gemstones in a crown. Conall and Stewart sat opposite them in wing chairs.
The duchess placed her hands neatly in her lap. “Forgive my directness, Ballencrieff, but I am a candid woman, a fact for which my late husband Frederick often chided me. Therefore, to prevail over any lengthy awkwardness, I shall come straight to the point. You’ve no doubt been apprised of the reason for my visit.”
“I have read your letter, Your Grace.”
“The first thing to say is that I will not excuse my daughter for forgetting her good breeding and position of responsibility, both socially and morally.”
Violet’s eyelashes fell upon her cheeks as she blushed hotly. Her poise cracked ever so slightly at the reproof, but to her credit, she maintained her composure. Clearly, this was but one of the many times she had heard this remonstrance.
The duchess continued. “Children in this day and age are famously in want of strictness and restraint. Nevertheless, it is inherent to the conscience of every good mother that any fault found in her child is a fault in herself. While I do not condone the impropriety of my daughter, I must share in the blame for her failures.”
Conall glanced at Violet. Her back was straight, her legs were folded demurely at her ankles—yet despite the sting of the invective, she was enduring it graciously. He began to feel a need to defend the girl.
“Who among us has not fallen short of perfection, Your Grace?”
“It is not perfection I expect, sir. It is duty. Requirements are made of all of us, and she must comply with hers, just as we all must. Her dalliance with Mr. MacEwan ill befits a lady of her station.”
An unsettling thought was beginning to take shape in Conall’s mind. “May I ask what Your Grace specifically finds fault with? Is it the fact that your daughter has fallen from grace, or that in doing so she has landed in my brother’s arms?”
“My daughter has been instructed in every one of the social graces—piano, singing, dancing—as well as having been tutored in history, French, Latin, and dozens of other subjects that would strain the intellectual capability of most men. She is capable of masterfully organizing a masked ball for five hundred guests at a moment’s notice, and can speak on a variety of subjects to a person of any class, from a member of the clergy to His Royal Highness. Let us be perfectly candid with one another. How many masked balls do you expect your brother to hold?”
Conall shifted in his chair. “Surely that isn’t the measure of a man’s worth in your estimation?”
“Not if we’re discussing humanity, Ballencrieff. But we are speaking of practical matters. Now that she is damaged, I cannot in good conscience give her hand in marriage to a man of equal breeding. Neither, however, does one indiscretion make her fit only for dogs.”
Stewart leaned forward. “Dogs? You do me a great disservice, Your Grace. Although I am no prince, I cannot allow you to slander me—”
With the quiet dignity of an elder statesman, the duchess halted Stewart’s argument. “Please contain your protestations, Mr. MacEwan. While I can certainly appreciate your sordid interest in Lady Violet—my daughter is a pearl after all—it is beyond the pale that a presumed gentleman should take advantage of a girl of such tender years. My daughter has defended you by claiming you did not force yourself upon her, but I think I can say without contradiction that you and I know better than that. We are worldly people, you and I, and we know that in moments of passion, the sword will demand its sheath. You’ve behaved reprehensibly, and I regret that my daughter did not realize earlier on that you were nothing but a common lothario. To my knowledge, your only known achievement is having seduced scores of women, and that is a shabby accomplishment indeed. You would do better to become a chimney sweep, sir, for then you can claim to have done some good in the