The Dowager Duchess of Farminster looked directly at her only grandchild and repeated her previous words. 'You were affianced as a boy to the daughter of one of your father's friends, a distant cousin, I believe. You were to marry the girl when she turned seventeen. Since there is no one else engaging your affections, Valerian, you will sail in three weeks' time for the island of St. Timothy in the western Indies to claim the girl. A sugar plantation is no small dowry, dear boy, and it is past time you set up your nursery.'
'Oh, do not be such a snob,' his grandmother scolded him. 'I am certain the girl has been as well educated as any of the silly misses you know. And whatever she may lack in the social graces, I will tutor her myself. She will make you a grand duchess, dear boy, and having lived on an isolated island all her life, she will undoubtedly be more comfortable in the country, content to remain on your estate to give you several sons and daughters.'
'Why was I not told about this arrangement before now?' he demanded irritably. A trip to the western Indies was going to take several weeks. Then he would be forced to remain on this island another few weeks before he could marry the girl and travel back to England. Why, he could be gone three or four months. He would miss the racing season. 'Hellfire and damnation!' the duke swore softly.
The dowager duchess's mouth quirked with her amusement. 'Your father made the arrangement long before he and your mother were drowned returning from France with your sister. Your grandfather knew of it but put it from him until just before he died a few months ago. It was then he reminded me of this betrothal. We both agreed it was past time you were wed. Since there was no one else, it seemed best to keep to these preplanned nuptials. I sent a letter to Robert Kimberly, your prospective father-in-law, a few weeks back, saying that you would be arriving at the end of March to wed your bride.' She handed him a leather folder containing a copy of the betrothal contract.
Valerian Hawkesworth's deep blue eyes scanned the heavy parchment with its clear, precise wording. He was indeed betrothed to a Mistress Charlotte Kimberly, born April the sixth, in the year 1743. The chit was approaching her seventeenth birthday, the time set forth in the document for their marriage. He frowned, and glanced up at his grandmother. 'What does she look like?' he said.
The dowager duchess shook her head. 'I have not the faintest idea, dear boy, for I have never laid eyes on the child.' Then, seeing the mutinous look in her grandson's eyes, she continued. 'I am certain that she is lovely. Robert Kimberly brought his bride to England on a wedding trip. She was a very pretty girl, as I recall, and he a handsome young man. Their offspring cannot be unpleasing to the eye, dear boy. Just before the Kimberlys departed England, Mistress Kimberly discovered that she was
'No,' he reluctantly admitted. Then he said, 'You mentioned that we might be distantly related, Grandmama. How?'
'As I remember the tale,' the dowager duchess began, 'and I should have to consult the family Bible, dear boy, to be entirely accurate, but this is what I recall. The first Duke of Farminster was created so by King Charles upon his restoration. Your ancestor had grown up with the king, and gone into exile with him. They were bound by their friendship, loyalty, and by the curious coincidence of having the same birth date. The Earl of Farminster, who became the first duke, had a younger brother who remained behind in England to protect the estates, and two younger sisters. These young women were married. The eldest to a Kimberly, and the younger to a Meredith. Both men were royalists who remained in England working for the king's restoration. When it came, your ancestor saw that his brothers-in-law were rewarded. The island of St. Timothy was given to them by the king and they emigrated to become sugar planters. The last Kimberly, Robert, ahhh, now I remember, married the last Meredith, Emily. It is their daughter, the heiress, who will be your wife.'
'But Emily Kimberly is dead, and Robert remarried,' the duke said. 'What else do you know, Grandmama?'
'Nought, dear boy. The rest you shall learn yourself when you reach St. Timothy.'
'The girl might be dead,' the duke suggested hopefully.
'We would have been notified,' the dowager countered.
'Not necessarily,' the duke replied. 'After all, this alliance was almost forgotten but that Grandfather remembered it before he died.'
'That is true,' his grandmother agreed. 'The unimportant, albeit wealthy, daughter of a colonial planter might be forgotten by a duke, but that same girl's family would hardly forget that their child was promised to that same duke, and one day to be a duchess. No, Valerian, you cannot escape your fate. You will sail on the
'How did my father meet Robert Kimberly?' the duke wondered. 'Certainly the families did not keep up their contact over the years.'
'To a certain degree they did,' the dowager said, surprising him. 'But Robert Kimberly came to Oxford, which is where he met your father first. They shared quarters for two years before Kimberly returned to his island home to marry his first wife, Caroline Meredith. There were no offspring from that marriage, and after her death, Robert wed the younger Meredith daughter, Emily, who bore him his daughter, and died with their son. The third wife I know nothing about.' The dowager patted her grandson's arm comfortingly. 'Now, cease your fretting, dear boy. You do not have to remain on St. Timothy any longer than it takes to marry the girl, assure her family she will have a wonderful life as your duchess, and return to England to settle down. You have run rampant long enough, Valerian. It is time for you to do your duty.'
'She will not hold a candle to you,' he told his grandmother, a twinkle in his eye, as he smiled down upon her.
'Flatterer!' the dowager responded, but she smiled back at him. Mary Rose Hawkesworth had been considered a great beauty in her youth, and she still was with eyes the same dark blue as her grandson's, a rose and cream complexion, her fair hair now silvery white. 'I shall expect my first great-grandson within the year,' she told him, and the duke laughed aloud.