Sinclair Sisters - Book 2

Winter 2013

Chapter 1

Late Afternoon. Number 25 Portman Square, London, England, 1820

Lucy’s stomach clenched into a hard and painful knot, but she stood before father, a smile on her lips. Not one person in the whole of London would disagree that Lucy Sinclair Wilcott was an amiable woman. She wore her good nature like armor. No one, absolutely no one, would ever guess resentment was two inches from drowning her. Not her three sisters, nor her two brothers-in-law, and certainly not her legion of admirers.

She settled her shawl around her shoulders and prayed she would not be sick. “Yes, Papa?”

Her father remained slouched on the chair closest to the fire, feet stretched to the fender as if the room were his very own. It wasn’t. This was her brother-in-law’s London townhouse, and they were here because her father did not have the funds to lease a home anywhere near Mayfair.

“My dear. My dear.” He waved a hand at the ceiling. “Have you seen the invitations from this afternoon?”

“Mary has them I think.” Her chest pinched. Why, why, did pity overwhelm her? Because she’d believed for years her father was impervious to the predations of time, and now, standing here before him, so resentful, she could see he was not.

He’d always looked younger than his actual years. Always young. Always handsome. Always fastidious in his dress. Even when he began to gray, the change only made him the more distinguished. Now his hair was more gray than black, his shoulders more stooped, the lines of his face deeper. He was thinner, too. Why had she not noticed that before?

“We’ve been invited everywhere.”

She smoothed one of her sleeves. He mustn’t guess how she felt. He had no sympathy for weakness. None at all. Two of her sisters had made their escape, and this year, Lucy had sworn that her youngest sister would get free of him, too. “How lovely.”

“Not that I expected anything different.”

She continued smiling. What did he want? What more could he possibly ask of her?

“We’re to dine with the duke Friday next.” He said this as if her sister Anne were not now the duchess to that very same duke. As if there was no tension between him and that son-in-law. Her father was not warmly welcomed at Cynssyr’s, and so he’d proclaimed it was his preference to stay with Mary and Aldreth when he came to Town this season. As if he had no notion that Aldreth barely tolerated him and that for his wife’s sake alone. Just as Cynssyr tolerated him—marginally—for Anne’s sake. Two of her sisters, safe. Pray God, Emily would be next.

He waved a hand in a peremptory manner and very nearly upset the bottle of wine on the table beside his chair. “Sit down, my dear.”

With misgivings, she did so. She never knew anymore what he intended nor what she would have to endure. He looked so old. When had that happened? How? Without Anne’s mastery of the household, he was at sea. They all were. Lucy’s failings were the more obvious because Anne had been so dreadfully and quietly capable. They hadn’t any of them realized just how much she’d managed, and that was so despite Lucy being well aware of just how much Anne had endured.

There was so much for him to find fault with now that she had stepped into Anne’s place in running the Sinclair household. She hadn’t her sister’s patience. Nor her gift for organization. Nor her soft heart.

“You’ve been a good daughter,” he said.

“Thank you.” Her stomach ground down on itself. At least he wasn’t very drunk. This late in the day, it wasn’t unheard of for him to be worse off than he was.

“The only obedient one.”

She knew better than to argue, though he was wrong. Once, she’d bent to his will, but she’d learned in the days and months after her marriage to resent her father for what he’d done before and after. Rebellion stirred her in ways that ate at her soul. He was her father, and she ought not resent him for his failings. She ought to be a better daughter than she was. Let her be. Let her be better than she was.

“Is something the matter, Papa?”

He took a long drink of his wine. “I’m in a bind, Lucy.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“No more than I, my girl.” He laughed too heartily. Of course he did. Everything amused him when he was drunk, and he was drunk most of the time.

She waited him out, stifling the urge to tell him she did not want to see him, nor speak to him, nor have anything to do with him. Her life had been upended once, and that was enough. Enough. He had no right to ask more of her than he already had.

“Lucy. My girl.” He got that faraway look that came over him whenever he talked about their mother, and that made her heart constrict again. At home in Bartley Green he visited her grave every year on the anniversary of their wedding and again on the anniversary of her death. “My dear, sweet girl.” His words had a familiar maudlin ring. Not terribly drunk yet, but on his way. “You look so like your mama.”

“I look like you.”

“You’re dark like me. You and Mary.” He touched his head. “But you’ve your mother’s smile. If I close my eyes and listen to you speak, why, she could be here in this very room, you sound so much like her. God rest her, Lucy. God rest her.”

She ached at the depth of her father’s love. What, she wondered, would it be like to love someone like that? To know you’d met and married the person who completed you? To live with the loss of the only happiness you’d ever had? The bitterness in her heart eased, pushed away by the sadness in her father’s eyes. “What do you need?”

His eyes snapped open, and there was no fond gaze now. With Anne beyond his reach—Mary had been safe a few years now—he’d moved to her as the cause of all that inconvenienced him. “Delaney was a certain winner, you said. Miller is vulnerable to a right cross, you said.”

She cocked her head, and her anxiety roared back, held tight behind an empty smile. She ought to have guessed. This morning’s matches, featuring the battle between Delaney and Miller, had been an open secret among the sporting set. In fact, she strongly suspected that Aldreth and the duke had been in attendance. Bracebridge, too. “Nothing is certain, you know that. But Delaney ought to have beaten Miller easily. What happened?”

“Miller landed punches to his face.” He mimed several strikes. “By the fifteenth round Delaney’s eyes were swollen shut. He had to forfeit.”

“How disappointing.” Part of her wished she’d been there to see the match. Such an odd bifurcation of her mind went on with the danger of her father’s mood and the details she’d heard of this morning’s match. “Delaney has better defense than that.”

“I’m not the only one to say he was bribed.”

“Good heavens. Bribed? Surely not.” Her father was in spirits, and that always sent his mind to corners too dusty for logic.

“The bookmaker has my two-hundred pounds, so there’s the proof.”

Lucy’s heart lurched. “Two hundred pounds?”

He gesticulated and then ended by pointing at her. “On your say so.”

She opened her mouth to protest but did not. What would be the point? “Oh, Papa. So much?”

“And I’ve another three hundred owed on the side.”

“Three hundred.” Now she did feel sick. My God. Three hundred pounds? How was that to be repaid? She wracked her brain for bills that might be left unpaid and, of those, singly or together, that might come close to that amount.

He scowled. “You’re not deaf, my girl.”

Owed. He’d said owed, not paid. Though she was no longer as often and directly affected by her father’s swings into indebtedness as she’d been before Aldreth stepped in, just hearing about a new debt made her chest tighten. Worse now than any previous occasion because this time he was angry with her. Had Anne endured this constant blame before her marriage to Cynssyr removed her from his reach?

“So much?”

“I should have made a tidy sum if you’d not steered me wrong. I was going to put money on Miller.”

Mightn’t she be at fault? He had asked her opinion. And she had given it.

“It’s a debt of honor, Lucy.” He wiped a hand across his face, and he looked so tired. So emphatically old that she thought with a flash of dread one day, he will leave this earth. “The debt must be paid. Honor, you understand. I’m a gentleman. I’ve never not paid my debts.”

She fought for composure. They’d always found a way, hadn’t they? Anne had. She and her sisters had spent most of their lives never knowing if there would be money to pay the bills or whether their father would come home with pockets of cash. Lucy hadn’t known, not really, how much Anne had managed in the face of their father’s porous pockets. For years, her sister had worked miracles running the household on almost nothing.

“A gentleman pays his debts.”

“I’m sorry.” Her stomach hurt. What was she to do? Three hundred pounds in devt. “So sorry you find yourself caught short.”

He swept up his glass and drank what was left before he met her gaze. “A hundred pounds would do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Anne always found the money.”

Protest choked her. She wanted to shout, to scold. I am not Anne. I cannot work miracles. She wanted to remind him that he’d once begged her to marry a stranger because there was no other way to recoup his ruinous losses. And she had done so. Had she not paid and repaid him more than enough? She’d given up every expectation of happiness to keep him and her sisters from penury. She’d paid enough. Too much.

Her happiness. Her future and her security. And it had not been payment enough. He’d been back in debt before she became a widow. Before she’d had no choice but to come home.

“I cannot, Papa. I cannot.”

“Pshaw.” He made a dismissive gesture. “You’re not as clever as Anne, but you’re a sight more beautiful. A smile from you, and you can get the money for your dear Papa who kept a roof over your head all these years.”

“I haven’t got a hundred pounds, let alone three hundred.” She clutched the arms of her chair and came as close as she’d ever dared to publically laying blame at his feet. “I don’t know why you think I’ve that much money.”

Not so much as a blink of recognition. No shame. No remorse. “A hundred would barely do until you get the money from the duke. Or Aldreth.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I won’t abase myself to them again. I can’t.”

“Again? What do you mean again?”

He waved a hand. “I came up short once or twice these past months. I can’t ask again. They’ll think I’ve been imprudent when it’s really you to blame.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“You can ask, Lucy.” He refilled his glass with a dark red wine. “Give them a smile, the way you do, you know it strikes men dumb. They’ll open their pockets to you and thank you for it, too.”

“How am I to explain a need for three hundred pounds?”

“A new season. New gowns. You’ve a reputation for a love of fripperies and other such useless things. Tell them you’ve overspent.” He sat forward. “Shed a tear or two. They’ll see you the money just to stop the heartbreak of your tears.”

“Papa.”

“If you don’t, I’ll have to defend my honor when the debts are called in, and they will be. They will be.” His hand shook enough that the wine in his glass trembled, too. “I don’t see as well as I used to.” He drank three quarters of his wine. “Ask the duke, Lucy. Tell him you need new gowns and such.”

“He’ll wonder why I have nothing new.”

“Ask for more, dear girl. Enough to buy yourself a new frock or slippers or a bonnet or two. Remake some of your gowns. He’ll not know the difference, and in the event, he’ll not miss the money if you did buy yourself some new frocks. Why, a thousand pounds is pocket money to him. Ask him. If you love your dear Papa, you will.” He winked. “We’ll both come out ahead.”

Lucy’s ability to speak vanished, and that was for the best. She would only have regretted whatever words she’d trapped inside her. She stood, counting a silent ten, and he took that for agreement.

“You’re a good daughter. The best of the lot.”

She wasn’t. She wasn’t at all.

“You don’t scold me like Anne did.” He drank more wine. “You’ll find me when you have the money?”

“I can manage fifty.”

“Fifty.” He made a face. “That’s not enough.”

“That’s all I have.”

He poured the last of the wine into his glass. “Borrow the rest. Aldreth will give you what you need. Or Cynssyr. All you have to do is smile the way you do.”

“Is that all that matters? How pretty my smile is?”

He snorted. “What else would they care about, Lucy?”

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