Authors: Patricia Veryan
"The toss of a coin!" Deirdre Breckenridge's lovely face, lit by the
sunshine of this bright morning, was a study in dismay. She leaned
forward from the squabs of her luxurious barouche to peer into the
twinkling violet eyes of her companion. "You jest, surely? Do you love
him or not?"
Lady Sophia Drayton's ringlets, the colour of ripe wheat in
moonlight, bounced against her ivory-muslin morning dress. "I am… not
sure," she shrugged.
"Then you do not!" Deirdre gave a small but vehement nod. "And must
not even consider him!" She leaned back, surveying the pleasant Kentish
countryside they travelled as though the matter were quite settled.
Lady Sophia gave a little ripple of laughter. "Deirdre, we are not
all as single-minded as you. Most ladies meet and like—perhaps love a
little—many gentlemen before they decide. And too many of us, alas,
marry with no thought of love, though we may be so fortunate as to have
several from whom to choose."
"Several!" Deirdre scoffed. "Hartwell's offer
constitute your… well, you have received more than twenty offers by my count?"
"Thirty-one, were I to include my Italian beaux…"
"Oh, my! And is there none you favour above the others?"
A furrow appeared between the smooth brows, and the beautiful head
tilted as Sophia said musingly, "I suppose… Hartwell is the leading
? Lud! Sir Amory Hartwell is young, handsome, and wealthy. One of the finest prizes on the matrimonial market! And you—
"You forget, love. I am a widow and past all such dreams as finding
my heart's desire." A roguish dimple hovered beside my lady's sweetly
shaped mouth as her friend uttered a sound that—in any but one of
London's leading toasts— must have been designated a snort.
"You were a seventeen-year-old sacrifice! Married off in your first
season to a man old enough to be your Grandpapa in an effort to
retrieve your family fortunes! Oh, never bother to deny it, Sophia! I
was truly fond of Sir Edgar, but"—she giggled—"I often think of how
furious your Papa must have been to discover his wealthy friend was
totally under the hatches and that he himself was obliged to pay
Drayton's funeral expenses!"
Sophia gave a sigh at this reminder of her charming but improvident
father. "You," she scolded mildly, "are, and ever were, a saucy scamp!
Papa sought to provide for me, God rest his dear soul. But,"—she
scanned her friend's face anxiously—"Edgar died… happy… do you not
"Very happy," agreed the Breckenridge, adding wickedly, "and of anticipation!"
"Deirdre!" Sophia threw a hand to her scarlet cheek but, meeting
those mirthful dark eyes, could not hold back a giggle. "I vow I shall
never cease to feel guilty that the poor old fellow died at his own
wedding reception! And it was very naughty of
him to offer for a beautiful young girl at his age. Especially when he
was pockets to let! At all events, your cousin Clay told me they found
Edgar sitting in the garden as if asleep and with a rapturous smile on
his face. What a blessed way to go!" She chuckled, then, sobering,
asked, "Do you contemplate another
mariage de convenance
, Sophia? I beg you will not. You know that if things go badly, you and Stephen are more than welcome to come—"
"Of course, I do, you goose!" Sophia squeezed her hand
affectionately. "And as for marriage—why, I may decide against it
…it?" Deirdre gasped. "But whatever shall you do?"
Lady Sophia folded her hands in her lap and tilted up her chin.
"Look after Whitthurst, of course." And, quick to sense her friend's
indignation, she added, "He needs me."
"He needed you when he was so terribly ill," frowned Deirdre. "And
you were beside him. What he needs now is a wife, not a sister!"
"Perhaps, but he vows he will never marry. And he goes out so seldom, Deirdre. Poor boy, he is so very subdued."
"Scarce to be wondered at." Deirdre shook her head sadly, then asked cautiously, "Sophia, does he feel… I mean, is he…?"
"He is maimed, love. And proud. But it's more than the loss of his
arm, I fear. He seems to have… lost heart." Deirdre said nothing, but
her dark gaze was filled with compassion, wherefore Sophia brightened
at once. "Listen to me grumbling like an old lady! Whitthurst will make
a full recovery— in time. It is, after all, only four months since
Waterloo, and—Oh! My goodness!"
They had passed through some rather drooping ornamental iron gates
and now traversed a small park. Ahead was Singlebirch, a gracious old
sprawling, half-timbered house with a look of welcome and comfort,
albeit the woodwork needed fresh paint, and the shrubs were overgrown.
It was not the shabby appearance of her ancestral home that alarmed
Sophia, however, but the lady who stood upon the terrace, watching
their approach in an attitude of anxiety. As soon as the barouche
pulled up at the foot of the steps, she was out of the vehicle and
running to the faithful housekeeper. "What is it, Hettie? Is the
"He's gone, milady! Oh, my sweet soul… he's gone!"
The kindly face blurred before Sophia's eyes. Then Deirdre's arm was
about her as she said calmly, "Speak plainly, Hettie! Is Lord
Whitthurst from home?"
"Yes, yes!" The plump little woman wrung at her apron. "Your cousin
come, milady. Sir Harry. And when he left, the Viscount was all of a
state and went tearing off in his curricle."
"The curricle! Heavens! But where does he go?"
"To see his wicked uncle! The one wot lives in Dorset and come and shouted at him so drefful whiles you was in Italy!"
"Good God!" gasped Deirdre, tightening her arm about her friend's
swaying form. "Whitthurst will be all right, love. Never worry so!"
Sophia scarcely heard her. "Hettie," she managed in a thread of a voice, "you never mean—you
mean… My brother did not go to—
The housekeeper nodded vehemently. "To see that horrid Markwiss!"
"All the way to Dorset?" marvelled Deirdre. "Whitt must be vastly improved."
"He may stop at my cousin Clay's home in Surrey." Sophia was very white. "I must leave at once!"
"But—surely there's no cause for such a taking? Whitthurst has his
man and his groom, does he not, Hettie? There—you see. You could—"
"No, no! You do not understand!" Sophia wrung her hands but, pulling
herself together, said with a twitching attempt at a smile, "Forgive
me, Deirdre. You go on. If I can, I shall join you in Town to help you
choose your bride clothes. Hettie! Call Meg and Miss Jarrett at once
and tell them to pack for several days. They must both accompany me. I
will tell James to prepare the carriage.
Leading the way down the back steps of the pleasant house, the
elderly butler said, "The Major went out to sit quietly for—" He
paused, shook his head, and turned away. Her ladyship was already
hurrying across the grass to where Clay dozed on his favourite bench
under the old laburnum tree.
So it was that Marcus Clay, who had known little of sleep these past
weeks, awoke from a troubled slumber to find his most beautiful cousin
descending upon him with a flutter of petticoats, agitated little
hands, and a breathless spate of enquiries. He sprang up, but even as
he bent to kiss her smooth cheek, she asked, "Is Stephen here? Have you
seen him today? It looks like rain now. Do you not smell it in the air?
He is not
enough, Marcus, to be careering about all over the countryside, with only—"
Clay threw an arm about her and, half laughing, said, "Hush, Chicky!
You chatter like a magpie! Do you seriously mean that Whitthurst is out
"Yes, yes! And I am half out of my wits worrying lest he exhaust himself!"
"You worry too much about him, Sophia. Come." He drew her down on to
the bench beside him, noting as he did so that the skies had darkened
and the air was becoming more chill. "We've had so little time together
since you returned from Italy. You shall simply have to spare me a
moment or two, dear girl, and tell me—calmly—where Whitt has gone. And
Sophia would not be calmed. "To see his uncle. And I do not know
why. Harry Redmond stopped at Singlebirch whilst I was out, and Stephen
went rushing off, and—oh, Marcus! I
catch him before he reaches Cancrizans, else he will—"
?" he interpolated. "The Priory? But—it's in
Dorsetshire! Surely Whitt would never be so corkbrained as to start out
with weather blowing up, and him just this side of having turned up his
toes—" He broke off at the flicker of pain in Sophia's great eyes and
added a repentant, "Clumsy clunch that I am! Sorry, coz. This whole
mess must be a most ghastly coil for you to come home to. Had you no
idea he meant to join up?"
"None!" She clung to his hand and said tremulously, "For he promised
Mama he would not. Surely you realize I would never have left her else?"
"Of course not," he soothed. "How could you have known? Not like old Whitt to break his given word. Though… he
mad to get into it, Chicky."
"Mad, indeed," she said with a touch of bitterness. "Heaven knows,
with the service record of our family, we might have been spared the
sacrifice of one more life to this dreadful, unending war!"
He pointed out gently that the war
ended. "And Whitthurst did not lose his life, praise be!"
"No," she sighed. "Only his right arm. Four and twenty— and ruined."
"You know that's not true," he scolded, pulling her to her feet.
"Whitt's too fine a fellow to be written off so easily." They started
towards the house together, and he asked thoughtfully, "Who travels
"My maids and James."
"What?" Shocked, he drew her to a halt. "Two frippery abigails and an elderly groom? By God, that will not do, Sophia!"
"It shall have to do!" Her little chin set in the manner he knew so
well. "I fought hard for Stephen's life, and I do not intend to lose
him now because he rushes out in the rain and takes an inflammation of
"But you cannot go to see Damon alone! Ain't… decent!"
"I have no choice… unless—" She bit her lip and was silent.
Clay swung open the side door to the library, his eyes troubled. So
the headstrong Sophia was determined to journey to Cancrizans Priory.
How strange a coincidence that she must visit the Marquis, the very man
who might be able to help him. He knew Damon very slightly, and it was
doubtful that Sophia knew him at all. Certainly, she could not be
allowed to go all that way without a proper escort. To accompany her
would be no hardship, for he always found her delightful, and if the
undertaking of so pleasant a journey would also further his own hopes,
he must be a paperskull to hesitate. He made up his mind. "Esther is in
good hands. I will ride with you, Chicky."
Sophia leaned back in the comfortable wing chair in Clay's study and
sipped gratefully at her tea. Thank heaven Marcus had agreed to
accompany her. She was very fond of him, and his presence would offer
her both company and protection. If they were unable to overtake
Stephen before he reached the Priory, she would not have to face Damon
alone. And with a fighting man like Clay beside her, even if the
Marquis had learned of her revenge, he would not dare harm—
Smithers' honest round eyes peered at her around the French doors to
the verandah. She hurried to close the hall door and beckoned the groom
'"Scuse Oi, marm, but ye said as how Oi was to tell ye if Major
seemed downhearted loike." He tiptoed clumsily across the room. "Just
afore ye come"—he bowed his face into his hands imitatively—"like
that'n were 'ee. Major don't never get squashed by bad times. But
squashed 'ee were! Never seed un' like that—even at the storm o'
Concealing her anxiety, my lady asked, "Do you know why? I saw
little Douglas when I arrived and thought he looked less frail. Mrs.
Clay seems to be recovering nicely from her lying-in—and the baby is
"Oi couldn't say, milady." He frowned, scratching his head. "Less'n it were summat as Mr. Gordon says s'marnin'."
"Major Clay's solicitor was here? Oh, dear! Whatever can be amiss?"
The young man racked his rather obtuse brain and admitted, "All Oi
heered 'un say was about the new gate. That's all they seemed to talk
on. Blessed if Oi can see why the Major should be so squashed account
o' a new gate!"
Sophia thanked him, pressed a coin into his hand, and when he had
gone, returned to her chair to puzzle at it. Stephen said Marcus was
under the hatches, and, with Esther for a wife, that was
understandable. But surely the Duke of Vaille would help with financial
problems. Clay would not come into his inheritance for more than a
year, but as executor of Benjamin Clay's estate, Vaille could release
sufficient funds to help the Major over this heavy ground. Of course,
the Duke had been against Clay's marriage, but to deny him his due
would be Turkish treatment, indeed.
Clay had fallen in love with the beautiful but feather-headed Esther
five years earlier. His affection had been returned, and Esther had
happily married the dashing young cavalry officer, only to be
devastated by his frequent and perilous absences. Left alone save for
his brief and infrequent leaves, she had become increasingly miserable
and, during her second pregnancy, had pleaded to be allowed to join
him. Clay had been sorely tempted since in that summer of 1815 so many
had gathered in Brussels. His wife's health
was poor, however, and her doctors had advised Clay against it. He had
kept their warnings from her, saying only that with Bonaparte on the
loose again, it was too dangerous and, at least until the child was
born, she must remain in England. At once, the sick girl had deduced
she was not only unwanted but unloved. Bored and heartbroken, she had
indulged a taste for gaming, and to such a degree that when Clay
returned from Waterloo in a blaze of glory, it was to find his finances
a shambles, his remorseful wife near death from grief and guilt, and
his creditors pressing in from every side.