"Certainly," Matthew said. He cleared his throat. "As you instructed, your grace, we have made inquiries into the young woman’s family and background. Miss Stone is the daughter of Susan Stone-who died when Miss Stone was five years old-and Martin Albert Stone, who is still living. She was born on June thirtieth, eighteen hundred, at the family home near the village of Morsham, approximately seven hours from London.
"The Stone estate is small but productive, and Martin Stone has lived in the usual style of the landed gentry. However, about four years ago, his financial situation altered drastically. If you recall, that was when part of England was deluged with weeks of rainfall. Estates such as Stone’s which did not have adequate drainage facilities suffered badly, and Stone apparently suffered more than most because there was no alternate means of supporting the estate, such as livestock.
"Our reports indicate that Stone then made some extremely large and unwise investments in a variety of risky ventures and, when those failed, he doubled and tripled his investments in more ventures of a similar nature-apparently in the hope of recouping his losses. These ventures were all disastrous, and two years ago, he mortgaged his estate to gain enough capital to make the last-and largest-of the ventures. He invested all the funds in a colonial shipping company. Unfortunately, that failed as well.
"At this time, he is heavily mortgaged and deeply in debt, not only to the cent-per-centers in London, but to the local shopkeepers as well. The estate is quickly falling into disrepair, and there is only a skeleton staff of servants left on the place."
Reaching into the deerskin case, Matthew extracted a sheaf of papers. "This is an itemized list of his creditors, although there are bound to be more that we didn’t discover in the brief period of time we had to make our investigation." He slid the papers across the surface of the ornate desk, then waited for some reaction from the duke.
Leaning back in his chair, Clayton Westmoreland scanned the lists, his face impassive. "How bad?" he asked when he finished reading the last page.
"Altogether, I’d say he’s about ï¿½100,000 in debt."
The staggering sum made no apparent impression on the duke, who handed the papers back to Matthew and abruptly switched the subject. "What were you able to learn about the girl?"
Who, Matthew wondered as he extracted the file marked "W. Stone," should know more about the girl than the man whose mistress she was about to become? Although the duke had not actually said it, Matthew had already guessed that Claymore intended to take the young woman under discussion as his mistress, providing her with a comfortable establishment and an income of her own. He interpreted the duke’s interest in the girl’s family as curiosity over what kind of opposition, if any, he might expect from them.
To Matthew’s legal mind, Stone’s appalling financial situation already made the outcome of the matter a foregone conclusion: Martin Stone would have to accept this chance to turn over the responsibility for his daughter’s support to Clayton Westmoreland. What choice had he? He could hardly continue to clothe her and keep her amid the Quality for much longer. If Stone’s concern was for the girl’s reputation, his own was in far more jeopardy than hers. Once his creditors discovered his dire circumstances, as they would at any time now, he would be facing not only disgrace, but an unpleasant stay in debtor’s prison.
Matthew flushed as he realized that he’d been silently staring at the girl’s open file, and he began at once. "While it was difficult to learn, much of a personal nature, without awakening unwanted suspicion, we did discover that Miss Stone was considered rather a difficult child, of an… er . . . unpredictable disposition. She is apparently well-read and uncommonly well-educated by a long string of tutors. She speaks fluent French, of course, as well as being proficient in Greek-enough so that she occasionally assists her uncle as translator during social functions where Greek diplomats are present. She reads Italian, Latin, and German; she may also speak them, but we aren’t certain."
Matthew hesitated, feeling utterly absurd for telling Lord Westmoreland what he must already know. "Go on," the duke said with a faint smile at Matthew’s obvious discomfiture.
Nodding uncomfortably, Matthew continued. "Many of the individuals we contacted mentioned that there was considerable dissension between the young lady and her father.
A few of them put the blame at his door, but most sympathized with Martin Stone as an unfortunate man who had fathered a rebellious, unbiddable child. At the age of fourteen, Miss Stone evidently developed an … er … rather violent infatuation for a gentleman named Paul Sevarin. Sevarin was ten years her senior and apparently he was no more pleased with Miss Stone’s girlish attachment to him than her father was. Because of that, and because Stone apparently couldn’t deal with her any other way, her father eventually sent her to France with her aunt and uncle when she was nearly sixteen. They then presented her to French Society at the customary age of seventeen. Since that time, our sources indicate that she had enjoyed an extraordinary popularity here. Of course, if her father’s financial circumstances and her lack of a dowry were known, that situation would change drastically," Matthew conjectured aloud, then he glanced apologetically at the duke, and returned to the facts at hand-
"Miss Stone has been on the verge of receiving numerous offers of marriage, but has discouraged those suitors as soon as their intentions became apparent to her. Those gentlemen who persisted to the point of actually speaking to her uncle, Lord Edward Gilbert, were turned down by him, apparently on behalf of Martin Stone. Her manners are reported to be perfectly acceptable to society, although somewhat out of the ordinary. Is there some mistake in this?" Matthew inquired when the duke burst out laughing.
"No. No mistake," Clayton chuckled. "I’d say your information is entirely accurate." In his memory, he could still see her green eyes glowing with laughter as she scoffed at noble titles-his in particular. "Is there anything else?" he asked finally.
"Only a few remarks, your grace. Her uncle, Lord Edward Gilbert, as you already know, is attached to the British Consulate here and enjoys an unblemished reputation. Miss Stone is reportedly on excellent terms with him, and with his wife, Lady Anne Gilbert. At present, it is the consensus of opinion that Nicolas DuVille is on the verge of offering for her hand-an offer which Lord Gilbert will undoubtedly find most acceptable. The DuVilles, as I’m sure you know, are one of France’s leading families, and Nicolas is their son and heir."
Matthew closed the file. "That’s all we were able to team in the time you allotted us, your grace."