Authors: Sandra Heath
it stood by the library window. His thoughts were mixed as he heard light footsteps approaching. What was his first impression going to be of the woman he’d agreed to make his wife?
Louisa came hesitantly in, her face pale and anxious. Her pink-and-white-checkered gown was oddly bright in the dull room. He was struck immediately by her likeness to her dead brother; she was her portrait come to life. Her dark-red hair was piled up into a soft knot, and a single long curl tumbled down over her left shoulder, as if it had but a moment before come free of its pins. It was a very becoming coiffure, soft and very feminine, and it made her large gray eyes seem very lovely indeed. He had to admit that his first impression was very favorable, but he mustn’t forget what he’d overheard at the Green Dragon, for maybe this delightful book couldn’t be judged from its enchanting cover.
She came closer and then halted, her hands twisted anxiously. ‘You – you wished to see me, sir?’
Her voice was light and as softly feminine as the rest of her. He continued to look at her for a moment and then cleared his throat. ‘Yes, Miss Cherington, I do.’
‘It’s about Tom, isn’t it?’
The gray eyes searched his face, and then she put a trembling hand on a chair. ‘What – what’s happened?’
‘Perhaps you should sit down, Miss Cherington.’
Dread flooded through her and her breath caught. ‘Please tell me,’ she whispered, her face draining of all color as she prepared for the worst.
He didn’t know how to break it gently. ‘I’m very much afraid that Tom died yesterday.’
She gave a sharp intake of breath, flinching as if he’d physically struck her, but as he went instinctively toward her, she shook her head fiercely. ‘No! No, I’ll be all right.’
He could see how she struggled to contain the hot tears stinging her eyes. Her body was shaking, but she strove to overcome the grief that rushed to overwhelm her. After a moment she managed to look at him again. ‘How did he die, sir?’
‘He was fatally shot in a duel.’
She stared at him. ‘A duel? Tom? But he was no shot.’
‘I know, but he was unfortunate enough to fall foul of Lord Rowe.’
She was bewildered. ‘The Lord Rowe of the
‘Yes.’ Of course she’d know about the
; Geoffrey Lawrence’s interest in yachting would have seen to that. He found himself searching her face. What was the truth about her? Was she really as sweet and innocent as she seemed?
She spoke again. ‘You said he was fatally wounded. Does that mean that he didn’t die immediately?’
‘Not immediately, but he was mostly unconscious and wasn’t in pain.’
She nodded. Her eyes were hollow, as if something had been extinguished in them. ‘Will you tell me why there was a duel, Lord Highclare? What happened?’
‘I believe Tom detected Rowe cheating at cards.’
‘Oh.’ Cards. Tom could never resist the green baize.
‘He asked me to be his second, and I returned to London the day before yesterday to try to persuade him not to proceed. I didn’t succeed and the duel took place at dawn yesterday, on Lord Holland’s land in Kensington. Tom actually managed to wound Rowe in the arm, but was fatally struck himself. He died yesterday afternoon in the house of the attendant surgeon.’
She closed her eyes for a moment, but the hot tears that had rushed to the surface a moment or so earlier had gone, stifled completely by the firm grip she’d taken on herself. ‘My poor Tom,’ she said quietly. ‘What shall I do without you?’
The quiet strength with which she held herself in check impressed him, and somehow he couldn’t believe she was an adventuress. And yet … What did he really know about her? Nothing. Nothing at all.
She looked at him again. ‘Where is he now?’
‘In the care of the undertakers. The funeral is arranged for the day after tomorrow at St George’s, Hanover Square.’
She was alarmed. ‘But I cannot possibly afford so fashionable a church, Lord Highclare. I am – was only a governess.’
Was? So the vicious Lady Lawrence had plunged the dagger in already, had she? ‘You don’t have to afford it, Miss Cherington, the responsibility is mine.’
‘As both his second and his friend. I’ve undertaken to meet whatever costs arise.’
‘Oh.’ She lowered her eyes for a moment, obviously unsure about something important. ‘Lord Highclare, will I be able to attend?’
The question took him aback. ‘Of course. There’s absolutely no question of you not attending. Why do you ask?’
‘St George’s is very Mayfair, sir, and circumstances have reduced me to being little more than a servant.’
‘You’re Tom Cherington’s sister, and you’re a lady, Miss Cherington. That’s all that matters.’ He hesitated. ‘Tom loved you very much, and he was conscience-stricken that he’d failed in his duty toward you.’
Her eyes fled to his face. ‘But I didn’t blame him for anything, Lord Highclare.’
‘He knew that.’ He took the letter from his pocket. ‘He wanted me to give you this.’
Slowly she took it, looking for a long moment at the impression of her brother’s ring in the hard wax. Then she broke the seal and began to read.
My dearest Louisa,
I hope with all my heart that you can forgive me for leaving you like this, but if you regard it as little more than further proof of my shabbiness, then I shall not be able to blame you. I’ve been a poor brother, too unmindful of my duties and responsibilities, and too preoccupied with my own selfish pleasures. I’m ashamed of myself, and that shame has led me to remain silent about your very existence. Those who knew our family in the past were led to believe that you’d perished along with our parents; those who knew nothing about us, we left in ignorance. Kit knew nothing until I told him tonight.
She looked up. ‘You – you are Kit?’ He nodded.
She read on.
My conscience has been weighing more and more heavily in recent weeks, and has become a burden that has driven me to belatedly attempt to right the wrongs I’ve done you. You must do as I ask, Louisa, otherwise I shall not rest in peace. Accept my good friend Kit, become Lady Highclare and the future Countess of Redway. Do this, and you’ll permit me to at last have done my duty. Be happy with him, my dearest, and remember me sometimes.
Your loving and repentant brother,
She stared at the letter. Accept his good friend Kit? Become Lady Highclare and the future Countess of Redway? It was too much to take in. Slowly she folded the letter again. She felt as if she were asleep and caught up in a nightmare; but it wasn’t a nightmare, it was all only too real.
Kit belatedly realized that Tom had taken the initiative from him by mentioning the match in the letter; he could see it in her face.
She swallowed. ‘Lord Highclare, I don’t know what all this is about. Indeed, I think my brother must have made a mistake.’
‘Yes.’ Taking a long breath, still needing to hold on to her composure, she met his gaze. ‘Thank you for coming to see me; it was very kind of you.’
So she was going to terminate the interview without even mentioning it. Hardly the action of a fortune-seeker. ‘Miss Cherington, I have much more to discuss with you than Tom’s death.’
‘Yes, and now that you’ve read his letter, I rather think you know what I’m about to say.’
She stared at him, gradually realizing what he was saying. ‘You mean that what Tom said about…?’ She couldn’t finish it, it was too preposterous. What possible reason could a man like this have for marrying a penniless governess?
‘Yes, Miss Cherington, I’ve come here to ask for your hand in marriage,’ he said quietly, watching the expression flitting across her pale, strained face.
She was totally at a loss. ‘Lord Highclare, I don’t know what you and Tom agreed together, but I assure you that you aren’t under any obligation to marry me. I gladly release you from any promise you may have made, for I’m well aware that I’m totally unsuitable as a future countess. I’m a governess, and as far as society’s concerned, I’m not even a competent one, for I’ve been dismissed without a reference, so I know full well that I’m the very last person you should want as a wife. I’d be an encumbrance, and I’ve no wish to be that to anyone.’
Again hardly the reaction of an adventuress. ‘It doesn’t matter to me that you’ve been reduced to your present circumstances, Miss Cherington. I still wish to make you my wife.’
Her large gray eyes searched his face, and then she shook her head a little, as if she thought she was imagining it all. ‘Lord Highclare, I find this quite incredible, for when I look at you I see a gentleman of very distinguished appearance, a man of rank and fashion who must be very sought after indeed, and yet you come here to offer for someone like me. I have to ask myself why you’d do such a thing.’
‘I’ve already explained.’
‘Yes, you say it’s a matter of duty.’
‘That is correct.’
‘If your family duty matters so much to you, sir, why haven’t you married before now?’ Her gaze was unexpectedly penetrating.
He smiled a little. ‘I can see that nothing less than the truth will do. Very well, I’ll tell you. I’ve remained single because the woman I wanted to marry was already married to someone else.’ He didn’t elaborate, for he didn’t want to mention Thea by name and he certainly didn’t want to risk mentioning Rowe again so soon after bringing the news of Tom’s death. He found himself wishing that Thea was married to anyone in the world other than William, Lord Rowe, for he felt distinctly uncomfortable about asking Louisa Cherington to be his bride when his mistress was married to the man who’d dispatched Tom Cherington into the hereafter.
She’d looked away when he’d answered. She felt oddly clearheaded. So much that was painful had happened this morning, and now there was this, but somehow she felt extremely perceptive. It was as if her senses had been heightened by the strain of all that had gone before. He spoke of the other woman in his life as if she were in the past, but she knew that that wasn’t so, this other woman was very much part of him still. She looked at him again. ‘Lord Highclare, do you really, in your heart of hearts, wish to proceed with such a match?’
She didn’t reply, for she could see that he meant what he said, no matter what his feelings were for this other woman.
‘Miss Cherington, what is your answer? Will you marry me?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, almost in bewilderment. ‘I really don’t know what to do.’ The clearheadedness seemed suddenly to desert her.
‘What does the alternative hold for you? I stayed at the Green Dragon last night, as did Lady Lawrence and Captain Lawrence, and so I know full well why you’ve been dismissed.’
‘Oh.’ A little dull color stained her cheeks as she wondered exactly what he’d heard said of her, for she had no doubt that Geoffrey Lawrence would taunt her stepmother.
‘If you don’t accept my offer, Miss Cherington, you face penury, don’t you? You’ve been dismissed without a reference, and so you’ll find it virtually impossible to find another position. What, then? What options are open to a young woman in desperate need, especially a young woman as attractive as you? I don’t think I need to elaborate, do I?’
‘No.’ The color had heightened on her cheeks now.
‘Marry me and you’ll lack for nothing, you’ll move in the highest circles in the land, be mistress of a fine house in Grosvenor Square, and chatelaine of an even finer one on the Isle of Wight. Maybe I’m not offering you a love match, but I’ll show you every respect and consideration, and no one in society will ever know that ours isn’t an affair of the heart.’ He smiled slightly. ‘Society has a habit of looking down upon calculated contracts, Miss Cherington, and I wouldn’t wish that on you; on the contrary, I’d do all I can to protect you from such unpleasantness.’
She lowered her glance for a moment, trying to assimilate everything, but the clarity of earlier had seemingly gone forever. ‘What does your family think about all this, Lord Highclare?’
‘I haven’t any family, except my grandfather, the earl, and he’s spent so long recently trying to persuade me to do my duty by tying the knot that he’ll be only too pleased that I’ve at last done just that.’
‘He’d be pleased at such a misalliance?’
‘I don’t regard it as a misalliance, Miss Cherington.’
‘Nevertheless, sir, that’s exactly what it is. You could have your pick of brides, but you’ve chosen to ask me. I can’t really believe your grandfather will be delighted, no matter how much he wants you to do your duty.’ She was silent for a moment. ‘When would you wish such a marriage to take place?’ It wasn’t until this question slipped out that she realized she was seriously considering the proposition.
‘Two days after Tom’s funeral.’
She stared at him. ‘So soon? But what of a respectable period of mourning for Tom? I couldn’t possibly …’
‘Tom didn’t want you to go into mourning; he wanted us to marry as quickly as possible, and by my calculation I could arrange for a special license for that day at the earliest. A swift marriage would be the wisest move, Miss Cherington, for it would bolster a tale of a love match, and it would mean taking on all the gossip in a short period of time. There will be gossip, you know, for such a match is bound to cause a sensation. First of all, society will learn of your very existence, then you’ll be Lady Highclare, and it will be a nine days’ wonder. If your name is attached to mine for a long time before the wedding, then the less agreeable elements in society – and there are many – will feel at liberty to discuss your character
That wouldn’t be a very desirable state of affairs, as I think you’ll agree. An early marriage would confound them, and that
be a desirable state of affairs. I have to return to the Isle of Wight soon because I’ve engaged to take part in an important yacht race against Lord Grantham, and if you accept my proposal, we could be man and wife before I leave London.’ He paused. ‘Have I been anticipating too much? Maybe you’ve already decided to turn me down.’