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Daisy looked at him blankly. “Whom do you have in mind, Father?”
She stared at him as if he had gone mad.
Mercedes drew a quick breath. “That makes no sense, Mr. Bowman! No earthly sense! There would be no advantage for us or for Daisy in such a match. Mr. Swift is not an aristocrat, nor is he possessed of significant wealth—”
“He is one of the Boston Swifts,” Bowman countered. “Hardly a family one can turn its nose up at. A good name and good blood to go with it. More importantly, Swift is devoted to me. And he has one of the ablest business minds I’ve ever encountered. I want him as a son-in-law. I want him to inherit my company when the time comes.”
“You have three sons who will inherit the company as their birthright!” Mercedes said in outrage.
“None of them gives a damn about the business. They haven’t the appetite for it.” Thinking of Matthew Swift, who had flourished under his tutelage for almost ten years, Bowman felt a pang of pride. The boy was more a reflection of Bowman than his own offspring. “None of them has the full-blooded ambition and ruthlessness of Swift,” Bowman continued. “I will make him the father of my heirs.”
“You’ve taken leave of your senses!” Mercedes cried hotly.
Daisy spoke in a calm tone that neatly undercut her father’s bluster. “I should point out that my cooperation is necessary in this matter. Especially now that we’ve progressed to the subject of begetting heirs. And I assure you, no power on earth would compel me to bear the children of a man I don’t even like.”
“I should think you’d want to be of some use to someone,” Bowman growled. It had always been his nature to quash rebellion with overwhelming force. “I should think you would want a husband and home of your own rather than continue your parasitic existence.”
Daisy flinched as if he had slapped her. “I’m not a parasite.”
“Oh? Then explain to me how the world has benefitted from your presence in it. What have you ever done for anyone?”
Faced with the task of justifying her existence, Daisy stared at him stonily and remained silent.
“This is my ultimatum,” Bowman said. “Find a suitable husband by the end of May, or I will give you to Swift.”
“I shouldn’t tell you about it,” Daisy railed, pacing back and forth in the Marsden parlor later that evening. “In your condition you shouldn’t be distressed. But I can’t keep it to myself or I will explode, which you would probably find infinitely more distressing.”
Her older sister lifted her head from Lord Westcliff’s supportive shoulder. “Tell me,” Lillian said, swallowing against another wave of nausea. “I’m distressed only when people keep things from me.” She was half-reclining on the long settee, settled in the crook of Westcliff’s arm as he spooned some lemon ice into her mouth. She closed her eyes as she swallowed, her dark lashes resting in spiky crescents against her pale cheeks.
“Better?” Westcliff asked gently, swabbing a stray drop near the corner of her lips.
Lillian nodded, her face ghastly white. “Yes, I think it’s helping. Ugh. You had better pray for a boy, Westcliff, because this is your only chance at an heir. I’m never going through this again—”
“Open your mouth,” he said, and fed her more flavored ice.
Ordinarily Daisy would have been touched by the glimpse into the Westcliffs’ private life…it was rare that anyone saw Lillian so vulnerable, or Marcus so gentle and concerned. But Daisy was so distracted by her own problems that she barely noticed their interaction as she blurted out, “Father has given me an ultimatum. Tonight he—”
“Wait,” Westcliff said quietly, adjusting his hold on Lillian. As he eased his wife to her side, she leaned more heavily on him, one slender white hand coming to rest on the curve of her belly. He murmured something indecipherable into her rumpled ebony hair, and she nodded with a sigh.
Anyone who witnessed Westcliff’s tender care of his young wife could not help but take note of the outward changes in the earl, who had always been known as a cold-natured man. He had become far more approachable—he smiled more, laughed more—and his standards for proper behavior had become far less exacting. Which was a good thing if one wished to have Lillian for a wife and Daisy for a sister-in-law.
Westcliff’s eyes, so deep a shade of brown they appeared black, narrowed slightly as he focused on Daisy. Although he didn’t say a word, Daisy read in his gaze the desire to shield Lillian from anyone and anything that might disturb her peace.
Suddenly Daisy felt ashamed for having rushed over here to recount the injustices dealt by her father. She should have kept her problems to herself and instead she had run to her older sister like a tattling child. But then Lillian’s brown eyes opened, and they were warm and smiling, and a thousand childhood memories danced in the air between them like jubilant fireflies. The intimacy of sisters was something not even the most protective husband could disrupt.
“Tell me,” Lillian said, nestling against Westcliff’s shoulder, “what did the ogre say?”
“That if I don’t find someone to marry by the end of May he would choose a husband for me. And guess who that is? Just guess!”
“I can’t imagine,” Lillian said. “Father doesn’t approve of anyone.”
“Oh, yes he does,” Daisy replied ominously. “There is one person in the world Father approves of one hundred percent.”