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Authors: Patricia Veryan

The Tyrant

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For Kit and Bill M.

true friends and compatriots

I

England, July 1746

The seamstress who had worked for many hours on the exact fit of the stomacher and the precise falls of the pleats at the back of the pink taffeta
robe a la française
would have thrown up her hands in horror could she have seen her peerless creation on this warm summer evening. For the Watteau pleats trailed in the dust, the laces were crushed, and the lady who wore the delicious gown was seated on a rustic garden bench, a willing captive in strong military arms.

Drawing back sighfully from those same arms, Miss Phoebe Ramsay raised her elegantly powdered head, and guilt came into her eyes. They were green eyes, wide and thickly lashed, set under delicately arching brows and enhanced by an enchanting, full-lipped face. Miss Ramsay, a true connoisseur might argue, did not possess pure classic beauty. Her mouth, sweetly as it was curved, had neither a pouting nor rosebud quality, and her nose, although small and delicate, had a slightly retroussé tilt. The true connoisseur would have been laughed to scorn: Miss Ramsay was widely held to be a true Fair, and much admired in both London and Surrey.

“Brooks,” she said, placing one little hand against the broad chest of her ardent companion, “how wicked we are! I should not meet you alone like this—much less kiss a gentleman to whom I am not officially betrothed.”

Captain Brooks Lambert wasted not a second in seizing that mittened hand and pressing it to his lips. “Only because Fate has been so dashed uncooperative,” he said indignantly. “Two years I've worshipped at your shrine. And I doubt I've seen you alone above a dozen times in all that while, and then but for a few stolen minutes!”

“And most improperly,” she said with a dimpling smile. “Besides, I was at Seminary, and then Cousin Nathaniel was killed, and we were in black gloves for a year.”

“And just when I
might
have been able to see you,” he appended glumly, “I was off to the Rebellion.”

She shuddered. “Those awful Jacobites! What a nightmare it was! I was fairly terrified for your sake.”

He kissed the hand he still held, and said smilingly, “And I, sustained through it all by the knowledge that at home waited the lady who puts the smile in my world. Even if I was sent off without her promise.”

“With my prayers,” she said, “for you are very dear to me—No, Lamb! How grateful I am that this wretched war is over and done with.”

“Over,” he said with sudden grimness, “but not done with.”

“Do you mean because of what the Duke of Cumberland is doing? They say the MP's and the Upper House wanted it, but I cannot believe they meant him to be as cruel and ruthless as we hear. Have you met him?”

“Oh, yes. A grand fellow, for such a youngster.”

“He is? But they say his reprisals in Scotland are unspeakable. And to hunt down and slaughter these fugitive Jacobite gentlemen seems so—”

“Fiddlesticks! The Scots and their fellow-travellers followed Charles Stuart willingly enough. What d'you suppose they'd have done if
they
had been the victors? All they live for is to fight—if not us, then they slaughter each other! I'd like to have seen some of these mealy-mouthed clemency merchants had Bonnie Charlie led his murderous Highlanders into London! We gave 'em a lesson they'll not soon forget, I can tell you! There'll be no more Stuarts on the throne spouting their rubbish of King by Divine Right, and an end to the parliamentary process! Could I but lay my hand on some of the English Catholics who fought for him, or who now shield his wretched fugi—” Here, catching sight of the troubled look in his love's eyes, he went on quickly, “Sorry, my dearest. There speaks the soldier, and I should not sully your dainty ears with such gruesome subjects. Now, Phoebe, give me an answer, I beg you. Unless … Is there, perhaps, someone else?”

She faltered, “Why—I, I have a lot of—”

“Of admirers,” he interposed, frowning. “How well I know it! But is there one amongst them whom you like better than you like me?”

He looked so anxious, and she eyed him fondly. Insofar as personal attributes went, Captain Lambert was a most worthy aspirant for her hand. He was well-born, tall, perfectly proportioned, and extremely good-looking. His fair hair, well powdered, waved thickly from a noble brow, below which dark blue eyes were set wide apart and fringed with long dark lashes. The nose was straight, the mouth well shaped and quick to smile, the chin firm. It was indisputable that she cared for no man as much as she cared for him. He was brave, devoted, and unfailingly gentle with her. And Grandmama had often told her that the great loves she read of in books were seldom found in real life. Perhaps her deep affection for Brooks
was
love, and it was just silly romancing to wait for the soaring, worshipful adoration she so yearned for; that blessed moment when she would
know
that this was the perfect mate for her, however imperfect he might be in little unimportant ways; that this was the one, the
only
love. Thus, stifling a sigh, she replied softly, “No one, dear Lamb.”

“Well, there you are, then,” he cried, triumphant. “Phoebe, my love, my own, I will cherish you always, and do my damnedest to make you happy! I swear it!”

“I know you will—would, but—”

“But!” he exclaimed impatiently. “Always that accursed
but
! What if your papa accepts the next old duffer who jingles his money-bags?”

Angered, she stood and drew herself up. “I see no cause for such a vulgar remark!”

“Oh, do you not?” he cried, rising to take her by the shoulders. “Do you fancy I'm unaware of why I'm not considered a good catch? I could provide well for
you,
my dearest. But not restore your family fortunes. A penniless captain of hussars don't suit your papa or your grandmother!” Releasing her, he sighed and added reluctantly, “Not that I can blame 'em.”

Phoebe bit her lip. What he said had an element of truth. Were she to go to her papa or to her formidable grandmother and plead to be allowed to marry Brooks, they'd likely agree, for she knew how dear she was to them. But she knew also how desperately her father hoped that she would make a match that would, to an extent at least, ensure the future of her brother and sisters.

Lady Eloise Ramsay had presented Sir George with six tokens of her affection, one of them stillborn, and another succumbing at the tender age of three to an attack of measles. The survivors were as healthy as they were handsome and, despite occasional lively quarrels, were a fond and close-knit family. Sir George had inherited a comfortable fortune, and both his country seat and his Town house on Clarges Street were spacious and luxurious. Between poor investments, a scoundrelly solicitor, and the extravagances of his charming wife, however, Sir George had, as the saying went, “brought a palace to a pigsty,” and while there was as yet no cause to be concerned for their daily bread, or to fear the roofs might be snatched from over their heads, penny-pinching had become the order of the day.

Sir George, craggy, kind-hearted but hot-tempered, who revelled in the life of a country squire and was not much given to introspection, now passed many a sleepless night worrying for his family's future. By contrast, Lady Eloise scarcely gave the matter a thought save when Sir George interfered with her plans to play silver loo, and adamantly forbade her the indulgence of any more gaming. (“Not even for
farthing
points!”) “Your papa, Phoebe,” my lady advised her eldest daughter, “is a prudent man.” And she added under her breath, “Who is becoming a scaly scrub!”

Phoebe had inherited her grandmama's beauty and her father's innate kindness. She was a warm-hearted girl with a tendency to impulsiveness that years spent within the pristine corridors of a select Young Ladies' Seminary had not entirely subdued. Numerous visits to her grandmother, however, had borne fruit. Old Lady Ramsay had inculcated into her granddaughter a love of art and literature, an appreciation of the wonders of music, and a basic understanding of the finances involved in such things as running a great house, providing for governesses, schools, and University, and preparing for come-outs. As a result, Phoebe could now sympathize with her sire's predicament. Belinda was only nine, and it would be several years before her presentation into Society need loom as a major expense. Julia, however, was not only fourteen, but already showing signs of becoming a real beauty. Two years, three at most, and she would have to be brought out. More urgently, Sinclair, surely the most unselfish and unassuming of brothers, was now reducing his tutor to despair because that worthy gentleman could barely keep up with his studious charge, much less teach him anything. At eighteen, Sinclair should already be at Oxford, and although he had never breathed a word of complaint, Phoebe was well aware that his brilliant mind must be clamouring for new fields to conquer. He was mad for archaeology, and it was his dream to study, travel, and eventually teach that fascinating subject. She sighed again. Costly dreams.

Silent now, Lambert offered his arm. She rested her hand on it, and they began to stroll slowly back towards the house. The smell of blossoms hung heavily on the warm night air. The velvety darkness of the heavens was studded with the brilliance of countless stars, a half-moon was peeping over the horizon, and the music that drifted softly from the open windows of the ballroom was embellished by the trill of a nightingale. Surely, a night made for romance.

The Captain put his strong hand over Phoebe's dainty fingers and said pleadingly, “Am I
so
contemptible, fair one? The allowance my uncle makes me is far from being a pittance. My Aunt Ophelia has promised I'll be her heir, and she's a wealthy woman. Not,” he added, “that I wish her to turn up her toes yet awhile.”

Phoebe smiled up at him, and he halted and turned her to face him. “Sweeting, if I have angered you, 'tis only because I am so—so deep in love. I'd give you all the world was it in my power.” Gazing down at her face, bewitchingly lovely in the moonlight, his clasp tightened and he said huskily, “Have you no hope to offer? Don't you really care at all?”

BOOK: The Tyrant
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ads

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