“Tut-tut.” Lady Quinseley brushed her hands as if wiping away stray crumbs. “A contract is a contract. According to the terms set out by your own father, if you fail to wed by age one-and-twenty, the dowry funds revert to me.”
“Actually,” said Mr. Somers, “the dowry trust did not mention you. In the event Miss White remained unwed, the funds were to return to Lord Quinseley’s personal accounts—”
“And he’s dead,” snapped the countess, “so the money belongs tome.”
Mr. Somers swung his sympathetic gaze toward Bianca. “I’m sorry, child. Your father loved you more than life, and was certain you would wed your very first season, at sixteen. He’d thought to make the deadline age eighteen, but I talked him into twenty-one, so that you would at least have your majority.”
“And that’s all you have,” Lady Quinseley said, her voice sickeningly sweet. “You’re of age and out of my hair. Perhaps the Gladwells will shelter you for a little while, but once news leaks that you no longer possess a dowry… ” The countess made an apologetic little shrug. “Who would want to marry you then?”
Harry nervously fingered the gold wedding ring in his hand.
“I wish you’d have let me come by myself,” he muttered beneath his breath.
His sister heard him anyway.
“I want to be the first to give Bianca a hug,” Tina told him for the third time.
“What about me?” he protested.
“She’ll hug you second,” Tina promised.
“No hugs for me from my baby sister?” he teased.
She considered him with a far more serious look than he’d anticipated.
“For years,” she said slowly, “I thought you nothing more than a ne’er-do-well.”
“I didn’t do much to counteract that image,” he admitted.
“You cultivated it,” she corrected him. “Everyone believed it.Ibelieved it. And then came Bianca. You had every reason to walk away, based on the persona you portrayed, but you held your hand out to her instead.”
“And now I’ve come to ask forherhand.”
“If she’ll have you, then I suppose you cannot be all bad,” Tina allowed.
“What do you mean, ‘if’she’ll have me, poppet?” Harry growled, stretching out the hand without the ring to tickle his sister.
Before he could make contact, the hackney door opened and Tina leapt out. “We’re here!”
“At least let me be the one to knock on the door for my own proposal,” he grumbled.
This wish was not to be granted.
As Harry and Tina strode up to the Gladwells’ tidy cottage, the front door opened. Lady Quinseley stepped out, followed by the solicitor Mr. Somers.
“Nowthere’san odd couple,” Tina murmured.
Harry could not help but agree. “What in the devil?”
Bianca appeared in the doorway, apparently to bid her visitors farewell. She did not look pleased to see them go. If anything, her color had drained, leaving her waxy and unnaturally pale. Her thin fingers curled around a dark apple the color of a fresh scab.
Upon sight of Harry, Lady Quinseley’s eyes brightened, which chilled him to his bones.
“Lord Eagleton,” drawled the countess, her icy blue eyes sparkling like shards of glass. “What a coincidence thatyoushould come to call. I do hope my presence isn’t interrupting anything… important.”
Harry narrowed his eyes. Knowing Lady Quinseley, she’d planned every single aspect of this moment, including timing her exit to coincide with his arrival, just so she could say something to unsettle him right before he proposed to Bianca.