Yorkshire, Castle Yates
“Marry the girl before I die, Rainford!”
Rainford—otherwise known as Jasper Winchester, marquess and heir to a dukedom—considered crushing his teacup. Rain was known as a man of icy civility and professionalism. He would not strangle his father. “I will, as soon as Rutledge returns from India so I may properly ask for his daughter’s hand and arrange the settlements.”
His father, the Duke of Sommersville, sat up against his bed pillows and scowled. Inherently tall and lean, the duke was gaunt now. His blond hair had turned to silver and had started to thin with his illness—an illness Rainford was unable to cure, much to everyone’s distress. “Dammit, Rain, that cold, calculating brain of yours can’t buy a wife! Romance Miss Rutledge, tell her she’s special, woo the woman, and she won’t want to delay!”
Rain stoically waited for his father to fling the Ice King epithet at him, as everyone else did. He accepted the sobriquet. Someone in this household had to be the sensible one, and as heir, responsibility fell on him. “Araminta is shy. She has requested that we wait for her father. I don’t wish to terrify her.”
He didn’t want to romance the child either. He’d hoped she’d show a little more interest if she stayed at the castle in rural splendor. She hadn’t.
“You can marry any damned female in the kingdom!” his father muttered. He was too ill to roar these days. “Why did you choose one who won’t marry you now? I won’t last forever.”
Because Rain had thought he’d have decades more before inheriting the burden of the family estates and eccentrics. The estates, he could manage. The eccentrics. . . were beyond his control. His molars had ground to nubbins these last months of dealing with the well-intentioned family gathering to pay their respects to the dying duke.
He’d had to hire a footman just to shut doors on the escape-artist monkeys one of the aunts had left in her last visit. The parrot. . . wasn’t any worse than the musicians Alicia hired. Left to their own devices, his family would turn the castle into a jungle with banana trees, native drummers, and a lion. He’d forbidden the lion.
“No one lasts forever, including me if I don’t get some rest,” Rain retorted. As trained physicians, he and his father knew their limits. He thought if he sat down now, he’d fall asleep while his father was in mid rant. “I should go to London and leave you with this madhouse. At least I might be able to complete some portion of my work.”
“It’s December.” Disliking helplessness, the duke picked fretfully on anyone in his vicinity. “There’s no one in London.”
Well, that was the point. In London, he could work without querulous fathers, bored sisters, visiting aunts and cousins, a nursery full of screaming brats, and a cousin who had brought London home with him for the holidays. Rain had a medical treatise to complete and an entire book of legislation he should be reading through.
If all of that went away, he might even have time to look into creating a medical clinic of his own. But since that wasn’t happening, Rain longed for the quiet of his club where no women could demand his time and attention.
Which was how he’d landed in this unmarried state, he recognized.
“You promised your sisters and their families a proper country holiday.” The duke continued his complaint. “You can’t run away and leave them for London. Your duty is to marry and produce an heir. Work can wait. Do you even know what your intended is doing right now? Why aren’t you busy seducing her?”
Rain respected his father. The duke had a reason for his desperation. But Rain had been raised as a gentleman. Only a rogue would impregnate his intended wife before marriage. And since the female in question refused to marry without her father’s permission, he either waited or found someone else. His family had spent the entire thirty-four years of his life looking for his bride. He didn’t have time to start anew.
Or the patience to repeat the argument. “I believe Miss Rutledge is avoiding my sisters’ séance and Teddy Junior’s bacchanalia by praying in the chapel. Or perhaps hiding in the library. She knows these are the hours I reserve for patients—although at this point, you may be my last one. Most patients can’t wait until visiting hours twice a week to break limbs or become ill.”
Just being aristocrats practicing medicine established the family as eccentric, but it was family tradition. Descendant of druidic Malcolms, the duke was a brilliant healer.
“Going to that herbalist in the village, are they? Shame. Even if you have no gift for healing, you’re still a trained physician.”
The half-hearted grumble pierced Rain’s heart and twisted like a knife. The one duty he had to accomplish, the one he desired to succeed at more than any other, he’d failed at. He couldn’t heal the duke, with training or with any mystical gifts.
Unable to answer the unanswerable, he walked out.
A flute and a fiddle echoed from his cousin Teddy’s studio on the floor above, on the far end of the enormous, sprawling mansion. Like many ancient edifices, this one was called a castle, but it hadn’t resembled one in centuries. Winchesters had an affinity for architecture. Once the dukes and their families had added every conceivable eccentricity to the main Sommersville estate in Somerset, they’d started on Castle Yates in Yorkshire.
Teddy, being one of the more artistic Winchesters, was intent on stamping his architectural fantasy on the castle’s stately Georgian exterior. He had drawn up a neo-Gothic monstrosity with turrets, battlements, and even a portcullis, if he could manage a moat. If Teddy inherited the family fortune, the conversion would drain the family coffers, as one of their ancestors once had done in Sommersville.
And that was just one reason Rainford had to marry and produce an heir—soon.
In the family parlor below, his sisters and their guests screamed in horror. Rain didn’t even bother to investigate. He wasn’t about to be dragged into their search for apparitions from beyond the veil. His sisters were bored and looking for entertainment, he understood. The husbands of the three married ones were out hunting, leaving the women to their own devices. All four of them depended on the income from the vast Winchester fortune.
The fortune that insane Teddy would inherit if Rain was unmarried when the duke died.