved to be too much of a provocation for Robert, and Silverton could see he was about to come to his defense. He shook his head slightly, willing Robert to silence, but the young man either failed to see or to understand the small gesture. Silverton sighed inwardly, lamenting the fact that his cousin had neither the wit nor the sense of self-preservation to avoid bringing his grandfather's wrath upon himself.
"No, really, sir, that's just not fair. Stephen, a popinjay!" exclaimed Robert. "You must know he is one of the best sportsmen in the country, not to mention having some of the finest horseflesh and hounds in all of England. Really, Grandfather, to compare him to a dandy is just too much!"
The general's head swiveled around to his grandson, iron gray eyebrows bristling with irritation as he trapped his next victim in his sights.
"No, you young jackanapes! That honor in the family belongs to you. Look at you. You can barely turn your head in that ridiculous neckwear. You look like a stork peering out of its nest. And all your poetic airs and lamentations! It is enough to drive me to an early grave. No, you are indeed the dandy in the family, and just as useless when it comes to finding a wife and doing your duty to your name."
Robert turned bright red, sputtering a confused defense that he was still too young to get married. He was easily cowed by his grandfather and particularly sensitive about both his appearance and his literary aspirations. The lad did not actually write any poetry but firmly believed that he only awaited the arrival of his muse to unleash what would undoubtedly be his artistic genius. In the meantime, he read Byron, spent an inordinate amount of time on his clothes, and generally comported himself in a harmless manner with several fashionable young men whose families the Stantons had known forever.
Silverton understood, however, that General Stanton would no longer tolerate this harmless but idle life. He deemed it time to intercede before the squabble developed into a full-out row.
"Now, Robert," he interjected in a soothing voice. "Uncle would never call me a dandy, and I'm sure he appreciates my horseflesh as much as the next person. But you can't blame him for wishing to see us settled, although I do agree you are a bit young to be pushed into the parson's trap."
"Not at all," exclaimed the general. "I was only nineteen and your aunt only seventeen when we tied the knot. I'm sure she has never had any cause for complaint since that day."
"Perhaps we should ask her," muttered Robert.
The general whipped his gaze back to his grandson. "What was that?" he growled.
Silverton hastily intervened. "Yes, well, be that as it may, God knows it's not easy to find a woman with Aunt Georgina's qualities. You must admit, sir, you were exceedingly lucky to snag such a prize so early in life."
General Stanton grunted his reply, mollified as always by the thought of his wife. Silverton knew that in spite of the gruff response, his uncle was inordinately fond of Lady Stanton and cherished her in his own inarticulate manner. He also knew his uncle was dismayed that he and Robert did not seem the least bit interested in settling down and starting families of their own.
The three men sat in the library of General Stanton's richly appointed townhouse in Berkeley Square, shortly before noon on a warm April morning. Silverton thought it much too early in the day to endure a dressing-down, but ignoring his uncle's summons would only have postponed the inevitable. He was, after all, almost thirty-five, and it was indeed high time he took himself a wife.
For many years now he had allowed his mother and aunt to drag him to Almack's, and from one subscription ball to another, in the hopes of finding a woman whom he could imagine living with on a permanent basis. He had met many charming young ladies and enjoyed several delightful flirtations. But over time his willingness to be pleased had evaporated, replaced by a cynical amusement with the relentless machinations of the marriage mart.
The fault lay not with the numerous debutantes thrown his way, who were as trapped by the subtle yet unbending rules of the ton as he was. In fact, in his more generous moments he even felt sympathy for the girls whose parents drove them to hunt him like a prized stag. Mostly, though, he felt irritation and contempt, and not much else.
Silverton had come to the conclusion long ago that he was by nature a cold person or, at the very least, lacking in strong feelings. He enjoyed many things-his horses, his dogs, and his friends. He was fond of his mother and adored his Aunt Georgina. But he could never seem to muster any real attraction toward the fluttering girls paraded before him and honestly had no desire to feel otherwise.
When he thought of marriage at all-which wasn't often-it invariably left a dull, faintly sour taste in his mouth. But Silverton knew it was only a matter of time before he must resign himself to a suitable alliance. Duty required him to marry, and marry he would, but he had no expectations for his own happiness.
Silverton listened absently while his uncle berated Robert. Since it didn't really seem to matter whom he married, he had compiled a list of eligible candidates in his head to present to the general for discussion and approval. Now seemed as good a time as any to make the decision.
He was about to open his mouth when he heard a commotion out in the hallway and the raised voice of Tolliver, his uncle's excruciatingly correct butler. The door to the library flew open and Tolliver exclaimed, "No, no, miss. Wait! You cannot go in there!"
All three men turned their heads toward the door and were met with the astonishing sight of an unknown young woman striding into the room. When she found herself confronted by their shocked gazes, she stopped in her tracks. Tolliver followed closely behind and only just managed to avoid barreling into her.
Silverton rose slowly to his feet. Robert seemed paralyzed, but he finally remembered his manners and sprang to attention. For one long moment, they all remained trapped in a stunned silence before the general finally found his voice.
"Who the devil are you?"
The intruder's eyes quickly surveyed the room, skipping Robert and coming to rest on Silverton. Their gazes locked on each other. He felt as if he had been nailed to the floor, so captivated was he by the sight of the feminine whirlwind who had swept into their midst.
A tall, long-limbed creature, her shiny black hair curled out from under a sturdy country bonnet. Although she seemed no more than twenty-one or twenty-two, her self-assurance in confronting a roomful of strangers suggested she could be older.
But more than anything, her eyes captured him by surprise. They were extraordinary: large under straight, determined brows and framed by thick black lashes. It was their color, however, that had caught his attention so forcefully. They were gray, but not the insipid, neutral color one associated with the term. No, they reminded him of a winter rainstorm-turbulent, untamed, and full of secret depths.
He stared at her, dimly aware he was probably making an ass of himself, but it seemed impossible to look elsewhere. She, too, seemed unable to break away, her eyes widening as a faint flush bronzed her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. For just a second, he thought the darkness in her gaze transmuted into something lighter, a brief flash of silver in the deep. Silverton could not seem to assemble his thoughts into a coherent order, but it occurred to him that she looked like a young goddess, magnificent and full of righteous anger.
Then she blinked, the spell broke, and she turned to face his uncle.
"I am most sorry, General Stanton," said Tolliver, who wrung his hands in distress over this astounding breach of etiquette. "I tried to tell this young ... woman that she could not disturb you, but she waited until my back was turned and then ..."
He trailed off into silence, too distraught to even finish his sentence.
The general impatiently waved his hand at the butler. "Yes, yes, well, you may go, Tolliver. I'll deal with this situation."
"Yes, sir." The butler tottered out of the room, clearly shattered by the disturbance to his well-ordered household.
General Stanton focused his gaze on the young woman standing before him.
"Now, miss," he said, "perhaps you will be so good as to explain your extraordinary behavior."
Silverton again saw the faint flush color the woman's pale complexion, but it was apparent by the way she held her ground that the general's irascible demeanor failed to intimidate her.
"I am Meredith Burnley, sir," she replied in a quiet voice. "My stepmother was your daughter, Elizabeth, and your granddaughter, Annabel, is my half sister."
Another stunned silence fell over the library. If she had shot a cannonball through the room, the shock could not have been any greater. Silverton grimaced, bracing himself for the inevitable explosion as General Stanton confronted the stepdaughter of his bitterly estranged and long-dead child.
The old man was, indeed, turning an alarming shade of red as he rose from his chair to contend with this obviously unwelcome spectre from the past. In fact, he appeared on the verge of an apoplectic fit. Silverton cast about for a way to divert his uncle's attention, but his mind at the moment felt approximately as agile as a snail crawling through two feet of mud.
"How ... how dare you enter this house?" General Stanton finally managed to blurt out. "By God, woman, what right do you have to disturb my peace after your father ruined my daughter's reputation and her life? A tradesman's son to marry my child! Her mother and I have spent many years trying to forget our loss. And now, after all this time, you dare come here ... to my home!"
The general shook with rage, his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. "He ruined her life, I tell you, and it broke her mother's heart!"
For a few seconds, General Stanton glared at the silent young woman before turning his back on her. Miss Burnley staggered under the impact of the old man's wrath, swaying a bit as if she might faint. Repressing a curse, Silverton moved quietly across the thick Aubusson carpet until he stood behind her. He could think of no other response to his uncle's shocking outburst, but at least he could catch her if she swooned.
Fortunately, Miss Burnley remained on her feet.
"I am here, sir," she replied in an unexpectedly sharp voice, "because I have no choice. I wrote to you after our father died, hoping you would realize how much your granddaughter needed the protection of her family. You chose to ignore us, and she has been forced to submit to the direction and guardianship of a man who does not have her best interests at heart. I have imposed myself only to implore that you intervene on Annabel's behalf to prevent a most unhappy fate from befalling her."
Miss Burnley struggled to maintain her composure. She clamped her arms tightly against her sides, attempting to subdue the tremors shaking her body. Silverton felt an oddly powerful impulse to take her in his arms and soothe her. He fought the unfamiliar urge as the young woman deliberately straightened her spine and cocked her elegant chin. Instead of retreating, she stepped closer to the desk, leaned into it, and fixed her implacable gaze on his uncle.
"General Stanton, I must insist that you listen to me. If you do not, Annabel likely will not survive this threat to her wellbeing. She is very fragile."
The general finally looked at her, hostility etched in every line of his face.
"You must help her," she implored again. A note of faint panic seemed to thread her voice. "I would not have disturbed you if there had been any other way to save Annabel. I cannot lose her. She is all I have."
Her voice caught, and she fell silent. Miss Burnley clutched her reticule in a tight fist and turned away from the general as if embarrassed by her loss of control. She gasped when she discovered Silverton standing so closely behind her, taking a hasty step back to regain her balance.
Grasping her elbow, he gently steered her to one of the leather club chairs to the side of his uncle's desk. "Miss Burnley, won't you sit down? You may tell us everything you need to regarding your sister, but I insist you have some refreshment first."
Silverton glanced at his cousin, who was glued to the spot, mouth hanging open and eyes popping from their sockets. "Robert," he admonished, "do stop catching flies and ring the bell for some tea."
The lad snapped his mouth shut and hurried over to yank vigorously on the bell cord.
Silverton returned his gaze to Miss Burnley, who sat bolt upright on the edge of her chair, eyes lowered as she grasped her handkerchief in a death grip. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she looked up to meet his eyes.
"Thank you, sir. I should be most grateful for a cup of tea." Her soft mouth trembled into a tentative smile.
He blinked as the force of that shy smile lanced through him. The unexpected jolt of emotion was both surprising and irritating.
General Stanton forcefully cleared his throat, jerking Silverton out of his momentary reverie. After briefly examining Miss Burnley's pallid complexion, he crossed to a mahogany sideboard holding a collection of decanters and crystal glassware. Silverton poured a small glass of sherry and returned to her side.
"Yes, tea will be just the thing, but I fancy you could use something a bit more fortifying while we wait."
"No, I'm fine," she protested. "I don't need that." She took another deep breath, folding her hands carefully in her lap.
"Yes, you do," he replied in a firm voice, willing her with his eyes to take the drink. "Come, Miss Burnley, I insist."
She looked at him doubtfully. He nodded his encouragement, and she again offered him that painfully sweet and tentative smile. Miss Burnley took the glass and sipped, casting her gaze up as if seeking his approval. Silverton found himself riveted by the luscious tremor of her full pink lips and the burnished silver of her amazing eyes.
Under the circumstances, his reaction was obviously most inappropriate.
He mentally shook his head at the day's unexpected turn of events. He had reluctantly dragged himself to Stanton House this morning to meet his uncle. Completely unawares, he had been pitched right into the middle of what his mother called the Great Family Scandal. No one spoke of the estrangement between the general and his daughter. It had always seemed like ancient history to Silverton, especially since Elizabeth Burnley had died so many years ago. But part of that ancient history had come back to life today, and with a vengeance.
He looked thoughtfully at the striking young woman perched on the edge of her seat, cautiously drinking her small glass of sherry. In spite of the obvious distress of all the parties in the library, Silverton had to admit this was much more fun than talking about his impending immolation on the matrimonial altar.
Especially when one of the parties involved was Miss Meredith Burnley.
Excerpted from Mastering The Marquess by Vanessa Kelly Copyright © 2009 by Vanessa Kelly. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.