"You can't keep putting him off, Honor."
Oh God. Honor Beltane bit back a groan. Not even home one full day and her mother was going to start. This was why she didn't come home too often. Same conversation, different day.
"You know you'll never get a better offer."
Same lines, same reminders.
"And he's only going to ask for so long."
Here it comes...
"Do you want to spend the rest of your life alone?"
...and there it is.
God forbid a Beltane woman choose the path only "lesser" women chose because daughters of dukes did not do that. Nope, they married an appropriate man, gave birth to at least one boy, and held court in their drawing room until they breathed their last.
Except Honor. She didn't want that.
Lady Beltane slid into the chair opposite her, lips pressed into a thin disapproving line. The look was one she was very familiar with, having seen it one too many times to count in her twenty-nine years.
As a child, the look was for the mischief she often got into. Scaling fences to escape the day's lessons, climbing trees because her brothers said she couldn't, swimming in the pond in the middle of the Maze Garden in the dead of winter because her best friend dared her to. The list went on and on.
Refusing a peer's proposal would just be another sin added to the list.
"Do you not have anything to say?"
Honor stifled a sigh and shrugged. She glanced around the richly decorated drawing room her mother rarely left, noting she had, once again, replaced the heavy curtains with lighter ones in anticipation of the warmer months to come. Why she bothered, Honor would never know. It wasn't like she had anyone to impress.
She met her mother's narrow eyed gaze. Oh, right. She'd asked a question. "What do you want me to say, Mother? Nothing I've said before made a difference. Nothing you've said before has changed my mind."
Lady Beltane sighed. "You must marry, Honor. What would people say if you don't?"
Who cares? She wanted to ask out loud but that would mean another hour or so of lecture about duty before heart so she stayed quiet.
"Your father might be content to let you live out your days without a husband and children," Lady Beltane continued, "but I'm not. Your brothers, even Jeremy, have all married and your sisters-in-law are lovely additions to our family."
That, Honor knew, was a lie. Her mother was a lot of things--beautiful, polite, graceful, educated--but she was not pleased one bit by her sons' choices of wives. She despised each of her daughters-in-law with a passion, though Honor couldn't figure out why. Sarah, Penelope, and Lauren were exceptional women and too good for her rakehell brothers, a fact Honor teased each man about whenever she could.
"It's time you took your duty to this family seriously," Lady Beltane added. She pushed away from the table and stood, the finality of her tone settling over Honor like a cold blanket.
Oh God. Apprehension filled her as her mother strode to the door, back ramrod straight, head held high. This isn't good.
She stood. "What did you do, Mother?" she demanded.
Lady Beltane opened the door. "What I should have done when Lord Peter Wilson first proposed. An engagement ball has been scheduled for the last Friday of this month. You will accept his proposal and announce it at the ball."
Anger crawled through her veins. Honor curled her fingers into her palms. "You can't do that. I won't do it."
A cold smile slipped across Lady Beltane's face. "Then consider yourself disowned and penniless. That will be your future if you refuse."
"Mother, you can't expect me--"
"I can and I do, Honor," she said tightly. "You are the daughter of a Duke, one of the most powerful in our sector. You have wasted enough time prolonging the inevitable. You will do as expected. Fates help you if you don't."
Honor watched her mother leave, the door closing quietly behind her. Damn her! She refused to marry that arrogant prick who already made it clear he had no intention of giving up his mistress, gambling, or drinking after their nuptials.
"You're merely a means to appeasing my father, Lady Honor," the ass said one night after dinner. "I see no reason to abandon my life because society has certain expectations for our class. You provide me a legal heir, he stops bothering me, you have a home for the rest of your life, everyone's happy."
Except she wasn't, not with his indifferent proposal or his matter-of-fact view of what their marriage would look like and entail. Her protests were brushed aside, her threats of divorce laughed at.
"Oh, Lady Honor," Lord Peter said as he wiped away tears from laughing so hard. "Don't you know by now you will never have the freedom we men do? You are a woman, my dear, meant and bred for two things: to appear beautiful and to birth your husband a son." His mocking gaze swept over her. "You are hardly worth looking at, my lady, but your impeccable background makes wedding you worth bedding you. At least I know our son will be a lord worthy of the title." He tugged on the cuffs of his black dinner jacket. "Not to mention richer than either of our families when he comes of age."
Honor stomped to the window overlooking her mother's gardens. How she wanted to slap that smug look off his face. But she didn't. Hindsight was apparently better than she thought. If she had, she wouldn't be in this predicament.
She huffed and crossed her arms under her breasts. Well, there was no way she'd marry that pompous ass. She'd rather resign herself to life on The Fringes, penniless and, most likely, homeless, than tied to a man who'd rather bed someone other than his wife. No thanks.
She scowled at her reflection. She wasn't all that bad looking, was she? Neither tall nor fair haired nor flawless skinned, she always thought of herself as passably beautiful. Brown hair and freckled skin weren't a crime to have.
She sighed and rested her forehead against the glass. The two colored eyes might be though.
They'd been the bane of her existence since she hit puberty. Many thought her eyes fascinating when she was a child but those admirers quickly turned into scorners when she reached eleven and began to fill out. The names she'd been called, the ridicule she'd endured.
She was left mostly a pariah, a woman of class and wealth hovering on the edges of Society all because of her eyes. They kept suitors at bay and whispers of being Touched on the lips of too many gossipers.
Tears filled her eyes. She straightened and blinked them away. She was made of stronger stuff. She refused to let something as superficial as her looks dictate her future, just like she refused to let her mother decide whom she'd marry.
She smiled slightly and nodded. Engagement ball or not, she would not marry Lord Peter. If she was going to tie herself to someone, then it would damn well be a man her mother would never approve of.
She'd just have to find one.