Bess started as the bedroom door slammed open.

Nicholas Askew stood in the doorway glowering, ‘Your behaviour today was a scandal.’

‘I thought I behaved most civilly in the circumstances.’

‘You did little to disguise the contempt you apparently felt for our host.’

‘I doubt he noticed it, so taken up is he with his own fantasies.’ She grimaced, ‘He kissed me.’

‘What man is not entitled to kiss the girl he is courting?’ There was puzzlement in his scowl. ‘That is no reason to show lack of respect to him.’

‘I did not show lack of respect. I merely attempted to avoid his company, once I knew what he wanted.’

‘There are others interested and, if you are not careful, he may withdraw his offer.’ His scowl deepened. ‘I do not know what ails you, girl. It is a good offer.’

‘The man is ancient, his breath is foul, he is unclean and he makes my flesh crawl.’

‘Rubbish! You cannot afford to be particular.’

Bess bridled, ‘What do you mean by that?’

‘A widow of two years and not a single offer in that time.’

‘And why is that?’ Bess took a sharp breath, her nostrils narrowed. ‘An unmarried woman brings a dowry to her marriage, a widow her jointure. The Stoughtons have cheated us. They took the dowry you offered but refuse to pay the jointure that is my right now Myles is dead. I have nothing to live on yet you have not lifted a finger to help me. If I had my jointure, I would have more hope of a decent offer.’

‘Bah! I do not have the money to throw at useless legal cases. I have six other daughters to provide dowries for.’

‘As my only male relative it is your duty to ensure I receive the income that is rightfully mine.’

Askew’s face was mottled red. ‘You lecture me on duty?’ A nerve flickered at the corner of his eye.

‘Why not? I know enough about duty—I did my duty when I married according to your wishes. I am a grown woman now, a widow, should I not have some say in the running of my life?’ She rushed on, ‘Yet you have begun negotiations with Master Litchfield without attempting to discover what my wishes are.’

‘You know now,’ he snarled.

‘And you know now that I despise the man and will not marry him.’ Bess lifted her chin. ‘I see no point in staying here any longer, I will be returning to Lady Allingbourne on the morrow.’

‘Hornebolt has work to do here. I’ll not have him wandering the countryside on ladies’ fancies. Life with Lady Allingbourne has given you airs—you consider yourself better than the rest of us. No,’ he crossed his arms, his pointed beard jutting out, ‘you will remain here and be ruled by your father like a dutiful daughter. You can help your mother with the children until you are married to Dick Litchfield.’

‘I swear I will never marry that vile man,’ Bess spat back. ‘I will stand in church and say that I do not take him, tell the whole congregation that I have been forced.’

Askew glared at her, his fists clenched. Bess braced herself but he turned on his heel, slamming the door behind him.

As Bess heard the key scrape in the lock, she shouted after him, ‘She is not my mother.’