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Noble Destiny

Katie MacAlister

  Copyright © 2003 by Katie MacAlister

  Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

  Cover art by Judy York

  Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

  The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

  P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

  (630) 961-3900

  Fax: (630) 961-2168

  Originally published in 2003 by Leisure Books, an imprint of Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc., New York.


  Front Cover

  Title Page




















  About Katie

  Back Cover

  I have many dear friends who encourage me to write, and are happy to offer comments and criticism of my books in progress, but none of them has a keener eye than Patricia Woodwell. This one’s for you and your David, Patty!


  “You can’t leave me now! Not when I need you! How selfish is it to leave just when I need you most? I forbid you to leave! I absolutely forbid you to leave me in my time of Great Distress!”

  “I have no choice. I must leave now.”

  “Widdle, Mama.”

  “Stop just where you are, Gillian. Don’t you dare take another step toward this door!”

  “Charlotte, give me the key.”


  “Mama, want to widdle!”

  “Char, Dante needs to use the necessary before we leave. Now please, if you have any love for me, hand over the key. Noble’s going to be in a terrible fury if he finds out you’re holding us prisoner in his library, and I can assure you from experience that Dante does not announce his intention to widdle unless that event is nigh on imminent.”

  The petite blonde blocking the two oak doors cast a hesitant glance toward the figure of a three-year-old child doing an urgent dance before her. Two thin furrows appeared between her dark blond brows.

  “It’s a trick. You’ve taught him to say that. You’re using your own child’s plumbing as a weapon against me, cousin, and I find that a completely nebulous act.”

  “The word is nefarious, Charlotte.” Gillian, Lady Weston, picked up her son and pointed him toward her cousin. “If you do not unlock the door and release us, I shall allow him to widdle upon you.”

  The child giggled in delight. Lady Charlotte di Abalongia nee Collins, sucked in a horrified breath and leveled a defiant glare at her cousin. “You wouldn’t!”

  “Gillian? Wife, where are you hiding? This is no time for play, woman. We should have left an hour ago!” The doorknob rattled ineffectually.

  “Papa, have to widdle!” Dante squirmed in his mother’s arms.

  “Now you’ve done it.” Gillian nodded, stepping backwards. “Now you’ve annoyed Noble. I would advise you to move away from the doorway since he is sure to—”

  Three sudden bangs against the door at her back caused Charlotte to jump a good foot off the ground.

  “—want in. We’re in here, my love,” Gillian called. “Charlotte seems to have misplaced the key. We won’t be a moment finding it.”


  “What’s that? Charlotte? What the devil is she doing here? I thought she ran off to be some Italian’s mistress years ago.”

  “I didn’t run off, we eloped!” Charlotte bellowed at the door. “We were married in Paris. It was romantic!”

  “It doesn’t matter. Open the door! Gillian, we have to leave. Now!”


  “Charlotte,” Gillian said, her voice low and urgent. Charlotte eyed the door with alarm as the Black Earl pounded on it, demanding immediate entrance, but she paid heed to the steely note in her closest friend and relative’s voice. “I understand you’re terribly upset,” Gillian continued, “and I know you’ve had a horrible time returning to England from what sounds like a perfectly ghastly old ruins in Italy, but my dear, I have a son full of widdle, two impatient children in the carriage with Nurse, and a husband who”—she paused as a particularly loud barrage of swearing accented the increased pounding on the door—“is fast losing a temper that has been extremely tried today. Please, please, Char, give me the key before Noble is forced to take drastic measures.”

  Charlotte glanced from the squirming child to the look of concern in Gillian’s emerald eyes. Tears had always worked well for her in the past. Perhaps if she could work up a few, her cousin would see how serious she was. She waited for the peculiar prickling sensation to indicate that her cornflower-blue eyes would soon be becomingly framed in a pool of tears, and allowed a note of raw desperation to creep into her voice. “Gilly, I need you. I truly do. You’re all I have left. There’s no one else left who will receive me. Papa saw to that. I have nowhere to go and no money. I sold what remained of Mama’s jewels just to buy a few traveling gowns and passage to England on a merchant ship. You’re the only one in the family who will acknowledge me, and now you are sailing to the West Indies…” Her voice cracked as she brushed at the wetness on her cheeks, surprised to find her crocodile tears had suddenly become real. “Oh, Gilly, please stay. Please help me. I’ve never been alone. I don’t know what to do.”

  Gillian shifted the child in her arms and squeezed Charlotte’s hand. “You know I will do everything I can to help you—”

  Charlotte shrieked in joy and hugged her cousin, widdly child and all. “I knew you wouldn’t leave me!”

  A tremendous splintering noise reverberated through the room as Noble Britton, known by the (in Charlotte’s mind, understated) sobriquet of the Black Earl, burst through the doors, followed by a tall, bewigged man with a hook where his left hand should have been, and two smaller footmen in livery.

  “Are you all right?” the earl asked his countess, rushing to her side.

  She smiled reassuringly. “Of course we are. Charlotte just needs a moment or two of my time, and then I will be ready to be off.” She forestalled protests on both her husband’s and cousin’s lips by thrusting the squirming child into his father’s arms just before she grasped Charlotte firmly and tugged her toward a nearby emerald-and-gold damask couch. “While you’re taking Dante for his widdle, I’ll speak with Char. Crouch, please take Lady Charlotte’s things up to the Blue Suite. She’ll be staying here for a time. Dickon, Charles, tell the other carriages to start, we’ll be along directly.”

  Noble shot his wife a questioning look before settling a glare on Charlotte, who was profoundly thankful it was a short glare, as she never could stand up to one of the earl’s scowls. Both father and child hastened away when the latter announced his intention to widdle right there in
the library.

  “You have five minutes until I must leave,” Gillian told her cousin sternly. “You are welcome to stay here for as long as you like. Now, what else can I do to help you?”

  Charlotte’s heart underwent a peculiar motion that felt suspiciously as though it had dropped into her jean half-boots. “You’re leaving? You’re still leaving me?”

  “I have no choice,” was the calm reply. A burst of pain flared to life within Charlotte’s breast at her cousin’s defection, but a moment’s consideration led her to admit that Gillian really could not remain behind while her husband and children sailed to their coffee plantation. She shoved down the pain of abandonment and focused her energies on explaining what a shambles her life had become.

  “Very well. You received my letter that mentioned Antonio died of sweating sickness in November?”

  Gillian nodded. “And you wanted to leave Villa Abalongia because you had a difficult time with his family, but you mentioned going to Paris, not home to England.”

  Charlotte’s eyes threatened to fill once more with scalding tears that she suspected would leave her with unattractive, swollen, red eyes and a nose that would require much attention with a handkerchief. “And I don’t even have a handkerchief anymore,” she wailed, unable to stop the tears. Charlotte seldom had recourse to real tears, but they were just as uncomfortable as she recalled. “Everything’s gone, everything! The contessa took it all for her two horrid, fat daughters. She said I wouldn’t need my fine gowns when I was in mourning for Antonio. She said I’d have to go live on a tiny little farm in the mountains and tend a bunch of smelly goats, that I wasn’t welcome to stay in Florence as I wasn’t truly a member of the family, all because I hadn’t given Antonio an heir!”

  “That was very cruel of her.”

  “Yes.” Charlotte sniffed. “It was. Especially since it wasn’t my fault. I wouldn’t have minded a child—you seem to enjoy yours so much—but Antonio refused to do his husbandly duty by me.”

  Gillian’s eyes widened. “He…he refused?”

  Charlotte nodded, her eyes filling again at the memory of such a grave injustice. “It was all he could do to consummate the marriage. After that…oh, Gilly, he wouldn’t even try. And the contessa was forever making nasty remarks that I was not doing my duty properly! I tried, I honestly tried! I wore naughty nightwear, I allowed him to catch me en dishabille on many occasions, and I even sought advice from the local strumpet as to how to arouse the passion of Antonio’s manly instrument, but to no avail. His instrument resisted all my efforts. I think it hated me,” she added darkly.

  “Oh, I’m sure that wasn’t—”

  “It wouldn’t even twitch for me!”

  “Well, really, Charlotte.” Gillian looked a bit embarrassed. “It’s not as if it were an animal trained to jump on your command.”

  “I know that, but the strumpet said it should at the very least twitch once in a while, and not lie limp and flaccid like a week-old bit of blancmange. It wouldn’t make even the slightest effort on my behalf. If that’s not cruel and petty-minded of a manly instrument, well, I just don’t know what is!”

  Gillian blinked once or twice before patting her cousin’s arm and handing her a lace-edged handkerchief. Charlotte viewed it with sorrow. “I used to have handkerchiefs like this,” she cried, mopping at her eyes and blowing her nose in a less-than-dainty manner. “But that evil woman took them away from me, just as she took everything else, even my husband!”

  “Oh, surely she couldn’t have taken Antonio’s affection from you—”

  “Not his affection.” Charlotte sniffled loudly. “He was fond enough of me, although he never dared act so before the contessa. No, she took him away and sent him to a nasty little town on the Mediterranean for his weak lungs. And he died there!”

  “Char, I’m sorry about Antonio. I know you must have loved him greatly…”

  Charlotte stopped dabbing at her eyes, a look of utter astonishment on her face. “Love him greatly? Where did you get that idea?”

  Gillian stopped patting her cousin’s hand. “Well…that is…you eloped with him! You dismissed all your suitors and eloped with the son of a minor Italian nobleman. Why else would you sacrifice everything you held dear if you didn’t love him greatly?”

  “Oh, that,” Charlotte responded dismissively, gently prodding the region below her eyes to ascertain whether they were swollen from her recent tears. “It was my third Season, and I didn’t care for that year’s suitors. Antonio was just like the hero in Castle Moldavia, Or, The Dancing Master’s Ghost. He was so very romantic, but Papa was being stiff-rumped about my marrying him, threatening to cut me off without a shilling if I didn’t marry someone suitable instead. Papa became ever so tiresome, and the Season was really quite boring, so I did the only sensible thing.”

  “Sensible?” Gillian stared at her cousin in disbelief. “Are you telling me you ran off to marry knowing that your father disapproved of your husband, knowing he would disinherit you, knowing that such an elopement would cause a scandal that would even now keep all of the doors of Society closed to you, and yet you did it not for love, but because you were bored?”

  Charlotte frowned. “Most of the doors of Society, not all, and I don’t see what that has to do with anything. You said you would help me. I really don’t think spending my five minutes discussing the past four years is helping me. I don’t see how chastising me for actions viewed by some as romantic and daring—”

  “Not to mention heedless, hen-witted, and hasty.”

  “—is going to benefit me now,” Charlotte finished, ignoring the interruption. “As I said, I simply cannot see my way out of this dreadful moil.”

  “Coil.” Gillian chewed on her lower lip for a moment. Charlotte watched hopefully; whenever her cousin got that peculiar light to her eyes, it meant she was about to come up with a truly magnificent plan. “What of Lord Collins?”

  “Matthew?” Charlotte snorted the name. “He’s cut from the same cloth Papa was. When Papa died almost four years ago, Matthew took up the banner of ostriching me.”

  “Ostracizing, Char. You really should make an effort to use the correct word.”

  “Pheasant feathers! Language should be fluid, it should work for me, not the other way around. And don’t distract me, I have only a few minutes remaining. I wrote Matthew when Antonio succumbed, but all I received back was a terse note to the effect that I was reaping what I had sown. There will be no help from my brother or the rest of the family.”

  “Hmmm. Well, you do have certain assets we can work with…”

  Charlotte’s dark lashes fluttered as she smiled depreciatingly and gazed down at her hands in what she knew to be an extremely fetching approximation of modesty. “Yes, of course, that’s very kind of you to say, especially considering the fashion is for dainty, blonde nymphs, not redheaded, green-eyed amazons like yourself.”

  Gillian gave her a puzzled look. Charlotte allowed her dimples to peek out in a manner she had been told by several gentlemen was utterly charming. “My appearance.”

  Gillian’s look of puzzlement deepened as her cousin explained. “You mentioned my assets, Cousin! It would not be meet for me to point out my many and various charms, but I am not so foolishly modest that I don’t recognize them. If you recall, Lord Darnley did write a sonnet about my eyes.”

  Gillian rolled her eyes. “Oh, that.”

  “He called them limpid pools of cerulean, whatever that is. And Lord Beckstand composed several lines about the gilt tones of my hair.”

  “It’s a shade of blue, but I wasn’t speaking about something so trivial as your appearance, Char. I was speaking of your assets, your true assets.”

  “Trivial!” Charlotte recoiled from such blasphemy. “Trivial! Cousin, marriage has addled your brains! There is nothing trivial about one’s appearance. Why, without a comely countenance
, one would have no suitors! No inamoratos! Society would shun one! No invitations to balls and routs and breakfasts would be forthcoming! One simply could not attend the opera nor the theater, nor expect to be received by anyone of discerning taste…”

  Gillian was nodding even before the words dried up on Charlotte’s lips. “Exactly. You are the picture of loveliness, and yet you find yourself in a position exactly as you describe, hence my comment on the trivial nature of something so shallow as beauty. What you need is to focus on your assets, namely, your status as a widow, your good breeding, your congenial manner, and”—she took a deep breath—“your willingness to marry again.”

  “Marry?” Charlotte blinked in surprise at her cousin’s words. “Who said anything about my marrying? You just said my widowhood was an asset, why would I want to give it up?”

  Gillian cast a quick glance at the door. Voices could be heard in the hallway beyond. “Charlotte, you have limited choices. You can either resolve the argument with your family…”

  “I’ve tried. Matthew is just as bullheaded as Father was.”

  “…or come with us to the West Indies…”

  Charlotte made a moue of disapproval. “It’s hot there. I would perspire all the time, and I cannot think of anything worse than being in a continual state of perspiration.”

  “…or find a position as a companion to an elderly lady…”

  An unladylike snort answered that suggestion.

  “…or you can marry again.”

  A frown wrinkled Charlotte’s brow as she smoothed out the drab olive-green traveling gown her limited funds had forced her to buy en route to England. “Marry. I hadn’t thought to marry. All I wanted to do was to come home. Marriage means…well, there would have to be a husband, wouldn’t there? I’m not sure I want another husband.”

  “Well, what do you want?”

  Charlotte tried on a little pout. “I want what I had before Antonio swept me off my feet and dragged me to that godforsaken castle in Italy. I want to be the Season’s reigning Incomparable, I want my court of suitors, I want lovely gowns and dancing and stolen kisses in the garden!”