1816, Scottish Borders region
he Earl of Vere scowled. “Damn it, Serena, you can’t back out now. Not after the plans have been made. If you don’t go to London who will you marry? What do you have left here?”
Lady Serena Weir stared out the solar’s window, studying the bleak late February landscape. Snow covered the ground, more gray than white; the trees lifeless and black against the gloom. She glanced over her shoulder at her brother, James. “I could marry Cameron.”
“Do you even care for him more than moderately?”
“No, but he needs to marry, and he likes me.” She turned back to the window. Snow still covered the hills. In another month they’d be the feeding ground for the castle’s sheep and cattle. But if Mattie, her new sister-in-law, had her way, Serena would not be there to see it.
James snorted with derision. “Cameron likes your dowry. Mattie has made all the plans. She assures me you’ll have a wonderful time.”
Serena pressed her lips tightly together.
he’d said, as if they had taken on a life.
for her to go to London for her first Season at six and twenty years of age. A little old to be making a come out.
meant she would leave her home. The place she had been born and raised and never before left. Tears pricked her eyelids. She would not cry. Not in front of James. If a London Season was such a good idea, why hadn’t he sold out of the army after their father died, when she was still young? Instead, he’d left her here to manage the estate while he remained on Wellington’s staff.
James had returned shortly before Christmas, with his bride, Madeleine—Mattie, as she liked to be called—and Serena’s ordered life was thrown into turmoil. She no longer knew what her future held.
Despite her warm cashmere dress and woolen shawl, Serena shivered. No matter how many fires were lit, Vere was always cold and damp, even in the solar, the warmest room in the castle. London would probably be warmer. That might be a good reason to go.
James teased her in the local dialect. “Serena, lass . . .”
She bit her lip. “James Weir, I
you did not speak Scots with Wellington.”
“Please, Sissy?” her brother said, reverting to his childhood name for her. “Stop looking out the window and talk to me.”
Serena sighed, but turned. Her brother was tall with dark brown hair, like their mother’s, whereas she had her father’s auburn curls. She’d known he would marry, but it never occurred to her that he would bring a wife home with him. Or that she would be forced to leave.
Serena fought her sudden panic, but there truly was nothing here for her anymore. “Fine. I’ll go.”
“Good girl!” He smiled. “I’ll tell Mattie it’s settled.”
James gave Serena a peck on the cheek and strode out the door.
“Do. Go tell Mattie,” Serena muttered in frustration.
What didn’t he tell Mattie?
London was Mattie’s idea to rid herself of her unwanted sister-in-law. Serena had been presented with the plans
au fait accompli
. Somehow, she would have to make the best of it.
Early the next day, Serena and James left on the week-long journey from the Cheviot Hills to the home of their Aunt Catherine, the Dowager Marchioness of Ware. James spent the night, but left early the next morning.
Mary, Serena’s lady’s maid, was still unpacking her trunk, when her aunt entered the bedchamber.
“Let me see what you’ve brought with you,” Aunt Catherine said.
Serena tried to smile, but tears filled her eyes. Aunt Catherine was her mother’s twin and Serena wished her mother was here to reassure her. In answer to her aunt’s question, she replied, “I’m afraid none of it is fashionable.”
“You’ve had no reason to think about being stylish, have you?”
Serena shook her head.
“Will it hurt your feelings if I told you I’d suspected that?”
She was still too numb to feel much of anything. “No.”
Mary stood aside as Aunt Catherine sorted through the clothes, discarding most of them. She held up Serena’s riding habit. “Well, this, at least, seems to be in good condition and not too out of date.”
Serena grimaced. “It’s probably the newest piece of clothing I own.”
“No matter at all, my child. I knew you would need a new wardrobe. It will be much easier to toss everything and begin anew. A visit to a good modiste in York will start you. When we arrive in London, we shall visit Madame Lisette on Bruton Street.” Aunt Catherine paused. “Have you danced at all?”
“I had a dancing master when Papa was well.”
“When was that? No, don’t tell me. It was too long ago to have mattered. We’ll hire one in London.” Aunt Catherine made a face at the pile of clothes on the floor. “Other than your riding habit, is there anything you wish to keep?”
Serena glanced at the now-empty trunks and shook her head. “No, only something to wear until I have new gowns to replace the old.”
Her aunt’s kind, patient gaze stayed on Serena for a few moments. “Good. I am glad to hear it. There is nothing more unfortunate than being attached to a gown that is quite out of style and in no way useful.” Aunt Catherine turned to go. “We’ll visit York to-morrow.”
After she left, Serena said, “Mary, please leave me for a while.”
“Yes, my lady. Is there anything I can get you?”
“No, I’m fine.” Serena sat on the window seat. Her throat hurt from holding back the tears she would not allow to fall. How anyone thought she was going to find a husband at her age, she didn’t know. It was as if she’d been set adrift. How was she going to learn everything required when she’d only been in small villages? She’d never attended a proper ball or been to a modiste. Serena bit her lip to keep the tears at bay.
Darkness seemed to surround her. She pressed her head against the cold glass. Eventually the weak winter sun faded and the room dimmed. By the time a knock sounded on the door, Serena had stopped feeling sorry for herself and vowed to carry on. She was the daughter of an earl and the granddaughter of an English marquis. Rising, she went to the basin and splashed water on her face. “Come.”
“Her ladyship wants to know if you’ll join her for dinner.” Mary lit the candles. “If you’re not up to it, she’ll send a tray.”
“No, I’ll be down shortly, unless she expects me to change.”
“No, my lady, she said to come as you are.”
The next few days were spent in such a whirl of shopping Serena felt she’d been turned upside down. Never in her life had another person made her a priority.
She gazed at her aunt, then at the large pile of new gowns and packages, and laughed. “I’m sure I cannot wear half so many.”
“Well, I’m happy to hear you laugh, my dear, which you haven’t done since you arrived.” Aunt Catherine’s humorous gray eyes sparkled. “You will need many more when we arrive in Town. You will have routs, balls, dinners, afternoon teas, and morning visits to occupy you, as well as other entertainments.”
Serena trembled. A Season would be worse than she’d thought. “I had no idea.”
“No, I daresay you did not, but there is no need to take fright.” Her aunt smiled warmly. “I am extremely pleased with you. Your manners are very pretty and self-assured, and your mind is well informed. You will do splendidly.”
I’m no longer in my salad days.”
“Serena, my dear,” Aunt Catherine said in a no-nonsense tone, “even your age may be put to advantage. Not every gentleman wants a young miss. You know how to manage a great house and an estate, and you do not want for sense. I can think of any number of gentlemen who will not look upon you amiss.”
Unconvinced, Serena merely agreed and allowed the matter to drop.
Early the next morning, Serena ordered a stable-boy to saddle Shamir.
After he’d done as she bid, he glanced toward the stable. “I’ll just get your groom, Will, to go with ye, my lady.”
Serena’s nerves were strung too tightly for company. She needed a good gallop this morning, and Will would slow her down. “No, I’ll be fine without him.”
The boy helped her mount without arguing. After she’d cleared the stable yard, Serena cantered south up a rise and gazed out over the still barren fields. The frost was not as heavy this morning, nor the air quite as cold. It was late, but spring was coming. The land tugged at her. She’d rather be planting than dancing.
A man on a large black horse appeared in the valley and stared up at her. He looked tall, but it was hard to tell at this distance. A breeze ruffled his fair hair as he rode toward her. After a few moments, Serena realized he was riding not simply in her direction, but to her. Her aunt had warned her not to ride alone. Was this man the reason for the warning? Whirling Shamir around, she gave the horse his head and rode back to her aunt’s house as if someone was chasing her.
Robert Beaumont rode toward the woman on the crest of the hill. She sat atop a raking roan, much too large for a lady. Her riding habit, a dull rust color, reminded him of autumn leaves. Her long auburn hair curled down her back, and she wore a small hat with some sort of feather—pheasant, by the way it stuck out. He wondered how the devil she kept the hat on her head with her hair down. His interest piqued, he urged his horse to a trot. As he neared, she took off at a fast gallop.
She was gone when he reached the top of the hill. Beaumont looked out over the valley. A horse and rider were in the north. How had she gotten that far so quickly? Disgruntled, he turned and rode home. After throwing his reins to a groom, he strode through the doors into the main hall and called to his housekeeper, “Norry!”
She came out from a parlor. “I’m here, my lord. There’s no reason to shout.”
“Who lives to the north?”
“Well, my lord,” she muttered, “if you were here more often, you’d know. It’s a widow lady. I can’t remember her name right off the top of my head. Why?”
Ignoring Norry’s all too familiar complaint, he pressed for more information. “Does she have any children?”
The housekeeper narrowed her eyes. “I heard all her children are grown. She moved here after her son married. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my lord, I have work to do.”
“Norry, let me know if you remember. Especially if it concerns an auburn-haired female.”
she began in a censorious tone, “we’ll have none of your carrying on up here. You leave it in London.” She nodded her head curtly and left.
Beaumont clenched his jaw and stormed off to his study, cursing the fact that so many of his servants had been with him since childhood, and never let him forget it.
Shamir’s hooves clattered on the brick of the stable yard. Serena slid down from her horse and, hoping to avoid her aunt, hurried to a door on the side of the house. Serena had not yet found a way to explain to her aunt how riding calmed her fears so that she would understand.
“Serena,” Aunt Catherine called from the breakfast room.
caught again. “Yes, Aunt Catherine?”
“Come here, my dear.”
She was certain her aunt planned, once again, to kindly explain why Serena could not ride alone. Though, after seeing the man on horseback this morning, she acknowledged her aunt might be right.
Well, there was no avoiding it. Serena straightened her shoulders and entered the breakfast room braced for a reprimand.
Her jaw dropped.
Two very fashionable couples were with her aunt—one older, about her aunt’s age, the other couple near her age. The men wore close-fitting dark coats and beautifully arranged cravats. They and the younger woman, shorter than Serena by a few inches, rose. Her gown was of a light brown cashmere, trimmed with dark brown ribbon, and tied under her bosom with a darker brown and gold twisted cord.
Serena shut her mouth and stood, rooted in place. The younger woman approached, smiling and holding out her hands. Serena, in her dull russet riding habit, felt like a duck to this lady’s swan.
“I am so happy to finally meet you,” the woman said. “I’m your cousin Phoebe. May I call you Serena? It is such a lovely name. We are here to help you make your debut.”
When Phoebe embraced Serena warmly, she awkwardly returned the gesture. Serena blinked back tears and her tension seeped out as Phoebe then led the way to the table.
“You’re surprised, I’m sure,” Phoebe said, in a warm voice. “I’ve just been told your aunt did not inform you we were coming.”
Serena glanced toward her aunt, who immediately introduced the others present. “Serena, do you remember your uncle Henry and his wife, Ester? Phoebe is their niece. Her husband is Marcus, Earl of Evesham.”
The tall dark-haired man inclined his head.
“Your uncle Henry has been very interested to hear of you over the years and has invited us to stay at St. Eth House for the Season.” Aunt Catherine smiled. “There is no one more able to help you through your Season.”
Serena’s throat ached. She did remember her uncle Henry, the Marquis of St. Eth, her mama’s brother. He’d come to her mother’s funeral. But her father hadn’t liked her mother’s family, and there had been very little contact after her mother’s passing. When her father died, Uncle Henry wrote her with an offer of help. She wished she’d taken it and desperately wished she’d made her come out when she was younger. “I—I don’t know what to say. Your generosity is almost too good to be true.”
Phoebe took her hand. “Please, don’t let us frighten you. We truly only wish to help. When Uncle Henry told Marcus and me about you, and asked that we accompany him here, we couldn’t allow the opportunity to pass us by.”
“I am just stunned. I had no idea Aunt Catherine would . . .”