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The Pink Collection
 

The Pink Collection

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Welcome to the Pink Collection from Barbara Cartland this is a new collection of pure romance books from the biggest selling Romantic author of all time ...

Welcome to the Pink Collection from Barbara Cartland this is a new collection of pure romance books from the biggest selling Romantic author of all time
Book One of Two - The Cross Of Love
When Rena's father dies she is alone in the world, forced out of the vicarage that has been her home, with nowhere to go and no money. She seeks help at the large wooden cross standing in the nearby grounds of The Grange.
And there in the earth she finds three golden coins, which she hands over to the new young Earl of Lansdale. They form a friendship, the sweetest one of her life.
But her new happiness is threatened by Mr. Wyngate, a wealthy man determined to force the Earl to marry his daughter. There is something sinister about Mr. Wyngate, also another man who looks mysteriously like him, and seems to come and go without warning.
In the end, one man lies dead and another's heart is broken before Rena's faith and courage triumph.
Book Two of Two - Love in the Highlands
When the Balkan Prince Stanislaus demanded an English bride, Queen Victoria decided to send him Lady Lavina, whose family had a slight connection with royalty.
Determined to avoid this fate, Lavina threw herself on the mercy of the Marquis of Elswick, a disagreeable man who had turned his back on the world following betrayal by the woman he had loved. Surprisingly, he agreed to help by pretending to be engaged to Lavina, and, with her father, they left to visit her relatives in Scotland.
In the highlands Lavina began to find herself attracted to the Marquis. Beneath his harsh manners he had a heart - a heart that perhaps she could win.
But nearby was the Queen's country home, Balmoral, and when Her Majesty arrived with Prince Stanislaus, they knew that there was still a battle to be fought.
Now Lavina learned the shattering secret that was the real reason the Marquis had agreed to help her. And that secret was to threaten to take from her the man she loved.
How she discovered the truth in a way that nearly cost him his life, is told in this romantic novel .
If you enjoy Downton Abbey you will love Barbara Cartland.

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    The Pink Collection The Pink Collection Document Transcript

    • THE BARBARA CARTLAND PINK COLLECTION Barbara Cartland was the most prolific bestselling author in the history of the world. She was frequently in the Guinness Book of Records for writing more books in a year than any other living author. In fact her most amazing literary feat was when her publishers asked for more Barbara Cartland romances, she doubled her output from 10 books a year to over 20 books a year, when she was 77. She went on writing continuously at this rate for 20 years and wrote her last book at the age of 97, thus completing 400 books between the ages of 77 and 97. Her publishers finally could not keep up with this phenomenal output, so at her death she left 160 unpublished manuscripts, something again that no other author has ever achieved. Now the exciting news is that these 160 original unpublished Barbara Cartland books are ready for publication and they will be published by Barbaracartland.com exclusively on the internet, as the web is the best possible way to reach so many Barbara Cartland readers around the world. The 160 books will be published monthly and will be numbered in sequence. The series is called the Pink Collection as a tribute to Barbara Cartland whose favourite colour was pink and it became very much her trademark over the years. The Barbara Cartland Pink Collection is published only on the internet. Log on to www.barbaracartland.com to find out how you can purchase the books monthly as they are published, and take out a subscription that will ensure that all subsequent editions are delivered to you by mail order to your home.
    • Titles in this series These titles are currently available for download. For more information please see the Where to buy page at the end of this book 1. The Cross of Love 2. Love in the Highlands 3. Love Finds the Way 4. The Castle of Love 5. Love is Triumphant 6. Stars in the Sky 7. The Ship of Love 8. A Dangerous Disguise 9. Love Became Theirs 10. Love Drives In 11. Sailing to Love 12. The Star of Love 13. Music is the Soul of Love 14. Love in the East 15. Theirs to Eternity 16. A Paradise on Earth 17. Love Wins in Berlin 18. In Search of Love 19. Love Rescues Rosanna 20. A Heart in Heaven 21. The House of Happiness 22. Royalty Defeated by Love 23. The White Witch 24. They Sought Love 25. Love is the Reason for Living 26. They Found Their Way to Heaven 27. Learning to Love 28. Journey to Happiness 29. A Kiss in the Desert 30. The Heart of Love 31. The Richness of Love 32. For Ever and Ever 33. An Unexpected Love 34. Saved by an Angel 35. Touching the Stars 36. Seeking Love 37. Journey to Love 38. The Importance of Love 39. Love by the Lake 40. A Dream Come True 41. The King without a Heart 42. The Waters of Love 43. Danger to the Duke 44. A Perfect way to Heaven 45. Follow Your Heart 46. In Hiding
    • THE LATE DAME BARBARA CARTLAND Barbara Cartland, who sadly died in May 2000 at the grand age of ninety eight, remains one of the world’s most famous romantic novelists. With worldwide sales of over one billion, her outstanding 723 books have been translated into thirty six different languages, to be enjoyed by readers of romance globally. Writing her first book “Jigsaw” at the age of 21, Barbara became an immediate bestseller. Building upon this initial success, she wrote continuously throughout her life, producing bestsellers for an astonishing 76 years. In addition to Barbara Cartland’s legion of fans in the UK and across Europe, her books have always been immensely popular in the USA. In 1976 she achieved the unprecedented feat of having books at numbers 1 & 2 in the prestigious B. Dalton Bookseller bestsellers list. Although she is often referred to as the “Queen of Romance”, Barbara Cartland also wrote several historical biographies, six autobiographies and numerous theatrical plays as well as books on life, love, health and cookery. Becoming one of Britain’s most popular media personalities and dressed in her trademark pink, Barbara spoke on radio and television about social and political issues, as well as making many public appearances. In 1991 she became a Dame of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to literature and her work for humanitarian and charitable causes. Known for her glamour, style, and vitality Barbara Cartland became a legend in her own lifetime. Best remembered for her wonderful romantic novels and loved by millions of readers worldwide, her books remain treasured for their heroic heroes, plucky heroines and traditional values. But above all, it was Barbara Cartland’s overriding belief in the positive power of love to help, heal and improve the quality of life for everyone that made her truly unique. "Never look for love, love will find you"
    • Barbara Cartland
    • THE CROSS OF LOVE Rena had promised herself that she would never tell him of her love, for his sake. And yet the words burst from her, called forth by the intensity of his own emotion. John loved her. He had said so. And nothing in heaven or on earth could have prevented her from confessing her own love in return. “I love you,” he said, holding her away from him so that he could see her face. “I love you in every way that a man can love a woman. You are mine, and I am yours. That is how it has to be. It was meant. It's our destiny. I couldn't fight it if I wanted to. But I don't. I want to love you and rejoice in you all the days of my life. And if you don't feel the same I have nothing to live for.”
    • THE CROSS OF LOVE BARBARA CARTLAND Barbaracartland.com Ltd Copyright © 2004 by Cartland Promotions First published on the internet in 2004 by Barbaracartland.com The characters and situations in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no relation to any real person or actual happening. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronically or mechanically, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval, without the prior permission in writing from the publisher. eBook conversion by M-Y Books
    • CHAPTER ONE 1864 Crows wheeled and circled in the bleak winter sky, while the mourners huddled over the grave beneath. The chill in the air was not more bitter than the chill in their hearts. What will we do without him? How will we manage? The man they were laying in the earth had been their vicar and, in some ways, their father. In their tiny, remote village of Fardale, there was nobody else to care for them, and they remembered now that the Reverend Colwell had exhorted them, praised them, chastised, defended and loved them. Now he was gone, struck down by a chill he’d contracted visiting a sick parishioner on a snowy night. For a while he’d seemed to rally, then failed again, finally sinking into pneumonia, and fading gently away. They all felt his loss, but none more so than the pale, distraught girl who kept her eyes fixed on the open grave, and closed her eyes as the first clods of earth hit it. She was Rena Colwell, the dead man’s daughter. Beside her, a much younger girl, wearing a shawl over her head, slipped her hand into Rena’s, offering and giving comfort. She had the work roughened hands of a maid of all work. “Let’s get going, miss,” she urged. “Just a few more minutes, Ellie. I want to talk to the curate who read the service. Why don’t you go on to the vicarage, put the kettle on and make a few sandwiches? He’ll probably want to join us for tea before he leaves.” But when she approached the haughty young man, who’d travelled over from a distant parish to read the service, he made no bones about his eagerness to depart. He preferred the city and was clearly appalled by this backwater village. “Have you heard anything about who may be coming to take Papa’s place?” Rena asked.
    • “Well, it’s hardly the best situation, but there are always plenty of hacks who’ve lost hope of anything better.” She stiffened at the implied slur on her father, but he blundered on, oblivious. “So I should think somebody will turn up any day now. It’s a pity there’s nobody living in that huge house I passed on my way here. A great man always lends tone to a place, besides bringing employment.” “The last Earl of Lansdale died ten years ago,” Rena said. “Nobody seems to know who the next one is, or if there’s anyone at all. The family may have died out. The Grange has stood empty since then.” “Then it’s a bad business. Well, I must be going. I’ve got dinner waiting for me at my hotel.” Rena trudged home alone through the twilight, her heart heavy. In the kitchen she found Ellie, the only servant the vicar had been able to afford, ready with tea. The two young women sat together companionably in the kitchen, drinking tea in the fading light. “He was never the same after your Mama died,” Ellie said. “That’s true,” Rena sighed. “It’s strange to think that a year ago today she was still alive. And then she collapsed and died, and something went out of him. He was always very sweet and gentle to me, but I can’t help feeling he’s happier now.” “What are you going to do, miss?” Rena gave a wry smile. “I don’t know. That curate made sure to remind me that I shall have to move out of here soon. I’m glad, of course. The village needs a parson. But I don’t know where I’ll go.” “You could be a teacher, miss. You know ever so much.” “Well, I read a lot, but I’m afraid I don’t know enough to be a teacher or a governess. I could care for children, but nobody around here is rich enough to hire me. In fact the only thing I’m any good at is keeping house.” Ellie gave a little scream. “You can’t be a housekeeper miss. What would your Mama have said?”
    • “Mama wouldn’t have approved,” Rena agreed. “Her family were ‘gentry’ who thought themselves above a marriage with the clergy. They were very shocked when she fell in love with Papa. “But I must earn my living somehow, and I’d be glad to hear of any honest employment before I have to leave here.” She gave Ellie a rueful smile. “I’m afraid I can’t afford to keep you on – “ “That’s all right miss. Mum’ll be glad to have me home now our Gladys has married. Besides, it’s time I reminded Bert I was alive.” “Bert?” “The butcher’s boy, miss. He’ll do very nicely for me.” Ellie departed next morning in search of whatever success she might have ensnaring Bert. Rena was left alone in a draughty, echoing house, knowing that soon she would be homeless. Reared on the virtues of thrift and industry she immediately set about searching for a situation. Although she’d told Ellie she wasn’t qualified to be a teacher she tried to obtain a teaching post. She would try anything that was honest. But it was January, and no school was hiring teachers. She placed her name on the books of a couple of agencies. One summoned her to an interview in a town so distant that she had no hope of getting there. Another offered an interview twenty miles away. She walked the distance, got caught in a rainstorm and arrived sodden and covered with mud. On the way home she was given a lift by a local carter, who dropped her a mile from the vicarage. She trudged home, collapsed with a chill and managed to struggle to bed. She might have died but for the baker’s wife who came to see how she was managing these days, found her in bed with a raging fever, and summoned the doctor. For the next fortnight a group of women took it in turns to care for her and feed her. In her feverish ramblings she relived moments from the past years. It had been a gentle, loving life. She could remember, as a little girl, riding on her father’s back as he crawled round the drawing room on all fours as she cried “More, more!”
    • Sometimes Mama had had to rescue him from the little tyrant. “Your father’s tired, my darling.” And Papa had always said, “No, no, my dear. I like to see her happy.” And it had been a happy life, but without excitement. She had once ventured to say so. And dear Papa had been shocked. “A virtuous woman, my darling child, seeks her fulfilment in the quietness of home, and not – ” How many lectures had started this way! A virtuous woman did not answer back. A virtuous woman endured the misfortunes of life in silence. A virtuous woman turned the other cheek. “But Papa, there’s this horrible girl at school who bullies me, and sometimes I want so hard to smack her.” “A very natural reaction, my dear. But you must not yield to anger. Answer her with calm strength.” She’d tried calm strength and the bullying had turned to mockery. But one day she had answered back, and discovered she possessed a tongue sharp enough to silence bullies. She had not told Papa, but she had suffered agonies of guilt at deceiving him. “I’m sorry, Papa,” she whispered now. And the baker’s wife mopped her brow and murmured, “Poor soul. She’s delirious.” For years it had been like that, secretly growing into a firmer and more determined character than was suitable in a clergyman’s daughter, and having to hide it from her parents, who would have been appalled. When she was fourteen a troop of players came and set up their stage on the village green. She had been entranced. Her parents had taken her to a performance, and she had been so thrilled that she had blurted out, “Oh I would love to be an actress one day!” They had been devastated. That a child of theirs could even contemplate such an immoral career had reduced them to shocked despair. Mama had wept. Papa had talked about a virtuous woman.
    • But because they loved her they soon persuaded themselves that she was too young to understand her own words. They had comforted and forgiven her. But Rena had never again confided her longing for a more colourful life, even for outright adventure. She recovered. Her nurses said goodbye and left her. She came downstairs to find the place empty and her larder filled with nourishing food. She sought them out and tried to thank them, but they all professed ignorance. Nor would the doctor allow her to mention his bill, which he declared had been paid. For the first time Rena was realising how much the village loved her as well as her father. It was heart-warming, but at the end of two months she still had no job. As far as possible she ate vegetables grown in her own garden, and eggs from the chicken she kept. Daily she expected a letter to say that a new parson had been appointed, but from the bishop there was only silence. Both the village and herself had been left in limbo. “What am I going to do?” she asked herself again and again. Now was surely the time to embark on that adventure for which she had always yearned. But how could she arrange for that to happen? An adventure was something that came to you, and if one thing was for certain it was that no adventure was going to find her in this tiny backwater that the world had forgotten. The village which was in an obscure part of the country was seldom visited by anyone outside. This was because the great house in the centre of it, which had been there for ten or more generations, had stood empty and neglected for ten years, since the death of the Earl, Lord Lansdale. Rena vaguely remembered him, an old man who took no interest in the people who lived in the cottages which belonged to him. He employed very few servants in the house and regrettably few outside, so the villagers knew that they could not look to him for employment. He had no money. The house, known as The Grange, that he had inherited on the death of the previous Earl, had merely given
    • him a place to lay his head. It did not provide the money to keep it going. “Nor can he sell the house or any of the lands,” Papa had confided to her, “because they are entailed. They must be passed intact to the next heir.” “But suppose there is no next heir, Papa?” “Then it’s a bad business, and everything falls to rack and ruin.” Sometimes he had visited The Grange, taking Rena with him. The old Earl had liked the child, and once shown her the tower which perched incongruously high up over the centre of the building. That visit had thrilled her, but the Earl had grown giddy and had to be rescued, and she was never allowed up there again. Nor was she invited to visit the house again, which made her sad, because it was a beautiful place, and she loved it despite its dilapidation. Her last ever visit had been made ten years earlier, when she was twelve. The old Earl had died in the night, and his funeral was held in The Grange’s private chapel. Like all the other villagers, she had attended. And, like them, she had hoped that soon a new Earl would arrive, put the place in order and bring prosperity back to the neighbourhood. But it didn’t happen. The Grange, the estate, the fields, all fell into a further state of decay. And the people’s despair grew deeper. The only excitement just now was the rumour that somebody had come, or was coming, to open up The Grange. Bearing in mind what Papa had said about entails, Rena wondered if this meant a new Earl. For a day or two the village buzzed. But then nothing happened, and the buzzing died down. One day Rena went to her father’s study, where he had written his sermons and where she could still feel his presence. As though he were still there, she found herself saying, “What can I do, Papa? Where can I go, and who can I ask for help?” She sighed and waited, as if she would hear her father speak
    • and tell her what to do. Then almost as if the words had been said aloud, she found herself thinking of the cross which had been found in the wood, behind The Grange. She had been about twelve when it had been discovered by some men working amongst the trees. Her father had been asked to inspect it, and had found something that might at one time had been a large, rather roughly made cross but which was now left with only its centre trunk. He thought the top had somehow got broken. As it was near the stream it had perhaps been washed away. The large piece of wood was thick with mud, but when they washed it clean, they found engraved on it were some words that nobody could make out. Her father had cleaned the wood until the words could be seen more clearly. He’d given orders for the cross to be driven back into the ground, high above the stream so that the water would not touch it again. But they were unable to find the missing cross piece, which had made it look a little strange as it stood surrounded by the trees. “How can you be certain it is a cross?” she remembered her mother asking, as they walked through the wood. “You’ll be as certain as I am when you see it now,” the Reverend Colwell had told her. “It’s been cleaned and we can read what is engraved on it.” It was spring and the trees were coming into blossom. Rena, holding her father’s hand, had been thrilled to walk through the woods which belonged to The Grange, and had thought what a wonderful place to play hide-and-seek. At last they saw the tall, impressive piece of wood, that her father was so convinced was a cross. When she drew nearer, she saw the writing on it, and her father had translated: “YE WHO ASK FOR HELP WILL FIND IT WHEN YE PRAY TO ME.” “That’s what convinced me,” her father said when he read it aloud, “that it was originally a cross. I think perhaps it was placed here hundreds of years ago, when the house was being built or perhaps even before that.”
    • “It’s certainly very interesting,” her mother had said. “I only hope the people who prayed there got what they wanted.” “If it has lasted so long, I’m sure they did,” her father replied. He had given his orders that the cross should stay here, and it was still in place ten years later. Now it was the only thing left to which Rena could take her troubles, hoping that if she prayed hard enough some help might come to her. Perhaps, she thought, it might even be her father telling her to go there. “It’s really a very simple problem,” she told herself. “How to stop myself starving to death. What could be simpler than that?” She often talked to herself in that ironic way, presenting her difficulties with a slightly wry twist. Her father was sometimes a little shocked by what he perceived as her levity. But Rena had found a sense of humour a great help in confronting the world. She set out now to find the cross. It was spring again, a beautiful warm spring. She didn’t wear her best coat, but slipped on the jacket she used in the garden. She walked through the village until she saw the gates of The Grange, which, unusually, were standing open. So perhaps the new Earl has really arrived, she thought hopefully. How neglected it was, she thought. It was quite obvious that no one had worked on the drive. When she moved into the fields on one side of it, they, too, had been neglected. It was depressing. But the birds were singing, the sun was shining, and sometimes she saw a rabbit or a squirrel moving through the grass ahead of her. Just before her were the woods, with the trees in bud. And there was the stream, and beside it what she always thought of as her father’s cross, looking incredibly lovely because the kingcups had come into flower at the foot of it. Golden in the sunshine flickering through the trees, they made the cross itself seem to stand out firmly because the wood was dark. She read again the words carved on the cross which she could see quite clearly, and instinctively she began to pray. As she did so, she looked down at the kingcups, and one side of them she saw a thistle. It was green and ugly and was spoiling one side of
    • the cross. It seemed dark and mysterious. Then she remembered that she had a pair of gloves in the pocket of her jacket. They were thick and lined with leather. When she put them on, she attacked the thistle, finding that she had to pull it with both hands as hard as she could before it finally came out. And then, she saw to her astonishment that attached to the roots were several coins. She picked them up and started to rub away the mud. Then stared, thinking she must be dreaming. They were gold. And there were more of them in the hole she had made in pulling out the thistle. They were ancient, maybe two hundred years old. And solid gold. For a moment she was dazzled. Then she took a deep breath and reminded herself sternly that these coins belonged to the owner of The Grange – whoever he was. She remembered the open gates, the rumour that The Grange had been re-opened. Now was the moment to find out. She removed two more of the coins under the thistle, then she put the thistle back where she had found it, pressing it into the earth, so that no passing stranger could make this discovery. First she took the coins from it before pressing it back into the ground. Then she stood for a moment looking up at the top of the cross. “Perhaps you have answered my prayer,” she said. Then she almost laughed at herself for being so optimistic. “If the owner is a generous man he’ll give me at least, one of the coins I found for him. Couldn’t I just take one – to help me find some work?” But it was impossible. She was too much her father’s daughter to take anything secretly. Every coin must be handed over to its rightful owner. At once.
    • Walking out of the woods she began to move through the field, then into the garden towards the great house. * It was a long time since Rena had been to The Grange, and she had forgotten how attractive it was. It was about four hundred years old, a long, grey stone building, stretching to two wings, and with a tower in the centre. The tower was an oddity. It had been added about a century after the house was first built, and was topped by small mediaeval style turrets, which clashed with almost everything else about the building. But to the people of the village it was a treasured landmark, and they would not hear a word against it. The house even maintained its beauty despite its poor condition. Many of the diamond-paned windows were broken and the rest badly needed cleaning. There had been no gardeners here for a long time, but the flower-beds were brilliant with colour. Even the many weeds somehow seemed part of the picture rather than to spoil it. On a day like this it was hard to remember the rumours that The Grange was haunted. There were old people in the village who said they had seen and heard strange noises when they visited it. A surprise awaited her when she reached the front door. It was open. Perhaps there was a new owner, and servants had arrived. “Or maybe,” she thought wryly, “it’s the famous ghost.” Hearing no sound, she walked into the hall. Like the rest of the house it was in a very bad way, with dust up the stairs that was so obvious that she looked away from it immediately. The passage which she reached at the end of the hall was not much better. The carpets were grey with dirt and so was the furniture. “Ugh!” she thought. There was only silence around her. Then she thought she heard a slight sound on her left, which was the way to the dining-room and beyond that the kitchen. For a moment she hesitated. Propriety dictated that she return to the front
    • door and ring the bell. But curiosity urged her forward, along the passage. Curiosity won. As she moved quietly through the dining room she couldn’t help noticing that the table wanted polishing and the top of the fireplace was thick with dust. Probably the glass vases on the sideboard were half full of dust she decided. Really this place needed the touch of a good housekeeper. Then she heard a sound behind the door that led to the kitchen and the pantry. Now she knew there must be someone in the kitchen. Quietly she opened the door and crept along the passage which led to the pantry, then to the kitchen, from where the noise seemed to come. The door was ajar and she pushed it open. To her surprise she saw a man struggling to light a fire, and obviously not succeeding. She could see only his back, but the very shape of it was redolent of exasperation and frustration. He’d stripped off his jacket, revealing a tall, well-made frame in breeches, shirt and waistcoat. She contemplated him. Then something seemed to make him aware of her presence and he spoke sharply, without turning round. “Perhaps you can make this damned fire burn! I want some breakfast and the coal and wood are conspiring to prevent me from having it.” There was so much resentment in his voice that Rena could not help laughing. “Let me do it,” she said. “These old fires are very troublesome at times.” The sound of her voice made the man turn round. He was young and unexpectedly good-looking, although his face was partly hidden by a smudge of coal. For a moment they both looked at each other with interest and pleasure. Then he rose and said, “I do apologise. I don’t know who you are, but if you could make this fire burn I could have something to eat. I’m ravenous. I’ve eaten all the food I brought with me last night,
    • and this kitchen has defeated me. In fact the whole house defeats me. Wretched place!” She couldn’t help laughing again, and assumed a shocked tone. “Do you know, sir, that this house has been called one of the most beautiful houses in the whole of England.” “I could think of several things to call it, but that wouldn’t be among them.” “Don’t let the new owner hear you say that!” “It’s all right. I am the new owner.” “Oh heavens!” she cried. “And I thought you were a ghost!” He grinned. “A pretty solid sort of ghost. A pretty filthy one, too. Perhaps we should introduce ourselves. My name is John and I’m the Earl.” “The Earl? You mean – Lord Lansdale?” “Yes. I don’t look much like an Earl do I? More like a pot boy, I suppose.” “My name is Rena Colwell. My father was the vicar here until his death. He brought me to this house several times when the old Earl was still alive. It’s such a beautiful place, and I’ve always loved it. Is something wrong?” For his face had fallen. “Only that if you’re the vicar’s daughter it wouldn’t be quite proper for me to let you light the fire.” “Oh never mind what’s proper,” she said at once. “Let’s just do what we want.” Then her hands flew to her mouth. “No – at least – what I meant was – ” “Don’t,” he begged. “Don’t change it. I preferred the first version.” “Well, so did I,” she admitted, “but it was the sort of thing Papa used to reprove me for saying. Now, let me do your fire. I shall need some paper – there should be some in one of the drawers of the table. Then I must have some small pieces of wood and matches with which to light the fire.” “I suppose it is what I should have known,” the man answered ruefully. “But quite frankly I’m not used to making my own fire or cooking my own breakfast.”
    • “I promise that you won’t be hungry for very much longer.” She had to chase some beetles out of the range before she could do anything else. But at last she got the fire burning and the water in the saucepan was hot enough to cook some eggs. The Earl had some provisions, coffee, a little milk, half a loaf of bread and a large pat of butter. “I have an uneasy feeling that politeness dictates that I should ask you to share my breakfast,” he said. “But – forgive me, I’m too hungry to be polite.” “I’m not hungry. I ate my breakfast before I left home.” This was not quite true, because she had merely picked up some pieces of ham left over from her supper the night before. She was making her few remaining scraps of food last. “I don’t think you can be real,” he said. “You’re a fairy creature who came by magic to save me from starving to death. What is it? What did I say?” He’d seen a sudden change in her face. “Nothing,” she said hastily. His innocent remark had reminded her of the reality of her situation. “I just – thought of something. Go on with what you are saying.” He raised his coffee cup to her in salute. “To the fairy who saved me. I’m very lucky to have found you.” Rena smiled. “I thought actually I had found you. Whenever I’ve been here before the house has been completely empty, unless someone was thinking of becoming a tenant. Mind you, they always changed their mind as soon as they saw how much had to be done.” “And now you expect me to do it,” the man remarked wryly. “But this place is too big and too expensive for me even to contemplate living in.” Rena sighed. “Oh, must you say that? I have often thought it would be very exciting if the house came alive again and was not left as it is now gradually to crumble until there is nothing left of it, or its beautiful gardens.” “That’s a beautiful hope,” he said, “But there is one grave difficulty.”
    • “What is that?” “I can say it in one word. Money! Money to make the house habitable. Money to employ gardeners, farmers, money for horses to fill the stables.” “That would be wonderful!” she exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to ride over your land, but as my father had a very small stipend, we could never afford a horse, much as we longed to have one.” “Yes, of course, you said your father was the parson.” “He was parson to the village and of course, this house, for over twenty years. Now when the bishop finds the right man another parson will prevail here and I will have to leave.” There was a note of pain in her voice which the young man heard. After a moment he said: “If I can afford it, I would do all those things. I would ask you to help me make this house as beautiful as it used to be, when it was first built.” “Oh, how I would love that,” Rena answered. “But you speak as if it’s impossible!” “It is. I’ve been abroad because I was serving in Her Majesty’s Navy. When my ship returned to England I learnt, to my astonishment, that they had discovered, after hunting high and low, that I was the only living relative of the last Earl who reigned here. I’m not sure how long ago that was.” “He died ten years ago,” Rena said. “I know the search for his relatives has continued ever since, but people had given up hope.” He sighed. “At first it seemed part of a fairy story,” he explained. “Then I realised that what I had inherited was the title itself, and this house and estate. But as for money – not even a pittance.” “You mean you have no money even though you are an Earl?” Rena asked. This was an entirely new idea to her. “Not a penny. When I was told that this house came with the title, which had not been used for so long, I was, at first, thrilled at the thought of owning land and of course having a home of my own.” He gave a rueful smile. “I didn’t think it was possible to be a
    • poor Earl either. I know better now,” he added with a touch of bitterness. “Surely you can sell some of the land, if nothing else,” Rena suggested. “In this condition?” “Can’t you put it to rights?” “It would take thousands of pounds, and I have nothing, except what I saved out of my salary as a sailor which needless to say, was very little. “Besides, it’s entailed. It has to go to the next Earl, who might be my son, but probably won’t be, since I can’t afford to marry. In fact, I can’t afford to do anything. I haven’t a penny to my name.” “But you have,” breathed Rena in sudden excitement. “That’s what I came here to tell you!”
    • CHAPTER TWO The Earl stared at Rena as though she had taken leave of her senses. “What did you say?” “You do have some money,” she said excitedly. “That’s why I’m here.” As he continued to regard her with bewilderment she asked. “Didn’t you wonder what I’m doing here?” “Well – ” “Do strange women pop up in your kitchen every day, cooking you breakfast with no questions asked?” “I’ve never had a kitchen of my own before now,” he observed mildly, “so I’m a little vague about the normal procedure. But now you mention it, I suppose it is a little strange.” “A little strange?” she squealed, indignant at his annoying composure. “One of the advantages of being a sailor is that you become ready for the unexpected, what ever it may be. Hurricanes, mermaids, beautiful young women springing up through trapdoors – Her Majesty’s Navy is ready for anything.” “I wish you would be serious,” she said severely. “You’re right,” he said, nodding. “There are no trapdoors here, and you could hardly have come up through the flagstones could you?” “You – ” her lips were twitching, and she hardly knew what to say. “Yes?” He was suspiciously innocent. “Nothing. When you can be serious I’ll tell you what I have to say?” “I am immediately serious,” he declared, although the gleam in his eyes belied it. “Please tell me how you came to be in my house? Did you break in? Should I send for the law? No, no, I’m sorry – ” for she had risen in exasperation. “Please sit down. I promise to behave like a sensible man.” “You shouldn’t promise the impossible.” “Oh dear! Dashed! I’m afraid you understand me all too well,
    • Miss Colwell.” She pressed her lips together. “Please tell me what you wish to say,” he said meekly. “I came because I’d heard somebody was here,” Rena said, “to tell you that I found something on your estate which it’s only right for me to give to you.” She took out the three coins she had taken from under the thistle, and put them down on the table. The sunshine coming through the window seemed to make them sparkle. The Earl looked at her in astonishment. Then he lifted the coins and turned them between his fingers. “These are ancient,” he said. “Several hundred years probably. Where did you find them?” “Underneath a thistle in your grounds. And I brought them to their owner, which is apparently you.” He looked at her curiously. “Did you not think of keeping them for yourself?” “I told you, my father was the parson here. One thing he never expected me to do was take possession of anything which did not belong to me!” “My apologies. It’s very kind of you to bring me these coins. I’m sure they’re valuable. But you know, they won’t go very far. What we really need is a few thousand of them!” “They may be there for all I know,” Rena told him. “That’s why I came at once to tell you. You should search as soon as possible, in case anyone does what I tried to do.” “What you tried to do?” “I was visiting the cross.” “What cross?” “It stands on your land. It was found years ago. They cleaned it up and Papa deciphered the words carved on it. They are an invitation to prayer, so people sometimes go there instead of the church. I found a thistle growing at the foot, spoiling the beauty of the kingcups, so I pulled it out. These were underneath.” “Just these? No more?” “I don’t know, I didn’t look further. But there might be, and that
    • would solve all your problems.” He was silently staring down at the three gold coins. “Will you take me to where you found these? I can hardly wait to know what’s really there.” “I don’t think you should hope for too much,” she said gently. “I have a feeling that the coins were placed there in gratitude by someone whose prayers had been answered.” “Is that why you were there?” Rena shook her head. “No, I went there to ask for something. Like you I am penniless because my father is dead and I have to find some way of making money,” she explained. He stared. “You’re as poor as that? And you weren’t even tempted to keep them?” “Oh yes,” she said quietly. “I was tempted.” She rose, to silence further discussion of this fact. “Shall we go now?” He was about to make a light hearted comment, but something about her pale face silenced him. “If you will be kind enough to show me the way,” he said, “I would be grateful.” They left the house and climbed down to the woods and the stream, across a rough wooden bridge, grown somewhat precarious with age. “Why is the cross on my land rather than in the cemetery?” the Earl enquired. “Because this is where it was found, and Papa thought it should stay there. Look, there it is.” Just ahead of them stood the cross looking strong, dark and impressive amongst the trees. She walked quickly ahead, and when she reached the cross she knelt down and said a private prayer thanking God for letting her find the money, with all the good it might do for the man who owned it, for the villagers, and perhaps to her too, although she could not, for the moment, see how. The Earl stood still, watching her in silent respect, wondering what was happening to him and to his whole world. Only when she had finished praying did the Earl move forward.
    • She lifted the thistle, which he took from her and flung away. Then he bent down and started to pull up the ground round the cross. It crossed Rena’s mind that perhaps he would find nothing. As the Earl pushed his hand lower and lower, she closed her eyes and held her breath. Then she heard him make a sudden sound which was almost a yell of delight. She opened her eyes. He was looking towards her, his hand outstretched. In it she saw a large lump of soil. Something in it was shining in the sunshine coming through the trees above them. More coins. For a moment she thought she was dreaming. “Your prayers have been answered,” he said jubilantly. “And there are probably more if we dig deeper.” “It is true, it is really true!” Rena said almost beneath her breath. The Earl lowered his voice. “Let’s get back to the house. No one must know what we’ve found or that we’ve been here. The rest need to be brought up by experts who know how to treat them so that they won’t be damaged.” As he spoke he put the soil he was holding into the pocket of his coat. Then, putting his arm round Rena, he took her back the way they had come. Only when they reached the house and went in through the front door, did the Earl speak. “You’ve saved me,” he said. “At least for the moment, you’ve saved me from feeling nothing but despair for this house and all it contains.” Then he shook his head like a man in a dream. “I don’t know how to thank you.” “It’s Papa you should thank,” Rena said. “Do you really think there will be enough money for you to restore The Grange?” “I cannot believe our luck is as good as that,” the Earl answered. “But even a little money is a tremendous help. It gives me a chance to think. But this must remain our secret.” “Of course,” Rena promised. “Once word gets out and you’ll have the whole village digging up your land.” “And the only person I want to share it with is you.” Smiling, she shook her head. “It belongs to you.” “Miss Colwell, please tell me something. When you first went to
    • that place this morning, what were you praying for?” “For a job,” she said simply. “I’ve ‘eaten the bread of idleness for the past two months,’ and frankly it’s beginning to taste rancid.” “Then let me offer you a job, as my housekeeper.” She stopped and stared at him. “You mean that?” “It’s not much of a job. You’ve seen the place as it is. It would take a brave spirit even to contemplate taking it on? And indeed you are a brave spirit.” “Am I?” “Everything you’ve done today – I’m filled with admiration. You could take that huge task on, and defeat it. Oh, wait!” “What is it?” she asked anxiously, seeing her lovely new job vanishing before her eyes. “Perhaps your family wouldn’t care for you to take such a post. They might think it beneath you.” “Mama’s family probably would. They were Sunninghills, and very proud of it.” “You’re a Sunninghill? There’s an Admiral Sunninghill.” “My third cousin. Or fourth. Or fifth maybe.” “He might object.” She stopped and faced him. “My lord, are you still in the Navy?” “No.” “Then Admiral Sunninghill’s disapprobation is neither here nor there.” With a slight dismissive gesture, Rena disposed of Admiral Sunninghill and all his works. “But you?” “They ignored Mama after her marriage. I doubt he knows of my existence.” “I won’t tell him if you don’t.” They shook hands solemnly. “And your family at home in the vicarage? How will they feel?” “I have no family.” “Nobody? No brothers, sisters, mother?” “No brothers or sisters and my mother died last year.” “You’re completely alone?”
    • She nodded. Suddenly she couldn’t speak for the tightness in her throat. “So,” he said, “that settles it. Now you’re my housekeeper.” “Then my first job should be to ensure that you are well fed,” she said, forcing herself to speak brightly. “I think we’ve already used up whatever was in the house. If you will give me some money, I will go to the shops and buy provisions, although they won’t be very grand.” “I’ll be thankful for anything,” the Earl answered. He put his hand into his pocket and brought out a sovereign. “Will this be enough?” “Oh, more than enough,” Rena said. The Earl laughed ruefully. “I hope you won’t find my stomach is bigger than my pocket, which happens to most people after they leave the Navy.” “I am sure you were well fed in those days,” Rena said. “I dare say ships are run very effectively.” “That’s true. Everywhere you looked my ship was clean and bright which is something I cannot say about my house!” “Leave the house to me. Later, when I’ve seen you fed, I can bring you some vegetables from my own garden. And then there’s Clara.” “Clara? I thought you said you lived alone.” “Clara is a chicken. She lays eggs.” “An invaluable addition to our community,” he agreed. Rena collected a shopping basket from the kitchen and hurried out to the village grocery. Luckily Ned, the owner, had been to the town the previous day, and was well stocked. She went through the shop like a whirlwind, buying in flour, milk, tea, coffee, meat, butter, sugar, paraffin for lamps. It wasn’t going to leave much of the sovereign, but she had a hungry man to feed. “Are you buying for an army Miss Colwell?” Ned asked in admiration. “No, for the new owner of The Grange.” He stared. “I did hear someone had arrived but – owner? Are you sure?”
    • “He’s the Earl of Lansdale.” “But the family died out.” “Apparently not. It took time to trace him, and he was in the Royal Navy, which is why it took so long to get hold of him.” “That’s good news,” Ned answered. “And, of course, if he’s opening The Grange, he’ll have to repair it and that’ll be a blessing to us all. There are too many workmen with no work now.” He added slyly, “Best not tell him about the ghost, then.” “I wasn’t going to mention the ghost,” Rena declared primly, for the simple reason that there’s no such thing.” “No ghosts?” Ned demanded indignantly, as if she’d deprived him of a treat. “Course there are ghosts. What’s a house like that without a ghost?” “I suppose there’ll be a headless horseman galloping through the kitchen while I’m making pies?” she demanded. “Really Ned!” “Why are you making pies?” “Because I’m going to be the housekeeper there.” “Parson’s daughter? Housekeeper?” “Even parsons’ daughters have to work to live.” “Well, you’ll be in the right place to keep him in order. You can make sure he knows what we all need.” There it was, the burden that was to be laid on the new Earl, the yearning expectations of ‘his’ people, who looked to him for succour and sustenance. But as she left the shop she was too cheerful to heed its warning. Since it was early in the year the light was already beginning to fade as she returned to The Grange. So she hastily filled an oil lamp with paraffin and ventured upstairs to the master bedroom. She soon found it, a grandiose room with painted ceilings and dirty gilt furniture, full of glory at the expense of comfort. A door stood ajar. Pushing it open Rena found herself in a small dressing room with a narrow bed. The Earl’s bags were there, and he’d made some attempt to unpack them, but the bed was bare of sheets and blankets. Further investigation revealed an airing cupboard containing
    • sheets that were incredibly free from moths. She took out some bed linen and conveyed it to the kitchen, lit a fire inside, and hung the sheets on an old clothes horse in front of it. Then she put a kettle of water on the top. Now everything was warm and cosy, and the Earl, arriving soon after, stopped in the kitchen door and whistled with admiration. “Now this is what I call homelike,” he said. “Sit down,” she said cheerfully. “The kettle will boil soon.” He drank the tea she set before him with an expression of bliss. “Sweeter than the sweetest wine,” he said. “I see you’ve been busy.” “You’re going to be really comfortable tonight. You’ve done the right thing in moving into the dressing room. I can put a small fire in there, but the big room would have defeated me. Can you watch the pots on the range, while I go and make up your bed?” She gathered up the sheets and departed, returning a few minutes later to find the meal almost ready. “The Earl really ought to eat in the dining room,” she suggested. “No thank you,” he replied without hesitation. “We’ll eat out here. What’s the wine cellar like?” “I’ve never seen it.” He took the lamp and disappeared, returning a few minutes later covered with cobwebs but with a bottle under his arm and a triumphant smile on his face. “Glasses!” he intoned. “We’ll dine in style.” She fetched some glasses from the dining room, cleaned them, and laid them out ceremoniously beside their plates. The Earl uncorked the bottle with a flourish and filled the glasses with a delicious looking ruby red liquid, and they toasted each other. “To us!” he declared. “To finding each other, and all the wonderful things that are going to happen now!” “I wonder if they will!” she sighed. “They will because we’re going to make them. And this magnificent vintage wine is the first wonderful thing. Sip it slowly and with appreciation, for you may never taste the like again.” Together they sipped.
    • And together they choked. “Thunderbolts and lightning!” he exploded. “What is this?” “Vinegar,” she whispered between gasps. Her eyes were streaming. They patted each other frantically on the back. “Miss Colwell, I really am very sorry,” he said hoarsely. “I thought it would have – aaaarh! excuse me – matured over the years. But it’s only soured.” “You said I’d never taste the like again,” she reminded him. “I only hope you may be right. No, give that to me – ” He was about to pour the wine down the sink but she stopped him. “If what it’s doing to my insides is anything to go by, it’ll probably clean the range very efficiently.” “You’re a marvel,” he said admiringly. She poured tea and they both drank it thankfully. Then Rena served the meal and they ate it companionably at the kitchen table. “The news is getting around the village that you’re here,” she told him. “They’re afraid you’ll be scared off by the ghost. I said that was nonsense because of course there was no ghost.” “Shame on you!” he said at once. “What is an ancestral home without a ghost. I think it very unkind of you, Miss Colwell, that you should attempt to deprive me of my birth right in this way.” His droll manner caught her off guard, and she had to peer at him to make sure how to take his words. The gleam of amusement in his eyes was shocking, she decided. But very delightful. An answering mirth growing inside herself made her say, “Forgive me, sir. I had forgotten that among every nobleman’s patents of nobility a ghost is essential. However I fear that you may find The Grange’s extensive choice a little too much to cope with. There’s the Floating Lady, the Wailing Lady Anne, the Headless Horseman – or is it the Headless Horse? Well, I expect it amounts to the same.” “You don’t mean I might meet them all at once?” he asked in alarm. “I mean, one Headless Horseman plus one Floating Lady, a man can cope with, but the rest – have a heart ma’am.” She fixed him with a baleful eye. “Would you be afraid?”
    • “Absolutely terrified.” They laughed together. “As soon as I’ve washed the dishes I’ll lay the fire in your room, and then I’ll leave,” she said. “Leave? I thought you were here for good now?” “I am, that is, I’ll work for you, but perhaps I had better not stay here at night.” She blushed slightly as she said this, and could not meet his eyes. The village would be shocked if she, an unmarried woman, were to share the house alone with an unmarried man. Especially such a young and attractive man as he was. But delicacy prevented her from referring to the matter, except obliquely. Luckily he understood. “Certainly,” he said hastily. “It’s strange,” she mused. “When I left the house this morning I thought I’d be back in an hour. Now it feels like another world.” He nodded. He’d had that feeling a good deal himself recently. “So I’ll stay tonight in the vicarage,” Rena said, “and return here very early tomorrow, to make your morning tea.” He carried the wood upstairs and helped her lay the fire. “I’ll light it myself when I come to bed,” he said. “Now I’ll escort you home.” She laughed. “In this tiny village. I’ve walked about in the dark for years.” “Part of the way then.” He took her to the duck pond, from where they could see the church spire, bleak against the night sky. “The moonlight will show me the rest of the way,” she said. “Good night.” “In that case I’ll take myself to the local hostelry and get to know some of my neighbours. Good night.” He strode off in the opposite direction and Rena headed around the pond, to the church and through the cemetery. As soon as the vicarage came in sight she stopped. There were lights in the house. She began to run, and as she neared she saw a wagon and trunks being unloaded and taken in through the front door. She ran
    • faster, reaching the door out of breath. “And who, may I ask, are you?” An extremely refined sounding woman appeared in the hall and challenged her. “I might ask the same of you,” Rena said. “What are you doing in my home?” “Your home? Our home I think. My brother, the Reverend Steven Daykers, is the new vicar of this parish and this is, I believe, the vicarage?” “Yes, of course it is, but nobody told me you were coming.” The woman sniffed. “Is there any reason why you should be informed?” “Well – my name is Rena Colwell. My father was the vicar here until he died in January.” “Then what are you doing here now?” “I had nowhere else to go. Of course I knew I should have to leave when the new vicar arrived, but I thought I’d be given some warning.” “It seems to me that you’ve had quite enough time.” They were interrupted by a shout up above. “Ma, look at these old clothes we’ve found.” Two girls of about fifteen were standing at the top of the stairs, waving a couple of old fashioned dresses. Rena stiffened as she recognised her mother’s clothes. “They were in the wardrobe of our room,” one of the girl’s called. “Aren’t they funny? There are a lot of other things there too – ” “They’ll be mine,” Rena said, tight-lipped. “That is my room.” “Not any more,” said the woman. “Please remove your things at once.” Rena ran up the stairs and found her room a scene of devastation. Her drawers had been pulled out and upended on the floor. Her small personal possessions were strewn everywhere. The two girls ran after her into the room, staring at her rudely. “This is ours now. You shouldn’t be here.” “Then I will pack my things and go,” she said, tight lipped, trying desperately to remember Christian charity. “Please leave while I do
    • so.” Instead of leaving they giggled. One of them picked up a picture of Rena’s mother that she kept by the bed. “What a frowsty old thing.” But her smile faded as she saw Rena’s face. “Oh, who cares anyway?” She tossed the photograph on the bed and the two of them flounced out. Scarcely able to control her temper Rena began to pack up her things, moving like a whirlwind. If she didn’t get out of here soon she would do something violent, she knew she would. In the end her belongings filled two large bags. She took what she could of her mother’s clothes, but there was no room for everything, and it mattered more to have the photographs and personal mementoes of her parents. Then she thought back to the find of the coins, and realised that but for them she would have no place to lay her head tonight. And more than ever she felt that her father was watching over her. As she struggled down the stairs the haughty woman was standing at the bottom, waiting for her. “I’m sorry you were inconvenienced,” Rena said to her politely. “I shall not trouble you further.” The woman looked her up and down. “I do hope you haven’t taken anything that isn’t yours.” Rena took a deep breath and controlled herself. “You may be sure that I have not,” she said. A large piece of furniture was being manhandled through the front door. “I’ll leave the back way,” Rena said. “It’s up to you.” Some strange noises were coming from the kitchen. Rena discovered what they were as soon as she entered, and received a feathered body almost full in the face. She dropped the bags and clung to it. It was Clara, her chicken. “Poor Clara, how could I forget you?” she said. “You’re coming with me.”
    • “Put that chicken down,” said a tow headed young man. “That’s our supper.” “It most certainly is not. Clara belongs to me, and I won’t let you kill her.” “What’s the trouble?” The haughty woman had appeared again. “She’s trying to take our supper, Mama.” That did it. Rena had borne much patiently but suddenly enough was enough. “Once and for all,” she said, “Clara is mine, and I am taking her with me.” She looked at the four of them ranged against her. “If you take her from me,” she said, slowly and emphatically, “that will be stealing, and I shall report you to the constable.” “Who’s to say who it belongs to?” the unpleasant young man demanded. “That animal is parish property, and the constable will say the same.” “No, he won’t,” Rena flashed, “because he’s met this chicken before (she could have bitten her tongue out for the idiotic words). In fact, his mother gave it to me.” “Which means,” she added, recklessly casting aside Papa’s teaching aside, “that he’ll know that this is a den of thieves. Ask yourself how your brother will like that on his first day.” In sullen silence they stood back to let her pass. Still keeping a firm hold on Clara, Rena had to use her other hand to put one bag on the table, fitted her arm over it, and lifted the other with the hand of that arm. She was horribly aware of what she must look like, staggering out of the house, laden down. It took her an hour to limp through the village to her destination. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that she had stood up against bullying and won. She could have cried hallelujahs. Thus it was that Miss Colwell returned to The Grange in triumph, carrying all her worldly goods under one arm, and a chicken under the other.
    • CHAPTER THREE Luck was with her. She found the front door of The Grange unlocked, and was able to slip inside. The house was in darkness, so she guessed that the Earl was still carousing in the tavern. That meant she could settle herself in peace. Dropping the bags, she made her way to the kitchen, keeping firm hold on Clara, who was making contented little mumbling squawks, as though signifying that she felt safe now. With Clara safely deposited in the kitchen, she lit a lamp and went hunting for a place to lay her head. She could find a proper bedroom tomorrow. It was dark in the house with only the lamp, and the huge place seemed to echo about her. Suddenly she could hear how full it was of creaks and strange noises. It had stood here for hundreds of years, and seen all manner of history, births, deaths, perhaps even murders. Was it really fanciful to imagine that a ghost or two might walk? Well, suppose it did, she thought. She was drunk from her victory, exhilarated at giving free rein to something too long repressed in her nature. She had stood up for herself. And she had won. She was ready to take on any ghost. It felt like being reborn as another person, and she wished there was somebody that she could tell. But who would understand? He would, she thought suddenly. She had known the Earl for only a few hours, yet instinct told her that she could confide this new feeling to him and he would sympathise. If only he would return home so that she could talk to him! Now she had a chance to contemplate him at leisure, which she found herself very willing to do. There was delight in considering his tall, upright body, hardened by years on active service in the Navy. She liked too the way he held his head, as though there was nobody alive whose eye he feared to meet. That was how a man ought to look. His face was pleasing with its blunt, good looking features, and the amiable grin that was seldom far from his lips. His eyes were
    • full of warmth and humour, and he seemed to laugh as easily as he breathed. That had been startling at first. He spoke with a kind of half comical inflection, as though a remark could be amusing or not, depending on how his listener took it. And Rena had discovered that dear Papa must have been right all along. She really did have a shocking inclination to levity, for part of her instinctively responded to this way of talking with a humour of her own. Nothing in her experience had prepared her for a man like this. In fact nothing had prepared her for men of any kind. The only man she had known well had been her father, who had taken life and the world with great earnestness. Her parents had been devoted to each other. Rena had liked nothing better than hearing Mama tell how she and Papa had fallen in love. It had been just like Romeo and Juliet, for the Sunninghills had not been at all pleased when their daughter fell in love with the young clergyman who had come to assist the elderly vicar in the church they visited every Sunday. “Your father was one of the most handsome men I had ever seen,” her mother said. “He told me he fell in love with me from the moment he saw me moving into the family pew we always occupied.” “So you both fell in love with each other at the same time,” Rena said. “I suppose we did, but I didn’t know it then, because we didn’t get the chance to speak for several weeks.” With a shy smile she had added, “Then when we met, he told me later he was so overcome by shyness that he couldn’t say more than a word or two.” “I understood because I felt the same. I wanted to talk to him but I couldn’t think of anything to say. The first time he came with the vicar to tea, neither he nor I said anything to each other.” “But you were excited at meeting him, Mama?” Rena had questioned.
    • “So excited that I think I dreamt of him every night until we met again. But that was a long time.” Finally when her parents gave a garden party, she somehow managed, although she could never remember quite how, to show him the strawberry bed. For the first time they had been alone together. “How long was it, Mama, before he told you he loved you?” “It seemed to me as if it took a thousand years. I admitted to myself I loved your father but was not certain if he loved me.” “But finally he told you so,” Rena said. “Yes, and I felt as if he took me into the sky and we were together in heaven. I hope, my darling, it will one day, happen to you.” They were certainly two of the happiest people Rena could ever imagine. Sometimes she thought they had forgotten her and everything else in the world except that they were together. But she realised now that it had left her in limbo. They did almost no entertaining, and since her mother’s death her father had stayed at home except for his duties. She had met almost nobody. A curate had stayed with them for a week, and she had sensed that he admired her. Papa had even asked her how she liked him, and reproved her for levity because she had disliked his red hands and wrists, and his habit of sniffing before he spoke. But she knew he was glad that she did not want to leave home, and the matter was allowed to drop. Despite her restricted experience she was not quite as unworldly as her father believed. Lacking any other companionship Rena and her mother had grown closer and had many long talks. She learned that her grandfather Sunninghill had not been a faithful husband. With money to spare, he had indulged himself in the pleasures of the flesh, including mistresses. Mrs Colwell had considered long before divulging this to her daughter, but had eventually decided that some worldly knowledge was essential, if the girl was not to be left completely vulnerable. And so Rena knew of her grandfather’s scandalous habits and
    • the way he had broken his poor wife’s heart. But her greatest education had come from the kindly way her mother had spoken of these girls. “They weren’t really wicked, my dear, although the world calls them that. They were just sad, misguided creatures who loved him and mistakenly trusted him. “One of them came to the house once. She was desperate, poor soul. My father had set her up in a fine house, lavished gifts on her, then thrown her out when she was with child. Even my mother pitied her, and gave her some money.” “Was Grandpapa a wicked man, Mama?” “He was like many a man, selfish and indifferent, concerned only with pleasing himself. That’s why a kind, loving man like your father should be prized. There are so few like him.” In that modest, virtuous household there had been nobody to tell Rena that she was growing into an attractive young woman. Her hair was a pale honey colour, and her eyes which seemed almost too large for her small face, were the blue of the sky. In fact, if she had been properly dressed and her hair well arranged, a man might easily have called her beautiful. As it was, when she had seen herself in the mirror recently, she was not impressed. Her illness had left her thin, especially her face, so that her large eyes now seemed enormous. “I look plain and haggard,” she had thought, but without emotion, for what difference could it make to her now? But suddenly she remembered the Earl saying – “Hurricanes, mermaids, beautiful young women springing up through trapdoors – Her Majesty’s Navy is ready for anything.” He had called her beautiful. But he was only joking, of course. But no man had ever used that word in connection with her before. And she couldn’t help smiling. She had come to the drawing room where the lamp showed her a large sofa that might do for a bed, just for tonight. Some moonlight came through the large windows and she decided to return the lamp to the kitchen.
    • Turning, she headed for the door and immediately collided with a chair that she hadn’t seen in her path. It went over onto the wooden floor with a mighty clang that seemed to echo through the house. She stood listening while the echoes died away. Then there was silence. She made her way back to the kitchen where Clara was inspecting the floor. “You’d better come with me,” she said. “After tonight I don’t want to let you out of my sight. Parish property indeed.” She turned out the lamp, scooped Clara up and returned along the passage to the drawing room. She had left the door open, so that although the passage was dark she could see her destination by the glow of moonlight. But as she took the final step through the doorway a mountain seemed to descend on her. Clara escaped and flew upwards, squawking horribly. After the first moment’s blind panic Rena fought back fiercely, kicking out with her feet and thrashing her arms. She even managed to launch some sort of blow, if the grunt from her assailant was anything to go by. Then they were on the floor together, rolling over and over in the darkness, each trying to get a firm grip on the other, gasping, thumping, flailing, until at last her head banged against the floor and she let out a yell. “What the devil – ?” said a voice that she recognised. The fight had taken them into a patch of moonlight near the window. Rena found she was lying on her back with a hard, masculine body on top of her, and the Earl’s face staring down at her with shock. “M-Miss Colwell?” At that moment Clara landed on his head. “Miss Colwell?” he said again, aghast. “It’s you.” “Certainly it’s me. Kindly rise, sir.” “Of course, of course.” He hastily sprang to his feet and reached down to help her up.
    • “Do you normally attack people who enter your home?” she demanded. She was breathless from the fight, and from strange sensations that were coursing around her body. “Only the ones who come by night and don’t ring the doorbell,” he said promptly. “To be honest, I thought you were the ghost.” “Really!” “Truly, I did. I heard a noise from down here and came to investigate. Then I heard ghostly footsteps coming along the passage, and then some creature came through the door, holding something under her arm. So naturally I thought you were carrying your head.” “I beg your pardon!” “You were carrying something under your arm, so I thought it was your head. Headless Lady, you know.” “It was not my head,” Rena said with awful dignity. “It was a chicken.” “A chicken? Yes – well, I quite see that that explains everything.” Her lips twitched. “You are absurd,” she said. “I beg your pardon, madam! You glide about the house at midnight, carrying a chicken under your arm, and I am absurd?” “I can explain the chicken.” “Please don’t,” he begged, beginning to laugh. “I think I’d prefer it to remain a mystery.” “Whatever Your Lordship pleases,” she said, beginning to dust herself down. “Don’t you think, after this, that you might bring yourself to call me John?” “Yes, I do. And I’m Rena. And the chicken is Clara. She lays excellent eggs, as you will find.” “I’m moved by this concern for my appetite, but I assure you tomorrow would have been soon enough.” “Yes, but I – oh heavens!” she said, as the evening’s events came back to her. “My dear girl, whatever has happened? I can’t see your face properly, but I can tell you’re very depressed. No, don’t answer now. Let us go into the kitchen and have some tea, and you can tell me
    • all about it.” His kindly concern was balm to her soul. In the kitchen she relit the lamp and he made her sit down on the old oak settle by the stove while he boiled the kettle. She told him the whole story of her arrival at the vicarage, her discovery of the family, and her battle with them. “I behaved terribly,” she said, shocked at herself. “It sounds to me as though you behaved very sensibly,” he said, handing her a cup of tea, and sitting down beside her. “They may not be a den of thieves exactly, but they’re certainly a nest of bullies. And the only thing to do with bullies is stand up to them.” “Well, that’s what I think too,” she said, delighted to find a kindred spirit. “And yet – oh, goodness, if you could have heard the things I said to them.” “I wish I had. I’m sure it would have been very entertaining.” “Oh no, I’m sure that’s wrong,” she said, conscience stricken. “How can a fight be entertaining?” “Very easily if you have righteousness on your side. Nothing like a good fight. Engage the enemy and turn your ten-pounders on him.” “Ten-pounders?” “Guns.” “They said – ” her voice began to shake from another reason, “they said they’d tell the constable that Clara was parish property, and I said – ” mirth was overcoming her, “I said – ” “Don’t stop there,” he begged. “I can’t stand it.” “I said he would take my side because – he’d met this chicken before.” His crack of laughter hit the ceiling. Rena gave up the struggle not to yield to her amusement, and the two of them sat there, holding onto each other and rocking back and forth. “That’s not a ten-pounder, that’s a twelve-pounder,” he gasped at last. “It must have blown them out of the water. I shall always regret that I wasn’t there. “I ought to have been, of course. I should have walked back to the vicarage with you, and then I would have been there to help.
    • When I think of you struggling back here – and what do you mean by creeping in by stealth?” “I thought you would still be at the tavern, and the house would be empty.” “No, I didn’t stay long. I began to feel rather uncomfortable.” “You mean you felt unwelcome?” “On the contrary, they welcomed me with open arms. They’ve decided that my arrival means the good times have come again, that I’ll be wanting to restore the house and the gardens and that will provide work for them. I now know the names of every artisan and gardener in the district. “How could I tell them that I have no money to fulfil their dreams? And my dream too if the truth be told.” “Is it really your dream too?” she asked excitedly. “Yes. In the short time I’ve been here I’ve fallen in love with this place. I’d like to do all the things they want, and live in a house that’s as lovely as it ought to be. But not only for my sake. For theirs too.” He gave an awkward laugh. “I’ve really been thinking only of myself since I inherited the Earldom. I never thought of how it might affect other people, or how they might hope it would affect them. But tonight I was confronted by the reality of other people’s lives, and it made me stop and think.” He looked at her ruefully. “Thinking isn’t something I’ve done a lot of in my life. I’ve done my duty as a sailor, but for the rest I’ve been heedless, and content to be so. But now – ” he sighed. “Their need is so desperate and frightening. It made me feel I should do something about it. And yet – what can I do? Except pray that we find more coins, and they turn out to be worth a lot.” “Yes,” she said. “We’ll pray.” “So, I escaped, because I wouldn’t give them false promises. I came home and started writing letters, until I heard this crash from downstairs.” “That was the chair.” “And why were you going to sleep on the sofa? Do we lack spare bedrooms?”
    • “I thought I’d find one tomorrow, in the light.” “You can’t stay down here tonight.” “Yes I can. And I’m going to.” “Rena, be sensible.” “I am being sensible. Besides, I want to stay with Clara, and I can’t very easily take her upstairs.” “Talking of Clara, she’s busily pecking my boots. No doubt she thinks she still has to defend you. Will you kindly call your chicken off?” She laughed and did so, then drained her tea. “Now, sir – ” “John.” “Now, John, please will you be sensible and go to bed?” He gave her a naval salute. “Ay, ay, ma’am. I’ll see you at seven bells.” As she snuggled down on the sofa later Rena remembered how, in her childhood, she’d longed for other siblings, especially a brother. And that was what John was, of course, the brother she had never had; someone she could talk to and laugh with, because they saw the world in the same way; someone who would care for her and let her care for him. She fell asleep feeling happier than she had for months. * She was up at ‘seven bells’ next morning, and immediately went out to buy fresh milk from Ned. She found Jack, the postman, in the shop, and told him about the new arrivals at the vicarage. “I don’t live there any more. I’m housekeeper at The Grange.” “Got a letter for you here,” he said, looking in his bag. “And one for The Grange.” She took them both and set off for The Grange. It was a lovely morning, fresh and spring like, and there was a skip in her step. She found John in the kitchen, triumphant because Clara had laid two eggs. “One each,” he said.
    • “Two for His Lordship,” she replied firmly. “Fiddlesticks.” “Here’s a letter for you.” She handed it to him and went in to the dining room to give him privacy while he read it. As she had half expected it was a letter from the bishop, informing her that the Reverend Steven Daykers would soon be arriving to take up his position as vicar at Fardale, and he trusted that she would etc. etc. “Oh Lord!” She looked around to see that John had followed her into the dining room, a letter in his hand and a look of dismay on his face. “What’s the matter?” “We have visitors coming this afternoon. I hope they will only stay for tea, but they might want to spend the night here.” Rena gave a cry. “That’s impossible. You can’t let them come!” she exclaimed. “The bedrooms are terrible! Your room is the best of the bunch, but even that needs a wash and a great deal doing to it.” “I shut my eyes when I am undressing, and look out of the window when I am dressing,” the Earl said drolly. “Very ingenious, but we couldn’t count on your visitors to do the same. You really must not let them stay.” There was silence for a moment, and she wondered if she’d offended him. Then he said slowly, “I think I should be honest and tell you that the man who is coming here is exceedingly rich. I met him when I was in India and when he heard – I suppose from the newspapers – that I had come into the Earldom, he looked me up and told me that he was very anxious to see my ancestral home.” “To see your – ancestral – home?” she echoed in a stunned voice. In silence they both looked around them. They looked up at the grimy ceilings, around at the peeling walls, and down at the shabby furniture. “He’s going to get a shock, isn’t he?” she said at last. “A considerable shock,” John said grimly. “I only wish I thought it would scare him off.”
    • “Why do you want to scare him off?” “Because I have a horrid feeling I know what he wants of me. We met when I was a penniless sailor and he asked me to a dance he was giving for his daughter, to make up the numbers, I believe. Well, I’m still penniless, but now I have a title.” “You mean – ?” “What this man really wants – and I am quite certain it is what he will say when he gets here, is for me to marry his daughter!” Rena gave a little gasp. “Why should you do that,” she asked, “unless you have fallen in love with her?” He was silent for a moment, and she felt a strange chill come over her heart. “No, I’m not in love with her,” he said. “But if her father’s money can restore The Grange and make the people here prosperous again, it couldn’t possibly be my duty, could it? No!” He checked himself, turned sharply and strode back into the kitchen. Rena stayed where she was for a moment. She was glad that he hadn’t waited for her reply to that question, because she was not sure that she would have known how to answer. After a minute she followed him into the kitchen, and began making his breakfast. “Why was I even thinking like that?” he asked. “Of course I shan’t marry where I do not love. If I marry, it will be to a woman I love, who will make me happy, even if we are not particularly rich.” “I think you’re right,” she said, concentrating on what she was doing, and not looking at him. “But you don’t think I’ll keep to my resolution?” he asked, shooting her a look. “I think it could be hard for you if he says he’ll restore The Grange. Suppose he gives you enough money to repair it and bring the estate to life again. You could spend your life, in future, as a country gentleman, with of course, horses and dogs to verify it.” There was silence for a moment. Then the Earl walked to the window in the kitchen and stood looking out. Rena thought he was looking at the part of the kitchen garden which was desperately untidy.
    • There were a few cabbages and onions, but for each one of them, there were at least a dozen weeds. “I suppose,” she mused, “if she loved you, you would perhaps, in time, come to love her.” She wanted to add ‘and her money’, but thought that sounded rude. John turned from the window and said in a very positive tone, which seemed somehow to echo round the kitchen: “I will not sell myself for what they call in the Bible, ‘a mess of pottage.’ Although it might now be thousands of pounds.” “Well done.” “I would rather starve than find myself married to a woman for whom I have no feelings, and be subservient to a man with whom I have nothing in common.” He spoke almost violently. “But what else can you do?” Rena asked. “What did you say?” “Perhaps you should think hard before saying no.” She didn’t know why she was urging him to a course of action that she would hate, but there seemed to be a little demon inside her playing Devil’s Advocate. “You must remember how dilapidated the house is already. The villagers thought the roof would fall in last Christmas when we had a great deal of snow. By a miracle, it survived, but I doubt if it will next winter.” He gave her a strange smile. “Rena, are you urging me to marry for money?” “No, not exactly, but – are you wise to make a grand gesture, if you might regret it afterwards? This place already means a lot to you. Maybe it will come to mean everything. If you turn down the chance to restore this estate, maybe one day you will regret it.” She found she was holding her breath for his answer. And for some reason it was desperately important. “The only thing I will regret,” he said at last, “is putting money before everything. Rena, I’ve learned to trust in fortune. I inherited this property after everyone had been quite certain there was no
    • heir to the Earldom. I found you, and you found the hidden glories beneath the ancient cross.” “Yes,” she said, glowing with happiness. “Yes!” He took her hands. “Don’t you see, there is more to come. Much more. The future is full of surprises that we can’t imagine, but which are waiting for us.” His fervent tone convinced her. This was something he really felt, just as she would feel the same in his position. “Do I sound like a madman to you?” he asked anxiously. “Not at all. I know just what you mean?” “I knew you’d understand. Anyone else would have me put under restraint for such wild talk, but not you. We’ve only known each other a few hours, and yet already you’re the best friend I have. I can tell you things I could tell nobody else. So, keep your hand in mine, my dear friend, and nothing can defeat us.”
    • CHAPTER FOUR With only time to clean one room they settled on the drawing room. John helped her, and proved more adept than she had feared. “It’s being in the Navy,” he said. “A man develops certain domestic skills.” He joined her for tea in the kitchen, while she worked out the refreshments she would serve their guests. “Tell me more about Mr Wyngate,” she said. “He’s a bit of a mystery man. Nobody knows exactly where he came from, or how he got the money he started with. There’s a rumour that his name isn’t even Wyngate, but nobody knows the truth about that either. However he started, he made a vast fortune in American railroads.” “You mean he’s American?” “Not necessarily. That’s just the first place anybody heard of him. He turned up in America, with money that he invested in railroads, and made a fortune, helped, it is said, by marrying an American lady who had money. She died over there a few years ago. “Then he came to England and started investing in railways here. He might have been looking for fresh fields to conquer, or he might have been English to start with and returned to his roots, but –” “Nobody knows,” she finished with him. “Exactly right. He made another fortune here, then took his daughter and went travelling. I met him in India eighteen months ago, when my ship docked at Bombay. He’d taken over the entire Hotel Raj, and was busy competing with the local Maharajah to see who could spend the most money, the most ostentatiously. “He gave a ball for his daughter Matilda. I did hear that he’d invited the Viceroy as well, but received a polite refusal, which incensed him. In fact it was rather thin of European guests because nobody liked him very much. He made up the numbers by issuing an invitation to the senior officers of my ship, The Achilles, and
    • that’s how I came to be there. “He writes to me as if we’d formed an eternal friendship, but that was my only meeting with him. I’ve heard a lot about him, but it’s the silences that tell the most.” “Silences?” “If you mention his name people go silent, like birds when a hawk has flown over. He’s rich enough to buy anything in the world – or he thinks he is. The trouble is, he’s too often right. So many people will sell if the offer is great enough, and now he can’t imagine anybody saying no.” “Does the young woman want to marry you?” Rena asked quietly. “What kind of a person is she?” “I only met her once, at the ball, and formed very little impression of her personality.” “Is she pretty?” Rena asked, busying herself with mixing a cake. “Not really. She’s very quiet, and some men might find that charming. But me – I don’t know – she’s not for me. I like a woman who has more to say for herself.” “Then you’re different to most men,” Rena observed, smiling. “Most of them like a woman who keeps quiet and lets them do the talking.” “Indeed?” He raised his eyebrows quizzically. “And may I ask how you obtained this vast knowledge?” “From my mother,” she laughed. “Who obtained it from her mother, doubtless. Gentlemen do not like a chatterbox. Gentlemen do not like a woman who puts forward her opinions, especially if they are contrary to their own. In fact a real lady has no opinions.” “Heavens! What a bore! I must say, it sounds just like Matilda Wyngate. Poor girl. I don’t mean to be unkind to her. She’d be the perfect wife for a man of a different temperament to me.” “I feel rather sorry for her!” said Rena. “Perhaps she has no idea what her father is planning.” “Perhaps. I can just imagine him not bothering to tell her. Once he’d made his plans, he’s just the sort of man to dispense with other people’s feelings as an unnecessary extra. “He simply can’t imagine that there are things his money can’t
    • buy him.” Rena gave a sigh. “I am afraid there are a great many people like that in the world,” she said. “Papa used to say that although we were poor, we should always appreciate the beautiful things in life.” “What were they?” the Earl asked as if the way she had spoken made him curious. Rena smiled. “The sun, the moon, the stars,” she replied. “And so many other things, too many to mention.” “That’s just the sort of thing you would say,” he told her. “I am beginning to think you aren’t real, but a part of the magic cross you showed me in the woods. Also the sunshine, which, although you may not know it, is turning your hair to gold.” “Don’t let Mr Wyngate hear you saying things like that,” she reproved. “I understand that it means nothing, but he won’t.” John looked as if he wanted to say something, but stopped himself. Then he took a sharp breath. “Why, that’s it! I’ll say that you’re my wife!” “John, do be sensible.” “Wouldn’t you like to be my wife?” he sounded hurt. “If you don’t take care you’ll find yourself engaged to me, and then I’ll bring an action for breach of promise, and you’ll really be in a pickle.” “Only if I tried to get out of it. I might insist on marrying you. What would you do then?” “Don’t make me laugh when I’m beating eggs,” she begged. “It’s dangerous.” “Yes, you just flipped some on my nose. Anyway, you couldn’t sue me for breach of promise.” His eyes were twinkling. “Indeed, sir? And do you often ask girls if they would ‘like to be your wife’?” “Every day,” he assured her. “But I always make sure there are no witnesses. Then there’s nothing they can do when I behave like a cad, and vanish.” She was speechless. He grinned at the sight of her indignant face.
    • “I learned that from one of my shipmates,” he said. “He had a considerable career of that kind. In fact I think he joined the Navy one jump ahead of an outraged father.” “I think you’re quite disgraceful. And so was he.” “Yes, he was. Of course it isn’t funny if it’s real, but I would never actually behave in such a way. I hope you know that.” “What I know or don’t know is neither here nor there,” she said, concentrating on the eggs. Something in his tone as he spoke the last words had made the air sing about her ears. “It isn’t me you have to impress,” she added. “Well I wouldn’t like you to think badly of me, Rena. For any reason.” She regarded him quizzically. “My Lord, since we’ve met you have set me to work in a beetle infested oven, struck me down and rolled me around on a dusty carpet. Why on earth would I think badly of you?” He began to shake with laughter, which grew and grew until he put his head down on his arms on the table, and rocked with mirth. Rena stood there, regarding him with delight. At last he raised his head and mopped his streaming eyes. Then he got to his feet and came round the table, took the bowl from her hand and engulfed her in an enormous bear hug, swinging her round and round the kitchen, while his laughter went on. “John,” she protested, laughing too now, because she couldn’t help it. This delightful madman had overwhelmed her with his riotous love of life and her head was spinning, joyfully. “Rena, you are wonderful,” he cried. “Wonderful, wonderful, WONDERFUL!” “John – ” “There isn’t another woman in the world who would put up with me as you do. Maybe I ought to marry you after all.” “Stop your nonsense,” she said, trying to speak clearly through the thumping of her heart. “You need an heiress.” “Curses! So I do.” He released her reluctantly. “What a bore!” Rena turned away and got on with her work, hoping that he couldn’t see that she was flustered.
    • It meant nothing, she told herself. It was just his way. And she wasn’t used to great-hearted, exuberant men who seized her vigorously in their arms. “So, you be careful,” she said, for something to say. “Or I shall make myself difficult.” “I’m not afraid of you. I’ll just set Mr Wyngate on you. My, that would be a battle of the titans. I think I’d back you against him. All right, all right, don’t look at me like that. I was only joking.” She pointed a ladle at him. “That kind of joke can land you in complications,” she said, with an unconvincing attempt at severity, “and you have enough of those.” “Well at least I can make a joke with you, without worrying that you’ll have hysterics.” “Has it occurred to you that you may be imagining the whole thing? He may not want you at all.” “In our previous acquaintance he kept asking me if I knew any aristocrats that I could introduce him to, because Matilda would grace a coronet. Then the minute he discovers my Earldom he descends on me. How does that strike you?” “Sinister,” she agreed. “Once he’s set his heart on something he never gives up. I suppose that’s how he became a millionaire. I feel almost afraid that before I know it I’ll find myself walking up the aisle with Matilda on my arm.” “Then perhaps you will,” said Rena, almost brusquely. “Perhaps it’s your destiny to do what will bring prosperity to the village, no matter what the cost to yourself. Now, would you mind going away? I have a lot of work to do before this afternoon.” This conversation was proving a strain on her. * For the visit Rena changed into her severest clothes, and put a cap on her head that hid some of her shining hair. John was outraged. “What did you do that for? You look like a servant.”
    • “A housekeeper is a servant.” “Not you. Take this thing off your head.” “Hey, let go.” He was pulling pins out. “Give that back at once.” “I will not.” “You will.” She stamped her foot. “Right now.” He grinned at her, and the sun came out. “For a servant you’re very good at giving me orders.” “John, will you try to be sensible?” She had already fallen into the habit of scolding him like a sister. “While we’re sharing the house alone, the plainer I look the better. And Mr Wyngate will notice.” “Well, if he thinks you’re my – well, you know – he won’t want me to marry his daughter, will he?” “Nonsense, of course he will. Where’s he going to find another coronet? And what about my reputation in the village? Have you thought of that? “I didn’t even mean to be sleeping here. I was going to stay respectably in the vicarage before a crowd of strangers turned up, throwing me out, making fun of my mother’s clothes and trying to steal my chicken – ” her voice wobbled. “Rena, Rena, I’m sorry.” His manner changed at once, becoming the gentle, kindly one that touched her heart. He took hold of her shoulders. “I’m a selfish beast. I forgot how much you’ve had to put up with. My poor, dear girl, are you crying?” “No,” she said into her handkerchief. “Well, nobody could blame you. Come here.” He drew her against him and wrapped his arms about her, holding her in a warm, brotherly hug. It was the second time that day he had held her close to him, and it threw her into a state of confusion. “You’ve been a tower of strength and I don’t know what I would have done without you,” he said tenderly. “And all I do is make your life difficult. I ought to be shot for my appalling behaviour, oughtn’t I?” “Yes,” she mumbled. He chuckled. “That’s my girl. Never mince matters. Heaven help
    • me if I ever get on your wrong side.” He tightened his arms so that she was held hard against a broad, comforting chest. He was taller by several inches, and she had a faint awareness of a soft thunder where his heart was. Then there was another feeling, almost incredible, on the top of her head, as though he had planted a light kiss on her hair. But he released her straight after, so she might have imagined it. “How do I put this back?” he asked, holding up the cap and pins. “I’ll do it. You go and – I don’t know. Practise looking like an Earl.” He grinned. “Do you think I’ll pass muster?” He looked splendidly handsome in a dark suit. But it was his height that was impressive, plus his broad shoulders and long legs. His face was good looking, but it was more than that, she decided, giving the matter her full attention. It was his proud carriage, the way he carried himself with an air. And then there was the indefinable something in his blue eyes, the gleam of humour and lust for life that was never far away. It was hard to see how Miss Wyngate would not fall in love with him. In fact, she was probably the one behind this, and her father was acting at her wishes. Rena had a sense of alarm, as though she could see some terrible danger rushing towards John, and she might pluck him from its path. But then she realised that she was powerless to do any such thing. They might find more coins, but were unlikely to find enough to help. She returned to work with a heavy heart. An hour later there was a sound of wheels outside the front door. They were here at last. She and John had talked so much about them that they had come to feel strangely unreal. But now they were very real, standing outside, demanding admittance. She felt herself become breathless and a little afraid. She pulled herself together and tried to assume the demeanour of a servant.
    • After all, she had wanted to be an actress. This was her chance. The front door bell rang. Eyes cast down she crossed the great hall and opened the door. Outside stood a man in his fifties who, despite his lack of inches, managed to be extremely impressive. He was not particularly attractive, but there was something about him that she had never seen before, an aura of wealth, and power. It was not only the fact that his heavy Astrakhan coat and gleaming top hat were obviously new and expensive. Nor that his diamond tie-pin was sparkling in the sunshine or that the ring on his finger was also a diamond. It was something more. She felt it come at her like a blast of air from the furnace of hell. Sheer brute determination to have his own way in all things.Callousness, cruelty, the hardness of rock. She sensed all these things. Sinister. She had used the word to John almost without thinking, but now that she was faced with the reality she recognised it at once. He was sinister. He was frightening. And he was something far worse. Rena was a parson’s daughter, subtly attuned to the vibrations of another world, and now the hairs stood up on the back of her neck as she recognised evil. She had never met it before. It had been a theory, a biblical abstraction. Now, at this moment she knew, unmistakeably, that she was in its presence. Standing beside him was his daughter. She was exquisitely dressed in what Rena assumed must be the very latest fashion. Her clothes were trimmed with fur, her brooch was pearl and her ear-rings were diamonds. Somebody was bent on announcing to the world that she was the daughter of a rich man. And that same somebody had more money than taste, since Rena’s mother, who had belonged to the gentry in her youth, had once told her that no lady ever wore diamonds before six in the evening, and then never with pearls. “Good afternoon, ma’am.”
    • “My name is Wyngate. Lansdale is expecting me.” His voice was unpleasant and grating, and the way he said “Lansdale” made it clear that he already felt able to command here. She murmured something respectful and stood back to let them pass. Mr Wyngate shrugged off his coat and tossed it to her without a second glance. His silver topped stick followed. Now that he was divested of his top coat Rena could see that there was something strange about his body. He was not a tall man, but his shoulders were very broad and his arms very long. His head, too, was slightly too large for his body. In fact he reminded her of a picture of an ape that she had once seen in a picture book at home. Then John was there, striding across the hall on his long legs, looking, Rena thought, more handsome than any man had the right to. And it seemed absurd to think that Miss Matilda Wyngate would not fall in love with him. “Good to see you again Lansdale,” Wyngate grated. “You remember my daughter.” It was a statement, not a question. “I remember Miss Wyngate with great pleasure,” John said politely. Matilda smiled up at him in a way that reminded Rena of John’s words. “She’s very quiet, and some men might find that charming.” It was true. Matilda was no beauty but neither was she plain. Her oval face was pale, her demeanour was shy, and she did have charm. “I remember Your Lordship very well,” she said softly. “None of that,” her father said curtly. “You don’t have to ‘lordship’ him. We’re Lansdale’s equals any day.” “Indeed you are,” John said. “And you are both very welcome to my house. Rena – ” he turned to her unexpectedly, “please come and meet our guests.” The idea of a man introducing his housekeeper was outrageous, and plainly Mr Wyngate thought so too, for he turned cold eyes on Rena. “This is my cousin, Mrs. Colwell,” John continued, apparently oblivious to their astonishment. “She is visiting me to help me look
    • after the house.” There was a twinkle in his eyes as he added: “She will tell you she has found it even worse than she had expected. Rena, my dear, these are my friends. Mr Wyngate who has been very kind to me and his charming daughter, Matilda who has come with him to see the ruins which have so shocked us.” Rena shook hands with them both, her head whirling. It was all very well trying her hand at being an actress, but she had not expected the role to change without warning. Then she realised that John had forgotten one essential stage ‘prop’. A wedding ring. Where could she find a wedding ring at a moment’s notice? Did men ever think of anything? To conceal the bareness of her left hand she thrust it into the pocket of her dress. And there, to her surprise she found a broken ring which had fallen from one of the pictures. She had taken it down because it was dangerous. Quickly she slipped the ring on her finger, keeping the broken part well hidden. With luck, it would pass as a wedding ring, if nobody looked too closely. “I do hope,” she said aloud, “you have had a good journey from London.” “An excellent journey,” Mr Wyngate grated. “Fortunately there are trains to this part of the world, or at least to Winchester. After that we had to take a coach, but I fancy that will soon be remedied. The railways are the only modern way to travel, and in time the whole country will be covered with them.” Rena remembered that this man had made his fortune from railways. Clearly he was determined that everyone should be aware of that fact. But while he spoke he was looking round at the dust and dirt in the hall. Following his eyes Rena thought that it would take at least two or three men a week to get the hall clean and tidy. And he knew that. She had forgotten that the windows were broken. She also
    • remembered that the stairs going up on one side of the hall were in need of a wash. The carpet on them had almost lost its colour and was torn in many places. And all the while Mr Wyngate absorbed these details he continued talking about railways. He was a machine, Rena thought, capable of splitting his mind so that it worked in two ways together. “Now I want you to show me the house, which I can see at a glance needs a lot doing to it,” Mr Wyngate said in a brusque voice. “I think what you should have first is a little rest after your drive,” the Earl suggested. “Perhaps a glass of wine would revive you. Come into the drawing room which is the most civilised room so far. We will show you all over the house later.” “I will not refuse a glass of wine,” Mr Wyngate said. “I am sure Matilda will say the same.” “I think it is so exciting to be in the country,” Matilda replied. “I would like to go out into the garden.” “I will be glad to show you,” Rena said at once. She was glad of the excuse to get out of Mr Wingate’s orbit. She found him horribly oppressive. At the same time she was interested to study Matilda, and Matilda’s clothes. Shut away in this quiet place she had had no opportunity to study fashion. Now she realised that crinolines had grown to a vast size. Matilda’s was so enormous that it swayed as she moved, and she only just got through the French windows. She wore a huge skirt of honey coloured velvet, which in itself marked her out as wealthy, Rena thought wryly. Only a woman who could command armies of cleaners could wear something that would dirty so quickly. The blouse above it was white silk, and over that she had a little jacket of matching honey velvet. But it was her hat that undermined all Rena’s resolutions of virtue. It was a perky little creation in the same velvet, worn over her left eye and sporting a feather. What would it be like to own such a hat? She wondered. And suddenly her dowdy dress with its narrow petticoats seemed a
    • crime against nature. “This was once a beautiful garden,” she said as they strolled in the sun together, “but now, I’m afraid, only the wild rabbits and the birds enjoy it.” Matilda laughed. “They must have lots of fun playing here with no one to stop them.” “I only hope they appreciate their freedom,” Rena said. “I know when I was very young I would have loved to have a place like this to play in. Let me show you the lake.” They moved away together, deeper into the grounds.
    • CHAPTER FIVE In the drawing room Mr Wyngate looked around him. Watching him, John had the same sensation as Rena, that here was a man who noticed everything and calculated exactly how to take advantage of it. He felt uneasy and troubled. He was a blunt man, a man of action. If an enemy ship had appeared on the horizon he would have known how to deal with it bravely and efficiently. Even ruthlessly. But this situation required dodging, feinting and subtlety. It needed skill with words. In short, it needed Rena. And she had abandoned him to manage as best he could. “So what are you going to do?” Mr Wyngate barked. “You’re not going back to sea, are you?” “I’m finished with the sea,” John said. “I have enjoyed seeing the world, but that’s now in the past.” “So you’re going to live here?” “Yes.” “Good. That’s how it should be. Houses like this are part of our country’s heritage.” It gave John an eerie feeling to hear such words falling from this harsh man’s lips. He sounded as though he’d learned them by rote. “Our country’s heritage,” Mr Wyngate repeated, as though having taken the trouble to learn the correct expression he wanted to get full use out of it, for reasons of economy. “And our country’s heritage must be protected,” he went on. “For the sake of future generations. Children. Grandchildren. They need houses like this to remind them of our glorious history. Such places are a sacred trust. They must be preserved at all costs.” His voice was like the cawing of a rook. “But the place is falling down,” he went on. “How the devil do you manage to live here?” “I have nowhere else to go, and very little choice about how I manage here! I can’t sell the house or the lands because they’re entailed. They have to be passed on to my heir – intact, which is
    • rather amusing considering the state they’re in now.” Mr Wyngate leaned back against the sofa, and looked pleased. “That is exactly what I want to talk to you about,” he said. “You’d find this place very empty and depressing – if you did not have your cousin with you.” He left the last words hanging in the air, having given them a sly emphasis that made John want to hit him. “If you mean what I think you do, sir, then let me inform you that my cousin is a most honourable lady, of impeccable reputation and –” “Yes, yes, yes,” the other man said testily. “I’m sure she’s as pure as the driven snow. They always are, you know, and if you haven’t learned that by now then it’s time you did. Never mind her. I don’t care what you do as long as she’s out of the way when the time comes. I don’t want any trouble, d’you hear?” “I fail to understand you, sir,” said John stiffly. “No, you don’t. You understand me perfectly. We’re both men of the world and it’s a fair bargain. I’ll probably be out of pocket, but I don’t mind paying for what I want, as long as I get what I pay for. And I always get what I pay for, because there’s trouble if I don’t.” John stared at him, feeling sick with loathing at this man who spoke of Rena in such a way. He would have liked to slam his fist into Wyngate’s face. The only thing that had prevented him was the reflection that he himself had exposed Rena to this by claiming her as his cousin. To have inflicted violence on him would had cast further suspicion on Rena, so John clenched his fists and controlled himself with a violent effort. Wyngate’s cold eyes met his. “I’m quite sure you follow me,” he said. John had the nightmarish sensation that cobwebs were being spun around him, and when he tried to break them he would find that they were made of steel. Where was Rena? Why didn’t she come and help him?
    • * Rena and Matilda had reached the lake, and were wandering around it. “What a wonderful place for swimming!” Matilda exclaimed. “If it was thoroughly cleaned up, yes,” Rena agreed. “I enjoy swimming. In America the girls swim almost as much as the men, but that doesn’t seem to happen in England. And when you do swim, you have to wear a swimming costume that smothers you, and is thick and uncomfortable. I swim my best when I have nothing on.” “Does your father allow you to do that?” Rena asked, startled. “He doesn’t know,” Matilda admitted. “I wait until he’s out shooting or ordering some poor creatures about, then I go out to swim, and I make sure I’m back in my room, dressed like a lady before he returns.” Rena laughed. “I think that’s very sensible of you,” she said, “as long as he doesn’t catch you.” “Yes, he’d be very angry if he thought I wasn’t behaving like a perfect lady. And when he says ‘lady’ he means ‘lady with a title’.” “Is that what you want?” Solemnly Matilda shook her head. “I’m twenty-four,” she said wearily, “and what I want is to stop being dragged about the world, while Papa searches for a title he thinks is grand enough for me, or rather, for him. “I want to love and marry a man who loves me madly. Then our love would make us happy, whether or not we had Papa’s money, or a large house. Without the one you love the grandest house would be cold and empty.” “Then it’s love that matters the most to you,” Rena said in a soft voice. There was silence for a moment, then Matilda said,, “If I tell you the truth, will you promise not to tell Papa?” “Of course I promise,” Rena replied. “If it’s a secret I won’t tell anyone at all.” “Very well.” Matilda took a deep breath. “I am in love, with a
    • man who loves me as much as I love him.” As she spoke she looked over her shoulder as if she was afraid someone would hear her. Dropping her voice almost to a whisper, Rena asked: “Does your father know?” “No, of course not!” Matilda said. “And you’ve promised not to tell him.” “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my word. But what are you going to do?” “I don’t know. We’re only here because he wants me to have a title. Last month he tried to trick a Duke into marrying me. But the Duke escaped and Papa was lividly angry. I thought he was going to kill somebody. He’s capable of it, you know.” “You mean he already has killed someone?” “No – at least – I don’t know. It’s only a suspicion and I may be wrong. A man was causing Papa trouble, and he vanished a little too conveniently.” “Good heavens! What happened?” “I don’t know. He just vanished and was never seen again. Papa was trying to get control of a railroad in America, and this man was trying to stop him. Maybe it wasn’t Papa. The man had other enemies. It’s more that I’m certain he could do something like that. It’s there, inside him. “I’ve seen him flex his fingers against the air, like this – ” Matilda made the gesture. “As though he had somebody’s neck in his hands, and would enjoy squeezing it.” Rena nodded. Mr Wyngate had struck her in exactly the same way. “But it doesn’t last, you see,” Matilda went on. “He has a brief spell of being murderously angry, and then he puts it behind him and goes on to the next thing.” “And the ‘next thing’ is Lord Lansdale?” “Yes. Papa read about his inheriting the title in the newspapers, and said ‘All right, he’ll have to do’. He said he was sure Lord Lansdale was in love with me. Well, I could hardly keep from laughing. “John and I met at a ball my father gave. He danced with me
    • twice and we chatted over a glass of wine. The only thing he could talk about was his ship, but according to Papa he’d been giving me languishing looks, and would have confessed his ‘love’ but that he had nothing to offer me.” “Did you believe that?” Rena asked, frowning. “Not for one moment,” Matilda said emphatically. “I know when a man’s in love with me.” “Do you?” Rena asked, startled. “I mean, even if he doesn’t say anything?” “Good heavens, he doesn’t have to say anything?” Matilda said with a chuckle. “It’s there in how he looks at you, an inflexion in his voice and – oh, you know.” Rena didn’t, but it was impossible to admit. “Anyway, Papa started ‘reminding’ me how much I’d liked John. Honestly I barely remembered him, but when I tried to say so, Papa got angry. He wants that title and he won’t listen to anyone who says he can’t have it.” “If he’s got so much money why doesn’t he just buy his own?” Rena asked. “He tried, but the most he could get was a knighthood. Not good enough, you see. An Earl is the least he’ll settle for.” “Does the man you love have a title?” “No, he’s just plain Mr Cecil Jenkins. But as long as I can be with him, I’m happy to be Mrs. Cecil Jenkins.” She spoke bravely, but she also looked over her shoulder. “It’s all so exciting,” Rena said, “but I am afraid your dreams may never come true.” “I’m determined to make them come true,” Matilda retorted. “But we have to wait a little while. If I elope now Papa would cut me off without a penny.” “Is that ever going to change?” “No, but we are saving money. I’m getting as much as I can from Papa without him being suspicious. Then when we can afford it, we’ll get married and hide until he’s forgiven us, which he’ll have to do in the end.” “Unless he writes you off, takes another wife and has more
    • children,” Rena pointed out. “Good heavens, you’re right. I must make him double my allowance without delay.” Rena was torn between admiration of the girl’s courage and a slight feeling of unease at the ruthlessness with which she extracted her father’s cash in order to defy him. “You’re shocked, aren’t you?” Matilda said, reading her face. “But I’m his daughter and I can be as determined as he is. And how else can I defend myself from him?” “You can’t,” Rena agreed. “When the danger is great, you must use whatever defence will succeed. And if I can help you in any way, perhaps hide you, or prevent your father from guessing what you are doing, then you can trust me.” “I knew that when I first saw you,” Matilda said eagerly. “I haven’t had anyone to talk to for such a long time, and I was sure as soon as I came into the house that the Earl wasn’t the least in love with me, no matter what Papa said.” She gave Rena an impish smile. “In fact, I think he’d rather marry you.” Rena stared, her heart pounding. Suddenly she was short of breath. Then she pulled herself together. “You are forgetting that I’m a married woman.” “Oh, nonsense, of course you’re not. That story will do very well for Papa, but not for me. Don’t worry. You keep my secret, and I will keep yours.” “In any case, I’m sure you’re mistaken,” Rena said hurriedly. “His Lordship is not interested in me – in that way?” “Do you call him ‘Your Lordship’ when you’re alone together?” Matilda asked mischievously. “I really don’t see – in any case you’ve only seen us together for about five minutes – ” “And for all that five minutes his eyes followed you about. I know how he feels about you, but how do you feel about him? Hasn’t he ever clasped you in his arms and held you against him? Wasn’t it thrilling?” Rena recalled the hug John had given her earlier that day. It had
    • been kind and brotherly, no more. But then she remembered that other time, when they had fallen on the carpet together, because he had thought she was the ghost. She couldn’t banish from her consciousness the feeling of John’s hard body against hers, the power she had sensed in him. Matilda was right. It had been thrilling. But that had been an accident, nothing to do with love. And yet….. “I hope you find a way to be with the man you love,” she said, meaning it. For a moment Matilda’s brave mood seemed to fall away and she sighed. “If he ever knew I was in love with Cecil or that Cecil loved me, he would find some way of either getting him out of the country or perhaps even killing him. Papa has always got what he wanted, and sometimes I think he always will.” “I can imagine. You will have to be very, very clever.” The impish smile returned to Matilda’s face. “But of course I’m clever. I’m not Jeremiah Wyngate’s daughter for nothing.” * “Now listen here, Lansdale, if you refuse my suggestion you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. You’ve got to learn to seize your chances, and take what you want in life. It’s insane to turn down a good offer when it is made to you.” “You are very kind, but – ” “Never mind all that. I’m offering you an excellent bargain. You’ll get your house restored to perfect order, everything that money can buy. What more could you want?” “A wife I loved, and who loved me?” the Earl suggested lightly. “Sentimental nonsense! Besides, my daughter has always found you very attractive. She confided as much to me after your last meeting.” “As I recall I talked mostly about my ship. I think she was thoroughly bored.” “Well, of course she didn’t show her feelings. Girls don’t. But I
    • knew. Now it’s time for action.” “You’re going much too fast,” John said. “Even if I can believe that your daughter had any feelings for me at that ball, it was some time back. She may have other ideas now. Women like to choose their own husbands, not to have them chosen for them!” “My daughter is different,” Mr Wyngate replied. “She does what I want and she knows which side her bread is buttered!” The Earl winced at the brutality of this utterance. “You won’t know this place when my men have finished with it,” Wyngate said. “Your men?” “The men I shall employ to bring it back to its best. Architects, craftsmen, the best that money can buy. The expense will be no object to me.” “But that might not be the ideal way to restore this place.” “What the devil do you mean by that? Of course it’s the ideal way. Spending money is always the way. There isn’t another.” “That depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” the Earl said quietly. “But we’ve already agreed what we’re trying to achieve,” Wyngate said impatiently. “To put the Earl of Lansdale in the setting he ought to have, the setting his ancestors had. Fine lands, a fine house. You’ll need a town house as well but that can come later.” “Excuse me,” the Earl interrupted him, “that may be your object, but it isn’t mine. I can’t just think about myself. If this estate can be made to flourish it can bring prosperity to the neighbourhood, give employment to the local craftsmen and traders.” “Good grief, man! What do you want to worry about them for? A man must think about himself.” “But not only himself,” the Earl said quietly. There was a sudden firmness in his voice that alerted Wyngate to the fact that his tactics were at fault. He wasn’t a sensitive or subtle man but he was a shrewd one where his own wishes were concerned, and the Earl’s words had shed a new light across his path.
    • “Of course not,” he barked now. “A man should share his good fortune with others less fortunate. Noblesse oblige! Very proper. Of course you know your duty to the neighbourhood. But your people will benefit from what I propose. My men will come in and decide what needs to be done, and then employ the locals to do it. “They’ll need to buy provisions from local shops. Some of them will stay at the nearest hotel. They’ll spend money, and that’s what it’s all about after all. Well, that’s settled. I’m glad we understand each other.” “You’re rushing ahead of me – ” “When you’ve had a good idea, get to work without delay. That’s my motto.” Two shadows darkened the French windows, and Rena came in, followed by Matilda. “So there you both are,” Wyngate cried with a ghastly attempt at geniality that set everyone’s teeth on edge. “We were just making our plans. My people will start work on this house next week.” There was a stunned silence from the others. It was broken by the last sound anybody was expecting. A titter. A stupid, bird-brained, idiotic titter. It had come from Rena. The Earl stared at her. The sheer inanity of the sound, coming from her, took him aback. “Oh, dear me,” she said, covering her mouth with her fingers, and tittering again. “Oh My Lord, how honoured I am to be the first to hear your delightful news. My goodness me, such a proud day for the family.” “Honoured?” he stared at her. “To be the first to hear of your nuptials. Oh, I declare! Oh my, oh my!” He wondered if she had taken leave of her senses. “You are mistaken, Mrs. Colwell,” the Earl said formally. “It is far too early to speak of nuptials. Miss Wyngate and I – ” he bowed in Matilda’s direction, “are merely going to get to know each other.” “Naturally that will happen before any announcement,” Rena
    • giggled, contriving to sound totally witless. “But there can be no doubt that there will be an announcement.” “Indeed?” John said frostily. “Why yes, indeed. If a gentleman like Mr Wyngate intends to start work which– forgive me – he knows you cannot pay for – then he is certainly doing so for his daughter’s husband. Who else would he be doing it for? ” “What I mean is that should the wedding – by some accident – not take place, he could send you a bill for the whole cost of the repairs, could he not? Or perhaps a suit for breach of promise of marriage?” Her eyes were wide and suspiciously innocent, fixed on his face. “And so you see, once the workmen have arrived, it’s all settled, isn’t it?” she asked, tittering again. “I mean, there would be no going back. Even if you wanted to. Which of course, you wouldn’t. But if you did – you couldn’t – because of the witnesses, d’you see? Oh dear, I’m expressing myself very badly – ” “On the contrary,” said the Earl. “You have expressed yourself perfectly.” Mr Wyngate looked murderous. “Get rid of this silly woman,” he snapped. “You’re perfectly right,” the Earl said. “Mrs. Colwell, you have leapt to a false conclusion. No nuptials are planned, and no workmen will be coming to this house, next week or at any other time.” “In my opinion it would be better if they start immediately,” Wyngate grated. “And in my opinion it would be better if they did not,” the Earl said flatly. Wyngate changed tack. “Now, Lansdale, you don’t want to listen to these female fantasies. You can’t imagine that I would – ” “I don’t know what you would do,” the Earl said. “But the arrival of your men would place me in an equivocal position. My cousin is certainly right about that, and I would hate to attach any scandal to
    • the family name, just as I am sure you would dislike any misunderstandings.” “Misunderstandings can be sorted out,” Wyngate snapped. “But how much better if they don’t occur in the first place!” the Earl said smoothly. “Now, shall we have some tea?” “Don’t bother,” Wyngate said. “It’s time we were going. I told that coachman to wait in the grounds, so I suppose he’s still there.” “I’ll summon him,” Rena said. “I would have liked some tea,” Matilda said mildly. “Shut up!” her father told her. In no time the carriage was at the front door waiting for them. The coachman pulled down the step and opened the door. Matilda stepped in, followed by her father. But before he entered the coach Wyngate turned back to face Rena and the Earl, standing on the step. “I’ve never set my heart on anything I didn’t get,” he grated. “I’ll be seeing you again very shortly.” Then he looked directly at Rena. It was a malevolent look, like a blast of icy wind. It told her that he wasn’t fooled. He knew exactly what she had done, and how she had done it. And she would be made to pay for it. All this was in the silent, deadly gaze that he turned on her. Then he got into the carriage and slammed the door.
    • CHAPTER SIX “Thank goodness for you,” John said sombrely as they turned back into the house. “If you hadn’t come in when you did –” He shuddered. “Rena I hardly recognised you, talking in that half witted fashion.” “But you understood what I was saying?” “Yes. I would have been trapped. I can see it now, but then everything was strangely foggy. I don’t understand it.” “He was weaving wicked spells around you,” said Rena. “That was exactly how it felt. All the time he was talking I knew there was something wrong, but I couldn’t see what it was because my mind seemed to be full of cobwebs. It was as though he had mesmerised me. But then you came in and blew the cobwebs away.” He grinned. “You were brilliant. You sounded like the silliest woman in the world, not at all like my Rena.” She smiled. “Sometimes it’s easier to say things if people think you’re too stupid to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to denounce him openly as a scoundrel in case you wanted to go along with his plan.” “You think I’d do that?” “You need money.” “And you expect me to marry for it?” “I expect you to remember that the village is relying on you,” she said quietly. “But I’m glad you’re not turning to Wyngate. He’s evil.” “Yes, I felt that force in him too. But good vanquished evil.” He gave her a tender look. “For the moment,” she said in a brooding voice. “But he will come back. He isn’t going to give up.” She would have liked to tell him that Matilda had another lover, and would fight the marriage as strongly as they. But she had given Matilda her word not to speak of Cecil, so she contented herself with saying, “Matilda may give him a shock. She isn’t as docile as he thinks. She’s very much his daughter. She told me that twice, and it’s true.”
    • “Did she tell you anything else?” “Nothing that I can repeat. But we’re on the same side. Let’s go and have some tea.” In the kitchen they ate the cakes she had prepared and she said, “Whatever possessed you to invent that story about my being your married cousin?” “I was trying to be helpful,” he said, aggrieved. “You were so worried about your reputation.” “But everyone knows me in this village. They know my name’s Colwell because of my father, not my non-existent husband. Matilda didn’t believe a word of it. And neither did he, I shouldn’t think.” “Hang him and what he thinks! I’m sorry. That’s just not the sort of thing I’m very good at.” “You’re more of a man of action,” she said, smiling and forgiving him. “Definitely. When it comes to words I just tie myself in knots.” “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “I think we should go out tonight, looking for coins. There’s going to be a full moon, and you need to know your exact position. You might be a millionaire without knowing it. John?” He was staring into space, but he came back with a start. “Sorry, yes we’ll go out tonight.” “You were in a dream world. Wyngate didn’t really mesmerise you, did he?” “No, but I was trying to think where I’ve seen him before.” “In India.” “No, before that. He reminds me of someone.” “Probably a picture of the devil,” Rena said tartly. “No, it’s a real person – if only I could think who it is.” “Don’t dwell on it,” she advised. “The worst thing you can do is brood about that man. Don’t let him into your mind, because once he’s in there, you’ll never get him out.” “I’ve never heard you speak like that before,” John said. “It’s as though you were looking into another world.” “I suppose I am. I’m looking into hell, and I see him there. He belongs there, and he’ll take us all with him if we give him the
    • chance.” “Then we won’t,” John assured her fervently. “Now stop work and go and take some rest, for we have a busy night ahead.” * As Rena had said there was a full moon that night, but by eleven o’clock the sky was full of storm clouds and a sharp wind was getting up. “Would you rather leave it until tomorrow?” John asked. “I don’t think that would be safe. And who needs a moon? We’ll take a lamp.” Armed with the lamp and pulling their cloaks about them they left the house and made their way through the windy garden. Moving cautiously, they crossed the old bridge over the stream, and slipped into the woods. The wind seemed to grow fiercer every moment, and it was a relief to get among the trees, which offered some protection. At the same time the howling through the leaves and branches created an eerie effect. “I shall be glad to get back,” said John. “This is too much like a storm at sea for my liking.” As if in agreement there was a flash of lightning, soon followed by a distant roar of thunder. “Let’s get this finished quickly before the rain comes,” John said. Hand in hand they made their way between the swaying trees, until at last they saw the cross, monumental and impressive in the gloom. At that moment there was another flash of lightning, illuminating the cross that reared up before them, seeming to tower high into the sky. Then it was plunged back into darkness. John had brought a large knife, and while Rena held the lamp, he used this to dig into the ground. When he’d loosened some earth he plunged his hands in, feeling frantically about, then pulling the loose earth aside. She brought the lamp closer, while they both desperately sought the gleam of gold.
    • But no yellow shone through the gloom. John groaned aloud and plunged his hands back into the earth. “There has to be something,” he said. “There has to be – what’s this?” “Have you found anything?” “Yes, but I don’t think it’s anything much.” He brought out his hand and raised it to the lamp, so that she could see a small, leather purse. Opening it, he showed her another coin. And I think there’s another one in there,” he said. “But that’s all.” They searched a little longer, but found nothing else. “Well, at least you gained something,” she said, trying to cheer him. “It was worth trying.” “What did you say?” he shouted, getting to his feet and trying to make himself heard over the wind. She raised her voice and repeated the words, also shouting over the wind. “Let’s go home,” he yelled. “Yes, let’s.” In that moment the lightning split the sky again, seeming to streak down to earth, and there, in a narrow space between the trees, she saw Wyngate. She caught her breath at the sight of that wicked, brooding presence, standing so terribly still. Then there was darkness again, followed by a clap of thunder so monstrous that it was as though the earth had split in two. “What is it?” John asked when he could speak. “Nothing, I – I thought I saw him – over there.” Another flash of lightning lit up the space. It was empty. “Rena, you’re getting him on the brain. You were the one who said we shouldn’t do that.” “Yes It must have been my imagination,” she said, dazed. “Of course.” “Come along.” He grasped her arm and guided her firmly away. In a few
    • minutes they were out of the wood, battling across the open space to the sanctuary of the house. Never had the kitchen seemed so welcoming. They slammed the door behind them, drew the curtains and huddled over the range, which still had some warmth. “Tea,” she said, filling the kettle. “My poor girl! Are you all right? It’s not like you to have hallucinations.” “I know, but I think you’re right. I’m letting my mind dwell on him, and I mustn’t. Oh John, what did we find? Do look.” He took out the coin which he had thrust into his pocket, then felt around in the purse and took out another one. They were the same as the others. “They might be so valuable that these few are enough,” he said hopefully. But they both knew it was a forlorn hope. “How do we find out?” she asked. “I told you I came back from the tavern the other night to write letters. One was to an old friend in London. He’s a retired clergyman, and also a very learned historian, with a great knowledge of antiques. I met him when I was a young midshipman in the Navy.” John reddened before he added, “He got me out of a bit of trouble. All my own fault.” “I’m sure you were a demon,” Rena laughed. He nodded. “I wasn’t the best behaved lad in the world. Anyway, I wrote to the Reverend Adolphus Tandy. I described the coins as well as I could, hoping that he might write back to tell me what they were. We shall just have to wait for his reply.” He was drowned out again by a violent crack of thunder overhead, followed by the sound of rain pounding down. There seemed nothing for it but to go to bed and hope for better weather in the morning. *
    • Rena woke to a drenched world. During the night the rain had flattened the long grass and swollen the stream. She slipped outside and breathed in the cool, clean air. She had meant to go straight in again, but something drew her down to the bridge. On this bright morning the fears of the night before seemed absurd. She stood on the bridge looking down into the racing water, enjoying the beauty of the day. Of course she hadn’t really seen Mr Wyngate in the flash of lightning. He was just an ordinary man, and could be fought, like any other man. So lost was she in these thoughts that she did not hear the approach of footsteps, and it was something in the silence that made her look up. And she saw him. He was standing just a few feet away, watching her in silence. The shock was terrible. It was as though a demon had come up through a trapdoor. Rena had no idea how long he had been there, his cold, dead eyes fixed upon her. “Good morning,” she said, trying to sound firm. He didn’t bother with courtesies. “You’re a very clever woman,” he grated. “Cleverer than I thought at first. Only a really sharp intelligence can play the idiot as well as you did.” “You flatter me, sir. I assure you it was no performance.” “Don’t waste my time with that stuff,” he snapped. “We both know what this is about.” “Then you have the advantage of me.” He sighed impatiently. “I thought better of your wits than this.” “Shall we go into the house and I can inform His Lordship – ?” “Stay where you are. It’s you I came to see. Walk with me.” He left the bridge and began to follow the rough path to the trees. Rena followed him. “I thought you had returned to London,” she ventured to say. “I put up at the local hotel last night,” he said tersely. “There are things to be said.”
    • “Then let me call the Earl – ” “Not to him, to you,” he interrupted her. “Just wait until I’m ready.” Suddenly he stopped and swung round, staring at the house. They were now some distance from it and had a clear view of the whole structure, with the tower rising incongruously but magnificently from the centre. “The man who built that house knew what he was doing when he added the tower,” Wyngate said abruptly. “The tower isn’t part of the original structure,” Rena pointed out. “It was added a hundred years later by the seventh Earl.” “Then he knew what he was doing. A man could climb up to the top of that and be monarch of all he surveys. That’s what a tower is for. It should be bigger. Much bigger.” “It’s already too large for the house,” Rena objected. “It should be bigger,” Wyngate said obstinately. An uneasy feeling was creeping over her. They had seen this man off the day before, and now he was back as though nothing had happened. Had his mind actually taken in the fact that John had refused? She began to think it hadn’t. Wyngate’s gaze was still fixed on the tower. He spoke to Rena without looking at her. “The trouble with my daughter is that she never seems to be interested in the men I want her to be interested in.” “Maybe that’s because you can’t choose for another person,” Rena replied. “It’s up to her and I think it would be foolish of her to marry someone unless she was very much in love with him.” Her voice unconsciously softened on the last words. She felt as though a dream had come over her, but she was startled out of it by his furious voice. “Matilda will love and marry the man I want her to. What woman is capable of choosing well, when her father is as rich as I am? “Of course men will want to marry her because they know I am rattling with golden sovereigns, but I know what is best.” “Then it seems to me that your money is her misfortune,” Rena replied quietly.
    • “Rubbish! Don’t talk in that drivelling fashion. I know who will make her happy, not only for a short time, but for the rest of her life. That is why she must learn to obey me!” “You care nothing for her happiness but only for your own,” Rena said. “You think only of trying to make yourself bigger and more important than you really are.” “What did you say?” Her temper was beginning to rise. “You heard exactly what I said. Love comes from the heart and only God can bestow it.” At last he withdrew his gaze from the house, and turned to stare at her. “Are you serious?” he asked. “Are you saying that love is something religious?” “Of course it is,” Rena replied. “People search for it, hoping that if they can’t find it in this life, they will do so in the world to come.” “Stuff and nonsense! Marriage is what women are there for and to produce children who will carry on the name and position of their father.” “That is what you think,” Rena retorted. “I believe that love comes from God. When we fall in love it is something holy and it mustn’t be thrown aside by money, position or anything which is of importance in this world.” He stared at her as though unable to believe his ears. “I think you really believe all that stuff.” “Passionately!” He gave a grunt that might almost have been humorous. “Well, maybe you think you do. You’ll change your tune when you hear what I have to say.” “Mr Wyngate, I am not interested in anything you have to say.” “Everyone is interested in money, Mrs. Colwell. Or should I say, Miss Colwell?” If he had hoped to disconcert her he was disappointed. To his astonishment Rena laughed. “Miss is correct. My father was the vicar here until recently, now I’m Lord Lansdale’s housekeeper. He invented a husband for me to prevent you thinking exactly what you are thinking.”
    • “You’re very frank.” “Ah, but I don’t care in the least what you think of me, Mr Wyngate.” She could hardly believe that it was herself who had said those words. Was she really this cool, composed female who challenged this unpleasant man, and refused to let him disconcert her? It was he who backed down, pretending not to hear her last remark. “So your father was a clergyman. They always think that God will turn up at the last moment and do for them what they should have done for themselves a long time ago. But people who want money, have to fight for it.” “And what about the people who don’t want money, Mr Wyngate?” “They don’t exist,” he said savagely. “They exist, but in a world you can’t enter.” She added softly, “That’s why you hate them.” He swung round on her and the malevolence was there in his eyes again. She had flicked him on the raw this time. “I don’t hate them,” he said at last. “I despise them. Once you have money you can buy many things which make a human being happy.” “Yes,” she said unexpectedly. “Many things. But not all. Your tragedy is that you don’t know the difference.” “What do you mean, tragedy?” “The greatest tragedy in the world.” “Don’t feel sorry for me!” he screamed. She didn’t answer. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” he repeated emphatically. “It’s time I was going in.” “Wait! I haven’t said what I came to say to you. recognise you as a formidable woman. I respect that.” She was silent. “Name your price,” he said at last. “Please stand aside and let me pass. I have work to do.” “I said name your price. You can make it a high one. You’re an
    • obstacle in my way, and I’m prepared to remove you in a way that’s pleasant to yourself. You get out of here and you can have a comfortable life on my money.” “You don’t really think you can bribe me?” she demanded. “You must have taken leave of your senses.” “Look, there’s no need for outraged virtue. I’ve said I’ll pay you well, so don’t waste my time with meaningless mouthings.” Rena regarded him curiously, as she might have studied a loathsome insect. “You’ll – pay – well?” she mused. “Extremely well.” “That sounds splendid, but it isn’t very specific.” “So you want figures. Five thousand pounds.” She laughed. “Very well, ten thousand!” “I thought you were a serious man, Mr Wyngate. Good day to you.” She tried to move past him but he grasped her arm and snapped, “If I go higher than that I’ll want more than your silence in return. Is that what you’re after, you grasping little doxy?” Before she could answer this insult he said something that took her breath away. “Very well, you can have it. I’ll set you up in a fine house in Park Lane. You can have jewels, servants, cash, a box at the opera, all the clothes you want. And you’ll belong to me, any hour of the day or night that it pleases me.” He meant it, she thought, her mind reeling. She had a wild desire to laugh. A moment ago she had felt insulted, but this was too monstrous for that. And then came the wicked thought – “I must share this joke with John. How we’ll laugh together!” She pulled herself together. Her own reprehensible amusement was surely the most shocking thing of all. “There is no point in discussing this further,” she said. “I’m going now.” “You’ll discuss it as long as I want,” he shouted, tightening his
    • hand on her arm. “There is nothing to say,” she shouted back. “You do not appeal to me, sir. Is that plain enough for you?” “Don’t tell me my money doesn’t appeal to you. What’ll happen if you stay here? A drudge all your life, ending up destitute? You don’t think he’ll marry you, do you?” She froze, meeting his eyes in horrified self-discovery. How had this cruel demon put his finger on a secret buried so deep that she hadn’t even seen it herself until now? “All this fancy talk about love,” Wyngate sneered. “Weaving pretty dreams for yourself, aren’t you? Dreams and nothing else. His mistress is all you’ll ever be. He needs money and you don’t have it. “Well, if you can be his mistress, you can be mine, and I’ll give you a better time than he could. I know how to treat a woman, you see – in bed and out of it.” “Until you throw her out and she’s just as destitute as before,” Rena snapped. “Then you’ll have to keep me happy so that I don’t, won’t you? By God, I’m going to enjoy owning you! What a fight of it we’ll have, my lady. I’ll enjoy that. I’ll overcome you in the end, but it’ll be a pleasure showing you who’s the master. You’re a worthy opponent, you see, and I haven’t had one of those for a long time.” Disgust had silenced her, but now she found her tongue. “Let go of me at once,” she said breathlessly. “I will not be your mistress, now or ever. I will not accept your money on any pretext, and I will not be driven out.” “Then we will be enemies,” he said coldly. “People who make an enemy of me always regret it. For your own sake, don’t be my enemy, Miss Colwell.” She met his eyes, refusing to back down. “I have been your enemy since the moment I saw you,” she said with calm deliberation, “and I shall be your enemy until the moment of my death.” “Which may be sooner than you think, if you continue to be so unwise.”
    • “Don’t try to frighten me – ” she began. And then she screamed. For she had seen two of him. Another Wyngate had appeared behind him, standing quietly, watching them. In her overwrought state the sight terrified her as nothing else could have done. “Shut up, damn you!” Wyngate raged. For answer she pointed over his shoulder, screaming again and again. Wyngate turned to follow her finger, and then he grew very still, and his grasp on her relaxed enough for her to escape. She ran for her life. The terrible sight seemed to have drained all the strength from her body, so that each step was an effort, but she kept going. A turn in the road gave her the chance to look back, and what she saw increased her horror. The two Wyngate s were walking towards each other. She knew now what was going to happen. When these demons met they would merge into one. And if she saw it happen she would be damned. She turned away and ran on, desperately, stumbling, falling, gasping, sobbing, desperate to reach the safety of the house, and John. “John,” she cried. “John!” And then, as though by some blessed miracle, he appeared through the French windows. “Rena, what on earth – ? My poor girl, what is it?” It was a blessed mercy to feel his strong, human arms about her, hear his down to earth voice that seemed to have the power to drive out that other, fearful world that had seemed to threaten her. “Wyngate,” she gasped, “he was here.” “He dared to come back?” “Yes – he was in the grounds – he talked to me – such terrible things – but then – John, there were two of him.” “I don’t understand.” “He was there twice. I was talking to him and then he appeared
    • again behind himself.” “Rena – ” “No, no, I’m not mad. I saw it. There were two of him, and I screamed so hard that he let me go, and I ran away. And when I looked back they were walking towards each other.” “Where was this?” “Just past the bridge. You can see them from here.” He looked over her head, and a slight frown came over his face. Then he walked forward to a place where he could get a better view, showing the land sweeping down to the stream, and beyond it the trees. Rena came to stand beside him, and then she felt the hairs begin to stand up on the back of her neck. There was nobody there.
    • CHAPTER SEVEN “Are you sure you haven’t been raiding the wine cellar?” John asked solicitously, as they went back inside. “You’re very welcome, but it may not be doing you much good – no, no of course not,” he amended hastily, meeting her fulminating eye. “John, I know what I saw.” “You saw two copies of Wyngate, who merged into each other, and then vanished into thin air.” “I didn’t actually see them merge. I just knew they were going to.” He looked at her. “All right, I know what I sound like.” “You sound like someone who’s been under too much strain, and needs to have somebody else cook breakfast for her,” he said, shepherding her into the kitchen. “Now sit down. Clara has outdone herself this morning. Two beautiful eggs. What are you doing?” She was moving towards the kettle. “It’s my job to make the breakfast.” “And I’ve said I’m doing it, so sit down.” “But – ” “Sit!” he finished sternly, standing over her and wagging an admonitory finger. “Yes John,” she said meekly. How dear this practical man was, and how easily he could drive her fears away with his kindly common sense. And oh, how much she loved him! It had been there, waiting to spring out and surprise her all the time. Then Wyngate had thrust it brutally into the light, forcing her to face what otherwise she might have tried not to see. For how could she love him? What future could they have, when he didn’t love her, and knew his duty to his neighbours? Those neighbours had always been her friends, kindly people who trusted her to do her best for them, as they had trusted her father. They had nursed her when she was ill, given to her out of their own poverty and refused to take a penny in return.
    • Now they needed something back from her. It mustn’t be Wyngate’s daughter. She was more resolved on that than ever. But there were other heiresses. An Earl would have no trouble attracting them, especially if he was young and handsome with laughing eyes, a sweet temper and a kind heart. And in one of them he would find the woman he could truly love. That was as it should be. “Here you are, my lady,” he said, serving up. While she had been lost in her dream he had made breakfast. She smiled at him, discovering that it was possible to be happy and sad at the same time. The sadness was for the impossibility of making a life with him, but greater, far greater, was the happiness that swamped her as she contemplated him. She had only known for a few minutes that she loved him, but already he looked different, more vivid, more intense. How could she ever have thought of him as a brother? She had discovered the greatest joy known to a woman, that of knowing that she had given her love to a man who was in every way worthy of love. “Now tell me what happened out there,” he said, pouring her tea. The tea was delicious, and so was the egg that he had boiled her. Forget the bleak future. It was enough just to be here with him. “I stepped out for a breath of fresh air, and went down to the bridge. And he just appeared beside me.” “You mean he sprang up out of nowhere?” John asked, his eyes twinkling. “No, he must have walked across the grass, but I didn’t see him.” “He was invisible?” Her lips twitched. “No, I was looking down into the water.” “How long?” “I don’t know. I was thinking.” “So he had time to walk across the grass?” She sighed. “Yes, he must have.” “But where did he come from? I thought they went back to
    • London.” “No, they put up at a hotel nearby. He hasn’t given up. And this means, of course, that I did see him in the wood last night. He must have come back to spy, and seen the lamp.” “Why didn’t you bring him into the house?” “It wasn’t you he wanted to see. He had something to say to me.” “What?” “He offered me a bribe. He’s convinced that if I shut up and got out he could get you into his trap. So he tried to buy me for five thousand pounds.” “The devil he did!” He was eyeing her, fascinated. “What did you say to him?” “I pushed him up to ten thousand.” “You what? Rena, you don’t mean you – ?” “Of course not. Don’t be absurd. I’d hardly be sitting here telling you about it if I was going to take his money. No, I just wanted to see how high I could push him – just for curiosity.” “And how much is your compliance worth to him?” “Ten thousand. I can’t tell you how delightful it felt to turn him down. I don’t think anyone’s done that for years. Oh, my goodness!” She straightened up suddenly, her hands over her mouth as a shattering thought occurred to her. “Rena, what is it?” “I shouldn’t have turned him down. I should have taken the ten thousand and given it to you. Oh, how could I be so stupid?” “Cheat him, you mean?” John asked, grinning. “After all the people he must have cheated by now, it’s about time somebody did it to him.” Sweet heaven! Papa would have a fit. With his uncanny ability to read her mind, John asked, “Is this the kind of thinking you learned at the parsonage?” “No, I invented it myself,” she said defiantly. “Papa would be shocked.” “And very surprised I should think.” “No, not surprised. He always said the tone of my mind left
    • room for improvement.” “I think the tone of your mind is perfect. It’s very sweet of you to want to do this for me, but don’t blame yourself for not thinking of it in time. I doubt you could really have fooled him. He wouldn’t have given you a penny until you were well away from here and it was too late.” Rena nodded. “You’re right. He’s just the sort of mean, suspicious character who’d do that.” “So what happened when you’d turned him down? How did he react to your refusal?” She shrugged, unwilling to tell him more. “Rena, what is it? Did he dare to attack you?” “No, of course not.” “Then what? Please don’t keep things from me. Rena! For pity’s sake, you’re scaring me.” “He wanted to buy me in another way,” she said, not looking at him. “You mean he – ?” She shrugged and said as lightly as she could, “He offered to set me up in a fine house in Park Lane, clothes, jewels, everything I could want.” “He did what?” The words came from him in a violent whisper. “I turned that down too and he became very angry.” “He dared say such a thing to you?” John asked quietly. “He dared to besmirch you, even in his thoughts?” He got abruptly to his feet. “John, where are you going?” “To find him and throttle him.” There was a black look on his face that she had never seen before. Suddenly the amiable joker she knew had vanished, replaced by a man in a bitter rage. “No.” She jumped to her feet and followed him out of the kitchen. “You mustn’t do that.” “You expect me to do nothing, when he insults you?” He started up the stairs. “Where are you going?”
    • “To get my pistol.” She began to run after him up the stairs, struggling to keep up. He had reached his room before she caught him. “John, listen to me, there’s nothing that you can do.” “I can make him sorry he was born. I can bring him here and make him grovel to you – ” “And how much reputation would I have left then?” She took hold of his arms and gave him a little shake. She could feel him trembling with rage. “Then I’ll blow his miserable brains out,” he shouted. “Yes, that’s the thing to do. Then the filthy thoughts that he dared to have of you will be blown to smithereens, and nobody will ever know that he insulted the sweetest, most perfect woman alive. Rena, Rena, do you expect me to endure that?” She didn’t know how to answer such words, but she didn’t have to because the next moment he had pulled her into his arms and was kissing her fiercely again and again, murmuring incoherently between kisses. “You’re mine – do you understand? I won’t tolerate that man even looking at you, much less thinking – Dear God! Kiss me, my darling – kiss me – tell me that it isn’t all in my mind – say that you love me too – ” “Oh yes – yes – I love you, so much.” She had promised herself that she would never tell him of her love, for his sake. And yet the words burst from her, called forth by the intensity of his own emotion. He loved her. He had said so. And nothing in heaven or on earth could have prevented her from confessing her own love in return. “I love you,” he said, holding her away from him so that he could see her face. “I love you in every way that a man can love a woman. You are mine, and I am yours. That is how it has to be. It was meant. It’s our destiny. I couldn’t fight it if I wanted to. But I don’t. I want to love you and rejoice in you all the days of my life. And if you don’t feel the same I have nothing to live for.” “But I do,” she cried. “I do. Oh John – my love – ” “Kiss me,” he said again, and this time it was a command.
    • She obeyed it gladly. The future might contain a bitter parting, but in this moment she would enjoy her love to the full. The bliss of being chosen by the one her own heart had chosen was too sweet to be denied. “Tell me again that you love me,” he said. “Let me hear you say it.” “I love you, I love you,” she murmured. “I didn’t think love could happen this fast – I never knew – ” “It can happen in a moment,” he said fervently. “I loved you the first day. Didn’t you feel then that our hearts instinctively understood each other?” “Oh yes, yes. I felt that too, even though we were strangers.” “We were never strangers,” he told her tenderly. “We have known each other for ever, and we shall be each other’s until the last moment of our lives.” “Until the last moment of our lives,” she agreed solemnly. She didn’t voice her fears for their future. Besides, it was true. Even though life might separate them, she would always belong to him. After this, there could be no other man. “How could I marry any woman but you?” he asked lovingly. “John – ” She was saved from having to answer by the sound of the doorbell, echoing up from below. “If that’s Wyngate – ” he said in a tight voice. “No, John, please. You must pretend to know nothing, for my sake.” “We’ll see,” was all he would agree to. Together they went downstairs to open the front door. But the man standing there wasn’t Wyngate. Neither of them had seen him before. He was tall and thin, dressed in clerical black, with a severe face and stern eyes. “Miss Colwell?” he asked at once. “Yes.” He spoke ponderously. “I am the Reverend Steven Daykers. I imagine you have been expecting me.” It would have been impolite to say otherwise, so Rena
    • murmured something about being honoured to meet him. She hastened to introduce the Earl, but instead of being pleased the Reverend Daykers fixed him with a frosty stare, and gave him the briefest of greetings. “Miss Colwell, a word with you alone.” It was a command. John looked at her, frowning. Maintaining an air of calm dignity Rena said, “If I may have a few moments from my duties, sir?” He caught the cue she had tossed him. “Very well Miss Colwell, I suggest you use the drawing room. But please try not to be too long.” “What I have to say to Miss Colwell will not take a moment,” the pastor said with a touch of grimness. Rena led him to the drawing room and politely offered him tea. He waved the suggestion aside. “I have not come for trifles, but for your salvation. You visited my house the other evening – ” “I wasn’t aware that it was your house, since the letter informing me did not arrive until the following morning. As soon as I learned the situation I packed my things and departed.” “There was, I believe, some altercation between you and my sister concerning certain property – ” “They wanted to eat my chicken for supper. Since she belongs to me I would not permit that.” “You referred to my house as a den of thieves!” “They were trying to deprive me of my property,” Rena said firmly. “I don’t have very much. I insist on my right to protect what I have.” Unexpectedly he nodded. “Precisely so. I understand that you are not well endowed with this world’s goods, and therefore you may have felt yourself impelled into this – ah – disgraceful situation.” “I beg your pardon!” “It is well known, Miss Colwell, that you, an unmarried woman, share this house with the Earl, an unmarried man, with no respectable female companion.” “I am his lordship’s housekeeper,” Rena said, her eyes
    • sparkling with anger. “A servant. Servants do not have ‘respectable female companions’. They have to take the work that will put a roof over their heads.” “I have already said that I understand that you were constrained by circumstances. Nor is it my intention to apportion blame to one who has erred in – I feel sure – innocence. I am here to rescue you.” “But I do not need rescue.” “Madam, your need for rescue is greater than you can possibly know. A young woman’s reputation, beautiful and fragile as it is, must call forth all the protective instincts of those whose mission in life is to protect lost souls. You have strayed – yes. Sadly that is true. But you have not wandered far from the path, and there is yet time to turn you back.” Rena stared at him, scarcely able to believe what she was hearing. “I believe – I fervently believe that your stay in this house has not yet compromised your virtue though it has endangered your reputation. If you escape at once all is not lost. I shall take you back with me to the vicarage where you may embark upon that path of righteousness that will in time undo the harm.” “I’m not going back there,” Rena said, aghast. “And I feel sure that your sister doesn’t want me.” “On the contrary, she is eager for your return. Her last words to me were not to come back without you. There are many ways in which you can make yourself useful in that house which you know better than anyone. Her health is not strong – ” “And she would like to have an unpaid drudge around,” Rena said, light dawning. “Young woman, I am not here to bandy words with you, but to take you home.” “The parsonage is no longer my home. Now I think you should leave.” “You dare to show me an impudent spirit! I have come to offer you my protection. Your father was a brother man of the cloth, and now I stand in his place. I demand from you the obedience of a
    • daughter.” “No sir, you do not stand in my father’s place. He was the best and kindest man who ever lived, and he would never have tried to bully anyone in the way you have me. I owe you no obedience and will give you none.” “I say, Miss Colwell – sorry to butt in and all that – but have you seen my cigars?” John had entered by the French windows and now stood on the threshold, smiling amiably but implacably. “Hallo, vicar. You still here? Hope you’ve finished your little talk because my housekeeper has a great deal of work to get on with. Come now, Miss Colwell, be about your duties. Mustn’t fall behind, must we?” “I do not consider this a suitable position for Miss Colwell,” the vicar said stiffly. “Oh no, no, no!” John said, still amiable, but standing between them in a manner that couldn’t be mistaken. “She does her job very well. Couldn’t do without her. Shall I show you to the door?” The Reverend Daykers had no choice but to follow his host, but he had one parting shot for Rena. “I shall not cease in my untiring efforts to reclaim you.” When he had gone Rena sat down, not sure whether to laugh or cry. The man was a pompous fool who deceived himself as to his own motives, yet he had shown her how the world would view her, a world in which she would soon have to make her way alone again. John was in a merry mood when he returned. “I’m afraid I eavesdropped shamelessly outside the French windows,” he said, dropping down on the sofa beside her, and taking her hands in his. “I’m glad you did. He was getting difficult to handle. As though I’d go back and drudge for that family.” “As though I’d let you. And who cares what people say? We’ll be married soon.” “John, please don’t be so certain of that. I’m not sure we can ever be married.” “Why, what are you talking about? Of course we’re going to be
    • married, now that we know we love each other. That’s what people in love do, my darling. They marry each other.” “And the people who are depending on you as their last hope? Do we just turn our backs and leave them to starve?” He stared at her, aghast as it dawned on him that she was serious. “Are you saying we have no right think of our own happiness?” he asked at last. “Perhaps we don’t.” She jumped up from the sofa and moved away from him, as though by doing so she could break the spell that bound her to him. But he followed her at once, taking hold of her and drawing her round to face him. “I won’t accept that. We love each other – ” his face was suddenly full of fear, “Rena, you do love me? You said so. Let me hear you say it again.” “Of course I love you, with all my heart. It’s been such a short time, and yet already you’re my whole world. John my darling, don’t ever doubt my love for you.” He relaxed a little, but held her against him as though afraid that some power might snatch her away. “You must never talk like this again,” he said. “I’ve sailed the world, always looking for my ideal woman, in country after country. And at last I found her here, my perfect treasure. Do you think I’m going to let that treasure go? Rena, my darling – ” His lips were on hers again in a kiss that blotted out all argument. Rena gave herself up to her happiness, glorying in his love, knowing that stern reality had to be faced soon but – not yet – not yet – When he released her she took his face between her hands and looked at him fervently. “I shall love you,” she said, “all my life, and beyond. Never forget that.” Her beautiful soul was in her eyes. He saw it and took her hand, kissing it with reverence. “Then we shall always be together,” he said. “Give me your
    • promise.” “John, I – ” “Give it to me,” he insisted. How could she give him such a promise, she thought wildly, knowing that she might have to break it? Yet how could she break so solemn a vow to the man she loved? Her duty seemed clear to her. Let him go for the sake of those who looked to him for succour. She averted her eyes from that duty, lest her heart break, but when she opened them it was still there. Matilda had said, “I’m not Jeremiah for nothing.” She, Rena, was not the Reverend Colwell’s daughter for nothing. Much of his teaching might have fallen away from her recently, but not that: not the obligation to put others’ needs first, at whatever cost to oneself. “Rena – promise me that we will be married,” he said, speaking in a stern voice that she had never heard him use before. “I – ” But before she could answer a shadow appeared in the open French windows and a strong, female voice cried, “Thank heavens I’ve found you. You simply must help us.” It was Matilda, and behind her was a young man with red hair and a plain, freckled face. “This is Cecil Jenkins,” she said. “I told you about him.” This was the man she loved, and by the note in her voice Rena knew of her pride and joy. “Cecil?” John asked. “I promised Matilda I would keep her secret,” Rena explained. “She and Cecil are in love.” “And we want to marry,” the young man said. “It’s just that Mr Wyngate is the problem.” “This is wonderful,” John exclaimed. “At least he’ll stop trying to dragoon me into being his son-in-law.” “If you think that, you don’t know my father,” Matilda said. “Cecil had to come here in secret and hide in the bushes in the hotel garden until I came out. Now we desperately need your help. If Papa discovers that he’s here he’ll be furious. He’s so set on
    • having Lord Lansdale as a son-in-law.” “I don’t think you should say that in front of Cecil,” John objected mildly. “Cecil knows that I love him,” Matilda said passionately, “and I wouldn’t have you at any price – no offence intended.” “None taken,” John said affably. “I feel the same – no offence intended.” “Of course. You’re in love with Rena, aren’t you? I told her you were, but she wouldn’t believe me. But after what I’ve just seen I know it’s true. I wish you both every happiness. But it doesn’t mean that Papa has given up.” “He’s bringing men up here to move into the house,” Cecil said. “Thirty of them.” John and Rena looked at each other, appalled. “But how could you possibly know that?” John demanded. “I know the firm of architects that he’s employing,” Cecil said. “The head man is a friend of mine. Mr Wyngate gave his orders last week – “ “Last week?” John exclaimed. “Before he came here?” “That’s how Papa works,” Matilda explained. “First he lays his plans, then he investigates to see if there’ll be any opposition.” “And if there is, he deals with it,” Cecil said. “They’re only waiting for his message to move in here.” “And when they arrive,” Matilda cried, “you won’t be able to stop them, because when people take their orders from Papa they’re too scared of him to disobey.” “But this is my house,” John said. “That won’t make any difference. They’re not scared of you, they’re scared of him.” Matilda’s voice rose to a note of hysteria. “You think you can fight him, but you can’t. Nobody can fight Papa. We might as well give in now.”
    • CHAPTER EIGHT Cecil took Matilda into his arms, soothing her after her hysterical outburst. When she had finished sobbing she managed a smile and wiped her eyes. “Sometimes I can’t help doing that,” she explained shakily. “I mean to be strong and brave, but then I remember how powerful he is, and how he can be everywhere at once.” “Please ma’am, don’t talk like that,” John begged. “You sound like Rena. According to her he divided himself into two this morning, then merged back and vanished.” “John, that’s most unfair,” Rena protested. “It was an illusion, because I was upset.” “But what did you see?” Matilda asked, wide-eyed. Rena again described the incident, but this time leaving out the part where Wyngate had tried to make her his mistress. And she tried to make light of the ‘appearance’ of his double. But it was no use. Matilda’s eyes were wide with horror. “You’ve seen it too?” she whispered. “And so have I.” “Matilda, my dear,” Cecil chided her lovingly. “That cannot be.” “But it can. It’s how Papa spies on people. When I was a little girl, in the park with my governess he used to divide himself and appear, although I knew we’d just left him at home. He would stand there watching me, and then disappear.” “Did your governess see him?” Rena asked. “No, she always said I was imagining things.” “Did you tell your father?” Rena asked. Matilda solemnly shook her head. “I was too scared. He must be very determined if he’s started doing this again.” “For the love of heaven, both of you,” John said in alarm, “you talk as though this fantasy was real, but it can’t be. There simply has to be a rational explanation.” He scratched his head. “I only wish I could think what it was.” “We’re probably both so unnerved by him that we’ve started hallucinating,” Rena said, with an attempt at cheerfulness. “But that wouldn’t explain why we hallucinate the same thing,”
    • Matilda pointed out. “It must be real.” “Then there is a common sense explanation,” John said firmly. “In the mean time we have to stop frightening ourselves. “Of course,” Cecil said bravely. “Yes.” Matilda gave herself a little shake, as though pulling herself together by main force. “We will not be beaten.” “We’re going to find a way to be together,” Cecil promised her. He looked up at the other two. “But we badly need your help.” “You promised you’d help me,” Matilda reminded Rena. “And I will. But what do you want me to do?” “Let Cecil hide here. He has nowhere else, and Papa mustn’t see him. I must hurry back to the hotel before he finds me missing. He thinks I’m lying down.” “Of course he may stay here,” John said at once. “But what is your plan?” Cecil looked helpless. “While I’m here, I’ll see as much of Matilda as possible and – something may happen,” he said. John, the man of action, refrained from giving his frank opinion of this as a strategy, contenting himself with saying mildly, “Perhaps something would be more likely to happen if you gave it some assistance.” “Yes,” said Cecil at once. “But how?” “Please don’t fight with Papa,” Matilda pleaded with John. “Tell him not to fight with me,” John said at once. “I mean, when he turns up here, don’t send him away. Let him come in and look round as if you were prepared to consider his ideas.” “You mean let him think I’m in the market for his daughter?” John demanded bluntly. “How will that help you?” “Because if you throw him out he may drag me back to London, and it’s much harder for Cecil and me to meet. But when he comes here I can come with him, and then I shall be able to see Cecil.” John looked helplessly at them and from them to Rena. “I don’t like this idea,” he said, “but I can’t think of a better.” Rena also was uneasy, but she could see no way of refusing. And the more the bonds between Matilda and Cecil were
    • cemented the easier it would be to thwart Wyngate. “Please come with me,” she said to Cecil, “and I will find you a room.” He followed her upstairs and she put him in the room near John’s, where it would be easy to keep him under observation. “You probably think I’m just after Matilda’s money,” the young man said. “But I do assure you that I’m not. She’s such a wonderful girl.” He was a very plain young man, and some girls would have found him uninteresting. But when Rena saw the love light shining from his eyes as he spoke of his beloved she could see exactly what the lonely Matilda found in him to love. “No, I promise you I don’t think that,” she assured him kindly. “Besides, I think you know by now that you probably won’t get his money.” “Oh I do hope not,” he said earnestly. “That would be much better. Of course I want Matilda to have a comfortable life, but I can support her, and she swears to me that she doesn’t care about luxury.” He gave a self deprecating laugh. “You probably think it’s naive of me, to believe her. Easy to say you don’t care for luxury when you’re surrounded by it. She might feel different later. But I don’t think so. She’s never had anybody who loved her. Her father only cares about making use of her. But I love her, and she knows it.” “I believe you. How did you two meet?” “I’m an architect. Mr Wyngate wanted his own house in London transformed – bigger, grander, more luxurious – ” “I can imagine.” “She was there – the sweetest girl alive – and we talked, and talked. And we fell in love. We planned our future together – I was doing well in the firm, there was a chance of a partnership.” He sighed. “But then he found us together, and the sky descended on us. I have never seen a man so lividly angry. He had me thrown out of the house bodily, there and then, and locked Matilda in her room for a week.
    • “He demanded that she promise never to see me again. When she refused I was waylaid on a street corner by thugs, and beaten until I nearly died.” “Sweet heaven!” Rena murmured, appalled. “I was taken to hospital and she was brought to see me there so that she could witness the results of her ‘disobedience’.” Rena buried her face in her hands. “She gave him that promise,” Cecil said. Then he looked at her closely. “Matilda says you’re a parson’s daughter, Miss Colwell.” She raised her head. “That’s right,” she said huskily. “Will it shock you very much if I say that neither Matilda nor myself had the slightest intention of keeping such a promise?” “Not in the slightest” Rena said in a decisive tone. “In my opinion nobody should feel bound by a promise extracted in such a way.” “Then you do not blame us?” “I think you should get her away from him as soon as possible, and go to a place where he can’t find you.” She spoke impulsively and his wry look showed that he knew it. Some place where Wyngate’s arm could not reach. Was there such a place? As if to confirm her thoughts, Cecil added, “I said I was doing well in the firm, but since then I haven’t been able to get work. Wyngate’s influence stretches far, and everyone is afraid of him.” “Oh how angry I get when I hear that!” Rena flashed. “Everyone is afraid of Wyngate! We must not be afraid of him.” She finished dusting, glad of a prosaic occupation to set against the horrors in her mind. “Let us go down now,” she said, “and you can look for some books in the library to while away the long hours I’m afraid you will have to spend up here. After what you’ve told me it’s more than ever vital to keep you hidden.” They began to head back the way they had come. But at the top of the stairs they heard a voice that made them both start back and flatten themselves against the wall.
    • “It’s him,” Cecil said. “Mr Wyngate.” The man’s hated voice seemed to combine the cawing of a rook with the sound of a coin scratching across glass. It reached them clearly up the stairs. “Get back to your room quickly,” she murmured. She gave him a moment to get out of sight, then descended, hoping against hope that John had not reacted badly to the sight of Wyngate , but was playing his part successfully. She forced herself to be composed as she entered the drawing room to find Wyngate there, standing between Matilda and John, a hand on the shoulder of each. “I was a little disturbed when I found my dear one wasn’t in her room, as I expected her to be,” he said, with a ghastly smile at his daughter. “But then I realised where she must have gone, and so I came to find her, and here she is. You couldn’t keep away, could you, my pet?” “It’s such a beautiful house, Papa,” Matilda said woodenly. “Indeed it is. And it will be better still when I’ve spent some money on it.” Even from across the room Rena could sense John’s struggle to keep his composure. He was doing his best to stay calm, but he moved away from Wyngate’s hand and said firmly, “That still remains to be seen. I’m by no means sure that I can accept your help, sir, and I advise you against any precipitate moves.” “Don’t you worry, m’boy. I know my own business best.” “I’m sure of it, sir. But it is my business we are discussing,” said John in a cool voice. Wyngate’s smiled slipped a little, but only a little. He had succeeded in getting back into the house, which was his main objective. The rest could wait until these fools realised the futility of fighting him. His smile in Rena’s direction contained more than a hint of a sneer. “Why, it’s the little housekeeper.” He stressed the last word very slightly, as though reminding her that it was her own fault that she was still in this lowly position.
    • “May I bring you and your guests some refreshment, sir?” she asked John. “None of that,” Wyngate said, not troubling to ask what his daughter would like. “I want to see the tower.” “But you have already seen the tower,” Rena said. “This morning – ” “Not like that. I want to go up to the roof and see it close up. I have an idea for its improvement.” “I doubt if it can be improved,” John said, keeping his temper. “Things can always be improved, young man, if it’s done in the right way. That tower tells people who you are.” “But I don’t need an edifice to tell people who I am,” John replied quietly. “I am Lord Lansdale and I am the master here. I am. Nobody else.” At those firm words Wyngate shot him a sharp look as though scenting rebellion. John returned his gaze with a bland one of his own, but his blue eyes were hard. “Of course you’re the master here,” Wyngate said at last. “Nobody doubts it. Lord Lansdale, master of his acres. But on my money, eh? Come along, I don’t want to waste any more time. You two young people take a walk in the garden together. Your housekeeper can show me up to the tower.” “No, we’ll all go,” John said. “As the master of the house I prefer to entertain you myself.” Rena knew that nothing on earth would have persuaded him to let her go up there alone with Wyngate. “Then shall we begin the climb to the roof? ” she asked. “It’s quite difficult and tiring. And you must be careful where you walk because the roof isn’t very safe. It’s easy for your foot to go through.” She remembered a long time ago when she had visited this house with Papa, and the old Earl had shown her the tower. Luckily the keys hung in the same place now as then, and she fetched them quickly. A climb of three floors brought them out onto the roof. It was the best spring day they had had so far, and the four of them stood there in the bright sun, looking at the sunlit land spread
    • out before them. “How charming,” Matilda said. “You can see ever so far.” “Not far enough,” Wyngate said. “Higher. I want to see more.” In the centre was the tower itself, a square shape, extending right from the front of the roof to the back, rearing thirty feet above them, with little turrets around the edge. Rena unlocked the door, and John led the way up the stairs, contriving to squeeze her hands reassuringly as he passed her. After climbing thirty feet they came out into the air, gasping at the gusts of wind that assailed them. Matilda gave a little scream and clutched John. Wyngate would have given his arm to Rena but she declined and held on to the top of one of the turrets. But it immediately gave way, leaving her looking down what seemed like an endless drop to the ground. As though time had slowed, she was able to watch the loose stone falling to the ground and landing with an almighty crash. For a moment she was dizzy. The terrifying drop yawned before her like a descent into hell. Then she stepped back sharply, giving a prayer of thanks that nobody had been there to be crushed. Wyngate hadn’t noticed the reactions of anybody else. He was looking around him, up into the sky, then out onto the landscape. “This is right,” he said. “This is as it should be. A great man in a great house, presiding over a great estate, needs a great tower from which to survey his domain.” John tried to deflect it as a joke. “It hadn’t occurred to me that I was a great man,” he said wryly. “You will be when I’ve finished,” Wyngate said. “At any time you can come up here and look out for trespassers.” John gave a wry laugh. “You can’t see the whole estate from here. Nothing like it.” “You will have men to guard the place, if you are sensible,” Mr Wyngate remarked. “And they should each carry a gun!” “No,” Rena cried. “You can’t shoot people who are just taking a little walk or looking for an escaped dog. And with all these acres, you’ll never stop children climbing through the hedges to pick flowers, or watch the squirrels.”
    • “That will stop,” Wyngate said sharply: “The locals are subservient to the Squire and they will have to learn to behave themselves. Trespassers will be punished severely.” Horrified, Rena looked towards John who met her eyes, his expression mirroring her own. But he didn’t remonstrate with this unpleasant man. He merely shook his head very slowly, unseen by Mr Wyngate. “This must be enlarged,” Wyngate declared. “It must be twice the height.” “By all means,” John said, “if you want the house to fall down.” “What?” Wyngate glared at him. “In the Navy I learned that the hull is the most important part of the ship,” John continued. “Everything depends on that being strong, and capable of carrying not only the rest of the ship, but everyone on it. “If you want to enlarge the tower you should strengthen the foundations first. Then work up, strengthen and secure the roof. Then, and only then, can you think about the tower. Otherwise, the increased weight will only bring the whole thing down.” Wyngate glared. He was shrewd enough to recognise that he would look foolish challenging the Earl on this matter, but he still couldn’t accept defeat graciously. “We’ll see,” he grated. “We’ll see. But I insist on twice the height.” “You had much better abandon the whole idea,” John said. “A higher tower would be completely out of proportion to the rest of the building. In fact, even the present height is too much. It should have a few feet taken off.” “I – want – it – twice – the – size,” Wyngate said slowly and emphatically. John shrugged. “Don’t you understand?” Wyngate screamed. “You should let everyone around know that you are here, and that you insist on being obeyed.” “But I don’t,” John said mildly. “And I prefer to be on good terms with my neighbours.”
    • “Neighbours?” Wyngate sneered. “These are your inferiors. Never forget that.” “They are my neighbours,” John said stubbornly. “I don’t want them to obey me, I want them to like me.” “Like you? Who cares if they like you?” “I do.” “Their role is to obey and yours to command. You’ve been a naval officer. You should know about command.” “I shall probably never know as much about command as you do,” John observed. “Or perhaps the word I want is bullying?” “You can call it what you like,” Wyngate sneered. “I didn’t get where I am by being a milksop. I expect obedience and I get it, or there’s trouble.” He swung back to the view that stretched over hills and vales, across streams and woods, almost to the sea. “All my life I’ve dreamed of this – standing on a high place and having dominion over all before me.” “I believe the devil had much the same dream,” John said. “Hah! Do you think to scare me by saying that? Do you think I don’t know that they call me the devil? Do you think I mind?” He bellowed the last words into the wind, and for a moment they saw him, arms upraised in defiance of the world. He had forgotten their existence. “Come,” John said, taking each of the ladies by the arm. “He does not need us, and we are safer below.” They withdrew quietly, walking down the stairs and leaving Wyngate there with his dreams of glory. When they came out on the ground they looked up to see him still there, standing against the sky, oblivious to his isolation. At last he looked down and saw them on the ground, looking up at him. “I suppose we look like ants to him,” Matilda said. “That is certainly how he thinks of us. And this is how he wants us to think of him – as far above us.” “Let us simply go quietly inside,” said John. “And wait for him to descend in his own time.”
    • It took another hour for Wyngate to join them, and then he showed no awkwardness at the way they had deserted him. Probably, Rena reasoned, he thought that ‘lesser folk’ had simply withdrawn to allow the ‘great man’ to brood alone. Certainly his demeanour when she descended supported this view. He seemed exalted. “Come, my dear,” he said to Matilda. “It is time for us to be going.” He was quieter than usual as he led her out to the waiting carriage. He was still absorbed in some inner dream, and it struck the watchers with a chill. “It’s all right, he’s gone,” John said, slipping an arm around Rena’s shoulders. “Yes,” she said heavily. “It’s just that while he was up there, looking out over the countryside, I felt as though he was casting a pall of evil over everything that fell under his gaze.” She gave a little shudder. “I feel that if we went out there now we’d find every tree and bush withered, and every blade of grass turned brown.” “Now you’re being fanciful,” he chided her gently. “Just the same, I do know what you mean.” “John,” she said suddenly, “Can we go back to the cross? Please, I just want to see it. It’ll make me feel better.” “Of course we will. And we can take another look at the earth, to see if we missed anything last night. Let’s go now, before the light starts to go.” They hurried down the path and across the bridge. The bright day was fading, and a watery sun sliding down the sky as they entered the woods, which now seemed bathed in an eerie light. To Rena’s morbid imagination they had a withered look, as though Wyngate’s malign influence had indeed blighted them. She tried to pull herself together, conscious of John’s warm, strong hand holding hers. She was being foolish. Any minute now they would reach the cross, and it would cast its usual comfort over her. “There it is,” said John. “But surely – Rena, I couldn’t have dug a
    • hole as big as that last night, could I?” “You didn’t do that,” she breathed. As the foot of where the cross had stood was a hole so large that it seemed only a wild animal could have made it. Some creature in a frenzy had gored into the earth, ripping its heart out. And the cross that had stood proudly in that earth had been ripped out too, and now lay on its side, abandoned, desecrated. * “Wyngate went there last night, after we had gone,” John agreed. “He saw us digging in that spot, and went to see what we were looking for. If there were any coins left, they’re now in his possession.” It was late at night and they were sitting on the oak settle in the kitchen. Cecil had gone to bed, and they were at last alone with their love, and their despair. “I wish I hadn’t agreed to Matilda’s plan to seem complacent with Wyngate,” John added. “I don’t think it would have made any difference,” said Rena with a sigh. “He makes his plans despite us. It’s like being strangled.” “Forget him for now, my love. Hold me and let us dream of better things.” She snuggled against him, willing to allow herself these few precious moments of happiness, perhaps to last a lifetime. But they were disturbed by a knocking on the front door. “Who can that be, so late?” John demanded. “I’ll see.” “I’m coming to the door with you,” he said, rising. “If it’s Wyngate or that bullying clergyman, I’ll deal with them.” They made their way through the dark house into the hall. Another storm was brewing outside, with the occasional flash of lightning searing through the windows, then vanishing into darkness again. John drew the bolts back and Rena opened the door wide enough to see who stood on the step outside.
    • At that moment there was another flash of lightning, illuminating the stranger from behind, turning him into a silhouette. Her blood froze, and a scream strangled in her throat. This was the man who, that morning, had mysteriously appeared and even more mysteriously vanished. It was the second Wyngate.
    • CHAPTER NINE For a moment time seemed to stop. Then John’s glad cry rang out, “Adolphus, my dear fellow. How good to see you.” Before Rena’s bewildered eyes he wrung the man’s hand and drew him into the house. “I can’t believe this,” he kept saying. “You’re actually here.” “Can’t believe I’m here?” the stranger said. “But you wrote to me. I thought you wanted me to come.” “Of course I hoped you’d be able to come, but I didn’t dare think it possible, knowing how busy you are. Rena, this is the friend I told you of, the pastor and historian who may know what the coins are. The Reverend Adolphus Tandy. Adolphus, this is Miss Rena Colwell, the lady I am going to marry.” “Well, well, that’s delightful news. My dear, I am so pleased to meet you.” “But we have met before, haven’t we?” she said, in a dazed voice. “Or at least, I have seen you before.” “Yes, indeed. Early this morning. I’m so sorry that I gave you a fright. Perhaps I could explain later.” “Of course. Please come in and I’ll get you something to eat.” Now she could see that he was a very old man indeed, possibly deep into his eighties. But his movements were still hearty and vigorous, and his eyes were bright and alert. As she took his coat she noticed something that she had instinctively known would be there: the shoulders that were too broad for his body, the arms that were too long, the slightly ape-like appearance that she had seen in Wyngate. She knew now. But she would wait for him to explain everything in his own time. John drew the old man through to the warmth of the kitchen, and Rena served him some supper. They had wine now, having explored the wine cellar until they found something drinkable. As he warmed himself by the fire the Reverend Tandy, or Adolphus as John called him, continually watched Rena. She
    • couldn’t be sure whether it was because John had said they were to be married, or because of what he had seen that morning. But his gaze was piercing, although kindly. His scrutiny did not trouble her because she was also studying him. Despite his disconcerting resemblance to Wyngate this man’s presence radiated an intense feeling of good, as strong, if not stronger, than Wyngate’s of evil. It was as if some powerful force had come into the dimly lit kitchen, illuminating every corner with hope. Rena did not understand it, but it comforted her. He was as shabby as the kitchen. His clothes must have been at least ten years old, darned repeatedly, worn at the cuffs, threadbare at the sleeves. Yet his poverty caused him no sorrow. He had the look of a man at peace with life and his own soul. Whatever he had found in his chosen path, it had brought him fulfilment. Which was incredible if what she believed was true. Rena went upstairs and found him somewhere to sleep, her mind spinning with the incredible discovery that she had made. She couldn’t quite see how, but she knew that what had just happened was going to change everything. When she returned downstairs she found the two men with the coins spread out before them on the kitchen table. “Your description was excellent,” the Reverend Tandy informed John, taking out a large magnifying glass and studying a coin closely. “The details made my mouth water. Yes – yes – excellent.” “You mean – you know what they are?” John asked on a note of rising excitement. “Oh yes, no doubt about it. My goodness, what a find!” “Are they valuable?” John persisted, and Rena held her breath. “They might be worth a very great deal, but not if you only have seven. You see, much of their value resides in their historical interest. They are the last gold sovereigns ever struck in the reign of Charles I. Only thirty were ever minted. The story is that they were given to his eldest son when he went into exile.” “Then they must be scattered far and wide,” Rena said. “No, because the young Prince Charles was so loved that none
    • of his supporters would take a penny in return for hiding and protecting him. And so he arrived in France with his thirty sovereigns intact, and swore never to spend them but always keep them together, to remind him that it was his destiny to return as King Charles II. “Eventually, of course, that’s just what he did. Nobody knows what became of them after that. But the King had a good friend, Jonathan Relton, who had helped him survive during his exile. As a reward Relton was granted this estate and the Earldom of Lansdale. “The king used to visit the family here. One theory says that he entrusted Lansdale with the keeping of the coins, which had almost a mystical significance for him by that time.” “And these are the coins?” John asked, awed. “Some of them, I’m sure of it. If you had all thirty the set might be worth – oh, anything up to a hundred thousand pounds.” Neither of them could say a word. With that money – or even half the sum – they were saved, the Grange was saved, and the villagers were saved. Yet that hope was still a distant dream. “But even seven must be worth something,” John was almost pleading. “If thirty are worth a hundred thousand, then seven must be worth about twenty three.” “I’m afraid not. The value lies in the completeness of the set. Separately each of these coins might be worth about five hundred pounds.” Three and a half thousand pounds. Not nearly enough to do all that needed to be done. The disappointment was severe. “But we may yet find the others,” Adolphus’ voice was encouraging. “No, Wyngate has them,” John said despondently. “He saw us digging there last night, and today we found the place turned over. Whatever was there, he’s taken.” “May I ask how he comes to be involved in all this?” Adolphus asked in a quiet voice that made Rena look at him. “He wants me for his daughter,” John said bitterly. “He would
    • have preferred a Duke, but I’ll do if necessary. He sees my impoverished state, and he is determined to move in, spreading his money irresistibly wherever he goes.” “Ah yes,” Adolphus murmured. “That was always his way.” “You know him?” John asked. It seemed at first as though Adolphus would not answer this. He stared bleakly at the floor, as though crushed by a burden too great for words. But at last he raised his head, and said, as though the words were torn from him, “He is my son.” John started up in astonishment. “Adolphus, he can’t be. Why, the man’s as evil as sin – “ “Let him be,” Rena said quietly. “It is true.” Adolphus gave her a faint smile. “You knew at once, didn’t you?” “When you appeared this morning, I thought it was his double. You are shaped so alike. It’s an unusual shape. And you were so far off I couldn’t see details of your face, although your head is like his too.” “Why that’s it,” said John suddenly. “I’ve been trying to think who Wyngate reminds me of, and it’s you.” Adolphus nodded, “Not in features, so much, although we both have slightly large heads. It’s more in the shape of our bodies.” “That’s what I saw this morning,” said Rena. “And I was so scared of him, and in such a fretful state, that I fancied he had managed to turn himself into two men. That’s why I screamed.” “How rude of me to have frightened you, my dear.” “I’m not scared now that I can see you close. But then I had such wild fancies. I began to run to the house, but I looked back to see you walking towards each other. Then you just vanished.” “Rena told me about it,” said John, “and I went to see for myself. But there was nobody there.” “I couldn’t see how you could have reached the trees so quickly,” said Rena. “Because my son was determined to get me out of sight as fast as he could,” Adolphus replied. “He had no idea that I was there
    • until you screamed, and he turned and saw me. “It is fifteen years since we last saw each other, and longer than that since we spoke. But he knew me, as I knew him. He wasn’t pleased. He hates me as much as I – dread him. “He came up to me, snarling even before he spoke. ‘What the devil do you think you’re doing here? Have you come to plague me and cast a blight over me?’ He didn’t wait for my answer, but seized my arm and dragged me to the trees. “When we were hidden he said, ‘Go away from here and don’t come back.’” He fell silent. “Whatever did you say to him?” Rena asked. “Nothing. I merely looked at him in silence. He took a step back from me, raised his arm as if to ward me off, and cried, ‘Stay away from me. Don’t come near.’ Then he turned and walked quickly away.” “You’re not safe,” said John at once. “He will harm you as he has harmed others.” “No, my dear boy,” Adolphus said gently. “He will do me no harm. He will rant and rave, but he will never touch me. He fears me too much for that.” “Wyngate fears nobody,” said John. “You are wrong. There is always some force to be feared, something stronger than ourselves.” “I don’t understand how such a man can be born of such a father,” said John, brooding. “I too used to wonder about that. Jane, my dear wife, never knew the worst of him. I used to hide it from her. “Franklin – that is his real name: Franklin Tandy – was our only child, and she adored him. I couldn’t bear to see her heart broken and so I covered up his crimes – childish pranks I called them, although I knew then in my heart that it was much worse. “He enjoyed hurting helpless creatures. Pulling the wings off insects was nothing to him, he did far worse. once saw him kill a kitten by breaking its neck, right in front of the child who owned it. Then he laughed at the child’s tears.” Adolphus sighed. “He was
    • about seven when he did that.” “Thank God his mother died when he was eighteen, before the depths of him had been revealed. He was at her deathbed, sobbing, and within an hour of her death he had sold her favourite necklace to pay a gambling debt. “As he grew older he grew worse. He seduced women and abandoned them. He cared for nothing and nobody but himself, his own pleasure, his own chance to make money. “Money. That was his god. I saw it but could do nothing about it. Finally he made the country too hot to hold him. He was clever with figures and he went to work for a financier. The man liked him, took him into his family. He thought Franklin was an orphan. “Then he died in mysterious circumstances. My son came to me in tears and threw himself on my mercy. He swore the death had been an accident, begged me to help him get away. God forgive me, I allowed myself to be persuaded for the sake of his mother’s memory. “I gave him enough money to get to Liverpool, and from there he sailed for America. A friend went with him and saw him aboard, otherwise I would never have known, because he has never sent me word of himself since. “Still I deluded myself that he was essentially innocent. But then it was discovered that the dead man’s widow and children had been left destitute. The money that should have provided for them had vanished. “In America he made such a name for himself as a ruthless financier and railway entrepreneur that his legend became known over here.” “But how did you know that Jeremiah Wyngate was Franklin Tandy?” asked Rena. “My wife had a great grandfather called Wyngate, a character so rough and unpleasant that tales of him reached down four generations. Of course he was the one Franklin admired. He must have felt safe enough taking his name. He was thousands of miles away from anyone who could have made the link. “But I knew. Whenever tales of Jeremiah Wyngate’s cruelty
    • reached this country, I recognised my son.” The old man dropped his head into his hands and wept. Instantly they were beside him. John, the frank and openhearted man, took the old man into his arms and soothed him. “Forgive me,” Adolphus said, wiping his eyes. “I am unused to a sympathetic audience. I spend my life alone, these days. I find it hard to go out among my fellow man, because of my guilt.” “You bear no guilt,” said John robustly. “I think I do. I am guilty of having shielded him when I should have handed him over to the law. When I think of how many lives he’s smashed and ruined since then my guilt is heavy indeed. “But more than that, I feel guilty at having brought this creature into the world, and made the world a worse place.” “Did you know that he was here?” asked Rena. “Not until after I had arrived in the village. I came at first for the pleasure of seeing John again, and helping him solve the mystery of these coins. It was only after I reached here that I sensed the stain that creature leaves wherever he goes. “And then I heard that his daughter was with him – ” “The daughter that you used to watch in the park,” said Rena, smiling. “That’s right. When I heard that he’d returned to London I couldn’t bring myself to go and see him. It was better not to revive the past. But I used to watch his house sometimes, and I saw the little girl come out with her governess. I guessed who she was because she had a slight resemblance to Jane. That was how I knew I had a grand daughter.” “She remembers seeing you,” said Rena. “I’m sure she’ll be glad to meet you properly.” “I don’t think that man will allow that. He was very determined to get rid of me when he saw me this morning.” “Why didn’t you come to the house when he’d gone?” asked John. “You can never be quite certain when he has gone,” said Adolphus. “I waited a long time out there in the grounds, and I saw a young woman and a young man arrive. Was she – ?”
    • “Yes, that’s Matilda,” said Rena, “and the splendid young man with her is Cecil. They’re in love and they want to marry, if they can escape her father.” “Heaven help them!” said Adolphus. “Or maybe they need some help a little closer to home. Does my son know about him?” “He knows that he exists,” said Rena, “and he’s done everything he could to separate them, including having him dreadfully beaten by thugs. But he doesn’t know that he’s here now.” Something in her voice made Adolphus look at her closely. “When you say ‘here’ – ?” “Here,” said Rena. “In this house. We’re hiding him upstairs.” “Well done, my dear.” “But it doesn’t really help, does it?” she said. “Matilda asked us to allow Mr Wyngate to come here, so that she could come too, but where is it all going to end?” “Badly, I’m afraid,” Adolphus said sombrely. “I was watching as you all went up the tower. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I saw his manner of saying it. “And the devil took him up into a high place, and showed him the kingdoms of the world, and said all these will I give to thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” “Yes,” John said grimly. “That’s just how it was. All the kingdoms of the world. He thinks they’re his to give or withhold.” Adolphus was silent for a while. Then he said heavily, “I wonder if you’re aware of his latest tactic. The rumour is going around the village that his money is being poured into this place, and of course everyone is rejoicing.” John groaned and dropped his head into his hands. “How do I face them and tell them it won’t happen?” he said. “In fact how do I fight Wyngate? What do you do with a man who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’.” “It’s very simple,” Adolphus said gently. “We pray for a miracle.” * Next morning Rena introduced Adolphus to Cecil and had the
    • pleasure of seeing that the two men liked each other. “He’s a fine young man,” Adolphus confided to Rena. “Brave and hard working. He showed me some of his scars from the beating. My goodness if he wasn’t put off by that then he’s very much in love with her.” After breakfast he asked to be shown the place where the cross had stood and the coins had been found. John and Rena took him down to the woods to the place where the great ugly hole was still visible, and he looked at it for a long time, murmuring, “Hmm!” Then, with a strength that belied his years, he got down and rooted around in the earth, finally getting to his feet, gasping and brushing himself down. “And you say he was watching you?” “I’m certain of it,” Rena said. “Then there won’t be anything left here. That’s his way. What became of the cross?” They showed it to him lying on the ground, and he immediately bent to lift it. “Take the other end,” he roared to John. Between them they carried the post back to its original position and slammed it back into the ground, deep enough to stand upright. When they had packed the earth back around it and stamped it down, it seemed secure again. “I’m so glad,” Rena said quietly. “That was how Papa wanted it to be.” It was as though this old man had blown a trumpet, heralding battle. Adolphus looked at her kindly. “Is there a chapel in this place?” he asked. “Yes, Papa conducted the last Earl’s funeral there.” “Would you be kind enough to show it to me?” She led the way back into the house and round to the east wing, where there was a tiny chapel. “Charming,” Adolphus said. “Just the place for a quiet service. But I suppose it’s been de consecrated.”
    • “Oh no,” she said quickly. “Papa would never hear of it. He said the next Earl might appear at any time, and the chapel must always be ready for him.” “Thank you, my dear.” Slowly he walked forward to the altar, and knelt before it. There were no gorgeous ornaments on it now. They had been put into store, or perhaps sold. But to Adolphus its shabbiness did not exist. To him this was a place of glory. Rena slipped into a pew behind him and said her own quiet prayer, that Wyngate might not prevail, that Matilda and Cecil might find a way to be together, and that the love she shared with John might prosper. While she prayed she looked through her fingers at Adolphus. She couldn’t have said why, but there was something about him that drew her gaze. To others he might look merely a shabby old man, but she sensed the presence of a mighty warrior. And when he rose to his feet she knew he had come to a decision. * They returned to the kitchen to find John in a state of confusion. Several women from the village had confronted him, with their offerings. “A loaf of bread for your lordship,” the baker’s wife was saying. She was one of the women who had nursed Rena through her illness, and her face brightened at the sight of her. “And my husband would have me bring these ribs of beef,” the butcher’s wife put in quickly. “To welcome your lordship.” There were eight of them, and they had all brought something as a ‘welcome’. Milk, cheese, butter, meat, these poor people were giving them enough to fill the larder for days. They had heard the rumours of coming prosperity, and wanted to know if they were true. But part of them believed in good fortune against all odds, and this was their way of celebrating it.
    • Rena saw the blazing hope in their faces, and was sick at heart. They took it for granted that she wanted the same thing that they did. What would they say if they knew she was the threat to their last hope? Looking at John’s face she saw that he too had understood, and felt uneasy that he wasn’t going to live up to their expectations. When the last villager had gone, Adolphus said gently, “My son has done his work well, I see.” “They’ve been listening to the rumours he’s spread,” John said bitterly. “But what am I expected to do? I can’t and won’t marry Matilda, even if she was prepared to marry me. I should have just told them that Rena is to be my wife.” “No John,” Rena said in a strained voice. “As you say, you can’t marry Matilda, but that doesn’t mean you can marry me. You have to think of them.” “Rena has this mad idea that I should put myself up for auction to some other heiress,” John said angrily. “You might – find one that you loved, and who loved you,” she said. “If I wasn’t here – ” “You or nobody,” said John bluntly. “Adolphus, tell her she’s talking nonsense.” “But perhaps she isn’t,” Adolphus said gently. John was pale. “You can’t mean that.” “I know that Rena will never do anything against her conscience,” Adolphus said. “And you mustn’t try to force her.” He smiled at them both. “But we don’t yet know what her conscience will say.” “But we do, we do,” she said desperately. “Have you forgotten my miracle,” he asked, “or don’t you believe in miracles?” “I don’t believe miracles happen to order, just because you want them,” she said. “Oh, please I – ” Suddenly she felt she had to be alone. “I must do some shopping,” she said in a strained voice. “After all this?” John asked, indicating the goods on the table. “I still need more milk,” she said hurriedly. “There are four of us
    • living here now. I’ll be back.” She ran out before they could detain her. Adolphus’ words had caused a terrible pain in her heart. He was kind and gentle, and yet she could tell that he thought she was right. He would support her in her agonising decision, but he would not tell her to avoid it. Wherever she went in the village she was met by smiling faces, inviting her to share their hope and joy. She smiled back and hurried on. In the dairy she bought more milk and hurried out, hoping not to have to talk, but in the doorway she was stopped by an imposing figure. “Mr Daykers,” she said. “Good morning.” “A word with you, Miss Colwell.” “I really am rather – ” “Kindly hear me out.” He stood in her path, sallow, domineering, with something brutal in his quiet manner. “It is your future that I am here to discuss,” he said. “Once and for all, Mr Daykers, I will not be your housekeeper.” “No, that would be ineligible. In view of this latest development I see that stronger measures are called for.” He took a deep breath and settled himself as though taking root in the ground. “I offer myself to you in marriage.” “I – beg your pardon?” “It must be clear to you that you can no longer remain in that house when a – ah – happy event has come to pass. Lord Lansdale knows his duty to the community, and you, I believe, are also conscious of your duty.” “You are very kind sir, but I have no desire for marriage.” “You do not know the world young woman. You are living in a disgraceful situation, and should quit it without delay. Only an immediate marriage will rescue your reputation, and it is highly unlikely that you will ever find another man ready to sacrifice himself.” “You must excuse me, sir,” she said breathlessly, “I have to go. I
    • thank you for your offer but regret it is quite out of my power to accept it. Please stand aside.” When he remained before her she dodged round him and began to run. She ran and ran until she was out of sight, hidden in the woods on John’s land. There she stopped, leaning against a tree, gasping. This was it. This was now the choice that life would offer her. After knowing the glory of John’s love she was told she had no option but to become the wife of this pompous bully. She must turn away from the only happiness she would ever know, and settle for a bitter, mean marriage to a man she could never like. She could and would refuse to marry Steven Daykers, but without the man she loved all other choices would be equally wretched. And this would be her life, unless Adolphus could find a miracle. But she no longer had faith in miracles. Burying her face in her hands she slid slowly down the tree until she was on the ground, and sat there in a huddle while she sobbed and sobbed.
    • CHAPTER TEN As Rena made her way to the house she became aware of a commotion going on. From inside came whoops of glee, laughter, triumph. Then John came flying out. “Rena,” he called, waving and running to her. “What’s happened?” she asked as he whirled her around. “Adolphus has made an incredible discovery. You remember that leather purse that we found under the cross?” “The one that contained the last two coins, yes?” “There was something else in it. A piece of paper. It’s a riddle, a clue to the other twenty three coins. Adolphus thinks they’re somewhere in the house and if we can find them – “ “Oh John, John can it really be true?” “It has to be true. Don’t you see, this is the miracle he spoke of. Come on.” He seized her hand and they ran back together. Adolphus and Cecil were both hard at work in the picture gallery, covered in dust but cheerful and determined. Adolphus showed her the paper they had found. “The leather has kept it in good condition,” he said, “so it’s still readable.” “Only to you,” John said good humouredly. “It takes a scholar to read this.” “It must date from hundreds of years ago,” Rena agreed. “That isn’t modern English.” Adolphus nodded. “Written about the time of King Charles II, I would say.” “And there’s something about a King here.” She was squinting at the paper. “What does it mean?” “They were the King’s coins, and the rest are to be found in some part of the house that is connected with him,” said John. “So we started with the gallery because there are several portraits here of Charles II, and a couple where he appears with the family.” “So far we haven’t been lucky,” said Adolphus. “The coins aren’t
    • hidden behind them or anything. But we’re not giving up.” To be on the verge of success and yet have it keep elusively out of reach made Rena feel giddy. She fixed her eyes on one of the portraits that Adolphus showed her. It showed the king, still a young man, probably soon after his accession to the throne, sitting beside a window, gazing out onto a country scene. In his hands he held some gold coins. “Would they be the coins that we are looking for?” she asked. “Quite possibly,” said Adolphus. “Then perhaps we should be looking in the room depicted behind him,” she said excitedly. “I know which one it is. I recognise the view. I’ve been going through the house recently and there’s only one bedroom that shows you the land from exactly that angle. It was probably where the king slept when he stayed here.” “Can you take us to it?” asked John. They followed her out into the hall and up the stairs. Then, to her horror, she found that her mind went blank. Suddenly all rooms and all corridors seemed alike. “I can’t remember,” she whispered. “It’s like being in a maze.” “Calmly now,” Adolphus said, taking her hands. “You are overwrought and that has confused your mind. The memory will return in a moment.” “Yes, yes,” she said in relief as the jumble in her head began to sort itself out. “It’s along here.” At the end of a long corridor they found the room. It was dirty and tattered, but at one time it must have been glorious. In the centre stood a huge four poster bed, its hangings crumbling, its decorations almost obscured by grime. But one thing was still clear, the great crest that proclaimed that this bed was for the use of King Charles II. This had been his room, and of all rooms, surely it was the one most likely to hide the treasure they sought? They began going through drawers and chests, looking for concealed cupboards behind hangings. “But I fear it won’t be hidden as obviously as that,” said Adolphus. “We shall have to be subtle. What was that noise?”
    • They all listened and could hear the sound of carriage wheels, then Wyngate’surly voice barking instructions. “Has he dared – ?” John breathed. “Of course,” said Adolphus “Go down to him and distract his attention. Rena, you go down too. At all costs he must suspect nothing.” There was no choice but to do as he said. Together they descended the stairs to find the hallway a scene of chaos. In the centre stood Wyngate and Matilda. Around them swarmed workmen, hurrying here and there, inspecting, grimacing at what they found. “What is this?” John demanded. Wyngate gave him a sour smile. “I thought it was time to make a start.” “A start which I have not authorised,” said John angrily. “Come now, we know you’re only playing games. You need what I have, and it’s no use pretending otherwise. This work has to be done, and now is as good a time as any.” John’s hands clenched at his side. In another moment he would have thrown Wyngate out bodily, but Rena’s gentle touch made him stop and remember Adolphus’ advice. “Miss Wyngate,” Rena said, stepping forward, “how nice to see you. Why don’t you come with me and – ?” Still talking she led Matilda away up the stairs. “Is Cecil still here?” she whispered when they were a safe distance. “Yes, I’m taking you to him. And somebody else is here. Your grandfather.” “I have no grandfather.” “But you have, and he is longing to see you.” They had reached the king’s room and Rena threw open the door. Adolphus was studying a small cupboard. He looked up at the sound. Then he became very still. Tears began to pour down his face. “Jane,” he whispered. “My Jane.”
    • “Jane was his wife,” said Rena. “You look like your grandmother.” “You’re the man I saw all those years ago,” Matilda said suddenly. “I thought you were my father’s ghost – you look so alike.” “No ghost, my dear,” said Adolphus. “Just a man who had just discovered that he had a grandchild. I have always wanted to meet you properly.” Tears still coursed down his cheeks, but he was smiling through them. Matilda gave a little gasp and ran into his arms. She too was weeping with joy. “Grandfather, Grandfather,” she cried. He looked tenderly down at her face. “I thought you had something of the look of Jane, all those years ago,” he said. “But you were a child, and it wasn’t very clear. But now, it is like seeing my darling again.” “Papa always says I’m nothing to look at.” “You are beautiful,” said Adolphus. “Cecil and I agree on that.” Now Matilda saw Cecil, watching them. Adolphus smiled as they hugged each other, and said, “I congratulate you on your choice of husband. He is an excellent young man.” “Oh Grandpapa, will you help us?” “With all my heart. But first we must conclude our search of the house.” “There are some old coins hidden somewhere in the house,” explained Rena. “They used to belong to Charles II.” “Then surely they’ll be in his chapel?” said Matilda. Everyone stared at her. “The King’s Chapel,” she added. “There is no King’s Chapel here,” said Rena. “It’s just an ordinary chapel.” “Well, there was this waiter who served Papa and me in the hotel last night. He was ever so old and he said he used to work here when he was a boy. According to him the family always called it the King’s Chapel, because of Charles II. He made it sound like a big secret, a name that only the family used, because the ‘lower orders’ weren’t good enough. So if the place has been empty for
    • years I suppose nobody would know.” “Sweet heaven, is it possible?” exclaimed Adolphus. Some footsteps in the corridor made them all alert, but it was only John. “I’ve left Mr Wyngate barking orders to workmen,” he said. “He’s perfectly happy as long as nobody contradicts him, so I thought I’d slip away for a moment. Has anybody found anything.” Swiftly Rena explained about the King’s Chapel. “What marvellous luck if it’s true,” said John. “Let’s go and find out. But we’ll have to be careful. Wyngate mustn’t see you, Adolphus, or Cecil. I’ll go back and draw him off.” It went against the grain with him but he managed to smile as he returned to where Wyngate was still in the hall, giving orders to a thick set man. “This is Simpkins, the architect I’ve employed,” he said. John suppressed a wince and held out his hand to Simpkins. “Delighted to meet you sir. We must have some discussions about what you’re going to do in my house.” He stressed ‘my’ very slightly. Simpkins, a decent man, was beginning to sense that something wasn’t quite right here. Wyngate had spoken as though the house was his. He looked uncertainly from one to the other. “Are those plans you’re holding?” asked John, indicating some scrolled papers Simpkins had in his hand. “Yes, sir.” “Why don’t we all look at them in the library?” As he’d hoped, at this sign that he was being more ‘reasonable’ a self satisfied sneer settled over, and he made no protest at being led away to the library. Now, John thought, the others had the chance to come downstairs and go to the chapel without being seen. The plans were excellent, all but the tower. If only he could afford to do this work himself he would be glad to employ Simpkins. If only…. His mind flew to the others in the chapel, searching, searching, everyone’s fate depending on it. He forced himself to concentrate. “This tower is impossible,” he said. “You must strengthen the
    • foundations first.” Simpkins gave a sigh of relief. “That’s what I keep trying to – ” “Shut up, both of you,” snarled Wyngate . “That tower is what I want, just as it is. And I want it now. If you think – what the devil are you doing here?” The other two looked up to see Adolphus standing in the doorway, regarding his son with sad, terrible eyes. “Because I have longed to see you again,” he said. “Well, I haven’t longed to see you, and I don’t want to see you. I told you yesterday to get out. Why do you pursue me?” “Perhaps because you are my son, and despite everything, I still love you.” “Sentimental nonsense!” Wyngate said with a kind of soft savagery. “Stay away from me. I won’t be haunted by you.” “But you are haunted by me,” said Adolphus in the same melancholy tone. “In your mind I have haunted you more with every act of wickedness. That is why the sight of me is so intolerable to you.” “Get out of this house.” “That is for the owner to say,” Adolphus said, meeting his eyes. “You are not the owner, and you never will ever be.” “You’re wrong. I’ve never been defeated yet. “He – ” Wyngate shot out his arm towards John, “won’t refuse me in the end. He can’t afford to.” “You are mistaken,” said Adolphus. “He can’t afford not to refuse you.” John moved to join him in the doorway. “Mr Simpkins,” he said, “if I am fortunate, you and I may talk another time. In the meantime, stay well clear of the tower.” “You take your orders from me,” Wyngate flashed at the architect. “Now, come along, sir,” Simpkins soothed him. “You wouldn’t like me to bring the house down about your ears, would you?” John took the opportunity to draw Adolphus out of the room. “I thought you were going to stay hidden,” he murmured. “I will not hide from my own son. Strange as it may seem, I still
    • love him, even hope to reclaim him.” As they spoke they were heading towards the back of the house where the chapel was. Cecil, Matilda and Rena were hunting through it. It was a big job, although the chapel itself was small. “Of course it might be up there,” said John, pointing upwards to the gallery that ran along one side of the chapel. “How can we reach it?” “It’s not accessible from down here,” said Rena. “It was where the servants used to sit. They came in by their own door at the back.” “We must search the main chapel thoroughly first,” said Adolphus. “And consider the gallery afterwards.” To everyone’s dismay a thorough search of the chapel revealed nothing. “What lies through that door?” Adolphus asked Rena. “The vestry, I suppose.” “Yes, just a very tiny one. Papa used it when he conducted services here, when I was a child. That didn’t happen very often. Apart from the old Earl’s funeral he baptised two children, and conducted one marriage. It was the Earl’s great niece and she asked me to be her bridesmaid. I was so excited.” As she spoke she was opening the door to the vestry. There was the little table, and on it the register of births, marriages and funerals, still open, her father’s writing clearly visible. “Let’s look at this wall behind,” said Adolphus. “It’s exactly the kind of place where a concealed cupboard could be. Help me move the desk.” Together they tried to push it but the desk wouldn’t move. “It’s stuck on something,” said Adolphus. “There’s a loose floorboard sticking up. Let me try to – ” He was working away at the floorboard until suddenly it came loose in his hand and he lifted it right out. There, in the gap beneath, was a leather purse, like the one Rena and John had found under the cross, but larger. “Adolphus – “ “Steady my dear, don’t get your hopes up too soon.”
    • But she couldn’t help darting to the door and calling into the chapel, “Come quickly. We’ve found something.” In a moment the others were all huddled in the little vestry, crowding round Adolphus as he opened the bag, thrust in his hand, took out the contents and laid them on the desk. Gold coins. Twenty three of them. “Have we found them?” Rena whispered. “We have found them,” said Adolphus. “The twenty three remaining gold coins that once belonged to King Charles II.” “And does that mean – ?” John also did not dare voice his hopes. “It means that you have all thirty,” said Adolphus. “Part of this nation’s history. And as you have the complete set, their value is fabulous.” “You said a hundred thousand?” John said. “Can it really be so much?” “I can give you the name of a collector who has been seeking these for years,” said Adolphus. “I have no doubt of what they are worth to him. You will soon be safe.” “Safe!” They all said the word, looking at each other. Then they said it again, for it was suddenly the most beautiful word in the world. “Why do you say ‘will be safe’?” John wanted to know. “Surely we are safe now?” “You will not be safe until you are legally married,” said Adolphus. “And that should take place as soon as possible.” “But he will stop us,” said Matilda. “Not John and Rena, but he’ll find a way to prevent me marrying Cecil. He’ll just drag me off to London.” “Not if you marry here and now,” said Adolphus. Again they exchanged glances. “But can we?” asked John. “I am a minister of the church, retired but still in orders. This chapel is still consecrated, so you told me Miss Colwell.” “Of course. You mean that you were thinking of this even then?” “I like to look far ahead.” “Will it be valid without witnesses?” Cecil wanted to know.
    • “But we have witnesses,” said Adolphus. “Each of you will witness the marriage of the other. And if my son tries to make trouble I shall simply refer the matter to the local bishop, who will support me.” “You know Bishop Hoston?” asked Rena. “Know him? I taught him at theological college. He used to borrow books from me. In fact, I think he still has one or two. So that’s all taken care of. Matilda, are you legally of age?” “I am twenty-four.” “And you?” he looked at Rena. “I am twenty-two, and have no family.” “Then I can marry you now, if that is your wish.” “Yes!” The four of them said it together. “Then bolt the doors,” said Adolphus robustly. “Let no-one enter until our work is done.” They were the strangest wedding ceremonies Rena had ever seen, yet she had no doubt that they were safe in the hands of this holy man. Apart from her father, no man had ever impressed her so deeply with his power for good. By common consent Matilda and Cecil married first, since they had the most to fear from her father. Or, as John put it to his beloved, “Wyngate cannot harm us now.” They married with curtain rings which Adolphus ‘just happened’ to have slipped into his pocket, at about the same time that he asked Rena about the status of the chapel. John stood groomsman to Cecil, and then he and Rena signed the register which they had found in the vestry only half an hour ago. Then the newly married Cecil became groomsman to the Earl, while Mrs. Cecil Jenkins was Rena’s attendant, both of them covered with dust but full of joy. “Wilt thou take this woman – ?” “I will.” “Wilt thou take this man – obey him and serve him, love, honour and keep him – forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, as long as ye both shall live.”
    • With profound joy, Rena responded, “I will.” “With this ring, I thee wed – ” Before John could say more there was a thunderous knocking on the door outside. “Let me in!” bawled Wyngate’s voice. The door shook under his assault. But it held. John’s hand tightened on his bride’s in silent reassurance, while his voice continued steadily reciting his vows. The noise retreated from the door, and they heard footsteps climbing. The next moment Wyngate had appeared in the gallery high above, his face contorted with rage. He could see them, but not get to them. “Stop this!” he screamed. “I demand that you stop!” “Never fear,” said Adolphus. “He has no power here.” He raised his voice. “Forasmuch as John and Rena have consented together in holy wedlock – ” “No–oh!” shrieked Wyngate. Adolphus made his measured way through the words, almost as though he could not hear the howls of rage and frustration coming from above. “ – I pronounce that they be man and wife together.” Now Wyngate had stopped screaming. In the silence he sent them a look of such malevolent hatred that Rena was startled. “You’ll pay for this,” he snarled. “You think you can defy me and get away with it? Nobody has ever done that. I’ll ruin you.” “You cannot ruin us,” John called up to him. “We no longer need your money to safeguard the people or restore the house.” “The house,” sneered Wyngate. “You think you’re going to enjoy the house? This should have been my house. Nobody shall take it from me.” He turned sharply and the next moment he was gone. Distantly they could hear the sound of voices, shouts of warning, Simpkins calling, “Not up there, sir. It isn’t safe.” “The roof,” said John.
    • Hastily Adolphus pulled back the bolts and they all rushed out. From the gallery Wyngate had a good head start, and they could already hear him above them. The next moment something went flying down past the window, to land with a crash on the terrace outside. “It’s a piece of stone from the turrets,” said John. “He must be trying to destroy the house. Rena, stay here. Don’t go outside whatever you do. It isn’t safe.” “I’m coming with you,” she cried, fearful for him. “No darling, I want you to stay here.” “But – ” He gave her a faint smile. “Only a few minutes ago you vowed to obey me. Where’s Adolphus?” “He’s gone up ahead.” Another crash as more stone came down. John raced after Adolphus, but the old clergyman had already reached the roof ahead of him, and was standing, facing Wyngate. “Get away from me,” Wyngate shrieked. “It is over, my son. You can harm these people no more. The Earl is married, your daughter is married, and they have gone beyond you.” “This is your doing.” “No, it is your doing. You have driven away everyone who loved you, until only I am left. I am still your father.” “Keep your distance from me,” Wyngate repeated, taking a step backwards. “Don’t go too near the edge,” Adolphus cried. “The stone is missing there.” “This is mine,” Wyngate said fiercely. “I will not give it up. I shall fight them for it. Look out there – ” he swept his arm out in the direction of the estate. “Land fit for a king. Fit for me. Mine. Mine!” “Nothing is yours,” said Adolphus. “You have thrown away everything that matters, and now nothing is left.” Silence. Only the wind. They faced each other over several feet. Neither moved, but
    • Adolphus saw in his son’s eyes that he had understood. “Nothing – ” Wyngate repeated hoarsely. “Nothing is mine. Nothing is left. Nothing.” He looked out over the inheritance he had fought so hard to steal, and which now would never be his. The next moment he had vanished. From below came shouts of horror as he dropped sixty feet to land on the flagstones below. No man could survive such a fall. John, bursting out onto the roof, saw Adolphus standing there, stock still, his eyes fixed bleakly on the distance. “Adolphus, are you all right? Where is Wyngate.” “He fell,” the old man said through his tears. “He was standing by the edge and – he fell.” Cautiously John went to the edge and looked over. Down below a crowd of workmen were standing in a circle around Wyngate, but still they kept their distance, as though even in death Wyngate was terrifying. He lay on his back, staring up to the sky, his eyes open and blank. John turned back to where Adolphus stood, still motionless. “Let’s go down,” he said gently. “He was my son,” Adolphus said softly. “He was my son.” * The coins fetched slightly more than Adolphus’ prediction, and John immediately put the work in hand, not only on his own house but on the cottages that dotted the estate. Now there was accommodation for his workers, and jobs for everyone who needed them. Mr Simpkins was summoned back to do a new set of plans, and the house rang with the sound of workmen. Best of all it was early enough in the year to revive the farms and sow this year’s crops. “There’s a lot more to be done,” the Earl of Lansdale told his
    • Countess as they strolled together by the stream when the harvest had been gathered. “It wasn’t a large harvest this year, because we were so short of time. But next year will be an even greater success.” “And the year after,” said Rena, “and the year after that, and all the years to come. Nothing matters, except that we’ll be together.” Their walk had brought them to the cross, sturdy and upright since a group of workmen had dug new foundations and settled it securely in the earth. “I’m glad we asked Adolphus to bless it,” said John. “Yes, now it speaks of him as well as Papa.” “I think he’s going to be all right.” “I’m sure he will,” said Rena. “Matilda writes to me from London that for a while they feared for his reason, so deep was his grief. But when he knew that he was to be a great grandfather he came back to life. “But what I think pleased him most was the news that Matilda planned to use only a small part of her vast inheritance, just enough to set Cecil up in his own business. The rest will go to making reparations to those her father injured. It was only then that Adolphus agreed to live with them.” “I had hoped to persuade him to spend a little time with us,” said John. “But of course,” Rena assented eagerly. “Who else could baptise our child in the King’s Chapel?” “Our child,” he said tenderly. “Are you quite certain?” “Quite certain. In the spring. And then we will have everything.” “No,” he said, taking her face between his hands. “When I think of what could have happened, how we might have lost each other, then I know that I have everything now. Whatever else befalls us in life, you and you alone are my everything. And that is how it will be forever.” “Forever,” she murmured. “It has such a beautiful sound.” “Yes,” he said. “And it will be beautiful, in this life and the next, because we will have the love that God gave us. Forever. Until the end of time.”
    • Love in the Highlands Lavina took her hand from his, but she had the strange feeling that he released her reluctantly. She went into the corridor, and once again played the tunes which she loved herself, and which she felt expressed in music what she felt when she was riding, dancing or just looking at the sun. She knew now that her music spoke to the man she loved, and that the things it told him were vital for them both, and the future. “You must get well, completely well,” she told him in music. “I love you more than I can ever say, except in this music which seems to come down from heaven and not belong to the world.” After a while she thought she would see if he was asleep or awake. She went into the room very quietly and found his eyes closed. She knelt beside him, praying that he would soon get well, closing her own eyes as she did so. When she opened them she saw him looking at her.
    • LOVE IN THE HIGHLANDS BARBARA CARTLAND Barbaracartland.com Ltd Copyright © 2004 by Cartland Promotions First published on the internet in 2004 by Barbaracartland.com The characters and situations in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no relation to any real person or actual happening.
    • This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronically or mechanically, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval, without the prior permission in writing from the publisher. eBook conversion by M-Y Books
    • CHAPTER ONE 1876 The letter was full of warmth and affection. It seems a long time since we’ve seen you, Cousin Edward. Much too long, my dear wife says, and I agree with her. “So do I,” the Earl of Ringwood murmured, a smile spreading over his broad, kindly face. “I should like nothing better than to see my family after so long, and Scotland is very beautiful.” When he thought of the splendid highland scenery the walls of his library seemed to crowd in on him, making him long suddenly for wide open spaces. He loved his magnificent London home, and the life he led there. He enjoyed his place at court, his status as a trusted adviser, almost a friend, to the Queen. He also enjoyed the fact that his beloved daughter, Lavina, was the belle of the ball wherever she went. Beautiful, fashionable, elegant and superb, she made him burst with pride. She had already rejected five proposals of marriage, one of them from a Duke. Secretly Lord Ringwood was relieved as, since the death of his beloved wife, four years earlier, Lavina, his only child, was all he had to love. Their life was here in the centre of glittering society, and they would not change it for the world. And yet, something about the letter he was reading, with its hint of heather and rivers, mountains and lakes, brought a wistful look to Lord Ringwood’s face. Of course I know that Scotland is a long way from London, wrote his cousin Ian, and you have your duties in attendance on Her Majesty. But I live in hope that one day you and Lavina, who must be grown up by now, will give us the pleasure of a visit. “It’s about time we did,” Lord Ringwood agreed, taking up his pen to reply.
    • But in the same moment the door opened and his butler announced, “The Duke of Bradwell to see you, My Lord.” Lord Ringwood rose to greet his visitor, delighted, for this was his oldest friend. “Hello, Bertram,” he said. “This is an unexpected pleasure.” The Duke was a tall, elderly man with an upright carriage. Despite his white hair he had an air of health and vigour, but now his face was troubled. “I came to give you an urgent warning,” he said without preamble. “It must be really urgent to bring you here at this hour,” the Earl observed genially. “I know you hate getting up so early.” “I do,” agreed the Duke, “but there’s trouble ahead, and the sooner you know, the sooner you can act. I would have come last night, but I had a dinner party that I could not miss.” “Sit down,” the Duke said, “and tell me the worst.” His easy tone showed that he did not believe that things could really be so bad. There was a pause before the Duke began: “I was at Windsor Castle yesterday evening, in attendance on the Queen. After supper we all moved, as usual, into Her Majesty’s private room. I expected to discuss the local news and was prepared to be bored, when a messenger arrived with an urgent letter for her. “She read it through, then said unexpectedly in a sharp voice, ‘Another letter asking me to provide a wife for a Balkan Prince, whose country is being threatened by the Russians.’ ‘I’ve said many times that I cannot do any more for the Balkans. I have, as you know only too well, provided many English brides to give them alliances with this country.’“ “True enough,” the Earl observed. “Who is it this time?” “Prince Stanislaus of Kadradtz. It’s a small place but significant. Herzegovina on one side, Albania on the other. Now they’ve got Russia breathing down their necks and they expect the Queen to produce a bride, as she has done many times before.”
    • “Well, it’s not for nothing that they call Her Majesty ‘the Matchmaker of Europe’,” observed the Earl. He smiled as he spoke, but the Duke said, “You won’t smile, old fellow, when I tell you what the Queen has in mind now. Did you know that her great-grandmother was connected with your family?” “That? Good heavens that was generations ago. We’ve certainly never preened ourselves on our ‘connection with royalty’.” “Unfortunately for you and Lavina, the Queen is counting on it now.” “Lavina?” At the mention of his beloved daughter the Earl’s smile vanished and alarm came into his eyes. “What are you saying, Bertram? Don’t tell me Her Majesty is thinking of marrying Lavina to Prince Stanislaus?” “She’s set on it. There were murmurs of dissent last night. Several of the men there had met the Prince and formed a very poor opinion of him. He’s a drunkard, a womaniser, and reputedly violent. But Her Majesty refused to listen. She’s made her mind up. “You know how determined the Queen can be. Once she gives you her order you’ll be expected to obey. “If you defy her you’ll lose your position at court, and your life will be made a misery. People have tried to stand out against her before, and have become outcasts in society.” “It’s a nightmare,” the Earl groaned, dropping his head into his hands. “Whatever can I do? For God’s sake, Bertram, tell me how I can save my daughter from being forced to marry this appalling man, and being sent away to a far country, living under the threat of invasion.” “I know, I know!” The Duke replied. “I wouldn’t want to send a relation of mine there. I’ve come here to warn you that you will be summoned to Windsor Castle, so that she can tell you herself.” “Damn it, Bertram, what shall I do?” the Earl demanded. “I can see only two chances for you. One is to leave the country – although she’s quite capable of sending a ship to bring you back, or somehow get your daughter married or engaged, before you get
    • the ‘Royal Command’.” “How, in God’s name, can I do that?” the Earl asked. “Lavina has already turned down virtually every eligible man in London. We can’t go back to them now.” “There’s one man who might help you, if he would agree to do so, and that is the Marquis of Elswick. If Lavina is already engaged, even the Queen would not expect her to break off her engagement.” The Earl stared at his friend in astonishment. “You want Lavina to marry Elswick?” he demanded, aghast. “A hard, cold, unpleasant man, without a shred of human kindness in him?” “Of course I don’t want her to marry him. An engagement will do. It can simply be broken off later, when the Queen has found someone else, or sent the Prince about his business.” “I don’t believe my ears,” the Earl said. “Old friend, I know you mean this kindly, and I’m grateful for the warning, but you must have windmills in your head even to think of Elswick! “You know he’s always shunned all talk of marriage or engagements, after what happened last time.” “I know his future wife abandoned him at the altar,” the Duke agreed, “but that was a long time ago.” “But he has never forgotten it,” the Earl said. “He loathes women. His country house is only a mile or so away from mine, and it’s common knowledge that he’ll hardly have a woman in the place.” “Yet he’s still the ideal person to help you,” the Duke replied. “As you say, he’s a curmudgeon, a harsh, solitary man who cares nothing for society, and very little for the Queen, I sometimes think. “But that’s to our advantage, because it means he won’t be afraid to offend her, and might, therefore, do as you ask. And he won’t talk a lot of pompous nonsense about Lavina being honoured to marry a Prince. He cares no more for Princes than for Queens.” “You think Elswick will actually agree?” “It isn’t likely,” the Duke replied frankly. “But I can’t think of anyone else who would be of any help at this moment.” “All I want,” the Earl said angrily, “is my daughter’s happiness. I
    • love her, and she’s my only child. How can she be happy if she has to live in that barbaric place, with a man of bad reputation?” “I know,” his friend agreed. “At the same time you have to realise that Her Majesty is now in a very difficult position. For diplomatic reasons she can’t give the Prince a blank refusal without a very good cause.” “I need a little time to think of the best way to fight this,” the Earl said. “Luckily I have until tomorrow.” “Why do you say that?” “That’s when I’m due at Windsor Castle, so I imagine the Queen will wait until then.” “Don’t rely on it. This matter is urgent. She’ll probably send a messenger to you today. In fact, you’re very lucky that the letter did not reach her at a time when you were on duty. If you’d been there she would have cornered you at once.” “Oh heavens, you’re right, Bertram. I must leave at once,” said the Earl, walking across the room to ring the bell which was beside the fireplace. Almost at once the butler appeared. “You rang, My Lord?” “Her Ladyship and I have to return to the country immediately,” the Earl told him. “Kindly inform her of my wishes, then order the carriage and the fastest horses available to come round in an hour’s time.” The butler looked a little bewildered at the sharpness in his master’s voice. But he merely said: “At once, My Lord.” Then he left the room. “So far, so good,” the Duke said. “But it’s not enough. You’re lucky in that Elswick’s country house is only a few miles from your own, so you can go home, and seek him out at the same time. “Ask him if he will become engaged to your daughter or if there is anyone else more socially important that he knows, who can help. Wait! I know – what about the Duke of Ayelton?” “She’s already refused him,” the Earl groaned. “He was very offended. Now he’s set his cap at an American heiress.”
    • “You have very little time,” the Duke said, “as we all know when Her Majesty wants something done she wants it at once. Or if possible, the day before yesterday!” He smiled as he made the joke, but the Earl was looking very worried. Going to his desk, he picked up various letters which had not yet been opened and put them into his pocket. Then he noticed the letter from Scotland that he had been about to answer, when this calamity fell on him, and put that into his pocket as well. He seemed to be moving in a dream. “Suppose Elswick refuses,” he said at last. “There must be someone else I can beg – on my knees if necessary – to save my daughter.” “I can think of nobody,” the Duke said bluntly. “You know as well as I do that they all want to kow-tow to Her Majesty. The majority of those who we think are friends will do nothing in a situation like this. “And it would have to be someone really important, like the Marquis, otherwise Her Majesty would simply insist on breaking off the engagement.” The door opened and the butler said: “The carriage will be ready in half an hour, My Lord. Lady Lavina has been informed, and is getting ready.” As the butler shut the door behind him, the Duke rose from the sofa and said, “I wish I could help you more, Arthur. You have always been a good friend to me. But an engagement to Elswick, however unlikely, is the best I can suggest.” “Damn it!” the Earl exclaimed. “My daughter isn’t going to be forced into this. She is all I have left now I have lost my wife.” At that moment the door opened and Lady Lavina came in. She was a tall, very lovely girl, and one whose face contained more than mere beauty. It also had strength and character. Her large blue eyes could glow as much with anger as with warmth, and she was never lost for words in an argument. Some men would be scared away by the force of her personality. Others would find her intriguing. The Duke thought she was even prettier than the last time he
    • had seen her. Now with her long hair shining in the sunshine which was coming through the windows, she lifted up her pretty face to kiss her father before she asked, “What is happening, Papa? Why this rush to go to the country? You said last night we need not leave for a week or two, and we are due to have dinner with the O’Donnells tonight.” “I know,” her Father answered. “But the Duke has brought us bad news, and you had better hear it from him.” Lavina turned to look at the Duke. “Uncle Bertram, whatever has happened?” “I came to warn your father that you are in grave danger.” “Me, in danger?” Lavina exclaimed. “Whatever do you mean?” “The Queen is seeking another royal bride to send to the Balkans,” said the Duke, “and she wishes it to be you.” Lavina gave a merry peal of laughter. “I know that must be a joke,” she said. “I’m not royal.” “Her Majesty’s great grandmother was connected with this family, and that is royal enough for her.” Lavina gave a cry. “But everybody has always known about that, and nobody has ever made a fuss about it before.” “Her Majesty never needed to make use of you before,” the Duke riposted caustically. “And she wants me to marry – who?” “Prince Stanislaus of Kadradtz, a thoroughly unpleasant character, drunken, violent and unprincipled. Also, I believe he does not wash.” Lavina shuddered. “I could never marry a man who did not wash,” she said. “Of course not,” agreed the Duke. “So we have to think of a plan to save you, and the best way is for you to be engaged to someone else. Even the Queen would have to respect that, if your fiancé were sufficiently prominent – and of a decisive character.” Lavina frowned. “My fiancé? What fiancé?”
    • “The Marquis of Elswick,” explained the Duke. “Your only hope is if he will pretend that you and he are engaged until the Queen has found another bride.” “The Marquis of Elswick!” Lavina echoed, astounded. “Certainly not. Anyone but him.” “I know he has the reputation of being a very disagreeable man,” the Duke began. “And it’s well-deserved,” Lavina said. “You have met him, my dear?” her father asked, surprised. “You never told me.” “It wasn’t exactly a meeting, Papa. It happened three years ago, when I was visiting the Bracewells. He chanced to call in one evening.” “Now there’s a thing!” exclaimed the Duke. “I’ve never heard of him dropping in like that before.” “I’ve heard that Lord Bracewell owes him money,” the Earl mused. “Ah, that would account for it,” said the Duke wisely. “So, my dear Lavina, you thought Elswick’s manners cold and unpleasant.” “I believe that is the general opinion of everyone who meets him,” she said stiffly. “But that needn’t stop you accepting his help,” the Duke pointed out. “But why should he want to help me? I’ve heard about how much he dislikes women. Surely he will hardly want to marry me?” “There is no question of him marrying you,” the Duke replied. “All he has to do is to say he is engaged to you. Then later, when the trouble is over, you will thank the Marquis very much for his kindness, and the two of you will end the engagement by mutual consent.” Lavina pressed her hands to her cheeks. “Oh Papa, you must save me. I don’t want to leave you. Can this idea possibly work?” “It must,” said the Earl grimly. “So we must leave quickly, before a courier arrives here from Her Majesty.” Lavina gave a cry.
    • “Oh yes, let us go now.” Suddenly she turned to the Duke, and flung her arms about him. “Thank you for everything, Uncle Bertram.” The Earl also advanced on his friend and shook his hand. “We are forever in your debt,” he said. “Thank you a thousand times for warning me. If Her Majesty asks you where I am, perhaps you should say – ” “Good lord, m’dear fellow,” the Duke burst out in alarm, “I’m not going to say a word. Once let her get the idea that I know anything and my life won’t be worth living.” Then he gave them both a wink and added, “Just the same, I’ll keep you informed of every Royal move, when I return to Windsor Castle.” “I am more grateful than I can ever say,” the Earl repeated. “So am I,” Lavina said. She put her arms on the Duke’s shoulders, and kissed his cheek. “If you save me I will thank you and love you more than I can ever express in words,” she told him. The Duke smiled at her. “Your father has been extremely kind to me in the past, and I have always wanted you both to be very happy,” he answered. “Anything I can do at any time, I only need your command to go ahead.” “You are wonderful,” Lavina said and kissed his cheek again. Then she ran into the hall and put on the coat which the butler already had in his hands. Then she sped out to the carriage. Her father joined her. The next moment they were rumbling away on the first part of their journey. “We’ve escaped,” Lavina breathed. “But only for the moment. Oh Papa, we must escape for good. You must save me!” The Earl put his arms around his daughter, holding her tightly. His face was very set and determined. *
    • It was a long drive from London to Ringwood Manor in Oxfordshire, and Lavina had much time to think. What she had told her father about her one meeting with Lord Elswick had been true, but not the whole truth. Three years ago she had been seventeen, on the verge of making her debut in London society. As she had no mother, Lady Bracewell had agreed to sponsor her, and she had visited the Bracewells at their London home to gain a little polish before the night of her ball. The Bracewells had given a few impromptu dances to help her “get in the way of things before you become a debutante,” as her kindly hostess had said. There were many Bracewell offspring, whose young friends were invited to make up the numbers, and they made a very merry party. One evening, as they were dancing, the front doorbell had rung, and the butler had admitted Lord Elswick. Lavina had been struck at once by how romantically handsome and melancholy he looked. Tall, dark, with a lean face, noble brow and fine features, he had seemed the very image of a story-book hero. She had only a brief glimpse of him, as he had been conducted straight into his host’s study, but he had made an indelible impact on her heart. A few minutes later there was an interval so that the dancers could drink lemonade and catch their breath. Lavina used it to put her head together with the young Lady Helen Bracewell, her dearest friend. “Isn’t he handsome?” Helen giggled. “I think he looks just like Childe Harold,” Lavina breathed. She knew Helen would understand this as they had sighed together over Lord Byron’s world-weary haunted hero. In a poem of five cantos, Childe Harold wandered the world, especially the exotic locations, seeking an escape from boredom and melancholy. Haunted by tragedy, he took refuge in beauty. The world laid its joys before him, and he greeted them with a faint smile that hinted
    • at suffering bravely borne. Helen’s schoolboy brother had snorted with contempt. “What a clown the fellow is, drivelling with self-pity!” The girls had driven him off with loud cries of indignation. Lavina especially had been wrathful. How, she wondered emotionally, could anyone be so unfeeling as to speak of the beautiful, agonised Harold, in such a heartless way? Harold had haunted her dreams by night and her fevered imaginings by day. She had been quite sure that when she went into society she would find no man who lived up to his romantic presence. And then the door had opened, and ‘Harold’ had walked in, pale, dark-eyed, intense, moving loftily above the vulgar crowd. She was sure that she read suppressed emotion in the brief bow he gave to Lady Bracewell, and secret suffering in the indifference with which he surveyed the dancers. Ah, she thought, with the passionate fervour of seventeen, such pleasures were not for him. They could not assuage the secret wound that blighted his life. She was not sure what that secret wound might be, but when Helen whispered that he had been abandoned by his bride on the very day of the wedding, everything became perfect. The dance resumed. As she turned this way and that Lavina tried to keep her eyes on the door through which he must come when his meeting with Lord Bracewell was over. She knew what must happen when he emerged. Lady Bracewell would invite him to join the impromptu ball. He would do so, reluctantly. Then he would see her and grow still as heavenly recognition swept over him. They would gaze into each other’s eyes, each knowing that the die was cast. He would forget the heartless female who had abandoned him, and henceforth think only of Lavina. The thought was so glorious that there was suddenly an extra spring in her step, and she bounced about spinning dizzily. The other young dancers stopped to watch her, while her partner stepped back to let her dance alone.
    • Oblivious to everything but her own joy she whirled and spun in an ecstasy of delight. For a glorious moment the whole world was hers to relish. The music slowed, then stopped as she sank into a deep curtsey while the other young people applauded her. When she lifted her head she was looking straight at Lord Elswick. He was staring at her very hard, but his expression was a blank. With the confidence of extreme youth she interpreted that blank to please herself. Obviously he was stunned by her beauty and grace. Lady Bracewell was talking to him now, smiling, indicating the young people. Lavina edged a little closer so that he could see her better. And then he shrugged, turned away, and over his shoulder came floating back the terrible words, “My dear Jemima, you must forgive me, but I have better things to do than romp with children.” From the mature heights of twenty Lavina could see that, as insults went, it was fairly mild. Since she had not made her debut she was, officially at least, still a child. So it was barely an insult at all, merely a statement of fact. But at seventeen her sensibilities had been lacerated. Suddenly she became aware of her breathless state, her tousled hair, her flushed cheeks. She had behaved like a hoyden and now she looked like one. Oh heavens! Oh, disaster! Worse still, she heard the sound of a suppressed giggle from behind her. Like every beauty she already had her enemies, girls of her own age who professed friendship but seethed with envy, and were secretly glad to see her crest lowered. And now they could laugh at her. That night she had sobbed into her pillow and sworn that she would never, never forgive Lord Elswick as long as she lived. Now, sitting in her carriage on the way to ask his help, she supposed she would have to forgive him. Anything was better than being forced into marriage with Prince Stanislaus.
    • But she wished it had been anyone but Lord Elswick.
    • CHAPTER TWO The Earl’s family had lived in Oxfordshire for five hundred years. In 1390 King Richard II had made Baron Ringwood a grant of lands and money. The Baron had built a magnificent country house which each generation had improved upon in size and value. In the Civil War the Ringwoods had been staunchly on the Royalist side, resulting in Charles II elevating the title to an Earldom. Ringwood Place was now an imposing residence with a grand exterior of white stone, and an extensive park where peacocks wandered, uttering their eerie screams. Lavina had been born there, and she loved the place. Since she had been old enough to remember, the grounds, and the lake where she had learnt to swim, had always seemed like fairyland. Now the prospect of leaving it, and the country she loved, filled her with dread. How could her father persuade the Marquis of Elswick to agree to a fake engagement, when it was well known that he loathed women? It came from the way he had been treated when he was very young. He was, in fact, not quite eighteen, and was attending Oxford when he fell very much in love with a pretty girl whose father had bought a house on his estate. The girl and the young Viscount, as he was then, had met and fallen in love while they were out riding. He had loved her madly, and been sure that she loved him equally. He was determined to marry her in the face of all social difficulties, including his parents’ opposition. But he had no money, except what his father allowed him, and if he married her he would be cut off without a penny. Undeterred, he set the wedding date, certain that his father would relent. In this, he was wrong. “But it doesn’t matter,” he told his bride. “What does it matter if we’re poor, as long as we love each other.” But she had wanted money and the delights it would bring. On what should have been their wedding day, she had run off with
    • another man, leaving her groom, abandoned and ridiculous, at the altar. He had never got over it. “I hate all women!” he had said once. “I trust none of them, and I swear they will never torture me again as I have been tortured now.” He became well-known in the county for hating women, and entertained mostly men at the castle he had inherited when his father died. He frequently travelled abroad, but never seemed to form any attachments there. In many ways he was a benefactor to the part of the world where he lived. He helped to improve the county and was a generous friend to a number of people who were in trouble, or too poor to look after themselves. He was a member of several London clubs, and was popular with the men who frequented them. It was there he met those who waited on the Queen, including Lord Ringwood. He was thirty-three, yet gave the impression of being older, because of the legends that had swirled around him for more than a decade. “I really can’t believe that he is going to help us,” Lavina sighed as they discussed matters during the journey. “He might, simply because he would disapprove of anyone being forced to marry someone they did not love.” “But would that overcome his dislike of women?” Lavina asked. “On the contrary, it might give him pleasure to refuse his help to a woman, and send her away to be unhappy.” The more she thought about it, the gloomier the prospect became. At last Ringwood Place came into view. The carriage swung through the main gate for the journey through the grounds. There were the familiar trees that Lavina loved, the great pond, with contented ducks paddling on it. Even in her distraught state the sight of these well-loved signs of home had the effect of calming her. As soon as they reached the house Lavina sent for the
    • housekeeper and ordered a light lunch that could be served quickly. The sooner they were on their way to Elswick Towers the better. Then she hurried up to her bedroom where her trunks had already been carried. Jill, her maid and Mrs Banty, her dresser, were already at work, unpacking. Mrs Banty was a middle-aged woman with an air of imperious authority, whose pride was to be able to locate any of Her Ladyship’s garments and suitable accessories at any time, day or night. That ability was to be tested now. “I’m going to Elswick Towers,” Lavina told her, “and I want to look utterly superb.” “The pink,” Mrs Banty said without hesitation, pointing to a trunk that, to the casual eye, looked just like the rest. “It is in there.” In moments they had extracted a ‘visiting’ costume of pink silk, trimmed with four flounces, each surmounted by a band of purple velvet ribbon. The over-skirt was of a heavier, ribbed silk known as faille. This was a lighter shade of pink, trimmed with white lace, with purple velvet ribbon and bows. Working like the expert she was, Mrs Banty produced the perfect accessories, a tiny parasol of the same pale pink as the overskirt, and a white chip bonnet, trimmed with purple velvet ribbon, and tiny pink rosebuds. The ensemble was completed by the daintiest pair of black kid walking boots. As soon as she had finished her lunch Lavina sped upstairs to put on the dress that Mrs Banty and the maid had lightly pressed and brushed out. Reverently they helped her put it on. When everything was in place Lavina regarded herself in the mirror, wondering if this was all a dream. Surely there was a kind of madness in running away from London at a moment’s notice, to throw herself on the mercy of a man who hated women? But then she took another look at the magnificent creature looking back at her, and she had to admit that she was proud of what she saw. This was no romping child, but a great lady of the
    • highest rank. She looked glorious enough to enchant any man. But could she move the heart of Lord Elswick? Or was he as heartless as the world said? There was a knock on her door. It was her father. “Are you ready my dear?” “Quite ready, Papa,” she announced in a firm voice, and walked out with her head up. Down below, an open carriage was waiting for them, drawn by two white horses. The coachman got onto the box and they drove away, Lavina using her little parasol to protect her face against the brilliant sun. It was twelve miles to Elswick Towers and the route lay across open country. England in summer was at its most beautiful, and as they bowled along the lanes Lavina vowed again that nothing would make her leave this place, no matter what she had to do. Even if it meant enduring Lord Elswick. Suddenly she sat up straight, her attention riveted. “What is it, my dear?” her father asked. “Over there, Papa,” she said, pointing to a figure on horseback, about a hundred yards away. “Isn’t he magnificent?” “He?” “The horse.” Horses were Lavina’s passion and all her attention was for the animal, which was black and glossy, the most magnificent horse she had ever seen. His skin was like satin, and although he was a huge beast he moved as gracefully as a dancer, soaring easily over hedges and streams, galloping strongly and seemingly without effort. Only belatedly did she look at the man, whom she realised was riding bareback without saddle, reins or stirrups, holding onto the huge animal’s mane and controlling him without effort. He wore only breeches and a shirt that was unbuttoned, showing a broad, muscular chest. At first she thought he must be a groom, but then something familiar in the set of his dark head made her heart start to beat more strongly.
    • “Elswick,” she whispered. “Eh – what?” her father demanded. “By George yes! It is Elswick.” The Marquis was in the distance now, getting smaller and smaller, heading in the direction of Elswick Towers which had appeared on the horizon. As they neared it, Lavina could not help being impressed by the castle which had been restored and added to by the Marquis’s father. It was a building of great splendour and magnificence, which cast Ringwood Place into the shade. In the centre of the main wall was the huge keep, a tower with battlements, at the top of which was a flagpole, telling the world whether or not the Marquis was at home. The pole was empty now, but as Lavina watched, the flag was hauled right up to the top. Lord Elswick had returned. As they drove nearer to the castle, crossing the bridge over the stream which ran in front of it, she could not help but be impressed by the flowers which were a brilliant colour at the base of the walls. Also the huge beautifully carved portico over the front door. The horses came to a standstill in front of it. The footman beside the driver jumped down and rang the bell. As he did so the Earl said, “Now, dearest, you stay here. I will speak to the Marquis, then send for you.” “No, Papa, I should come with you,” she insisted. “After all, this concerns me.” “Of course it does, but it will be a difficult request to make, and I feel that modesty demands that you should not be present when I ask him to become engaged to you.” For once her gentle father was stubborn, and Lavina had no choice but to agree. On opening the door, the butler seemed somewhat surprised to see the Earl. However he informed him that he would see if His Lordship was at home. He moved slowly and loftily down the length of a wide corridor. After a few moments he returned to say that Lord Elswick would
    • receive him. He then led the Earl down a seemingly endless series of passages until he flung open a door and cried in a loud voice, “The Earl of Ringwood to see you, M’Lord.” As the Earl entered the room the Marquis, who was sitting down reading a newspaper, put it down. Rising to his feet he walked towards the Earl. “This is a surprise!” he exclaimed. “I thought you were in London.” “I was,” the Earl said, “but I have come to ask for your help in one of the most difficult and unpleasant situations in which I have ever found myself.” The Marquis had reached home only a few minutes earlier and was still wearing the extremely casual clothes he had worn for his ride. Hearing that he had a visitor, he had attempted some semblance of propriety by throwing on a jacket, but it was an old garment that looked as though it was normally worn around the stables. Which, in fact, was true. At first glance it gave the Marquis the air of a groom, yet nobody could have sustained that illusion for more than a moment. His height and lofty manner, the haughtiness in his lean face, marked him as the bearer of one of the highest titles in the land. His dark eyes were vivid and expressive, his mouth was wide and would have been mobile, save for the tense, stern expression that too often settled over it. Now he spoke politely to Lavina’s father. “I am, of course, at your service. Will you have a drink? I suppose you have had luncheon.” “I had it when I returned home,” the Earl said, “after driving from London at an almost incredible speed.” The Marquis raised his eyebrows. “Good heavens, what can have gone wrong?” he asked. “Surely there has not been an accident at your house or anything like that.” “No, the house is all right and so are the horses, as far as I know,” the Earl replied. “But I have come to you on a very different matter. In fact, to beg
    • your help, and if you cannot help me I think I shall go distracted.” He spoke in such a desperate way that the Marquis stared. “Let me get you a drink,” he repeated. “I’m sure the trouble you’re in cannot be as bad as you think it is.” “It is worse,” the Earl told him gloomily. “If you can’t help me we’ll have to leave the country as fast as we can.” “We?” “My daughter and I. When I think what her fate could be – ” he groaned. “Good Heavens!” the Marquis exclaimed. “What have you been doing and how have you found yourself in such a mess?” “I’m desperate,” said the Earl. “So desperate that I’ll do anything you ask, if only you will help me.” “Very well, sit down and let us talk, man to man.” * In the garden Lavina wandered slowly, looking at the flowers. Then, leaning on the bridge, she gazed down at the water bright in the sunshine moving beneath it. “I wonder how Papa is getting on,” she mused. “He seems to be a terribly long time.” Suddenly she straightened up. “I should have gone with him,’ she thought. “How can the Marquis possibly make a decision like this? What am I doing, meekly waiting out here while two men decide my fate, and exclude me?” It was also exasperating to have taken so much trouble over her appearance, and then not to be seen. How was Lord Elswick to know that she was no longer the child he had scorned, if she let herself be banished like a – like a child? Lavina was not a conceited young woman, but she knew the truth about herself. She knew that she was beautiful, with a touch of magnificence in her looks. Her figure was tall, slender, and superb. She knew that her luscious dark hair and blazing blue eyes could reduce men to jelly. She had seen it happen too often to have
    • any doubts about that. When he had last seen her she had worn her hair down in childlike fashion. Now it was up in a stylish coiffure that revealed her long, elegant neck. She did not want to marry a foreign Prince, but she knew she was fit to be a Princess and she was not averse to letting the Marquis see her. It might even make him reconsider his dislike of women, she mused, and at that thought a mischievous smile played about her lips. Not that she was interested in him. The days when she had swooned over a fictional Byronic hero were far behind her. But it would be pleasant to make him regret his callous behaviour, especially if it made him more willing to help her. She began to walk decidedly towards the house. As soon as the butler opened the door she said, “You admitted my father a few minutes ago. “Where is he, please?” “In the library, miss – er that is – ” “Your Ladyship,” Lavina informed him. “I am Lady Lavina Ringwood.” “Your Ladyship, my orders are that they are not to be disturbed.” “That doesn’t apply to me,” she said firmly, sailing past him. “Where is the library?” “Your Ladyship – ” the butler said imploringly. “The library, if you please.” Perceiving that he was in the presence of a very determined female, the butler yielded and led her down the labyrinth of passages that led to the great room at the back, where ten thousand books had been collected over generations. Lavina did not wait for him to announce her, but threw open the door herself. Her father turned to look at her in surprise, and the Marquis rose from the chair in which he was sitting. The library was very large, and it took her a long time to walk across the floor to stand in front of him. During that time she was
    • able to form a strong impression of him. This was certainly the man she had seen riding with such skill and confidence. She noted that he dressed more like a stable hand than a Marquis, his jacket shabby, his shirt torn open at the throat. But it made no difference. This man was an aristocrat to his fingertips. He offered no concessions to convention, fashion, or even manners, because he did not need to. As Lavina walked towards him he did not hold out his hand. He merely stood regarding her with a look in his eyes which told her he was amazed, and none too pleased, to see her. In fact, she sensed that only courtesy prevented him from ordering her out. She went to stand directly before him, watching his face for the moment of astounded recognition. It did not come. His expression, as he stared at her, was completely blank, save perhaps for irritation. “I am Lady Lavina Ringwood,” she said. “Forgive me for coming in without being invited, but I felt that it was only fair, when my father was asking you for such an incredible favour, for you to know all the facts.” “And you have come here to present me with new facts?” he asked haughtily. “I am the fact, sir. I am the person you are being asked to save, and who would rather die than marry this stranger.” The Marquis stared at her. But he did not speak. For a moment there was silence while their eyes met. Then she said, “I am not exaggerating. I would rather die than marry a man who I have never seen – and who, reputedly, does not wash.” The Marquis grimaced. “I dare say there are worse things in the world than a man who does not wash.” “Not if you’re married to him,” Lavina said firmly. “Besides, I would have to leave everything I have known and loved since I was born, and be isolated in a country which I have not even visited, with
    • a man who has no use for me except as a weapon against the Russians.” As she finished speaking Lavina could barely repress a sob. But for a moment neither the Marquis nor the Earl moved or spoke. Both men seemed stunned by her sudden intervention. “I know we are asking you for a great deal,” she persisted, “but I see no other way to escape the Royal Command.” The Marquis regarded her through narrowed eyes. “Are you sure you’ve considered this proposal carefully?” he asked. “What is there to consider? I don’t know this man.” “You know he’s a royal Prince, ruler of a country, albeit a small one. These tiny Balkan states are all very grand, and as the Princess you will have all the jewels any woman could desire, a host of ladies in waiting, all addressing you as Your Royal Highness.” Lavina’s jaw dropped. She could hardly believe she was hearing such a thing. “Doesn’t the thought of such luxury appeal to you?” “It most certainly does not,” she said furiously. “Then you’re different from most women, who swoon at the sight of jewels,” the Marquis snapped with a touch of savagery in his voice. “I don’t care for jewels,” she snapped in return. “When I marry it will be for love, and I won’t allow myself to be sold off to a stranger, no matter how many jewels he has to give.” “Fine principles for a fine lady,” he sneered, “but how long will they last? Wait until they drape you with diamonds – diamond tiara, diamond aigrette, diamond necklace, bracelets, rings, diamond shoe buckles – ” Suddenly he stopped. A strange, wild note had entered his voice and he was breathing hard as though tormented by some violent emotion. He seemed to become aware of his guests staring at him, for he swung away and put both his fists on the desk, leaning on them. After a moment he straightened up and turned back to face
    • them. He had regained his composure but his face was dreadfully pale. “Forgive me,” he said in a strained voice. “Sometimes I am not quite myself. This is not a good day to come asking me favours – ” “It is the only day I have,” Lavina cried. “Only help me and I promise, in fact I swear, that I will not bother you in any way. I will not demand anything from you, except to pretend we are engaged until the danger from the Russians is over. Then we can separate, as undoubtedly you will wish to do, and you never need see me again.” When he did not answer she repeated desperately, “I swear to you on all I hold sacred I will leave and make no further demands on you, the moment I am safe.” He was looking at her now with a thin, chilly smile playing about his lips. “Do you know what you are suggesting? We become engaged, stay that way for a while and then – what – ?” “Why then, we announce that we have decided that we will not suit,” she said quickly. “It’s easy, engagements get broken all the time and – ” Then she saw his bitter eyes on her, and knew what she had done. Of course, this man had been jilted at the altar, to the derision of the world. He was the last person who would help her with a false engagement. She saw defeat staring her in the face, and she began to feel desperate. If only he would speak. His silence was becoming unnerving. At last the Marquis did speak, heavily, as though speech were an effort for him. “Lady Lavina, I am sorry to hear of your predicament, but I really don’t know what I can do. What you suggest is quite impossible. Nobody would believe it. It’s common knowledge that I don’t live in society, so where could we have met?” “Surely that is no real problem, sir? It’s true that you are seldom seen in society, but you go into it sometimes. Lord and Lady Bracewell, for instance, are friends of ours, and I believe you are
    • acquainted with them.” Now he would ask her how she knew and she would remind him that he had been in the Bracewells’ London house three years ago. And he would recognise her. But he only shrugged. “I have not seen the Bracewells for some time. We could hardly have met there.” “Not recently, but – ” “If not recently, when? Just how long ago are we supposed to have met? And how did we renew our acquaintance? Or have we both been secretly pining for years?” His cool, bored tone made Lavina grind her nails into her palm. She fought hard to keep her temper, but it was slipping away from her. “As a matter of fact we have encountered each other at the Bracewells – ” His brow furrowed. “Have we? Surely not?” Only the recollection that she was a lady prevented Lavina from slapping him. “Please don’t waste time trying to remember me, Lord Elswick,” she said with spirit. “I assure you I haven’t wasted the ghost of a thought on you, and I most certainly haven’t been pining for you.” “I’m relieved to hear it, ma’am. Now we can have nothing further to say to each other.” He turned his back on her, walked across the room and stood with his back to his visitors, looking out of the window into the garden. Everything about him was redolent of finality. It was over. Her future was unimaginably horrible.
    • CHAPTER THREE She had thrown away her chance, Lavina realised, if, indeed, there had ever been a chance. If only she could have contained her temper and not flared up at Lord Elswick. But how could any woman contain her temper with this insufferable man? She moved towards her father and sat down beside him on the sofa. He put his arm round her and she leant against his shoulder. “That was very brave of you, my darling.” the Earl said in such a low voice that only she could hear. “I cannot do it, Papa,” Lavina replied. “I cannot marry the Prince. But it’s no use hoping that this man will help us. We had better go, and try to think of something else.” They rose, and the Earl spoke with dignity. “I am sorry to have troubled you, sir, and will do so no longer. I must try to find another answer to the problem. I don’t know what it can be, but I will never allow my daughter to go to Kadradtz and marry that monster.” The Marquis swung round. “What did you say?” he asked quietly. “I said I will never allow – ” “You mentioned Kadradtz.” “Yes. It is Prince Stanislaus of Kadradtz she would have to marry, a man of whom I have heard many vile things.” The Marquis nodded. “All of them true. He is notorious.” “Then you understand my determination to protect my daughter?” “Only too well,” the Marquis agreed. “You are quite right.” Then he began to walk towards them from the far end of the room. He stopped just far away for him to survey them, saying in a harsh voice, “You have certainly brought me a terrible problem. I don’t like telling lies or assuming a false position.” “You have made that very plain,” Lavina said coolly, “and I am
    • only sorry that we have imposed on you. We will leave at once.” “Sit down, young woman,” the Marquis said harshly. “Allow me to finish speaking. As I say, I object to pretence, but I object even more to this way of bundling a helpless young woman off abroad as though she were no more than a pawn.” He paused a moment before saying, “I am prepared to enter this false engagement if it is the only way I can help you.” “But – ” Lavina stammered, not certain that she had heard correctly, “you just said that you would not help us.” “Never mind what I said then. Listen to what I’m saying now. I am prepared to do as you wish.” For a moment both the Earl and Lavina were silent in astonishment. Then the Earl said in a voice which sounded strange, “If you mean that, I can only say ‘thank you’ from the very depths of my heart.” There were tears in Lavina’s eyes. As she spoke, two of them ran down her cheeks. “Thank you – thank you!” she murmured. “I have been so frightened – you are kindness itself and I am so very, very grateful.” “That’s enough of that,” the Marquis said brusquely. “I don’t want thanks, and I’m not kindness itself. I never do anything that doesn’t suit me, as you will soon understand. And please don’t bore me with the waterworks. I can’t stand weeping and wailing females.” “I do not weep and wail,” Lavina flashed. “I was trying to be pleasant to you, to express my gratitude for – ” “Very well, there’s no need to say any more,” he said impatiently. “Kindly keep your emotions for some time when I am not present.” Lavina gave him a furious glance, but, reading only indifference in his face, bit back her words and seethed in silence. If anybody had told her that it was possible to be so furiously angry with a man who was doing her a favour, she would not have believed it. “Lord Ringwood,” the Marquis continued, “you may inform Her
    • Majesty that your daughter is engaged to me. I give you leave to say all the right things and contact all the right people, but understand that I want no part of it.” “Of course,” the Earl said eagerly. “I’ll do everything.” “I suppose there’ll have to be a devil of a fuss,” said the Marquis, sounding bored. “It can’t be helped. You’d better come and stay here for a while.” The grating sound of his voice robbed the invitation of all semblance of generosity, and prompted the Earl to say, “That’s very kind of you, but we don’t wish to inconvenience you.” “Inconvenience me?” echoed the Marquis, as though he could not believe his ears. “Of course it inconveniences me. But I’ve given my word, and when I say I’ll do a thing, then I do it properly. Rooms will be prepared for you, and I will expect you tonight.” He turned a hard look on Lavina. “You will not, under any circumstances, marry Prince Stanislaus, because I will take whatever steps are necessary to thwart him. You have my word on that.” “I – thank you,” she stammered. There was something in his look that almost frightened her. “Do you understand?” he repeated. “I will do anything that is necessary. Anything.” For a moment Lavina was too taken aback to speak, Lord Elswick’s manner was so strange. It was as though he were looking through her towards a far horizon, where he could see something that he wanted, and which had nothing to do with her. To her relief he resumed speaking in a more normal voice. “We must go about this properly, and be prepared for any eventuality. The Queen will be annoyed, no question about that. She will also, probably, be suspicious.” “Yes, I’m afraid she will,” the Earl agreed with a sigh. “She’ll set people to watch us, and report back to her how we behave. If you come and stay here it will look more convincing. Have you heard from her yet?” He shot this question out suddenly at the Earl.
    • “She’s had no chance to reach me,” he replied. “I left London too quickly.” “If she doesn’t find you at home in London she will send her messenger to Ringwood Place. She had better not find you there either. “In fact it’s best if a notice appears in The Times as soon as possible. We can do that by telegram.” “I’ve never sent a telegram before,” said the Earl, who was nervous of new-fangled inventions. “I send them sometimes, or rather, my secretary does it for me. The local newspaper office has a cable facility by which they transmit news to London, so we’ll use them.” He sat down at his desk and began to write the announcement. The Earl passed the time by looking around some of the books. He was not an imaginative man, and he had completely missed the currents of emotion and agitation that had swirled between Lavina and the Marquis. Lord Elswick took advantage of the Earl’s absorption to indicate for Lavina to sit beside him so that he could talk to her in a low voice. “It is as well that you understand me,” he said quietly. “In a moment my secretary will arrive, and I will give him the announcement. Once that has been sent off, the die is cast. Do you realise what that means?” “Of course,” Lavina said. “I’m not sure that you do. It means that I will not be made a fool of. When our engagement is announced it will last until I say otherwise. I and I alone will decide when and how it is terminated. Is that quite clear?” Lavina did not answer. She was outraged at this manner of talking to her and longed to put this arrogant man in his place. But she did not dare. She needed his help too badly. After a few moments of silence he looked up and saw her face, full of outrage. “Be as angry at me as you like,” he said coolly. “I care nothing for that, so don’t bother to tell me about it. I am not fooling, madam.
    • If you want my help you will do as I say, in every particular. Swear to that now or so help me, I’ll turn you out to meet your fate.” “I have no choice,” she said in a voice of deep mortification. “On the contrary, you do have a choice. You can tell me to go to the devil.” “And marry Prince Stanislaus?” she asked bitterly. “I would rather die.” The Marquis shrugged. “Oh, I don’t think so. One says these things, but one doesn’t die you know. Life goes on, somehow. Are you going to give me the promise I want, or shall I tear up this announcement?” “I promise,” she said in a low voice. “Good, then we understand each other. You will find me a most attentive and devoted fiancé, and I expect the same from you. That will be necessary if we are to carry this off.” Without waiting for her to answer he held up the paper on which he had been writing and said, “There, I think that will do.” He rang a bell and after a moment a young man with an austere manner entered the room. “Hunsbury, I want you to send a telegram immediately,” said the Marquis. “The engagement is announced between Lady Lavina Ringwood, daughter of Lord Ringwood, and Ivan, Marquis of Elswick. “The bride and her father are currently paying a visit to Lord Elswick’s estate in Oxfordshire.” Hunsbury was too well trained to allow his astonishment to appear by more than the very slightest hesitation in his manner. He took the slip of paper the Marquis held out to him, glanced at the words and hurried out of the room. “Now he’ll tell everyone, and it will be in The Times tomorrow morning,” the Marquis said. “The Queen will read it over her breakfast, and that may save you a deal of trouble.” “It would be a great relief,” said the Earl. “Let’s just hope it doesn’t occur to Her Majesty to contact you by telegram.”
    • “She hates the things,” observed the Earl. “Good. Go home now, get what you need, bring whatever servants you consider necessary, and arrive back here as quickly as you can.” “Then I shall bring my maid and my dresser,” Lavina told him defiantly. She was resolved that this man, who disliked having women in his house, should never be able to say that she had not been honest with him. “Whatever you please,” he replied, sounding uninterested. “I mention it,” she said firmly, “because you are reputed to have no women in the house, even servants.” His head jerked round to look at her suddenly, and his eyes bore a look of cold malevolence that almost made her flinch. Then it was gone. “You are mistaken, madam,” he said distantly. “I have very few women here because it is a bachelor residence, and the house is run by a butler, rather than a housekeeper. But there are several female maids doing the cleaning.” “The menial tasks, in fact?” she said. She knew she was unwise to be going out of her way to provoke him, but, despite the fact that he was to be her saviour, he annoyed her more than any man she had ever met. He regarded her, baffled. “Do not maids dust and clean in your own establishments?” he asked. “Well, yes, but – ” “Then I am at a loss to understand what point you are making.” “It isn’t important,” she said, chagrined. “I am not quite the ogre that legend appears to paint me, and you are welcome to bring any female servants that you wish. Just tell them to stay out of my way. “Hurry now, so that you can return to your home and leave it quickly. And make sure you tell everyone in your household before you leave, that’s the best way to spread news.” There was a touch of bitterness in his voice as he added, “Servants love nothing better than to gossip about their
    • masters.” “We’ll go at once,” agreed the Earl. Lavina took a step forward. Her anger had faded. Now all she could think of was that he was saving her from a terrible fate, and she spoke earnestly. “Thank you! You have helped my father and saved me. We are both very, very grateful to you.” The Marquis did not look at her as she was speaking. But as she finished he rang the bell which was at the side of the fireplace. The butler appeared so quickly that he must have been just outside the door, and it was clear, from his face, that he had already heard the news. “My guests are leaving,” said the Marquis, apparently unaware that his butler’s eyes were popping. “Show them to their carriage”. “Very good, M’Lord,” the butler said, holding open the door. Lavina held out her hand to the Marquis, but he did not take it. In fact, he put both hands at his sides and bowed from the waist. Lavina was astonished to realise that he would not touch her. Then, as if she understood, she dropped her hand and said, “Thank you! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!” She turned away to her father, and they walked from the room together. She did not look back, and so she did not see Lord Elswick watching her with a strange expression on his face. Only when they were in the corridor did Lavina realise that the Marquis had not followed them, as courtesy indicated, and as a man would normally do for his fiancée. So much for being an attentive fiancé, she thought. Or perhaps this was how he thought attentive fiancés behaved! The news had spread through the house like wildfire. As they walked through the corridors towards the front door Lavina realised that they were being watched by a hundred eyes. Servants looked out to catch a glimpse of the woman who had apparently achieved the impossible. If she looked at them they vanished, only to reappear the moment she had passed. But in the hall they were lining the stairs, frankly staring. And just before she climbed into her carriage she glanced back to see the
    • windows crowded with faces. As they went down the drive, Lavina turned towards her father and clasped his hand between her own. “We have won, we have won!” she said. “I hope so and believe so,” the Earl replied. “At the same time, my darling, you may find that strange young man somewhat difficult.” “It does not matter,” Lavina answered. “I can put up with him, because I know that in the end I will escape him. After all, the worst I know of him is that he is very rude. And the best I know of him is that he is putting himself out to help me.” “He certainly seems to be exerting himself to do everything thoroughly,” the Earl agreed. “His idea about the telegram was excellent. And after he had refused us so definitely, too.” “Yes, it was strange how he changed his mind so suddenly,” Lavina mused. “In fact, I can’t help the feeling that he’s doing this for his own reasons, and not for us at all.” “Yes, I too received that impression,” agreed her father. “But how it could matter to him I can’t imagine.” Then, because he had a romantic heart, he added, “I remember it happened when he turned round. I wonder if he saw you in a better light, realised how beautiful you are, and fell instantly in love with you.” “Papa!” she exclaimed scornfully. “All right, my dear, it was just one of my fancies, you know.” “It’s an appalling idea. Rude, arrogant, insufferable, bigoted – ” “If this is how you talk about the man who’s doing you such a huge favour, I dread to think what you’d say about an enemy,” her father observed mildly. It flashed through her mind that, in his own way, the Marquis was an enemy, but she did not trouble her father with the thought. He would not have understood. Instead, she replied, “That’s quite a different thing. He’s the last man in the world I’d want to have in love with me. Why, he’d be almost as bad as Prince Stanislaus.”
    • Her father patted her hand. “If you say so, my dear.” * As soon as they reached Ringwood Place both Lavina and her father realised that something had happened. The butler, who admitted them, was in a state of agitation. “The Queen’s messenger called while you were away, My Lord,” he said, holding himself very upright, as befitted a man who spoke of the Queen. “Oh heavens!” Lavina exclaimed. “Already. I thought we would have a little more time.” For a horrible moment she could see all their gains slipping away. “Never fear, my darling,” the Earl said, trying to sound more certain than he felt. “I will be very firm.” “But this man has obviously come to take you to see Her Majesty. How firm can you be when you confront her face to face?” The Earl, who was wondering that himself, drew himself up. “I shall say what has to be said,” he declared. “They shall not have you. Where is the messenger, Denton?” “He is not here, My Lord,” the butler declared. “He left a letter which he required me to give you as soon as you arrived. And here it is. He says he will return in an hour.” The Earl took the letter and mopped his brow. But as he was about to open it Lavina whisked it out of his hand. “How unfortunate that we should have missed him,” she said. “Please bring us some sherry to the library, Denton.” Taking her father by the arm, Lavina guided him into the library and spoke in a low, hurried voice. “Papa, we must leave immediately.” “But my dear, how can we? It was different before this letter arrived. Now that I’ve received it I have to obey its commands.” “But Papa, you have not received it.” “Yes I have. You saw Denton – ”
    • “We haven’t seen Denton because we haven’t been home. We have been visiting Elswick Towers, where the Marquis invited us to stay. We did not return here – ” “But my dear, we did.” “No Papa, we didn’t.” The Earl blinked in confusion. “Strange, I could have sworn we just arrived home.” “You’re imagining it,” Lavina said firmly. “Actually we’re still at Elswick Towers.” Faced with his daughter’s stronger personality Lord Ringwood yielded and admitted that he was still at Elswick Towers. “We sent a groom back home to announce that we were remaining there,” Lavinia continued, “and our things were to be sent over.” “But Denton would have sent the letter over with our things.” “In the confusion, the letter was lost,” Lavina said firmly. “It did not come to light until later this evening. You cannot be accused of ignoring the Queen’s command, because you knew nothing about it.” “But suppose the messenger follows us to the Towers?” “The Marquis can deal with him. He’s unpleasant enough to deal with anything. But we must leave quickly. Hurry Papa and give your valet instructions, while I talk to Mrs. Banty.” She sped away and got to work with a will, leaving the Earl to fortify himself with sherry. First Lavina went to the stables and ordered that another carriage, a closed one this time, should be brought round to the front door, with two fresh horses harnessed. Then she approached Denton, giving him the delightful smile that made any servant eager to do her bidding. “Denton, you’re such an old friend of the family,” she said, “that I want you to be the first to know, that I’m about to announce my engagement to the Marquis of Elswick.” Denton’s eyes opened at little wider at this astounding news, but he was too well trained to do more than murmur, “My felicitations, Your Ladyship.”
    • “Thank you, Denton. Now I need your help. The Marquis has invited Papa and me to stay at his home for a while. So we did not return here, and know nothing about the letter.” Denton looked shocked. “My Lady! Do you mean that I neglected to pass on the Queen’s letter?” “I realise that it’s something you would never do,” she said in a coaxing voice. “A blot on my record,” he said, deeply offended. “Which, I may say, has never been blotted before.” “I’m asking a great sacrifice, I know.” “Will the Queen send me to the Tower of London for losing her letter?” “I won’t let her,” Lavina promised. “Well, I may have given it to the under footman to look after. He is notoriously forgetful. Leave matters to me, My Lady.” “Thank you, Denton. And when the messenger returns, kindly tell him that he can find us at the Towers. “Very good, Your Ladyship.” “You will explain about my engagement – ” “Then it is not a secret?” “Oh no. You may inform the household, and the Queen’s messenger.” She hurried away to her room. Luckily the visit to the Marquis involved very little preparation, as they had only just arrived from London, and most of their clothes were still packed. Mrs Banty received her instructions with a brief nod, and assured Her Ladyship that everything would be attended to. The closed carriage, with fresh horses, was waiting. Lavina and the Earl hurriedly climbed aboard and they were on their way. For the first part of the journey they each peered nervously out of a window, just in case the messenger returned to be sure his letter was delivered. But they saw nobody, and at last they began to relax. “I can’t believe that we’re actually going to get away with this,”
    • the Earl murmured. “We will if we keep our heads,” Lavina told him. “And if the Marquis learns how to play his part properly.” “Why, whatever do you mean by that, my dear?” “I’m talking about the way he refused to say goodbye to me. In fact, he put his hands behind him rather than touch me.” Her Father nodded and she continued, “He spoke of behaving like a devoted fiancé – ” “Did he? I don’t remember hearing him say that.” “It was while you were looking round the library. He said he would play his role with conviction – which, frankly, I doubt – and expected me to do the same.” “I suppose that’s only reasonable. I’m afraid you will have to endure a certain amount of attention from him.” “Just as long as he doesn’t try to kiss me,” Lavina said, setting her chin stubbornly. “I’m sure such an idea has never crossed his mind.” “Yes,” she said crossly. “So am I. Did you see how he behaved when we left? It would be quite obvious, to anyone with any sense, that he was being forced into matrimony, rather than begging me to honour him by becoming his wife.” The Earl sighed. “I have to admit, my dear,” he said, “that he does not play his part well. I’m not looking forward to this visit.”
    • CHAPTER FOUR Their second arrival at Elswick Towers was as different from the first as anything could be. Clearly the Marquis had reflected that his earlier distant treatment of his ‘fiancée’ would not produce the desired effect, and had decided on a different approach. He was there on the step to greet them, personally handing Lavina down from the carriage. Then, to her astonishment, he raised her hand to his lips, bending his head to kiss it with an air that would have looked like reverence to anyone who did not know the truth. From behind him there came a great cheer from the assembled staff, lined up to greet the woman whom they supposed would be their new mistress. “I didn’t expect this – ” she stammered. “It is only proper that the future Marchioness of Elswick should receive suitable greetings from those over whom she will rule,” he said smoothly. “I – thank you.” She tried to withdraw her hand, but he did not release it. “You’re supposed to look delighted by my attentions,” he reminded her. Lavina looked directly into his face, giving him the most dazzling smile at her command. “My Lord,” she breathed, “what joy it is to me to be once again with you. How my heart beats with happiness – ” “Be careful,” he murmured, “don’t overdo it.” “Can a woman overstate her pleasure at being in the presence of he who is to be her lord and master?” Just for an instant the stone mask of his face seemed on the verge of cracking. She almost thought a smile hovered on the edge of his lips. But he mastered it. “Your lord and master, indeed,” he replied. “I’m glad you understand that. Now, my dearest love, let me introduce you to the staff that will be yours.” There were over a hundred of them, bowing or curtseying as
    • she went along the line. “I’m rather understaffed at the moment,” the Marquis observed. “As I said, this is a bachelor residence, and I do almost no entertaining. Many of the people you see here work in the grounds or the stables. Naturally, the presence of a Marchioness would make all the difference.” “Naturally,” she murmured, feeling rather dazed. “This is Perkins, the head butler, who runs this establishment.” Perkins, one of the few servants who had seen her earlier, bowed, concealing his bewilderment at this incredible development. There were several under-butlers, then countless footmen, all powdered and wigged, each nodding his head to her. There followed the under-footmen, and beyond them the chief cook, a magisterial French presence called Laurant, and two under-cooks. There were, as the Marquis had said, several maids, smart in black dresses and gleaming white frilly aprons; also several scullery maids. But there was no doubt that they were heavily outnumbered by the men. “And now, allow me the pleasure of escorting you into your new home,” the Marquis said gallantly, taking her hand and leading her through the front door. As soon as they were inside, Lavina said urgently. “I must speak to you.” “Has something happened?” “Yes, something terrible. The Queen has written to Papa.” “Saying what?” “I don’t know, I didn’t allow him to open it.” “You didn’t allow – ?” “It would have been fatal,” she said hurriedly, missing his implication. “Once he has read that letter he must obey the orders contained within it. As it is, he hasn’t even received it.” “I thought you just said that he had.” “It arrived at the house, but we didn’t.” He frowned. “Didn’t what?”
    • “Arrive at the house.” “Lady Lavina, you must forgive me for appearing dull-witted but I was under the impression that you had been home, and if you have not I’m at a loss to understand how you knew the letter was there.” “Of course we’ve been home.” The Marquis passed his hand over his eyes. “Perhaps we began this conversation at the wrong point,” he said faintly. “I have been used to starting at the beginning, but clearly you have devised another method.” Lavina stamped her foot. “I wish you would stop talking nonsense. My meaning is perfectly clear.” “Not, unfortunately, to me. Did this letter arrive or did it not?” “Yes, it arrived while we were here with you, and was waiting for us when we returned home. But Papa must not receive it, so I handed it back to the butler and we left at once. “When the Queen’s Messenger returns he will be informed that we never came back at all, and he must bring the letter on to deliver it here.” “Where he will find us all assembled to greet him,” the Marquis said, his eye gleaming with appreciation. “Well done! Now that we have sorted out your somewhat tangled explanation, I am proud of you.” If he meant to placate Lavina by these words he was mistaken. Praise was pleasant, of course, but how dare he patronise her! Did he think she cared whether he was proud of her or not? “Where are the maid and dresser you threatened me with?” the Marquis asked. “They are following immediately. Since haste was important we left ahead of them.” “Then one of my maids shall show you to your room. You have the room always occupied by the mistress of the house.” Lavina soon discovered that what he called a ‘room’ was, in fact, a palatial apartment. Built on a corner, it had large windows on two sides, flooding it with light.
    • The furniture was all valuable, antique, but well kept. Dominating the room was a vast four poster bed, hung with honey coloured silk damask, and with a richly carved gold cornice. Over the fireplace was a huge mirror set in a cream and gold frame that matched the bed. The ceiling too was a match. Everywhere Lavina looked she saw gold, from the chandelier to the chairs. It was breathtaking. Evidently the Marchioness of Elswick was expected to live in style. The maid showed her around, pointing out the private bathroom, and the door that led to a dressing room. One of the great windows looked out over the entrance, and to her relief Lavina saw the coach bringing her servants, followed by a fourgon piled with luggage. “Thank goodness,” she murmured. She was more relieved than she could have said, for now she could employ her most formidable weapon in the strangest situation in which she had ever found herself. Her beauty, her glamour, her magnificence. With these she could face the Marquis. And he would come off worse. She promised herself that. * Mrs Banty’s entrance into her domain was made with almost as much ceremony as Lavina’s. Dressed in black bombazine, her head adorned by a black straw bonnet, trimmed with black lace, she made a haughty progress up the grand staircase, and along the corridor to Her Ladyship’s apartment. Jill, Lavina’s personal maid, crept along in the rear like a ladyin-waiting. Behind them came troops of footmen bearing luggage, which they proceeded to set on the floor, until halted by a commanding voice. “This will not do!” “Banty dear, whatever is the matter?” Lavina asked.
    • “You cannot sleep here. It is disgraceful. I never heard of such a thing.” She looked sharply at the footmen, who were regarding her in amazement. “What are you doing here? Take yourselves off, and somebody tell your master that I wish to see him without delay.” Their jaws dropped, and they looked at each other, wondering who was brave enough to inform the Marquis that a woman had sent for him as though he were an under servant. Luckily for everyone’s peace of mind the Marquis himself put in an appearance at that moment. In seconds every footman in the place had vanished. “I came to assure myself of your comfort,” he said courteously to Lavina. “But I see your servants have arrived, and so all is well.” “All is certainly not well,” Mrs Banty said, glaring at him. “I was never more shocked in my life.” Lavina held her breath, certain that this was disaster. The Marquis would never tolerate being spoken to in this manner, by a woman and a servant. But instead of being offended he regarded Mrs Banty mildly. “May I ask in what manner I have offended?” he asked. “This apartment is totally inappropriate for Lady Lavina.” “It is the apartment of the mistress of the house. I meant to do her honour.” “But she is not yet the mistress of the house, and it is therefore scandalous for her to be in a bedroom that connects with your own.” “Indeed it does not,” the Marquis said, astonished. “It connects with this dressing room,” Mrs Banty said, opening the door, and indicating another door on the far side of the dressing-room. “Beyond that door lies Your Lordship’s apartment,” she said in a voice of thunder. “Well yes,” he agreed, “but you will observe that there are two beds in the dressing room, and I imagine that you will occupy one, and the maid will occupy the other.
    • “Were I to attempt to creep through this room with the intention of assaulting Lady Lavina’s honour, I feel sure that you would prevent me. Besides, the door to my apartment is locked.” But Mrs Banty was made of stern stuff, and did not relent. “I have no doubt that Your Lordship has a key.” “Which I shall be happy to give to you.” “How do I know that you don’t have another key?” “Very well,” said the Marquis. “I will give you a pistol, and if you find me creeping through the dressing room you have my permission to shoot me.” Mrs Banty glared. “Banty dear,” begged Lavina, “please leave this. He’s making fun of you.” “He thinks he is,” Mrs Banty declared. “He thinks I wouldn’t shoot him.” Incredibly, Lord Elswick’s lips twitched. “On the contrary,” he said, “I feel fairly sure that you would. But if you would agree a compromise ma’am, suppose I send for the estate carpenter and instruct him to put some bolts on the door leading to my room. Once you have slid them home, Lady Lavina would be perfectly safe from my evil intentions.” Mrs Banty graciously signalled her assent to this negotiated settlement, and returned to her task, unpacking Lavina’s wardrobe. “My Lord, I apologise,” Lavina said distractedly, anxious to protect her dresser from the Marquis’ wrath, “Mrs Banty is very protective of me – ” “Do not,” he said, his hand over his eyes, “even consider apologising for Mrs Banty. I would not have missed meeting her for the world.” “But the way she spoke to you – ” “Reminded me of my old governess. I was rather fond of her. Now I must hasten to give the order for those bolts. If she were to return and find the job not done, I would fear for my life.” “Ah, but you have not yet given her the pistol,” Lavina reminded him, amused. “I feel sure she has one of her own somewhere.”
    • He hurried out, leaving Lavina looking after him, wondering at this man who kept revealing different sides of himself. * When the Earl collected his daughter to take her down to dinner his eyes popped with admiration. “You look wonderful, my darling,” he said. “Doesn’t she!” exclaimed Mrs Banty, who had every reason to be pleased with her work. The gold of the room had inspired her to dress her darling in a dress of gold coloured satin, edged with a lavender ruche. Over this was a half skirt of lavender satin, and beneath the gold dress peeped a white silk petticoat with a white lace flounce. At the back the dress fell away to a train, embroidered with sprays of purple and gold pansies. The bosom was cut low, not immodestly, but low enough to show the dainty diamond pendant. Lavender satin slippers and white gloves completed Lavina’s appearance. “My daughter is a credit to you, ma’am,” said the Earl, who was always extremely polite to Mrs Banty, because he was afraid of her. “Thank you, My Lord.” The dresser accepted his tribute graciously, and melted away. The Earl sighed with pleasure as he stood back to take another look at his daughter. “There won’t be a lady there to match you.” “There won’t be any other ladies there at all, Papa,” she said with a laugh. “Oh but there will be. The Marquis has invited several other guests from the locality. There’s the vicar, the mayor, and their wives, and I believe the rest are poor relations who live on the estate.” Lavina’s mouth dropped open. “I thought he never entertained like this.” “It seems he’s made an exception.” “And bringing members of his family to meet me – ”
    • “Well, he’s doing it properly, which is very much to our purpose.” “Or his,” Lavina thought. But she said nothing. There was a knock on her door. Jill opened it, and admitted the Marquis. He was splendidly dressed in black evening clothes, set off by a gleaming white embroidered shirt, at the top of which nestled a diamond pin. Lavina had to tell herself not to stare. It crossed her mind that she had never seen a man look so handsome. He inclined his head graciously in her direction. “My compliments, ma’am,” he said. “You are a bride of whom any man would be proud.” “I’m glad you feel that I’m a credit to you sir,” Lavina replied with equal graciousness. “There is only one thing needed to make your appearance perfect,” he said. “Would you honour me by wearing these?” Then she saw that he was carrying a large black box, which he opened, revealing the most astounding set of jewellery she had ever seen. There was a necklace, a diadem, a bracelet, ear-rings, and two brooches, all in the most fabulous emeralds, set in gold. “These are the Elswick emeralds,” the Marquis explained. “Anyone seeing you wearing these will have to believe in the reality of the engagement.” He turned slightly to show the jewels to Mrs Banty. “I should value your opinion ma’am,” he said meekly. “Very nice and suitable,” she asserted. “Which would you suggest for tonight?” Mrs Banty considered. “The necklace, the diadem and the ear-rings,” she said. “A bracelet?” “That would be a little too much,” she declared firmly. “Then if you will be so good.” He stood back to allow Mrs Banty to do what was necessary. When the jewellery was in place Lavina knew that she had never looked so magnificent. She looked, in fact, like a
    • Marchioness. “Some relatives of mine are here,” the Marquis observed. “They will certainly recognise these jewels. If the Queen’s messenger arrives I shall make sure that he too understands the implications, and – well, anyone else.” “Anyone else?” Lavina queried. “I’m hoping that the local newspaper may send a representative. I told Hunsbury to drop a hint while he was there delivering the telegram, and he thinks it fell on fertile ground. If somebody tries to gatecrash, the doormen have been instructed to let them in.” There was no doubting it. Lavina had to admit that the Marquis was playing his part well. Just before they departed the Earl murmured to his daughter, “You two look very fine together, my dear.” And she murmured back, “Papa, you have windmills in your head.” “Yes my dear, if you say so.” She went down to dinner on the Marquis’ arm, to be introduced to the local dignitaries, and the relations. There were six of them, all elderly and thrilled be invited to Elswick Towers. It was the Mayor’s wife who told Lavina about Lord Elswick’s kindness to them. “They are really his pensioners, for he houses them and pays most of their bills,” she confided. “Perhaps he did not tell you this, because he prefers people not to know of his kind actions.” “I’m beginning to understand that,” Lavina murmured. Of course she knew that his kindness had two edges. In return for his generosity he expected his relatives to be available when he needed them. But it was not lost on her that they all seemed genuinely fond of him, and spoke to him without fear. One old lady in particular detained the Marquis with a long, detailed account of some domestic problem. He listened with every sign of interest, promised to send somebody to see to it and never once betrayed impatience. Lavina grew even more curious about this man to whom she
    • was officially betrothed. At dinner she was seated beside him, and was made the recipient of many flattering attentions. Tomorrow morning, she guessed, the news would be spread far and wide, and all the time she and her Papa would be a little safer. And yet, there was something very strange about it all. The Earl was enjoying himself, having discovered two kindred spirits in the Mayor and his wife. They were both enthusiastic sailors, and as the Earl owned a yacht moored at Tilbury, and liked nothing better than to cruise in her, they were all soon deep in eager discussion. “I’ve just had The Mermaid completely refitted,” he said, “and, of course, redecorated.” “The Mermaid,” sighed one of the lady relatives. “Such a lovely name!” “We would normally have gone cruising in her this summer,” the Earl explained, “but of course all plans are now in a state of abeyance.” “A cruise sounds an excellent idea,” the Marquis said. “Perhaps we should think about it.” The talk drifted to other things. The vicar’s wife wanted to know about the Queen. The Earl would have preferred not to discuss a subject that now filled him with dread, but he obliged with some innocent gossip about Her Majesty. “Do you travel with her?” the Mayor asked. “I have been to Osborne, on the Isle of Wight in attendance on Her Majesty,” he replied. “But she travels very little, just Osborne, and Balmoral in Scotland.” “Scotland is such a beautiful place,” sighed the vicar. The Earl mentioned that he had a cousin who lived in Scotland, near Ballater, and for a while the talk was of the beauties of Scotland. At last the Marquis rose to his feet. But before he could speak the butler entered and murmured something in his ear. Lavina heard him say, “Send him in here.” When the butler had left, the Marquis addressed Lord
    • Ringwood. “The Queen’s messenger has arrived for you.” The Earl blanched and seemed unable to speak. Lavina, thinking quickly, said, “I wonder what he can possibly want.” “I dare say you’re used to being summoned to assist Her Majesty on important matters of state,” said the vicar’s wife breathlessly. “Oh yes,” said the Earl faintly. “And it must be very urgent,” pursued that lady, “to make him come here so late.” “Doubtless,” the Earl managed to say. “Perhaps it’s a matter of national interest,” she finished ecstatically. This was so close to the truth that the Earl cast her a glance of horror, which made the vicar murmur in his wife’s ear that this was really too worldly a discussion for such as themselves. Both Lavina and her father recognised Sir Richard Peyton the man who entered the room. He was, as the Earl had called him, “a pale stick of a man”, with no humour. The Marquis received him graciously. “You’re just in time to join a toast to my bride,” he said. “Lavina, my dear,” he took her hand, raising her to her feet. “Was ever a man so fortunate?” He handed Sir Richard a glass that a footman had filled. “To Lady Lavina Ringwood, the future Marchioness of Elswick.” This put Peyton in an awkward position. He knew, as did everyone in the Queen’s service, why Her Majesty required the presence of Lord Ringwood. He also knew that she was going to be, as he later put it to a crony, “ready to explode” when she heard of this engagement. But he lacked the courage to refuse to drink the toast, and he gulped down the champagne, praying that his royal mistress never found out, for she would certainly have his hide. There were more toasts, speeches, and he was forced to delay his errand until everyone had left the table and repaired to the
    • drawing room. But then he was interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Ferris, a representative of the local newspaper, whom the Marquis cordially welcomed. What was worse he spoke to Ferris for some minutes, and even introduced his bride, all of which made Sir Richard shiver as he thought of what would soon appear in the press. Jack Ferris, who was the owner and editor of the local paper, could hardly believe his luck. To have gained admittance to Elswick Towers was more than he had hoped for, even after the strong hint he had been given earlier in the day. Now the Marquis and Lady Lavina had greeted him affably. “Come out into the garden,” the Marquis invited him. “The fireworks are about to begin.” “Fireworks?” Lavina echoed. “In your honour, my dear.” The French windows in the drawing room were thrown open and the company trooped out onto the broad terrace. The Marquis took Lavina to stand in the centre of the broad stairs that led down to the lawns. Darkness had fallen, and now the night sky was lit up by showers of glittering colour. Most of the servants had come out into the garden to watch the firework display, and their “Oohs” and “Aaahs” blended in with the noises of the rockets. Lavina stood at the top of the steps, her head raised to the sky, her attention absorbed in the gaudy beauty overhead. She did not see that every eye was upon her. Nor did she see the Marquis turn his head and look at her for a long time. As last she lowered her head and turned to look at him. Then, to the cheers of the servants, and under the appalled eyes of Sir Richard and the fascinated eyes of Jack Ferris, the Marquis drew her close and laid his lips on hers. It was the last thing she had expected from him, and she stood totally still with surprise. It was not a fierce or passionate kiss. It was for the watching
    • crowd, and it stayed well within the bounds of decorum. But the feel of his lips on hers was un-nerving. His mouth was warm, firm, yet mobile, and it caressed hers gently. Lavina was intensely aware of the strength of his arms about her, and the feeling of his hard, wiry body against her. “It would help if you looked a little enthusiastic,” he murmured against her mouth. “I – I can’t – ” she whispered, blushing. “You are not playing your part, madam.” “I – very well.” Determinedly she put her arms about him, putting on a show of kissing him back. And then, somehow, she found that it was not a show, and she really was kissing him. Shocked at herself, she drew back. Everyone around them was smiling, and she could see that he too was smiling. But it was a strange, uncertain smile, as though he were surprised at himself. “Is that enthusiastic enough for you, sir,” she asked demurely. “It will do, for now.” They drew apart and, somehow, returned to normal. There were more toasts, champagne flowed. Jack Ferris was still nearby, hastily scribbling. It was clear that he had seen everything and would report everything, so Lavina supposed she should be very grateful to the Marquis. But yet she wondered why a man should go to such lengths for something he had not wanted to do. Emboldened, Jack Ferris approached her and said, “Might I ask if the two of you have been acquainted for long?” “For years,” the Marquis said without hesitation. “In fact our first meeting was in London, at Lord Bracewell’s house, is that not so, my love?” “It was indeed,” Lavina said promptly, “three years ago, although as I was not, strictly speaking, out at the time, perhaps it does not count as a proper meeting. But that was when we first set eyes on each other.” Ferris, overwhelmed with delight, scurried away to tell the world that Lord Elswick and his bride had long cherished a secret love.
    • Sir Richard regarded all this with a baleful eye, and wondered when he would be able to deliver his letter. At last he managed to approach the Earl, who had sufficiently recovered his nerve to smile and put the letter aside, saying, “Have a drink, my dear fellow.” “Lord Ringwood, it is of the highest importance that you read this now. Her Majesty urgently requires your presence tomorrow at Windsor Castle.” Reluctantly the Earl opened and read the letter, which did, indeed, summon him in imperious tones, ‘to discuss a matter of national importance’. But then the Marquis looked over his shoulder, saying, “You can’t do that, old fellow. We’ll have started on our cruise by then.” To Sir Richard he explained, “Lord Ringwood and Lady Lavina have invited me for a trip on their yacht, and we leave immediately. So he will be unable to accept the Queen’s kind invitation.” “It is not an invitation,” said the startled Sir Richard. “It is a summons.” “Whatever it is, Lord Ringwood cannot attend, as we are headed for the sea tomorrow morning.” The Marquis slapped Sir Richard on the back and spoke with terrifying geniality. “Her Majesty will have to wait until he gets back. It can’t be that important.” Sir Richard was beyond speech. His eyes seemed to pop out of his head. “Have another drink,” the Marquis told him. “I’ve had a room prepared for you.” Sir Richard began to protest that he must return to Windsor Castle, but he reflected that an overnight stay would give him a chance to talk Lord Ringwood into doing his duty, and yielded. Soon after that the party ended. A stream of carriages pulled away from the front door, and Sir Richard went unhappily to bed. “Let us go into the library,” the Marquis said to the other two.
    • With the doors safely closed behind them, he said, “We have to decide on a plan of action.” “It’s useless,” the Earl moaned. “What can we do? Tomorrow he will refuse to leave without me.” “He can’t do so if you’ve already left,” the Marquis pointed out. “We told him that we were going to join your ship, and that’s what we must do.” “But where will we sail?” Lavina asked. “Where do you normally go?” “The Mediterranean.” “But I don’t think we should go there,” the Earl said anxiously. “Too close to the Balkans.” “I agree,” the Marquis said. “So perhaps we should head for Scotland? I believe I heard you mention that you have family there, near Ballater. It’s a logical destination.” “But isn’t Ballater near Balmoral?” Lavina reminded them. “And the Queen goes there in summer.” “But not for another month,” the Earl said. “We can have left Scotland by then. It’s the perfect solution, except – oh dear. My Captain will not be expecting us.” “Leave that to me,” said the Marquis. “Then it’s settled that we leave tomorrow, as early as possible.”
    • CHAPTER FIVE Whatever the Marquis planned he carried out efficiently, or at least got Hunsbury to carry out for him. The Earl found himself awakened at an early hour by Hunsbury wanting his “instructions for the telegram.” The Earl, who had not known that he was going to send a telegram, stared. “The local Post Office will telegraph the Tilbury Post Office, who will take it to your Captain, so that he will know you are arriving.” “Oh my goodness!” the Earl exclaimed. “The wonders of modern science. Whatever will they think of next.” He and Lavina joined the Earl for a very early breakfast. Through the window they could see the trunks being loaded and the carriage brought round. “I think we might depart now,” said the Marquis, finishing his coffee. “But what about Sir Richard,” the Earl asked. “Surely I must speak to him before I leave?” “Do you know, I think it might be better if you did not,” the Marquis murmured. “I have left a letter to be delivered to him when he wakes, offering my apologies for whisking you away.” “In that case,” the Earl said decidedly, “let us be gone immediately.” The carriage took them as far as the railway station where they boarded the train that would take them to Tilbury. “I cannot believe that this is happening,” said Lavina when the train was moving. The Marquis had gone out into the corridor, leaving them alone to talk. “It does seem incredible,” the Earl agreed. “Two days ago we had no idea that any of this was possible. And now, here we are, headed for the coast. I do hope we have a calm sea for our voyage.” “I hope so, too. Although, on the whole, I think I’m a good sailor.” “You have been one ever since you were three years old, when I
    • took you on the yacht, and you ran from cabin to cabin. Of course you were terribly spoilt by the crew, who thought you adorable.” “Which I was,” Lavina answered with a smile. “You certainly were, and you have been even more adorable ever since. I cannot think what I would do without you.” Lavina knew what was in his mind, by a sudden sadness in his voice. “You are thinking of Mama,” she said gently, “and how wretched you were when she died.” He nodded. “I loved your mother from the first time I saw her, and she gradually fell in love with me. It took a little time and a little ingenuity to make her love me, but when she did so, it was with her whole heart and soul. We were very happy. Do you remember that?” “Of course. That’s why, when I was young, I was happy, too. The house never seemed quite the same after Mama died, and I still miss her very much, even though it is four years since she left us.” “I miss her too,” the Earl said. “I will miss her even more when you leave me. How dark and lonely the house will be without you.” “But Papa, what are you saying? I’m not really getting married. Eventually this ‘engagement’ will end, and we will go on as before.” “I wonder if it will be so easy. Suppose the Queen cannot find another bride to take your place?” “I hope she doesn’t. Why should I wish on another woman the fate I don’t want for myself? She will have to find some other way, that doesn’t involve marrying some poor creature off like selling a head of cattle.” “You’re right of course. I only mean that she may continue to apply pressure for some time, and that would make it hard for you to break the engagement. You might even have to go through with the marriage.” Lavina laughed. “Have no fear, Papa. Lord Elswick would find that idea as horrifying as I should myself.” The train had slowed now so that there was much less noise and Lavina’s voice carried clearly.
    • It carried to Lord Elswick standing outside in the corridor, and, since there was nobody to see him, he allowed himself a private smile. * Nothing surprised Lord Ringwood more than arriving at Tilbury to discover that the Captain of his vessel was ready for him, having received the telegram. The boat, which despite being called a yacht was actually powered by steam engines, was looking exceedingly smart. Lavina was delighted to see her father had had the inside decorated in a pale blue. The Captain greeted them heartily, and told the Earl that he would be pleased with the crew, and with the refitted engines. As guest of honour, the Marquis was given the Master Cabin. As soon as he was settled in and all the baggage was aboard the Captain gave the order to cast off. As they moved slowly out of port, Lavina watched the shore recede. After a moment the Marquis came to stand beside her. “Are you easier in your mind now?” he asked. “Oh yes. They cannot catch us. How will they know where to look? Your butler will not tell anyone.” “I instructed him to say that we were going to the Mediterranean. On the other hand – ” He looked into the distance. “Is that not a naval gunship I see pursuing us?” “What?” she cried. “Oh no, please no – where?” “Nowhere, you goose. I was joking.” Her hands flew to her mouth and she choked back a sob. “That was unkind,” she said. “You don’t know how I dread – ” “Then forgive me. I did not mean to distress you. But aren’t you forgetting that I have promised to protect you at all costs?” “Yes, and I am sure you mean it, but – ” “But you still fear the Queen? Do not. You can back me to defeat her any day.”
    • Then, as though seeming to feel that he had been kindly for long enough, he resumed his brusque manner and announced that he intended to join her father and the Captain on the bridge, and he would see her at dinner. It was already late in the day so dinner would be the only meal before it was time to retire. Over dinner the Marquis produced a surprise. “The Times!” Lavina exclaimed. “However did you come by it, for I know we left too early to receive it at your home.” “I sent my valet out hunting for it as soon as we reached Tilbury,” Lord Elswick said. “The announcement is in there, together with a short piece by Mr. Ferris. The telegraph wires must have been humming last night.” Lavina looked and saw, in bold type. The engagement is announced – “By now I dare say the Queen will have seen it,” the Marquis observed. “I cannot help feeling that we were wise to flee.” “By the time I have to see her again, she will be used to the idea,” the Earl said, feeling brave now that he was at sea. For the rest of dinner Lavina took very little part in the conversation, and was content to have it so. It pleased her to see that her father and the Marquis were talking pleasantly together. By the time the meal was finished he was looking almost like an agreeable man. He was also, she thought, much more handsome than when he was scowling and being aloof. She bade the men goodnight, meaning to go to bed early. She knew her father would come to her cabin to kiss her goodnight. He was, in fact, later than she expected. When he did come she said, “Oh, Papa, I thought perhaps you had forgotten me.” “I was talking to our guest,” her father replied. “You’ll be surprised to learn that he is an expert on foreign countries. He was telling me of the strange places he has visited in the East.” “Yes, I am surprised at that.” “I think his mind is more wide-ranging than we gave him credit
    • for. I certainly think he has wasted his life buttoned up in his castle, and treating women as if they were poison.” Lavina laughed. “I only hope he does not push me overboard when I am least expecting it,” she said. “For shame to speak of him like that, when you owe him so much!” her father said with a smile. “Perhaps he’ll become more human and enjoy life, as he should do, by the time this trip is over.” “I think, Papa, anyone who is with you, would be enjoying what they were doing. You have to admit that the yacht had never looked or moved so well as it is doing at the moment.” Her father smiled. “You are right,” he agreed, “and he admires The Mermaid very much.” “No wonder you suddenly find him more agreeable,” Lavina laughed. “Well, if his mood softens he may take a brighter view of life in general. Perhaps he’ll find Scottish women attractive.” Lavina laughed. “It’s no use being optimistic, although, of course, I’ve always been told that the girls in the highlands are very attractive.” “No one is more attractive than you, my darling. If the Marquis is too stupid to realise that, we can only hope that he enjoys haggis instead. “Mind you,” he added, “I think he does realise it – ” “You are mistaken, Papa. That kiss was for show.” The Earl sighed. “I only wanted to say how much I admired your endurance, my dear. And how much I pitied you.” “Pitied me, Papa?” Lavina was startled. “You told me on the way here how averse you were to the idea that he might kiss you.” “Oh – oh yes, I did say that, didn’t I?” she said, trying to remember it, and wondering what she had been thinking of. “And when he did so, I thought your fortitude was much to be commended.”
    • Lavina pulled herself together. “We all have to make sacrifices, Papa.” “And you made yours nobly.” He patted her hand. “But would you like me to have a quiet word with him, to make sure that he doesn’t do such a thing again?” “I don’t think so, Papa dear,” she said quickly. “It wouldn’t be very polite, would it, when he is doing so much for us?” “You’re quite right,” the Earl agreed solemnly. “And if it should happen again – well, you will just have to be brave about it.” “Whatever you say, Papa.” “Goodnight, my dear.” The Earl kissed her goodnight before leaving the cabin, closing the door quietly behind him. Lavina cuddled down under the sheets, with a blissful feeling that the boat carrying her across the water was leaving all her problems behind. She fell asleep with a smile on her lips. * Next day she spent much of her time looking over the ship’s rail, knowing that they were moving ever closer to Aberdeen, the nearest port to Ballater, where her unknown Scottish relatives lived. The Earl had shown Lavina the letter from his cousin, inviting them to arrive at any time. Even so, she wondered how they would feel at a visit with no warning. That evening, as soon as dinner was over, she once more left her father and the Marquis to get to know each other, which they seemed to be doing really well. But instead of going to her cabin she stood watching the distance lights from the shore, for now they were travelling close enough to the shore to see it most of the time. Just a few yards away from this part of the boat was the Music Room. It was Lavina’s mother who had insisted on putting a small piano in the saloon, for Lavina’s sake. The little girl had always loved the music her mother played for
    • her. Her father used to hold her hands and make her dance to the tunes. She smiled now thinking of those happy memories that would stay with her always. Closing her eyes, she conjured up the sound of a piano in her mind, seeing her mother sitting there, dreamily playing a dance tune. It was called ‘The Summer Waltz’, and the child had loved it. “Again, Mama, again!” she had cried, clapping her hands in glee. And Mama had played it for her as often as she wanted. As she grew older Lavina had learned to play the violin, and an instrument was kept on board for her. There had been such joy in playing with dear Mama. And then Mama had died, and the joy had died with her. Suddenly Lavina opened her eyes. She was not dreaming. Somebody really was playing ‘The Summer Waltz’ on the piano, just as her mother had once done. She crept along the corridor and quietly opened the door of the music room, wondering who could play so well. And there, to her astonishment, she saw the Marquis sitting at the piano. His back was to the door, so that he had no idea that anyone was listening to him. It had never, for one moment, occurred to her that this harsh man might be musical. But perhaps, she thought, the solitary life he had chosen had made him turn to music as a way of assuaging his loneliness. For a moment she stood in the doorway hesitating. Then she slipped across the carpet without making a sound and sat down in one of the chairs. For an hour she sat very still and silent, listening to him with deep pleasure as he played a large spectrum of pieces, sad, joyful, sweet and melancholy. It seemed to Lavina that his soul was in every note. In this way he could communicate, but apparently in no other way, and she began to feel sad for him. Then she realised that he had started to play ‘The Summer Waltz’ again. Moving as though she could not prevent herself, she
    • reached into the low cupboard where her violin was kept, and quietly drew it out. Very slowly and very softly she began to play, joining in with the Marquis. There was the briefest possible hesitation in his playing, but then he continued, without looking round. She wondered if he guessed who had joined him. When the music came to an end she waited for him to turn and speak to her. But he remained still, and now it occurred to her that he might be angry at her intrusion. Perhaps he thought that if he ignored her, she might go away. Then, just as she was deciding that this might be the best thing to do, the Marquis turned round and looked at her with an expression in his eyes that she had never seen from him before. “So it’s you,” he said in a quiet, almost wondering voice. “I couldn’t imagine who it was whose musicianship seemed so much a part of my own. I did not know that you could play the violin.” Lavina laughed. “And I had no idea that you could play the piano,” she replied. “I have played since I was very young,” the Marquis told her. “Now I live alone, I find there is no company so consoling as the piano.” “I feel the same about the violin,” she said. “I can also play the piano.” “You can?” he exclaimed. “From what your father has told me about you I thought of you as being an outdoor girl, liking only riding horses.” “I do enjoy those things,” Lavina told him, “but I find that music is almost as thrilling and exciting as jumping a high fence.” The Marquis looked at her with new interest. “What a fascinating comparison. But then, you’re a very unusual young woman, in every way. If you were not, I suppose we wouldn’t be here, on this boat together. I’ve thought of you as many things, but never before as musical.” “Nor I, you,” she said. “But now I know why you don’t feel lonely when you are at the castle.” Even as she spoke she realised she had said the wrong thing.
    • Immediately the Marquis turned and started to play another popular tune, a very fast one, this time. It was almost, Lavina thought, like someone dancing wildly and madly to prevent him or herself thinking of what they had lost or what was impossible to possess. Just for a moment she hesitated. Then, as she knew the tune, she began to play it with him, matching him speed for speed, and knowing that she was playing extremely well. He gave her a quick glance and upped the tempo. She managed to stay with him, and they rattled away together until the tune came to a triumphant finish. As the last notes died away he looked at her, his eyes alight with satisfaction. “That might have come from the Albert Hall,” he said. “Perhaps one day, if we were to lose all we possess we might get ourselves hired there.” Lavina laughed. “Thank you for the compliment.” “You deserve it. You play extremely well and I can only think you were taught by a very experienced musician.” “Actually, it was my mother who wanted me to play, to please my father,” Lavina told him. “I have loved music ever since I heard the first note when I was in the cradle.” He was silent for a moment, before nodding in agreement. “Music makes me forget all grief and woe,” he said. “When I play I pass into another world, one that has never been spoilt.” For a moment Lavina could not think of an answer. After a pause she said: “Play me one of your favourite songs and I will see if I know it well enough to join in with you.” The Marquis turned towards the piano and began to play a gentle, yearning piece of music that, for all its slow tempo, was very difficult. For a few ecstatic minutes they played as one. When the last note had died away he rose from the piano and looked at her, as though something about her puzzled him. “I didn’t think it possible that I would find someone with whom I am so much in harmony, whose music seemed to come from the
    • same well-spring as my own.” Lavina was silent for a moment, thinking the answer to this was very obvious. He had spent too much time alone, seldom visiting other houses, and not knowing of the music that was made in them. Suddenly he seemed to become aware of how he was talking to her. She could almost see him withdraw back into himself. He turned towards the door, saying abruptly, “Goodnight, I hope you sleep well.” Before she could answer, he had shut the door behind him. Lavina was left alone. She was aware that the yacht had also come to a standstill, presumably in some quiet bay where it would rest until tomorrow morning. “Goodnight,” she said to an empty room. Then as there was only the sound of the waves lapping against the sides, she walked quietly, without seeing anyone, or being seen, towards her own cabin. Jill was waiting for her. She helped her off with her lovely clothes and into her elegant silk nightdress, then began to brush her long dark hair. “Did you have an enjoyable evening, Your Ladyship?” she asked. “Yes thank you, Jill. It was certainly a very – a very unexpected evening.” Before Jill could ask what she meant by that Lavina said hurriedly, “You can go to bed now. I’ll manage the rest for myself.” She sat alone, slowly drawing the brush down her hair, thinking what a strange discovery she had made that night. “If anyone had told me he was like this, I would not have believed them,” she said to herself. “I thought he was just rude and brusque, but there is another side to him, a side that I can reach, and which seems to be reaching out to me.” She got into bed and lay gazing into the darkness, listening to the soft murmuring of the sea. Then she fell asleep, only to dream, as she had dreamed before, that the music was whispering in her heart, and as her mother always said, in her soul.
    • * The next day they docked in Aberdeen. From there they went to the railway station and began the train journey to Ballater. Remote as the location was, it was well supplied with railways on account of its nearness to Balmoral, the Scottish country estate that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had acquired twenty years before. During the Prince’s lifetime they had spent a part of each summer there. After his death Victoria had continued the visits alone. At Ballater Station they piled into carriages to head for the McEwuan estate. Lavina was thrilled to see how beautiful the Scottish countryside was. The green of the grass, the touches of heather were something new and thrilling. She felt she was entering a new world which, thankfully, was not as frightening nor as difficult as the world in the south had become. “What is the house like?” the Marquis asked. “It’s called McEwuan Castle,” the Earl replied, “and it is somewhat like a castle, but not as grand as the Towers.” “That’s a relief,” the Marquis said at once. “I still lose my way in that huge place. I hope your cousin has a cool head, or he will be overwhelmed at our descending on him without warning.” “But we do have an invitation from him to drop in at any time,” the Earl pointed out. “I received it only three days ago.” “But Papa,” Lavina laughed, “when people say that, they never mean it literally.” “Then he shouldn’t have said it,” the Earl replied. “We are visiting them as an act of courtesy, to mark your betrothal.” “Then they are to believe that we are really engaged?” the Marquis asked. “Would that not be best?” the Earl asked. “Certainly. The fewer people who know the truth the better.” At last McEwuan Castle came into view. It was not a great castle, but it had towers and turrets, and presented a very romantic
    • appearance. “There is my cousin!” the Earl exclaimed suddenly. A large, well-built man came out of the front door and stood regarding them as they approached. His face wore a big grin, and he waved to them, not seeming in the least put out by their sudden appearance. “Ian!” the Earl called out. Sir Ian McEwuan hurried forward so that he reached the carriage as it stopped. Without waiting for the coachman he pulled open the door, grabbed his cousin by the hand and almost yanked him out to a crushing embrace. “So you decided to accept my invitation, after all! This is wonderful! Come on out everybody! They’re here after all this time!” The last words were directed inside the house, and at once a young man came running out. He was very good-looking and seemed only a little older than Lavina. “This is my son, Andrew,” Sir Ian said. “Now, Andrew, here is your Cousin Edward, whom you haven’t met since you were very young, and your Cousin Lavina whom you’ve never met at all.” By this time the coachman had handed Lavina down, and the Marquis had followed. Now he was standing watching the commotion with an expression of faint amusement. The young man held out his hand. “Cousin Edward, Cousin Lavina, it’s wonderful to meet you at last.” Then the Earl suddenly remembered they had a guest with them and said, “I want you to meet our guest, the Marquis of Elswick, who has come with us to Scotland. He wants to see if it is as wonderful as we have told him.” This remark was very well received. The McEwuans ushered them joyfully through the front door into the castle. “Welcome! Welcome!” Sir Ian said to them all. “I’ve been hoping for years that you would come and visit me. Now, almost as if you had dropped down from heaven, you have arrived.”
    • “We are very pleased to be here,” the Earl replied. “As we left England unexpectedly we didn’t have the time to warn you of our arrival.” “We need no warning,” Sir Ian said. “This is Scotland. The door is always open to friends and family.” Sir Ian took them up the stairs to what Lavina thought must be the drawing-room where their hostess was waiting to receive them. She was a handsome woman in her early fifties, with red hair and a smiling face. “This is a great surprise,” she said to the Earl, “but a delightful one. I’m having rooms prepared for you at once, and in the meantime, let us have sherry.” Looking around, Lavina realised that the inside of the house was charming, and far more comfortable and pretty than she had expected. She had thought that because it was in the far north, that the house would be somewhat chilly and austere. Instead she found everywhere comfortably furnished with pictures which she was sure were very valuable. There were curtains and carpets which would have been acceptable in any drawing-room in Mayfair. “I do hope that you’ll stay long enough for our friends to meet you,” Lady McEwuan said. “We want to see as much of Scotland as we can,” Lavina said. “But we have another reason for coming,” the Earl added. “And that is, to announce the engagement of Lord Elswick to my daughter.” Everyone expressed their delight. There were toasts and more toasts. The Marquis stood beside Lavina, receiving congratulations with an air of ease, but she wondered how this felt to him. Even after last night, when they had played music together and she had felt a sweet communication between them, she had no insight into his mind. He had withdrawn into himself again. Although his manner this morning was coolly friendly, the wonderful moment might never have been. Yet now he played his part to perfection, apparently the devoted
    • fiancé. But when she looked into his eyes, she saw nothing there.
    • CHAPTER SIX Dressing for dinner that evening, Lavina took great care about her appearance. She wanted to make an excellent impression on her new relatives. It was only when she went downstairs that she discovered that there were other guests for dinner, who had been out fishing that day. “Cousin Lavina,” said Andrew, “let me introduce my friend, Sir James McVein, whose estate runs next to this one.” Sir James was six feet tall and had been, she learnt later, in the army until he came into his father’s title. He had then retired to look after his very large estate. She found herself sitting next to him at dinner, and realised that he was definitely one of the best looking young men she had ever seen. Also one of the most amusing. He kept her laughing by telling her the things which had happened in the north since he had served in the army and the difficulties he had encountered since he became a land owner. “My father was Scottish and my mother was English,” he told Lavina. “So when I have a problem to solve I ask myself which will be the most sensible or the most valuable.” Lavina laughed. “One always gets back to money in the south,” she replied. “I am sure people in the north are the same, although I expect you to be more patriotic.” “I think we are patriotic,” the Scotsman agreed. “At the same time we try to be sensible and not in any way so easily aroused to anger as our ancestors were.” Lavina laughed again. “As far as I remember, the history of Scotland is full of battles and I have always felt I should be careful in case I insulted anyone, and suffered in consequence.” Sir James smiled. “I think you are quite safe,” he said. “I assure you the Scots love beauty, whether it is a flower or a woman. You will find yourself
    • admired wherever you go.” Lavina blushed. “Thank you,” she said. “Now I will not be so frightened of saying or doing the wrong thing.” “Then Scotland welcomes you with open arms,” he replied. “I will give a party immediately in your honour at my own house.” “I shall be delighted to accept,” she said. “And so, of course, will my fiancé.” “Your fiancé?” he asked in dismay. Then she realised that he had not been there for the announcement of her engagement. “Tell me it isn’t true,” he said. “This is an imaginary fiancé.” “No, he’s sitting over there, next to Lady McEwuan, Lord Elswick.” There was silence. Then the young man said, “That makes me more sad than I can say.” As he spoke Lavina looked up into his eyes. She felt for a moment as if they held her captive. Then she blushed and turned away, feeling that something strange and unusual had happened. * In the following days the whole neighbourhood opened its arms to them. There were dinners, lunches, dances. Something happened every night. Sir James invited them to his estate, so that he could show them his horses which, everyone agreed, were the best for miles around. The Marquis seemed to think so too, for he studied the horses with admiration, and spent a long time discussing them with Sir James. Nobody noticed that now and then the Marquis regarded him with cool hostility that sat oddly with his friendly words. Lavina, glancing across at them from a few yards away, saw only that the Marquis seemed at ease, and was reassured. When she was alone with her father she could not help saying
    • to him, “You know, Papa, I think this visit to Scotland is doing us all a great deal of good, but most especially the Marquis. He is becoming almost human.” Her father laughed. “What do you mean by that?” he asked. “You know exactly what I mean,” Lavina replied. “He was laughing and talking about the horses and going from one to another. He found them as marvellous as we did and I thought he was becoming almost human.” “He was certainly very amusing at dinner last night after the ladies had left the room,” the Earl said. “He told us stories which I had never heard before and some of the jokes, while not for female ears, were extremely witty and amusing.” Lavina stared. “Lord Elswick knows jokes that are unfit for females?” she echoed. “I don’t believe you, Papa.” “My dear, every gentleman knows jokes that are unfit for females,” her father declared firmly. “Good heavens! You too?” “I do after listening to Elswick last night,” he said mischievously. Sir James produced a dainty, spirited little mare for Lavina to ride, and accompanied her on a short trip around his grounds. “We’ll go for a longer ride together tomorrow,” he said. “At least, I hope you’ll want to.” “But are you not going fishing tomorrow?” Lavina asked. “I’m sure that Papa and Lord Elswick – ” “They’re going fishing,” Sir James answered. “But I’m not.” The expression in his eyes made Lavina look away because she was blushing. “I – I don’t think I can,” she said, wishing she were free to flirt with this handsome young man. “You could if you really wanted to,” he said. “Surely your ‘lord and master’ would not object to an innocent ride?” “My lord and master?” she echoed in astonishment. “Whoever do you mean?”
    • “You told me that you were betrothed to Lord Elswick.” “Which makes him my fiancé, not my lord and master.” “Isn’t it the same thing?” “Certainly not!” she said indignantly. “But does he see it that way? To my eyes he looks like a tyrannical kind of man.” “I do not permit him to order me around,” Lavina said loftily. “Then you’ll come riding with me tomorrow?” “Yes, I will.” Impulsively he seized her hand and kissed it. Despite her confident words Lavina was a little unsure exactly how Lord Elswick would react. So that evening, just before everyone went up to bed, she wished him a good day’s fishing, and informed him that she would be riding with Sir James McVein. “I hope you enjoy the day, ma’am.” “You do not object?” “Why should I? You will of course be properly accompanied by a groom – ” “Well, I – ” “In fact, I’ll mention it to Sir Ian immediately.” He gave her a smile. “Just in case you should happen to forget.” He went off immediately to speak to Sir Ian, and returned with the news that two of the McEwuan daughters would also be accompanying them. Then he told her that he hoped she would sleep well, and went upstairs, leaving her fuming. The following day she and Sir James set out on horseback, accompanied by Isabel and Geraldine McEwuan, and a groom. At the end of an extremely dull day she returned home, in a mood to quarrel. She was unable to quarrel with the Marquis, however, as he was not there. The gentlemen arrived home while she was dressing for dinner. As always the table was enlarged by several neighbours, one of whom, Eglantine McCaddy, was the local beauty, also known for her singing.
    • At dinner she had the honour of being seated next to the Marquis, who paid her a great deal of flattering attention, seemingly entranced by her charms. For the life of her, Lavina could not see what he found to admire. To her the ‘beauty’ seemed overblown and vulgar, her attractions obvious, her laughter too noisy. And this was the man who loathed and abominated women, bowing down before this coarse temptress, while his fiancée looked on! Her singing was no better. Her voice was loud, which was about the best that could be said for it. Why the Marquis had to insist on accompanying her was beyond Lavina. Somehow it was this that upset her most. His piano playing had been a secret between them, hinting at a greater closeness, possible in the future. By revealing it to the world he had mysteriously devalued it, and that hurt her more than she wanted to admit. When the performance was over there was loud applause, which the two performers received with a theatrical simulation of modesty that made Lavina want to throw something at one – or both – of them. As the party repaired for the night the Marquis drew Lavina aside for a private word. There was a glint in his eyes that might have been amusement, or perhaps something more disturbing. “Are you angry with me?” he asked. “I have every reason to be – carrying on like that in front of everyone.” “At least I didn’t kiss her hand, or try to slip away for a private tryst, as you attempted.” “We were going riding,” she snapped. “To be sure you were! Did you enjoy it?” She glowered at him. “What do you see in him, Lavina?” “He is charming company,” she said stiffly. “And I’m not. I’m a curmudgeon with rough manners. But it was to me that you turned for help, because the very qualities that make
    • me a disaster in society make me strong enough to help you. “You cannot have it both ways. If you are falling in love with that man then say so. I’ll withdraw my suit and leave you to him.” “Oh no, you mustn’t – ” “But I will if you give me cause. Think about it. Perhaps an engagement to him would serve your purpose just as well.” “I do not wish to be engaged to him,” she said with soft vehemence. “Just to flirt with him? I see. Let me warn you against that. I will not be made a fool of. Do you understand me?” “Yes.” “Good. In that case I will bid you goodnight.” He walked ahead without a backward look, leaving her to run to her room, throw herself on the bed and thump the pillow. * Despite this, life moved on fairly contentedly for another week. Lavina was entranced by the beauties of Scotland, and when she rode it was mostly at Lord Elswick’s side. When not annoyed he was good company. She was almost allowing herself to relax and push her fears aside, when, one morning, Lady McEwuan came rushing into the drawing room, full of excitement. “There’s a carriage coming up the drive, and it has the royal crest on the panels.” Lavina’s blood ran cold, and her frantic eyes sought her father’s. He rose to his feet, pale but determined. The family would have followed him, but Sir Ian said firmly, “It will be confidential business from Her Majesty. We will not intrude.” Holding each other’s hand for comfort, the Earl and Lavina went out into the hall to greet whoever should appear. The front door was pulled open. “Papa,” Lavina said in horror, “Look who it is!”
    • The man who appeared was Sir Richard Peyton, the same man that they had deluded and left behind at The Towers. Lavina and father exchanged alarmed glances, wondering what he could be doing here. Sir Richard approached them, his face rigid, paused and gave a small, curt nod. “What are you doing this far north, Peyton?” the Earl asked with an attempt at geniality. “I am with Her Majesty at Balmoral,” the man replied stiffly. “Balmoral?” The Earl exclaimed. “It’s too early in the year for that. The Queen never comes north until next month.” “Her Majesty has decided to make an exception this year,” Sir Richard declared. “She has a special guest who particularly wished to see the glories of Scotland.” Lavina felt as though the world had stood still. There was a strange ringing in her ears, and suddenly she was full of dread. “What – special guest?” Lord Ringwood asked in a hollow voice. Sir Richard drew himself up until he was practically standing to attention. In a loud voice he announced, “Her Majesty has been pleased to invite Lord Ringwood, and his daughter, Lady Lavina Ringwood, to a reception tomorrow evening, at which they will have the honour of meeting Prince Stanislaus of Kadradtz.” A ghastly silence greeted this pronouncement. Sir Richard then handed over the invitation card. “But – er – ” the Earl stammered, “Is there not another invitation, for Lord Elswick?” “Her Majesty is unaware of Lord Elswick’s presence in the neighbourhood, and has therefore not been able to include him on the list.” “But now that she is aware – ” A shout of laughter interrupted him. Everyone turned to look at the Marquis strolling into the hall, his face alight with hilarity. “It’s no use, Ringwood,” he said. “Wild horses wouldn’t persuade the Queen to acknowledge my presence if it meant
    • inviting me to a reception to which, in any case, I do not wish to attend.” At the sight of the Marquis Sir Richard drew himself up. “My Lord, I consider you treated me most shabbily at our last meeting.” “No choice. Anyway, you seem to have got your own back. I wonder how the Queen knew where we were?” Sir Richard glared at him. “You told her, of course, and how did you know where we were?” the Marquis mused. “Your butler was as misleading as you instructed him to be,” Sir Richard said stiffly. “But you managed to bribe some of the others, I suppose. I dare say there was one listening at the library keyhole the night before. Well, I hope Her Majesty rewards you for it, but I doubt it. She doesn’t like sneaks any more than I do, even though she isn’t above using their services. You can leave now.” “I have to take back an answer.” “The answer will be delivered without help from you. Take yourself off.” Catching the Marquis’ baleful eye Sir Richard scuttled away into his carriage. “I can’t go to this reception without you,” Lavina said urgently. “You know what the Queen is doing, don’t you?” “Certainly I do, and there is no fear of your going without me. You may safely leave this in my hands.” “At least tell me what you mean to do.” “There is not the slightest necessity for you to know,” he informed her with a touch of loftiness. “When I tell you that I shall take care of the problem, you may be assured that all is well.” Lavina’s eyes kindled. “You’re very high-handed, sir.” “Indeed I am. You have always known as much.” “I only meant – ” “I know very well what you meant. You knew what I was like when we began this venture. It’s too late to complain now.
    • Ringwood, it is my intention to call upon Her Majesty. I suggest that you come with me.” Lord Ringwood paled. “But the Queen is not expecting us,” he protested. “Her Majesty is well known for appreciating informality when at Balmoral,” the Marquis replied smoothly. “She will be overjoyed at a visit from her neighbours.” Lord Ringwood only wished he could be as certain, but the Marquis was in a determined mood. “At least tell me what you intend to say to her,” Lavina insisted. The Marquis regarded her with a touch of humour. “I think I had better not tell you,” he said. “You might explode with rage.” He walked away without a backward glance, leaving Lavina glaring after him. Half an hour later the carriage departed for Balmoral, bearing the Earl and the Marquis, both superbly dressed as befitted men who were about to enter the royal presence. It would be hours before they could return, and the thought of twiddling her thumbs was intolerable. Lavina rushed upstairs to put on her riding habit, took a horse from the stables and went for a long ride. When she returned there was still no sign of them, so she began pacing up and down, grinding her nails into her palms. She was a prey to the most violent agitation, but whether it sprang from fear for her father, for herself, or from annoyance at Lord Elswick, she could not quite decide. If only they would hurry up and come home! At last she saw the carriage appear in the distance, heading for home. She controlled her impatience until both men were walking into the house. “All is well, my dear,” the Earl said, embracing her. “Lord Elswick will be coming to Balmoral with us tomorrow night.” “But do not tell your daughter how I arranged it,” the Marquis murmured, “until I am safely out of throwing distance.” Lavina took her father’s arm and marched him into the garden.
    • “Papa, what has he done?” “Oh my dear, if only you could have seen him! He was magnificent, the way he stood up to the Queen. He insisted on the Chamberlain announcing us, and when we walked in he greeted her, and said he knew that she would wish to congratulate him on his betrothal to you.” “The Queen was very taken aback, but she recovered and actually declared that there was no betrothal, as you were a member of the royal family, and could not marry without her consent.” “Papa!” “You will never believe what he replied.” “I’d believe anything of him. What did he say?” “He said, ‘Nonsense!’“ Lavina’s response was all that he could have hoped. She stared as though her eyes would pop out of her head, and whispered, “He said ‘Nonsense!’ to the Queen?” “He did. He said that nobody had ever considered the Ringwood family royal before, and it was too late to start now.” “Oh my goodness!” Lavina exclaimed, full of admiration. “He really stood up to her. What a brave man!” “He isn’t afraid of the Queen, my dear, and she knows it.” “Even so, to defy the Queen to her face!” Lavina said, deeply moved. “We have misjudged him, Papa.” “We have, indeed, my dear.” “I must thank him, and assure him of my true gratitude.” She turned quickly to go in search of the Marquis, but in the doorway she stopped and looked back. “Papa, what did he mean about being ‘safely out of throwing distance’?” A look of distinct unease passed over the Earl’s face. “Well, my dear – ” “Papa!” “You have to understand that his first aim was to protect you – ” “Papa!”
    • The Earl sighed and abandoned himself to his fate. “He said that there was no question of your attending the reception tomorrow, because, as your fiancé, he would not permit you to do so.” “Permit?” “Well my dear,” said the Earl, wishing he could die, “when a woman becomes engaged to a man, it is understood that he assumes a certain authority – ” “Permit?” The Earl gulped. “That man talked about what he would and would not allow me to do?” she demanded, outraged. “Only to save us, my dear, by diverting the Queen’s wrath to himself. He said that it would not be proper for you to attend a reception to which he was not invited, and that he positively refused you his permission to do so. Lavina, where are you going?” “To commit murder,” she flung over her shoulder. Her inquiry after the Marquis from a passing servant produced the information that he had gone to the stables. Lavina hurried on, but while she was still some distance she saw him galloping in the direction of the hills. She ran on to the stables. “I need your fastest horse,” she told the astonished hands. “His Lordship just took the fastest,” a groom told her. “The next fastest then. Hurry.” In minutes they had brought out a lively animal and struggled to put a side saddle on his back, while he danced about disobligingly, snorting fire. Lavina knew just how he felt. At last she leapt onto his back and galloped off into the distance, headed the way she had seen the Marquis go. After going for a few miles at full speed she saw him, far ahead. He slowed and stopped, then looked back at her, before continuing. She urged her mount to even greater speed until at last she was galloping beside him. Neck and neck, mile after mile, until at last the horses slowed
    • from weariness. The Marquis pointed to a stream ahead. “Our animals have certainly earned the chance to drink,” he said. “Let us see to their needs first, then you can tell me what you think of me.” She agreed, and only when the beasts had dipped their heads thankfully into the cool, running water did she allow herself to say, “When you said you were getting out of throwing distance, I didn’t think you’d go to these lengths,” Lavina said. “Well, I knew you would be unreasonably angry.” “Unreasonably? How dare you talk about what you will allow me to do, as though I were a child.” “Not a child, an engaged woman with a sense of propriety.” “But you know that isn’t really true,” she said furiously. “Not true that you have a sense of propriety? I hope, for both our sakes, that you are mistaken.” “I mean that I am not an engaged woman.” “For the moment, you are. That gives me certain rights over your behaviour, some of which I am certain that you know about. You’re an heiress, aren’t you? Your mother left you a great fortune.” “How did you – ” “You surely don’t imagine I consented to an engagement without first ascertaining your wealth.” “You didn’t have time,” she retorted swiftly. “True, but the wealth of every heiress is known throughout the London clubs. I believe there are even places where fortune hunters can obtain lists, for a fee.” “And are you a fortune hunter, sir?” “No, luckily I can afford not to be, but that is not true of all men. Picture the poor fellow’s dismay if he proposed for your money and found you’d dissipated it before the wedding. So, to protect him, the law says that his fiancée may not dispose of her wealth without his permission. “Don’t breathe fire at me, I am merely giving you an illustration. Your behaviour is very much my concern, and, as I have always made plain, I intend to exercise my authority over you.” “How many times must I say that you do not have any authority
    • over me?” “You may say it as often as you like. It remains the case that I do. I warned you at the start that I expect you to behave with propriety.” “Are you saying that I do not?” “I am, indeed. No lady of delicacy would be alone with a man in this isolated spot. If I should insult you with my advances there is nobody to help you.” “I rely on you, as a gentleman, not to insult me with your advances.” “But how if your reliance is mistaken?” Lord Elswick’s eyes were glinting strangely. “Suppose I force my unwelcome attentions on you?” he asked. For a moment Lavina found it hard to speak. Something seemed to be fluttering in her throat, and her heart was beginning to thump erratically. “Since we are engaged,” she managed to say with spirit, “the presumption would seem to be that your attentions are not unwelcome.” “Do you mean that you pursued me here in the hope of receiving them? Fie on you!” “I – that is not what I meant – ” Suddenly he was standing very close to her. “Didn’t it occur to you that you were doing something dangerous in coming here alone with me?” She took a shuddering breath. She would have moved backwards but she found she was standing against a tree. “I – do not feel – in danger – ” she stammered. “How foolish of you,” he said as he lowered his mouth to hers. There was no escape, even if she were sure she wanted to. His arms were about her body, drawing her hard against him, while his lips caressed hers with ruthless purpose. At first shock held her still. Then she made a sound of protest and tried to push him away, but he immediately tightened his arms. Anger began to flow through her veins like fire. But suddenly it was a different fire, made not of anger but of
    • excitement. If she had given in to it she would have strained against him, seeking more kisses and yet more. But pride would not let her do so. She was still angry with him, and if she yielded an inch it would be a victory to him in the battle between them, that had raged since the moment she had burst into his house. He was proud, but so was she, and she would not let him think he had won her over in the slightest way. She could not afford to. He seemed to sense her rebellion and began to move his lips more seductively over hers, as though determined to be the winner in this battle. Lavina’s head spun. Suddenly she no longer wanted to fight, but to yield, to give herself to him utterly and completely. Somehow her arms had found their way about his neck and she was pulling his head down to hers, kissing him back eagerly, feverishly. “Lavina – ” he murmured. His voice seemed to call her back from a great distance. His mouth had released hers, he was looking down into her face with a look of stunned astonishment. Her breath came raggedly, and suddenly she was herself again, shocked at her own behaviour. How could she have behaved so disgracefully, with such unladylike abandon? He had said that she had no sense of propriety, and she had proved him right. She pulled away, and this time he released her. She walked a few steps away and stood there, breathing hard.
    • CHAPTER SEVEN After a moment he came close, but did not try to touch her. It seemed a long time before he spoke. “Forgive me. It is I who lack propriety. I should not have taken advantage of – that is – you are very foolish to be angry with me for – for what I said to the Queen.” “Am I?” she asked in a muffled voice. “It is well known that Her Majesty believes in the subjection of women – ” Lavina turned and gave him an incredulous stare. “As long as it’s other women,” the Marquis added wryly. “She has been known to speak about the ‘dreadful wickedness of Women’s Rights’. She deludes herself, of course, but she thinks this is what she believes. So I simply used the one argument that she could not answer. Can’t you understand that?” “I suppose so,” she said reluctantly. “I know that, for you, it goes against the grain to defer to me, but in that lies your safety, and your father’s safety. It puts the whole responsibility for defying the Queen on to my shoulders, and I promise you I can fight the battle better than either of you.” “You are right, of course,” she admitted reluctantly. “I am doing this as much for your father as for you. His place at court means a lot to him, and if he offends the Queen too much, he may lose it. “For your sake, he will take that risk, but he dreads a life without his occupation. If I can get the royal wrath directed at me, he may escape the worst.” “How kind you are,” she said impulsively, forgetting how angry she had recently been with him.. “Nonsense,” he said, with a return to the brusqueness that was more normal with him. “But you are, to have thought of him, and how badly he would be hurt. That isn’t only kind, it’s imaginative.” “You are making a fuss about nothing,” he said coldly. “It is merely the most efficient way of managing things. The Queen’s
    • wrath means nothing to me because I wouldn’t have a place at court for anything she could offer. “With your father, it’s different. He’s a convivial man. He likes people, enjoys having them around him. With me, it is different. So don’t start attributing sentimental motives to me. Kindness has nothing to do with it.” Lavina looked at him with a touch of sadness. “I don’t believe you,” she said at last. “Then you should know better,” he said flatly. “Why do you hide your better self from people? Would it be so terrible if the world knew you have a side that is generous and sensitive?” “You were wiser when we first met,” he declared. “Then you were hostile to me. You tried to hide it because you were asking my help, but your dislike was there. You should have remained hostile, and I advise you to do so.” “Nonsense!” she said loudly. He stared. “What did you say?” “I said ‘nonsense’. If you can say it, so can I. I never heard a man talking such gibberish in all my life.” Her lips curved in an ironical, almost teasing smile. “So you advise me to stay hostile to you? After the way you just kissed me? Was that designed to make me feel hostile.” She had him there, she was glad to see. He coloured and for a moment his composure deserted him. “You have a very sharp tongue,” he said at last. “Not sharp,” she said, shaking her head. “Swift. Like my perceptions.” “And what – exactly – do you think you perceive?” She gave him the same smile. “I’ll tell you that another time.” “Yes, let us return,” he said with an effort. “We have both talked more than enough nonsense.” *
    • For the reception at Balmoral Lavina’s appearance was a triumph of Mrs Banty’s art. Her gown, with a bustle and a long train was made of cream silk with a matching over-skirt of silk gauze, and a deep flounce of lace. As the crowning touch she wore the Elswick emeralds which the Marquis, once more using the wonderful modern telegraph system, instructed Hunsbury to bring north. “I would have brought them with me if I had anticipated this situation,” he told Lavina, “but I must confess the Queen’s wits were more devious than mine on this occasion. But I think I’ve made up for it by the other item Hunsbury will be bringing with him.” It turned out to be an exquisite diamond engagement ring, which his mother had previously worn. Now she was trumpeting to the world that she was unavailable to Prince Stanislaus. “And by the way,” the Marquis added, “The Prince is rather on the short side.” “You know him?” she asked quickly. “I have encountered him during the course of my travels,” the Marquis said coolly. “It hasn’t left me eager to know him better. My point was that ladies who wish to earn his goodwill always wear their lowest heels. “Then I shall wear my highest,” Lavina said defiantly. The Marquis grinned his approval. The McEwuans felt no resentment at not being included in the invitation. They had never been part of court circles. They cheered the other three on their way with genuine, kindly enthusiasm. By royal decree, ‘tartan would be worn’ by those entitled to wear it. Lord Ringwood had borrowed his cousin’s kilt, somewhat reluctantly since he lacked the tall, elegant figure necessary to do it justice. But, as he explained to his daughter with a sigh, “If Her Majesty insists that I show my knobbly knees, then I don’t mind doing so in order to placate her.” “Papa, I think you’re absolutely heroic,” Lavina exclaimed. If her father lacked the figure to wear a kilt, the same could not be said of the Marquis. He appeared in the kilt of the McDonald
    • clan, explaining that one of his aunts had married the Laird. “When my valet knew that I was coming to Scotland he insisted on packing it as a precaution,” he explained. He had the long, straight legs necessary to show the kilt as its best, and the broad-shouldered height needed by the black velvet jacket. For once his hair was brushed into a fashionable style. It was a pity, Lavina thought, that he did not go into society more often, for he was handsome enough to turn all heads. It was about five miles to Balmoral, and as they drove through the countryside the day was turning to a soft, enchanting twilight. Lavina knew that she looked her best in the gorgeous dress, and the emeralds, and at any other time she would have enjoyed the prospect. But tonight she could think only that the Queen was very determined to trap her, and her only safety lay in the Marquis, sitting opposite her. At this moment he looked capable of dealing with anything. He had an air of lofty grandeur that suited his rank. He was looking away, regarding the scenery, so that she could see his profile, the slightly hooked nose emphasising the power of his face. Then he turned to smile at her, and suddenly the world was different. There was unexpected charm in that smile, and for a moment this was the man she had met that night on the boat, when they had entered the world of music together, and found each other. Then the carriage was slowing down, coming to a halt at Balmoral Castle. Footmen were coming forward to let down the steps and open the doors. The inside of Balmoral came as a shock. Queen Victoria loved everything Scottish, including the tartans. So there was tartan everywhere in the castle, tartan drapes, tartan furniture coverings, mile after mile of tartan carpet. Even more astonishing were the ‘No Smoking’ signs that appeared everywhere. Queen Victoria hated smoking and made it as hard as possible for smokers within her palaces. Then they were at the entrance to the grand reception room. Lavina and her father were to enter first, with the Marquis behind
    • them. The Chamberlain cried, “Lord Ringwood, Lady Lavina Ringwood and Lord Elswick.” She looked down the long carpet at the tiny figure of the Queen at the far end. She was a short woman, but to Lavina she seemed monumental, towering over the whole world, threatening her with a dire fate. Then she felt a hand reaching for hers, grasping it in a firm, reassuring hold. It was the Marquis, reminding her that he had promised to protect her, no matter what. She squeezed his hand in return, telling him that she trusted him. Then she stepped forward and began the journey, getting closer to Queen Victoria, and also closer to another figure standing beside her. It was a man of just under medium height. He had jet black, oilylooking hair and a huge moustache to match. But what really caught Lavina’s appalled attention was thick, fat lips, small piggy eyes and an expression of leering self-satisfaction. This was Prince Stanislaus of Kadradtz, the man that Her Majesty was determined she should marry, no matter what the consequences. She might break her heart or be driven to despair, but by hook or by crook that determined little woman would force her into this hellish marriage. Lord Ringwood bowed to his sovereign, and Lavina dropped a low, sweeping curtsey. The Queen remained silent for a long moment, while her face registered cool disdain. When she spoke, her voice was stern. “How nice to see you, Lord Ringwood – at last! We were very disappointed that you did not see fit to obey our earlier summons on a matter of national importance.” The way the Queen said the last words froze Lavina’s blood. It told her that Her Majesty was not going to give up without a fight. “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Lord Ringwood said. “I meant no disrespect, but I was beside myself with joy, celebrating the engagement of my daughter to the Marquis of Elswick, and I’m afraid I got into a muddle.”
    • At the mention of the engagement the Queen’s face stiffened, but all she said was, “It is no matter. Fortunately we are in time to retrieve the situation.” “Good evening, Your Majesty.” The voice was Lord Elswick’s, and it was a breach of protocol for him to address the Queen before she had taken notice of him. Lavina saw courtiers stiffen all around them, astonished and outraged at his daring. But the Marquis knew the game the Queen was playing, and was not going to let her get away with it. Having forced himself to her attention he looked her directly in the eye. She did not meet his gaze, but directed Lavina and her Papa to the little man standing beside her. “Price Stanislaus, allow me to present two members of my family, the Earl of Ringwood, and his daughter, Lady Lavina Ringwood, of whom you have heard me speak.” There was no mistaking her meaning, or the significant glance the Prince gave to Lavina. His eyes were narrowed in calculation, and yet he seemed to look her over in a moment. A dead smile appeared on his lips. Lavina shuddered. As she curtsied in front of him she tried to keep her head up higher than she would normally have done. Her dress was low cut, as was normal with evening gowns, and she was sure this slug-like creature would peer more closely at her décolletage than was decent. As she rose the Prince smiled at her. “Charming,” he said in a heavy accent. “Delightful. You are just as I was led to expect.” Lavina kept her face a determined blank. “There is surely no reason for Your Royal Highness to have expected anything from me.” He smiled. A cat, contemplating a pot of cream might have smiled like that. “There is every reason, and I shall take the greatest delight in
    • explaining it to you.” If only, she thought, Papa could help her, but the Queen had detained him in conversation. She was smiling, giving every appearance of friendliness, but Lavina suspected this was a ruse to leave her with Prince Stanislaus. But there were several other people waiting to be announced, and even the Queen could not hold up the line any longer. Lord Ringwood moved on to Stanislaus, and greeted him with such an angry glare that Lavina was startled. She had not known that her gentle father was capable of such ferocity. Stanislaus seemed unperturbed. “Lord Ringwood, I must congratulate you on your charming daughter. You may consider me an expert. In Kadradtz we know how to appreciate a beautiful woman.” Lord Ringwood’s bosom swelled at this vulgar reference to his daughter. As always where his darling was concerned, he rose to new heights. “Your Royal Highness does my daughter, and myself, too much honour,” he said, bowing low. Stanislaus opened his mouth to speak but the Earl continued, “I know I speak for Lady Lavina as well as myself when I say that we are deeply honoured at the opportunity of meeting a man whose name rings around the world.” Stanislaus tried again. “We have heard much of the glories of Kadradtz,” Lord Ringwood persisted, raising his voice slightly. “And to meet Your Royal Highness on this occasion only adds to the joy that my family was already feeling on celebrating the betrothal of my daughter, Lavina, to Lord Elswick, whom, as you can see, is here with us.” He stopped because he had run out of breath. Lavina turned a glance of pure admiration on her father. Stanislaus’ smile had died, replaced by a look of pure malevolence, and his eyes were dead. Quite dead. “Quite so,” he said in a voice like an arctic wind. “Quite so.” Abruptly he turned his head to greet the next guest, but since this was the Marquis he was very little better off.
    • “Your Royal Highness,” the Marquis said. He gave the smallest bow possible. Then he raised his head and looked the Prince straight in the eye. All at once Lavina had a terrible sensation. It was as though an earthquake had rocked the hall, shaking the building to its foundations with a terrible roar. Fire blazed, thunder raged, and the air was jagged with hatred. Then it was over and she was back in the great hall of Balmoral. Everything was just as before, but the impression of what had happened was so powerful that for a moment she was dizzy. “Papa,” she gasped. He turned quickly, but Lord Elswick was faster, putting an arm firmly about Lavina’s waist and drawing her away from the Prince’s orbit. The line moved on, taking them with it. Mercifully it was impossible for the Prince to follow. “What happened to you, my dear?” the Earl asked. “I don’t know, Papa. I felt such things – as though there was hatred all around me, and somebody had murder in his heart.” “I expect a lot of people would like to murder that man,” her father said wisely. “You were wonderful, Papa.” “You handled him admirably,” the Marquis agreed. “What you sensed in the air was probably him wanting to murder you for not letting him get a word in edgeways.” For the first time Lavina noticed that Lord Elswick was rather pale, and although his words were genial there was a strange nervous tension in his voice. As he drew her arm protectively through his she was aware that he was trembling. She tried to look into his face to divine the cause, but he looked straight ahead and refused to meet her gaze. Her relief at escaping Prince Stanislaus was short-lived. As the receiving line reached an end Prince Stanislaus came in search of her. “I have greatly looked forward to escorting you in to supper,” he said, taking her hand. “We have much to talk about.”
    • The Marquis made a movement as if to force him to release Lavina’s hand, but she stopped him with a brief shake of her head, and a smile. She did not want to sit next to Stanislaus, but she told herself that she was no baby to make a fuss. What harm could he do her at a public dinner? So she allowed Stanislaus to lead her away to the long, elegant supper table, where she was to sit next to him. She was acutely conscious that all eyes were on her. Everybody here knew what the Queen wanted, and knew, also, how determined she could be in pursuit of her own way. Lavina supposed that another woman might be honoured at the distinguishing attention from a Prince. He devoted himself to her, hanging on her every word as though his life depended on it. But she could not feel honoured. Even if this man had not threatened all she held dear, he would have been horrible to her. His flattery was not quite right. It was a performance, and he lacked the skill to make it appear real, so that everything was a travesty. But what was worse than anything was the fact that, at this distance, her worst fears were confirmed. Prince Stanislaus did not wash. He tried to smother the odour of stale sweat with a cologne, but the two intermingled to make a smell that was even worse. He chattered ceaselessly about his country, while Lavina tried to stay out of range of his foul breath. He told her how delighted she would be with Kadradtz, how she would admire the palace, how the people would love her, and she would love them. “And the Russians massed on your border?” she enquired sweetly. “Shall I be expected to love them too?” He was also stupid, for he laughed merrily. “What Russians? Where do you hear such stories? There are no Russians on the border.” Unfortunately for him there was a lull in the talk at that moment, so that his voice carried all along the table. The lull turned to shocked silence. All eyes turned from
    • Stanislaus to the Queen, who was looking daggers at her guest of honour. Lavina took advantage of the silence to say sweetly, “I am delighted to hear Your Royal Highness say so. I shall know now that we do not need to feel any concern for you.” Stanislaus’ eyes became glassy and he realised that he had made a faux pas. The silence seemed to stretch on, with nobody quite knowing how to end it. The Queen spoke. “Prince Stanislaus made a most witty observation the other day –” She repeated the ‘witty observation’, a dire piece of drivel which fell among the company like a piece of lead. Nonetheless, everyone roared with laughter. In the relief, Lavina met her father’s eye, and saw him wink at her. Then her searching eyes found the Marquis. He was regarding her with a curious little smile, and shook his head as if to say, “Well done!” So far, so good, Lavina thought. Surely she could get through the rest of the evening? But worse was to come. As soon as supper was over the Queen announced ‘an impromptu dance’. Footmen then made a great play of rolling back carpets, and a pianist sat down at the piano. “She does this sometimes at Windsor,” the Earl groaned. “We’re all supposed to think how wonderful and spontaneous it is, and everybody hates it.” “And it’s so artificial,” Lavina protested. “‘Impromptu’ indeed!” “You’re not going to escape lightly, I’m afraid,” the Earl sighed. “Well, at least it will give me the chance to make myself plain to Her Majesty,” Lavina seethed. So when the Queen summoned her to sit beside her on the dais, Lavina marched up to her seat, her face set and determined. “You know why I have sent for you,” declared the Queen. “Yes, ma’am, I do. You wish me to marry Prince Stanislaus, but I
    • regret I am unable to oblige, being already betrothed.” “Nonsense!” The single word dropped from the Queen’s lips like a drop of ice. “You will do your duty,” she declared. “But what duty?” Lavina asked. “You yourself heard Prince Stanislaus say that he no longer feared the Russians.” Queen Victoria made a noise of contempt. “The man is a fool,” she declared. “Then how can you want me to marry him?” “Because it has nothing to do with the matter. Were he ten times a fool, which – between ourselves, I sometimes think he is – your duty would still be plain.” “I intend to do my duty,” Lavina returned, “my duty to Lord Elswick, my promised husband.” The Queen’s eyes flashed fire. She was not used to being defied. “We all have to make sacrifices,” she said. “I have had to make many sacrifices in my life.” “But you married the man you loved,” Lavina pointed out. For a moment the Queen’s face softened. “That is true,” she murmured. “I was more fortunate than you.” “No ma’am,” Lavina said firmly. “I intend to be just as fortunate.” For a moment the anger faded from the Queen’s face. “You love him?” she asked. “Lord Elswick? Tell me the truth.” For a moment Lavina hesitated, then she told the truth. “Yes ma’am. I love him.” “As a wife loves the man at whose side she wishes to pass her life?” “Yes, ma’am.” “Have you any idea of the closeness of marriage?” Lavina blushed. “Yes, ma’am.” “And you wish to share that closeness with this man?” “Yes, ma’am.” Inwardly Lavina was rejoicing, for surely now the Queen would relent.
    • The next moment her hopes were cruelly dashed as Victoria said, “Then I pity you, for your duty is clear. I have promised Prince Stanislaus that you will marry him, and my promise must be kept.” Lavina gasped with outrage. “You promised him without a word to me? You had no right.” “Young woman, remember to whom you are speaking. As sovereign, I had every right.” “You had no right at all to promise me to a man who doesn’t wash. How would you like it?” “I should not have liked it at all, but if it had been my duty, I should unhesitatingly have done so.” “Then Your Majesty is made of sterner stuff than I. I will not do it.” “You will do as I say!” “No, ma’am, I will not.” The Queen regarded her in sulphurous silence. The Marquis appeared at the foot of the dais, bowing to his monarch, and saying, “Forgive me, ma’am, for being a too possessive fiancé, but as Lady Lavina is my future wife, I do not like to be apart from her for long.” “You will have to bear yourself in patience a little longer,” the Queen declared coldly. “Prince Stanislaus is my guest of honour, and I have promised him an opportunity to dance with Lady Lavina.” “Certainly,” Lavina said, rising to her feet. “That will give me another chance to make my position plain to him.” She descended to the foot of the dais, turning to curtsey to the furious Queen. Etiquette demanded that she wait until Her Majesty gave her permission to depart, but having gone so far she felt brave enough for anything. Queen Victoria could hardly be angrier with her than she was already. Prince Stanislaus was bearing down on her, his arms opened to seize her. “Are you all right?” the Marquis asked. “Yes, thank you,” she said crisply. “I think I shall manage this
    • very well.” She had defeated a Queen. In her present mood, a Prince would present no problem.
    • CHAPTER EIGHT Lavina faced Prince Stanislaus with her head up, allowing him to fit his arms about her and take her onto the dance floor. She moved correctly, but stiffly, holding herself like a ramrod, until he complained. “You might be a little more accommodating.” “I am doing my duty Your Royal Highness.” “Well, it’s a very bleak business if that’s all you’re doing,” he snapped. “My duty is all I am required to do,” she informed him coolly. Stanislaus grimaced, but said no more for a few moments. Meanwhile, as he danced, he tried to hold her closer and closer, efforts which were largely defeated by her stiffness. “Now, come along, this will never do,” he said at last in a wheedling tone. “You really must make some effort to get along with me. I’m very willing to get along with you. I think you’re pretty and charming, and will grace the throne of Kadradtz.” When she set her mouth and stubbornly refused to answer, he persisted, “It is the Queen’s wish, and you must obey your Queen, you know.” “Does everybody obey you in your country?” she asked. “Certainly they do, otherwise I devise horrible tortures for them.” “What a delightful place!” “It is the most delightful place in the world,” he agreed, too stupid to detect her irony. “You will love it.” “I will not love it, for I will never see it. In fact I wish never to see you again.” “Since we are to be married, that will hardly be possible,” he said, smiling. “I am not going to marry you. I have just told Her Majesty so.” “And she has told me that you are.” “I think my fiancé might have something to say about that,” she said, emboldened by the discovery that the Marquis had them under observation the whole time, frequently moving his position so
    • that he never lost sight of her. “Oh, be hanged to him!” Stanislaus said impatiently. “I’m tired of all this rubbish about fiancés. It’s time we had a private talk.” They were near a large set of French windows that opened onto a broad terrace. Suddenly Stanislaus’ tightened his grip and began whirling her in the direction of the open windows. Lavina tried to resist but he was too strong for her. She could feel everything slipping out of her control, and her fear began to rise. But then Stanislaus came to an abrupt halt, uttering a violent curse. “Get out of my way,” he snapped. “No,” said the Marquis, standing, immobile, in the window. “I said get out of my way.” The Marquis spoke so quietly that only the three of them could hear. “You deserve to be knocked senseless, and if you do not release her at once, I will do it myself.” He leaned closer, and spoke more quietly still, in a voice of such cold menace that Lavina was startled. “You don’t really doubt me, do you? You know damned well that I’ll do it. Now release her before you feel my fist.” It would be too much to say that Stanislaus released Lavina, but he was so stunned that he froze, and she was able to slip from his grasp. The Marquis took advantage of the moment to put his arm firmly around her waist. “You are looking pale, my love,” he said, in a voice loud enough to be heard. “I feel sure you are affected by the heat.” “Yes – yes – ” she gasped, playing up to him by putting her hand to her head and swaying. Half guiding, half carrying her the Marquis made his way over to the Queen, followed by Lord Ringwood, who had seen everything. “Your Majesty,” he said smoothly, “my fiancée is feeling unwell and, with your gracious permission, we will depart before she is quite overcome.”
    • The Queen’s face was sour with temper and she looked as though she would give anything to refuse permission. But there was nothing she could do. She gave a curt nod. Instantly the Marquis swept Lavina up in his arms and marched out of the hall, followed by the Earl. Lavina clung to him. She was not fainting, but she had her wits sufficiently about her to assume a swooning position, at least until they were safely in the carriage. “Lavina,” he said. She realised that she was still clinging to him tightly, her eyes closed. She opened them, and found him looking directly into her face with a serious, troubled expression. “Lavina,” he said again. “Are you all right?” “Yes,” she said, disengaging herself and feeling glad that the darkness hid her blushes. He released her and she sank back against the upholstery. “I’m so glad that’s over,” she said. “I couldn’t have endured him another moment. Thank you, thank you for coming to my rescue. I’m afraid it will have made the Queen very angry with you.” The Marquis’ only response to this was a shrug. “I, too, am overwhelmed with gratitude – ” the Earl began to say, but Lord Elswick interrupted him, almost rudely. “My dear sir, think nothing of it.” “But – ” “I would be grateful if you would say no more.” The Marquis sounded almost angry. For the rest of the journey he did not speak, but sat, isolated in the far corner of the carriage, staring out of the window into the darkness. Lavina would have liked to reach out to him, and beg him to share his feelings with her, but he seemed to have withdrawn into a far place, where he would not allow her to follow. Later that night, lying in her bed, she recalled other aspects of the evening. When she thought of the conversation between herself and the
    • Queen she could only be thankful that she was alone, with darkness to cover her burning cheeks. She had said bluntly that she loved Lord Elswick. She had spoken in a temper, but now, forced to be honest with herself, she knew that it was true. She had given her love to a man who did not love her. He had kissed her, but more out of anger than passion. And he had never given her any reason to believe that he was moved by tender emotions towards her. He was saving her, yet he was doing so for some reason that she did not understand, and which he would not confide in her. And yet she loved him. And when the Queen had asked her if she understood about the closeness of marriage she had thought of Lord Elswick with passion. It shamed her to think of it now. How could she feel such things for a man who felt nothing for her? Or did he? She remembered the way his lips had scorched hers, the trembling she had felt in his body as they embraced. Might she not build a little hope on that? At last she got out of bed and went restlessly to the window, looking out onto the moonlit scenery. In the brilliant pale blue light the mysterious hills stretched far away. Here in Scotland she had seen aspects of the Marquis that she might otherwise never have known. She had seen him tender with music, and tonight, murderous with rage. She knew she would have been afraid if he had turned that black countenance on her. And Stanislaus had been afraid. He had met his match, and he knew it. “And so have I,” she thought. “I too have met my match.” Then a memory came back to her, of something her father had said when she had just started her first season, and was already a brilliant success. Young men had thronged round her, some simply flirting, but others with their hearts in their eyes. But her father had said, “Don’t take them too seriously, my darling, or be in a rush to
    • marry. Remember you will be marrying for life. Not just for a few weeks in the country enjoying the tennis and the swimming, but for life!” “I don’t suppose the men I meet for the first time are likely to propose to me,” Lavina had said. “It’s is only a question of time before a man lays his heart at your feet and asks you to become his wife.” “That will be exciting,” Lavina had murmured. “Very exciting for the moment,” her father had replied. “But you have to remember that he must be a man who will be more important than anyone else, and eventually be the father of your children.” He had stopped speaking, and then his voice deepened as he went on, “However difficult your life will be, you will be his completely and absolutely, for all time. That is why it’s important that you do not make up your mind too quickly.” Lavina remembered saying lightly, “But I’m happy with you, Papa. It’s so exciting being in London that I don’t want to worry about marrying anyone and leaving home.” “But one day you will want to, when the right man appears and makes you forget everything else. I simply want you to understand that you will be changing your life, not just for a few minutes, like a dance, or as one might say, a visit to the moon, but for eternity.” There was a pause before he added, “When you marry I want you to marry a man you love and who loves you. Just as your own happiness will rest on his heart, so he will find you the most perfect, the most adorable and the most wonderful woman he has ever met. Only if you both feel like that can you have the happiness which your Mother and I found together.” Lavina had never forgotten that. It came back to her now as she stood in the moonlit window, and thought of the man who had made her forget everything else. “He certainly doesn’t think me perfect, adorable and wonderful, as Papa says,” she thought. “In fact, he isn’t really the right man at all,” she added, almost
    • crossly. “He’s the wrong man in every possible way. So why is it that I can’t help loving him? Why does he make me forget all the pleasant, charming men, and think only of him? Why?” But the cold moon had no answer for her. * The next day, Lord Elswick continued in the same, tense manner as the evening before. Sometimes when he looked at Lavina she thought she detected almost a kind of savagery in his eyes. Yet he refused to leave her side, even turning down the chance to go fishing to linger in the conservatory while the ladies sewed. This astounded Lavina, as she was sure he must feel this was an occupation for bedlam. “Be careful not to leave the house,” he said. “You don’t think – ?” “I think he’ll come calling, yes. And our hostess must deny that you’re here.” To Lady McEwuan he spun a pretty tale of how the Prince’s ardour had overcome his manners the night before. She was enchanted, and easily agreed to protect her guest. Sure enough, Stanislaus arrived half an hour later. Lavina saw him from the window and darted back into the house, encountering the Marquis almost at once. “He’s here.” “Don’t worry, Lady McEwuan will tell him that you are resting after the excitements of last night. All you need do, is stay out of sight.” Down below, Lady McEwuan was playing her part with zest. Her delight at greeting a Prince was soon spoiled by his offensive manners, and the smell of pomade that wafted from him. He stayed for an hour, refusing all hints to leave, until at last he seemed to accept that he was on a useless errand, scowled and departed. Lavina watched him depart from behind a lace curtain. She
    • shuddered and buried her face in her hands, wondering if she would be pursued all her life, and how long the Marquis would be there to shield her. “It’s all right, he’s gone now,” came the Marquis’ voice. “Will he ever be gone?” she asked in a muffled voice. “Will I ever be safe from him?” Now, she thought, a man who cared about her, might say that he would marry her, and keep her safe that way. But the silence stretched on and on. At last he spoke. “We will just have to be more patient than he is. We can prolong this engagement until he gives in.” Something seemed to die inside her. She had lost. He did not want her. Distraught, she kept her hands over her face. The next moment she felt Lord Elswick turning her towards him, and drawing her hands down. Something he saw made him grow still, watching her with a wondering expression. In the silence he took one of her hands and turned it over so that he could lay his lips against the palm. His breath scorched Lavina, and a fiery excitement began to travel along her nerves, from her head down to her heart, and from there outwards until it engulfed her whole body. She gasped with the intensity of the sensations that possessed her more completely than anything she had known in her life. Yet, although they thrilled her, they also scared her. It was not proper for a young lady to feel such physical delight, not unless she was sure of the man’s love, and she was not. “No,” she said, snatching her hand away. “You must not.” “Why must I not?” “Because it – it isn’t right.” “Because you find my touch unpleasant?” “You know that I do not,” she said in a low voice. “Then why is it not right? We are betrothed. If there is one man whose embraces you may accept, that man is myself. Indeed, I should take the greatest exception if I were to find you in the arms of any other man.”
    • “But we are not really betrothed,” she said. “You know that we are not.” He did not answer, and when she looked up she found him regarding her with a grave expression that contained no hint of his usual defensive irony. “I wonder how all this will end,” he said quietly. Something in his tone made her heart beat faster. For a moment she could not speak. When she finally found her voice it was to say, with more firmness than she felt, “It will end when that dreadful man gives up. Then I will thank you for your great kindness, and we shall part friends.” “Friends? Is that what we’ll be?” Again there was that strange vibrant note, warning her that everything he said had a double meaning. “We shall certainly never be enemies,” she said. “Not on my side. How could I ever be your enemy?” “That was not what I meant, and you know it.” The tingling excitement going all through her told her what he had really meant. How could she ever feel merely friendship for a man who could make her feel like this, in her body and in her heart. He was hinting at something deeper that flowed between them, yet he seemed reluctant to say it more plainly. “Then I do not know what you mean,” she said, turning her head away. He reached for her quickly and pulled her round to face him, and for a moment she saw a fierce intensity in his face. His breath was coming feverishly and his eyes were bright. “Lavina – ” he said. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes – ” At any moment, she was sure, he would tell her of his passion, perhaps of his love. And then all would be well between them. She would be free to acknowledge the intensity of her own feelings without shame. If only he would speak! But the silence stretched agonisingly on and on. She knew what tormented him.
    • She was a woman, and therefore someone to be distrusted. Even if he loved her, he would still be suspicious of her, even, perhaps, hostile. And what use was love if it could not overcome suspicion and hostility, if it were not even strong enough to allow him to speak plainly? And then he let her go. He stepped back abruptly. No words had been spoken. “You are right,” he said harshly. “I mean nothing. Nothing at all.” He stepped back and gave her a small courteous bow. “I beg your pardon for troubling you.” * Next day there was a sensation. Throughout the district word spread like wildfire that Her Majesty was departing Balmoral. “She’s been there barely a week,” Sir Ian said to Lord Ringwood. “She’s never been known to go so soon before.” “Perhaps it’s a false alarm,” said the Earl, not daring to hope too soon. “No, Her Majesty’s carriage was seen journeying to Ballater Station. There was a man with her. He had a big, black moustache.” “The Prince,” Lavina said. “He’s gone. Oh Papa, I’m safe.” “For the moment,” said the Marquis, who had been listening. “I don’t think the Queen will give up that easily, but she seems to have realised that trying to bully you up here won’t work.” That night there was a large dinner-party, given by Sir James McVein. The whole family was wearing tartan, the men in kilts, the women in white silk with tartan sashes over one shoulder, fastened at the waist by diamond clips. “Lord Elswick has sent you this, my dear,” Lavina’s father said, opening a small box to reveal a large diamond clip. “There was no need for him to trouble himself, Papa,” Lavina said coolly. “Dear Lady McEwuan had loaned me one of hers.”
    • “But surely she would understand if you – ” “I would not be impolite to our hostess for anything in the world,” Lavina said, setting her chin in a stubborn way that told her father it was useless for him to continue. When everyone gathered downstairs she waited for the Marquis to make some comment, but after looking her over he merely said coolly, “My compliments on your appearance, ma’am.” Lavina wished that she could explain that he had insulted her by coming to the edge of a declaration and then backing off; and that her snubbing of his gift was merely her way of saying that she was hurt that he could not trust her. But since no such explanation was possible she was forced to keep her feelings to herself. She travelled the short distance to the McVein estate in disgruntled silence. But it was impossible to remain disgruntled in the merry atmosphere she found when she got there. James had put himself out to entertain his neighbours. The house was filled with light. The halls were hung with garlands of greenery and berries. There were nearly a hundred guests, but the family from the castle were the guests of honour, and to James, it was clear, Lavina was the guest of honour. Since he had invited her riding, and the Marquis had so effectively denied them privacy, he had made no open overtures to her, although he had usually been there at the dinners they had attended. Now he came forward to greet her, hands outstretched, with a beaming smile. “There’s not a woman here who can hold a candle to you,” he said. “Hush!” she said, putting her finger to her lips and giving him a sparkling smile. “Remember your duty to the other ladies.” His reply was a wink. “Good evening, McVein.” The Marquis held out his hand to his host, greeted him blandly,
    • then devoted himself to his host’s mother. The dinner table was a masterpiece of flowers and exquisite china, lit by candles. Smiling, James led Lavina to a place beside him. As they ate a piper walked round the table, playing merry tunes on the bagpipes. Yet Lavina could still manage to hear James’ chatter, which consisted mainly of jokes. They were good jokes and Lavina laughed often. Her host’s blatant admiration was like balm to her wounded spirit, and she almost forgot to eat. The food, however, was delicious, so was the wine. It was a long time since Lavina had enjoyed a party so much. Then James rose to his feet, raising his full wine glass into the air, and the toast of Slainte Mhath could be heard round the room. It was all great fun and when the ladies left the dining room, Lavina found herself hoping the men would not stay long. In fact, they joined them twenty minutes later to usher them into the ballroom, where a pipe band was waiting to play. Soon it became clear that Lavina was the belle of the ball. All the men wanted to dance with her, and pay her extravagant compliments. She passed from partner to partner, hearing the praise of all, until at last she found herself waltzing with the Marquis. “Are you sure you can spare me a dance?” he asked ironically. She had to admit to herself that she had avoided him, because she did not wish to feel his arms about her in the waltz, but she was too proud to let him suspect that. “You’ve had no shortage of partners,” she told him coyly. “Don’t expect me to pity you as a wall-flower.” “I do not, but, as I told you once before, I expect you to behave properly.” “And I do not believe I have offended against propriety,” she teased. “This is a ball, sir, and even an engaged woman is permitted to flirt a little.” “Not if she is engaged to me,” he said firmly. “But I am not engaged to you,” she whispered so that only he
    • could hear. His face darkened, and she was suddenly aware that this man hated any woman who even hinted at putting him second. “No, you are not,” he said bitingly. “Do you wish me to announce that fact in this company?” “No,” she said swiftly. “Are you certain? Surely Sir James McVein would be only too glad to have me out of the way.” She could not believe that he was being so unreasonable as to indulge in this violent over-reaction. Could he not see that she was only flirting with other men because her heart was sore that he had neglected her. “I have no interest in Sir James,” she said, now growing angry in her turn. “You amaze me, madam, after the way you have lived in his pocket this evening.” “How dare you! I have not lived in his pocket.” “I say you have. I say also that if you make a fool of me again I shall walk out of this house and leave you to your own devices.” “You are behaving abominably.” “Do I have your word that you will respect my wishes?” “You are being a tyrant – ” “Do I have your word, or do I walk off the floor?” Lavina pulled herself free. “Let me save you the trouble,” she snapped, and walked away from him. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – the dance ended at that moment, so few people noticed her gesture, and the effect was lost. After that she stayed with her father, ready to repel the Marquis if he should approach her. But he did not approach her, and when they were ready to depart, Lady McEwuan said that Lord Elswick had made his apologies and gone home early. *
    • Lord Elswick went out early next morning, so Lavina had no chance to make up with him. Her morning was one of pure misery, until a servant brought her a letter. Eagerly she opened it. In a large, strong hand, it read, Forgive me, and come to me quickly. There is so much I want to say to you, that is only for your ears. Seek out the cottage by the stream that runs through the wood. I’m waiting for you there. Hurry, my beloved. Ivan. “Ivan!” She said his name to herself. The Marquis had never asked her to call him by his given name, despite the fact that they were supposed to be engaged. Yet now he asked her forgiveness, and used his name as a sign of intimacy. He had called her beloved, and chosen a remote spot where nobody would disturb them, because he longed to be alone with her. Her heart overflowed with joy. She sped up to her room to change hurriedly into riding clothes, then down again as fast as she could, then to the stables. In minutes she was on her way, alone. Ivan would not expect her to take a groom this time. In half an hour she had reached the wood and began to move through it. There was the stream and the cottage, just ahead. And there, just outside the cottage, was a single horse, tied to a tree. She tied her own horse beside it and pushed open the door. “Here I am!” she cried. “Here I am, my darling!” The door slammed behind her. She whirled round, smiling with the force of her joy. Then her smile faded, and a look of revulsion took its place. Standing there, leering at her, was Prince Stanislaus.
    • CHAPTER NINE “You!” she cried with loathing. “What are you doing here?” “I’ve hired this cottage. I thought it would make a good place for us to meet. So obliging of you to come in answer to my letter.” “Your letter? But – ” She stopped. The hideous truth was becoming clear to her. “Of course, my letter. How else could I have got you here?” “You can’t have written it,” she said, her breath coming in little gasps. “It started, ‘Forgive me.’ You could never have known that we’d quarrelled.” Stanislaus gave his strange, silent laugh, and it chilled her blood. “My dear lady, I had no idea that you and Elswick had quarrelled until you told me just now. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about women in many delightful years spent pursuing them, it is that every woman thinks her lover is in the wrong. “He can be a saint, it makes no difference. She is always sulky and petulant about something. So a clever man asks her forgiveness as a matter of routine. He can rely on her to supply the details. “And I was right, you see, because now you are here.” “And I am leaving immediately.” “I’m afraid you are not. Your presence is important to me.” Grasping her riding whip tightly, Lavina took a step forward, facing him and saying firmly, “Get out of my way.” Stanislaus merely laughed. “How splendid you are! How magnificent! What a Princess you will make.” “I will never be your Princess!” “Oh but you will. You have no choice. I must have an English royal bride – ” “I am not royal – ” “The Queen has recognised you as part of her family. When we marry she will consider me a relative, and from that, many good
    • things will flow. “You see, it’s not just protection against the Russians that I need. It’s money. When I’m related to the British royal family, money will flow into my coffers.” “For the benefit of your people.” “But what benefits me, benefits my people. Naturally I am expected to maintain a splendid court. As my Princess you will be at the centre of luxury. You will enjoy it.” “You are out of your mind. Even if I married you – which I won’t – how could I ever enjoy luxury paid for by stealing from your people? The idea is horrible?” “Do you think so? I find it rather sensible? How else could I pay for my little pleasures. Your scruples won’t last. When I shower you with diamonds, you’ll forget to worry about who paid for them.” Lavina shuddered. His leering smile, his soft, lisping voice, was beginning to make her feel sick. “Get out of my way,” she repeated. “I want to leave.” “But you cannot leave. Here you are, and here you will stay.” “Until what? Are you planning to produce a parson to force me into marriage here and now? Because if you – ” “Good heavens no!” he said, genuinely shocked. “No hole in the corner business for us. To be any use to me our wedding must take place in the sight of the world. I need a great occasion, in Westminster Abbey, in the presence of the Queen and the Russian ambassador, with the ceremony conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.” “And just how do you think you’ll force me to go through with it?” she demanded. “By keeping you here alone with me until you’re so compromised that no other man will have you.” “So you plan to turn me into damaged goods,” she said scornfully. “And what use will I be then as Princess of Kadradtz?” He shrugged. “Don’t be so stupid! It doesn’t matter to me if you’re damaged goods, as long as you bring the money with you.” A chill went through Lavina as she realised that this creature
    • was right. Nobody knew where she was. He could keep her here for days without being discovered. And who would want her then? “Her Majesty will never allow you to do this,” she said desperately. “Why not?” he asked, genuinely puzzled. “When she knows how you kidnapped me – I shall beg her help.” Stanislaus roared with laughter. “You beg her help? After the way you spoke to her?” He was right. She had thrown away all chance of the Queen’s friendship, and now her position was truly desperate. Suddenly she turned and began to run, heading for the far door. But she found it locked, and when she turned she saw Stanislaus coming towards her. He did not move hurriedly, for he knew that she was trapped. “Let me go,” she said breathlessly. “I will not marry you.” “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, abandoning his smile and showing her a cold face. “Of course you will. I want you. You are necessary to my plans. Forget Elswick. He won’t want you when you’ve spent a few days in my company.” “I am not going to spend any time in your company,” she said emphatically. “I am going to leave now.” “How, I wonder?” “I can’t believe that you’ll try to keep me here against my will.” “My dear girl, I didn’t take all this trouble to get you here simply to let you leave. I need you, I want you, and I always get what I want.” “You won’t get me.” Lavina tried to sound firm, but her heart was beating with fear. “Why, who do you think will help you?” “My fiancé,” she said determinedly. “Lord Elswick, the man I am going to marry.” Prince Stanislaus roared with laughter. “Marry you? Have you deluded yourself with that idea? He has no intention of marrying you. Your engagement is false, a fantasy
    • for my benefit.” “That is not true,” she stammered. “The Queen tells me that it is true. She never expected you to carry the charade this far. She thought, when her wishes had been made clear to you, you would obey them. But since you are stubborn, stern methods are needed.” “Do you expect me to believe that the Queen actually supports you in abducting me? Never!” “Well, I didn’t exactly describe what I meant to do, but in general she supports our coming marriage.” “I will not marry you,” she screamed. “When we’ve been here alone for a few days, you’ll be glad to marry me. Elswick won’t claim you. Oh, he wants revenge on me, but not at the price of tying himself to damaged goods.” “What – do you mean – revenge?” “You didn’t know? How charming. I shall have the pleasure of telling you. I was the man who enticed his bride away and left him looking foolish at the church, to the derision of his neighbours.” Lavina stared at him, aghast. “I don’t believe you,” she whispered. But she did. It made sense of everything, including the way the Marquis had behaved at their first meeting. At first he had refused to help her, then her father had mentioned Kadradtz, and he had swung round from the window, alert at the name. From that moment he had been determined to do everything in his power to make their betrothal convincing. The hastily arranged dinner party, the man from the newspaper, the family jewels, the kiss during the fireworks display – he had done much, much more than she had envisaged when she asked his help. And this was his reason. It was all to thwart the man who had ruined his life. She closed her eyes, trying not to follow this path of thought. It led to too much pain. “I don’t believe you,” she said again. It was untrue but she wanted to keep him talking. Dreadful as it was, she had to hear
    • everything. He shrugged. “Why not? I don’t live in Kadradtz all the time. It’s a dreadful, primitive place, as you’ll discover when we’re married. I travelled extensively, and at that time I was in England. I happened to meet Anjelica. “She took my fancy. She was a pretty little thing, delightful enough to turn any man’s head. When I met her she’d already got to work on young Elswick, thinking she’d struck gold. “He was insane about her, wildly, desperately infatuated. I think he would have sacrificed the world, and counted it well lost if only he could have her. “It was the kind of love a man feels only once in a lifetime – or so they tell me. I’ve never wasted time like that, myself. But people who understand these things say that, afterwards, a man protects himself from ever loving like that again.” “Yes,” Lavina whispered. “Oh yes.” “Personally,” continued Stanislaus with ineffable smugness, “I think that to be making such a fuss over a woman is absurd. One woman is just like another in the end. “Some are a little more fun, some a little less, but none of them really matter. However, Elswick would have died for Anjelica.” Lavina looked away, refusing to let him see how these remarks tortured her. They conjured up thoughts she could not bear, thoughts of the man she loved as he had once been, young, generous, with a heart to give; not wary and defensive as he was now, but loving, passionate and giving. “Anjelica knew how wildly in love he was,” Stanislaus went on. “She thought she was winning. She hadn’t reckoned on his family cutting him off. “Of course they couldn’t deprive him of the title, and if she’d been patient, she would eventually have been a Marchioness, and everything would have been hers. “But Anjelica didn’t understand the words ‘patience’ and ‘eventually’. She wanted everything now, and I was able to offer ‘now’. Not marriage, of course, but money, jewels, life in glittering
    • surroundings. “She made me wait right up until the wedding day. She was sure his family would relent when the moment came, and turn up at the wedding. “She even went to the church, all dressed in bridal white. I went with her, riding beside her carriage. When she realised that the old Marquis wasn’t there, I took her hand and we ran away together.” Stanislaus gave his eerie, almost silent laugh. “At the last minute I looked back and saw the jilted bridegroom standing there. For a moment I’ll swear he didn’t even realise what was happening. Then he began to run after us, calling her name. “But we ran and I took her up on my horse in front of me, and off we galloped. He chased us out of the church, still calling her name. “I heard afterwards that he lay in a fever for weeks, and nearly lost his reason.” “Sweet heaven!” Lavina whispered. “Oh she was a prime article, I grant you. Everyone envied me for having such a creature on my arm. “In Kadradtz we understand this kind of relationship better than the prudish English. I was able to take her with me everywhere.” “And you expect me to marry you, knowing that this woman is your mistress?” Lavina demanded scathingly. “Good heavens, no! I haven’t seen her for years. I became bored with her very quickly. Her conversation was extremely limited and her charms soon faded. Besides, another comet streaked across my horizon, far more beautiful and equally avaricious.” “I can see why you would need money,” Lavina said bitingly, “with all these jewels to buy.” “Oh please! Credit me with some understanding of economy. Naturally I retrieved the jewels from Anjelica to pass on to her successor. Not that they suited her very well. She was a brunette, and pearls looked insipid on her. Still, one can’t have everything.” Lavina stared at him, speechless with disgust. “So you threw her out without a penny when she’d outlived her usefulness?” “Not exactly without a penny. I did give her a sum of money. It
    • was the only way to stop her caterwauling, and be rid of her. But I doubt it lasted long. “My, how that woman could spend! Elswick could never have afforded her. Mind you, if she’d known how soon he would inherit the title, she might have decided to marry him and bide her time.” Now Lavina understood the jagged hatred that had rent the air when Lord Elswick met the Prince at Balmoral. It had not been her imagination. It had been real. “Still, I think she was very satisfied with me,” Stanislaus said smugly, “for a while.” Suddenly Lavina recalled something Lord Elswick had said at Balmoral. It had puzzled her, but it made perfect sense now. “But he pursued you,” she said in a voice of wondering discovery. “He found you and knocked you senseless, just as he threatened to do again that night at Balmoral.” There was a note in her voice that was almost triumph. “You’ve felt his fist before, haven’t you? That was what he meant when he said you knew he’d do it.” A pained looked passed over Stanislaus’ face. “There was an undignified brawl, I admit. In Heidelberg, not Kadradtz, which was a pity. In my own country I could have locked him up for ever, but in Heidelberg it had to be left to the officers of the law. “One of them turned out to be an old drinking companion of his father, and got him out of the country, fast. I was very annoyed about that.” Lavina managed a brave laugh. “I wish I could have seen you when he’d thrashed you. You must have been a sight.” “You are really most unwise to speak to me like that you know.” “I shall speak as I like. I care nothing for you. I shall never marry you.” “You’re not cherishing hopes of marrying Elswick, are you? Oh dear, I do hope he hasn’t deluded you into thinking he cares for you. He’s quite capable of it, simply to keep you compliant.” Lavina refused to let her face reveal her inner torment.
    • Was that all his kisses had meant – to ensure that she played her part properly? His anger when she had ventured on a mild flirtation – was that simply to ensure that she did not make a fool of him? “Anyway,” Stanislaus continued, “I’m sure you’re beginning to understand the reality of the situation now. You’ve been used. Ivan Elswick wanted to revenge himself on me, and you were his tool. Once he knows he’s lost the battle he won’t have any further use for you.” Lavina drew in a sharp breath. It was all true, and it hurt unbearably. Then she realised that Stanislaus was walking towards her, with a significant leer. “So why don’t you try to be a little accommodating? After all, we’re going to be here together for quite a while.” He reached for her and she drew back her riding whip to strike him, but he grabbed her hand. For a moment they struggled. She was desperate, but he was stronger, and she could feel that in another moment he would overcome her. And then she heard an incredible sound. The click of a pistol being cocked. Followed a voice of iron, “You have one second to release her, or I swear I’ll pull the trigger and damn the consequences.” Twisting her head, Lavina nearly gave a cry of joy. It was Lord Elswick, holding a pistol to the Prince’s head. “You are being very unwise,” Stanislaus began. “One second.” The Prince released her. Lavina got as far away from him as possible. “Thank God!” she gasped. “There’s no time for that now,” he grated, glancing at her briefly. “Ivan, look out!” With a movement that was incredibly lithe, considering his figure, Stanislaus had wriggled free and whipped out a knife. With an oath the Marquis turned the pistol so that he was
    • holding the barrel, and brought the butt down on Stanislaus’ head. He fell to the floor and lay there groaning, blood pouring down his face. “He’s all right,” the Marquis said, seizing Lavina’s hand. “Let’s go.” She needed no telling twice, running with him as fast as she could, then outside. There she found a downpour, with the rain coming down so hard that for a moment Lavina was driven back. “On your horse,” Lord Elswick said, helping her to mount. “And ride as fast as you can.” All she wanted was to get away from here and then to be alone with him, to look into his eyes and see the truth. But she knew that would have to wait. At first the trees protected them from the heavy rain, but gradually the wood faded, they were out in the open and the full force of the storm hit them. Rain came down in sheets, alarming the horses and making it hard to see the road ahead. “We shall have to find some shelter until the worst has passed,” he said. “I think I passed an inn half a mile along here.” They reached the inn, soaked and weary, and were relieved to find that it was open and they could get under cover. “The lady needs a private parlour,” the Marquis said at once. The landlord bowed her into a small parlour at the back, and instructed a maid to take in some towels. When Lavina had finished drying her hair she found that the Marquis had joined her. He pulled off his sodden coat and dried himself off as best he could. His damp shirt still stuck to him, his hair was tousled, and he was breathing hard, almost as though he were still fighting. The sight made Lavina remember what Stanislaus had said. For the Marquis this was a battle that had already lasted a long time, and it wasn’t over yet. “Lavina – ” He reached for her, pulling her close, wrapping his arms about her. For a moment her soul rejoiced, but only for a moment. His caresses were poisoned for her now.
    • Instead of melting against him, as she longed to do, she stiffened and asked in a hard voice, “How did you find me?” “You dropped the letter in your room and your maid found it. I guessed who had sent it, and luckily it told me where you’d gone.” She wanted to cry out at the thought that he had seen that letter and believed it was from him. She was grateful for being rescued, but her spirit was still wretched from what she had discovered. Suddenly she could hardly bear to be with him. She pulled back, turning away from him. “My dearest – ” he reached for her again. “Don’t,” she cried, backing from him. “Don’t call me that. Don’t come near me.” “But what is it? Are you angry with me? Did you think I wouldn’t come for you?” “Oh to be sure, you had to play out your revenge to the end!” she cried. “Darling – ” “You should have told me.” His face hardened. “So Stanislaus has been talking. I dare say he made a good story of it.” “I wish you had told me yourself. I felt so foolish to learn the truth from him.” “How could I tell you?” he demanded harshly. “You asked for my help and I gave it. I could not speak of my reasons to you then. They were too painful. And why should I think you cared, as long as I did as you asked?” She took a deep breath. “Yes of course. You are right.” She tried to force herself to speak sensibly. “I am very grateful for everything you have done for me, and now that it’s over I – ” “Is it over?” “It must surely be over very soon. The Prince will not stay here now. He will retire defeated, and then you will have everything you
    • wanted.” “Not quite everything,” he murmured. Lavina did not hear him. She was walking around the room, trying to sound composed, hoping desperately that he would not guess she was actually tortured by anguish. “You made use of me,” she cried. “In the beginning – yes, but that was before we knew each other. Have you not felt what has happened between us? Do I need to say in words that I have fallen in love with you – deeply in love, as I never thought to be again?” They were the words she had longed to hear, but now they seemed to have no meaning. In her distraught state nothing reached her clearly. Nothing in the world was real, or as it should be. She had fallen into another dimension, the one shown her by Stanislaus, a place of deceit and misery. It was like tumbling into the pit of hell, and even a declaration of love from the man she adored reached her sounding like mockery from a grinning devil. “Lavina, let us put the past behind us and start again,” he implored. “Let me hear you say that you love me.” “No,” she cried hoarsely, “no, get away from me. There can never be anything between us.” He stopped and a strange withered look crossed his face. “Are you saying that you do not love me? That I have been living in a sweet delusion.” “Yes,” she cried, “and so have I. There is nothing in the world but delusion and lies.” She barely knew what she was saying or doing, but somehow she had opened the far door of the room. It led into a passage, and she flew down that passage as though escaping demons. She wrenched open the back door and fled outside. The wind and rain had dropped now and she ran across the yard, through the back gate, out into the countryside. She did not know where she was going. She only knew that she had to get away from him. She could hear his voice crying her
    • name, but she only ran harder. Suddenly the world was filled with a terrifying sound, like an explosion. In the same moment she saw a flash of light just up ahead. She stopped, not realising what had happened. Her gaze was fixed on the horizon, and there, like a monstrous vision, she saw Prince Stanislaus on horseback, a smoking pistol in his hand, grinning as he turned his horse and galloped away. There was more noise behind her, shouting, footsteps running from the inn. In a nightmare she turned and saw the landlord reach the Marquis just as he fell to the ground, an ugly red stain spreading across his chest.
    • CHAPTER TEN For the rest of her life Lavina never forgot the next few terrible hours. For years her dreams were haunted by the memory of running up to the Marquis as he lay bleeding on the ground, throwing herself onto him with a cry of, “Ivan. Oh my love, my love! You must not be dead. You cannot be. Don’t leave me!” She put her arms about him and held him to her, sobbing. Then some men came running, fetched by the landlord, lifted him and carried him inside to a bedroom. The landlord was a kind, sensible man. He dispatched a messenger for the doctor, and another to the McEwuans. Luckily the doctor was close by and arrived quickly. He extracted the bullet, and managed to stop the bleeding. “It isn’t as bad as it looks,” he said at last. “The bullet did not strike any vital organ. With reasonable luck, he should pull through.” Lord Ringwood entered as he said these words, and took hold of his daughter to stop her from fainting with relief. “Bear up, my darling,” he said. “All will be well.” “I love him, Papa.” “I know, my dear,” he said gently. “I’ve always known.” “I didn’t know myself.” He patted her hand. “But I did.” “Can he be moved?” Sir Ian asked the doctor. He had been at home when the message arrived, and had hurried to the inn with Lord Ringwood. “Since your home is so close,” the doctor replied, “I think you can move him that short distance.” Another message was sent to fetch the McEwuans’ most comfortable carriage. When Lord Ringwood had thanked the landlord and paid him liberally, they began the short journey back to the McEwuan castle. Lavina sat beside the Marquis, holding his hand between both hers. But he sat with his eyes closed with an expression of pain on
    • his white face. And she could not tell if he were aware of her or not. It was a relief to see him carried away to his room, and to know that he would be more comfortable. Propriety forbade her to follow while he was being undressed, so she stayed with her father, and told him everything that had happened. He was shocked, and when she was finally able to return to the Marquis she left the Earl sunk in deep thought. The Marquis had briefly regained consciousness in the inn, but now he sank back. The journey had disturbed him, bringing on a fever. The doctor administered laudanum, which calmed him slightly, but Lavina watched in horror as his eyes grew sunken and his face assumed a deathly pallor. As his fever mounted he began to mutter deliriously. She strained to hear the words, but could only make out a few, and they did not make any sense. “A spinning top – ” he repeated again and again, “pretty as a spinning top – ” For one long, interminable night he repeated these words. Sometimes he would open his eyes and look straight at Lavina, but without any recognition, before closing them again. Then, nearing morning, he fell into a troubled sleep. Mercifully his temperature had fallen, but he seemed distant from her, like a man living in another world. “If only I knew some way to reach him,” she murmured desperately. Then suddenly she had an idea. She went quickly out of the room and down the stairs, to find Lady McEwuan. “I have come to ask you a great favour,” she said. “My dear, anything.” “Is there a piano anywhere upstairs?” Lady McEwuan stared at her. “A piano!” she exclaimed. She was about to ask questions. Then she changed her mind and said: “There is one in the nursery which the children used until they
    • grew older. I’ve kept it tuned.” “Oh thank you, that will be wonderful. May I have it moved?” “Of course. Tell the butler what you want, and he will send someone.” On Lavina’s instruction the butler had two men carry the piano from the nursery into the passage outside the room where the Marquis was sleeping. She crept back into his room. His eyes were half closed and she could not tell if he was awake or sleeping. She slipped out again, leaving the door open. In the corridor Lavina sat down at the piano. Then she started to play the soft music she had first heard the Marquis play when they were on the yacht. She played the tune which the Marquis himself had played so well, and which she knew meant a great deal to him. She played for twenty minutes. Then, very softly, she looked back into the bedroom. He lay quite still, his eyes completely closed now, his breathing coming more easily. Whether he was asleep or merely listening, she had no idea. For a moment she stood where she was, thinking that he looked somehow at peace and not suffering from pain or fever. She returned to the piano and began to play again, some of her own favourite tunes. Then once more she played the tune which meant so much to the man she loved. Only after quite a long time had passed did she once again look into the room, and tip-toe nearer to the bed. His eyes opened and he said very quietly, in a voice she could hardly hear, “Thank you, my darling.” For a moment Lavina was so astonished that she could only stare down at the Marquis and could not speak. Then as he put out his hand very slowly towards her, she slipped hers into it. “Do you feel better?” she asked. “Are you in terrible pain?”
    • She felt his fingers close over hers and he said, “I feel no pain now, for I have been listening to the things you told me through the music.” “What – did you hear me tell you?” she asked. “You said you were sorry for me, and also that I mean something to you.” “Everyone is very worried about you,” Lavina managed to say. “I can only tell you of my feelings by playing on the piano that which I cannot say in words.” “And as I listened to you, I began to feel better,” the Marquis said. He was speaking in a low voice, almost hesitating between the words. But Lavina could hear every one of them, because she was listening with her heart. Her hand was still in his. She felt somehow as if she were giving him the strength he had lost. “I have been so frightened for you,” she whispered. “When I heard the music, I felt that you were giving me help and strength, and I should soon be well.” “Oh yes,” Lavina answered softly. “You must get well. Life is so sad without you.” “I want you here, I want you to help me,” the Marquis said. “Please play for me again. Then I will feel strong enough to tell you what I want to say.” “Tell me now,” she begged, breathless with hope. But his eyes were already closed. She took her hand from his, but she had the strange feeling that he released her reluctantly. She went into the corridor, and once again played the tunes which she loved herself, and which she felt expressed in music what she felt when she was riding, dancing or just looking at the sun. She knew now that her music spoke to the man she loved, and that the things it told him were vital for them both, and the future. “You must get well, completely well,” she told him in music. “I love you more than I can ever say, except in this music which
    • seems to come down from heaven and not belong to the world.” After a while she thought she would see if he was asleep or awake. She went into the room very quietly and found his eyes closed. She knelt beside him, praying that he would soon get well, closing her own eyes as she did so. When she opened them she saw him looking at her. As she looked back at him he put out his hand. She put hers into his and felt him hold her hand so firmly that he was almost squeezing it. Then he asked quietly, “Were you praying for me?” “With all my heart,” she replied fervently. “You must get well, for my sake.” “Does it matter to you,” he murmured, “if I am well or not?” “Of course it does,” she said passionately. “I thought you hated me.” “No, no I could never hate you.” “Promise me that that is true.” “It is true, I swear it.” She would have said more but he seemed to fall asleep again, and this time it was as though something had brought him peace. Her father had crept into the room behind her. “Go and get some sleep now, my dear,” he said. “He’ll be better in the morning.” That night she slept without dreaming, and woke feeling calmer. “He’s better,” said Mrs Banty, without waiting for her first question. “I’ve already been along to find out.” Mrs Banty had developed a soft spot for the Marquis. “I must go to him,” Lavina said. “When you’ve had some breakfast,” Mrs Banty said firmly. She went downstairs to be greeted warmly by the whole McEwuan family. Suddenly she was hungry. She had eaten so little recently, and her spirits were rising with hope. Suddenly the butler entered, his face grave, for he understood the significance of what he was saying.
    • “The Queen’s messenger is here to see Lord Ringwood.” “Papa!” Lavina’s hands flew to her mouth. “It’s all right, my dear. It will be a reply to the letter I despatched to Her Majesty as soon as I knew what Prince Stanislaus had done.” “But what did you say to her?” “I resigned my place at court, and I told her why.” Before she could reply the messenger appeared. It was Sir Richard Peyton again, and his manner could only be described as chastened. “The Queen has received your letter,” he said, “and replied at once. I have travelled all night to be here, and I am commanded by Her Majesty to say that she hopes you will take the contents of her letter very seriously.” Under the anxious eyes of everyone, Lord Ringwood opened the envelope. It contained Her Majesty’s urgent plea that Lord Ringwood would reconsider his decision to leave the court, as she could not do without him. Her Majesty further added her congratulations on the betrothal of Lady Lavina Ringwood to Lord Elswick, and her hopes of happiness for their future. She thought Lord Ringwood might be interested to know that Prince Stanislaus had left the country and would not be returning. “We have won, my dear,” he said to Lavina, tears of joy in his eyes. “Oh Papa!” She hugged her father, full of relief, for him as much as herself. “Will you return to court?” she asked. “I think so, my dear.” “I must go and tell him,” she said, and sped upstairs. She found the Marquis lying quietly, but looking much better than yesterday. There was colour in his cheeks. “We have won,” she said, and told him about the letter. “Yes,” he said, “but I am still wondering exactly what I have won – or whether I have won anything. You will have to tell me.”
    • “Don’t you know?” she asked, sitting by his bed. “Didn’t the music tell you?” “It gave me hope. But you were so very angry with me? Has your anger truly died?” “I was foolish to say those things when we were at the inn. I was distraught. It was just such a shock to hear Stanislaus tell me why you wanted revenge on him. Of course, I always realized that there was something that I didn’t know. “When Papa and I came to see you, you refused us at first, then changed your mind, and later I remembered that it was when Stanislaus was mentioned. And you always told me that you had your own reasons.” “Yes, I wanted revenge on him for what he’d done to me,” the Marquis said. “But not only for my own sake. I was revenging her as well.” “Her? You mean – ” “Anjelica, the girl I once loved. I can see the truth about her now. She was a greedy little predator, who wanted me because I was heir to wealth and a great title. “For her sake, I became an outcast from my family, but that wasn’t what she wanted. It would have meant waiting, perhaps years, for me to inherit, and she wanted the good things of life immediately. “Stanislaus tempted her away with gold and finery. He couldn’t marry her, but she didn’t care for that, as long as there was luxury. But it lasted only a few months before he threw her out.” “Yes, he told me,” Lavina said. “He almost boasted of it.” “She sank into poverty and lived such a wretched life that she finally lost her wits. That was how she was when I found her again.” “You found her?” Lavina asked, startled. “Yes, quite by chance. She was very frail by then, and didn’t know me. I was able to take her away and put her in the care of kindly people, who looked after her until she died.” “You did that for her?” Lavina asked in wonder. “After what she had done to you?” “It wasn’t entirely her fault. She wasn’t really very intelligent, and
    • she fell easy prey to his pretty lies. So I felt I had her to avenge as well as myself.” “And society called you a curmudgeon, who hated women,” she said in wonder. He gave her a crooked smile. “Society was right, except that it wasn’t only women I hated, but the whole world, that could exact such a brutal price. I condemned all women as faithless and stupid, and all men as boorish and cruel. I shut myself up with my misery and bitterness, allowing no good healthy light to fall on it. “In all those years I can recall only one thing that brought me joy. And that was the night I walked into a house in London and saw a young girl dancing like a ray of sunlight.” He smiled tenderly. “I can see her now, a spinning top, her dark hair flying out as she whirled. She was like the embodiment of life itself, young, beautiful, unafraid.” “I thought you despised me,” she said. “I turned away from you because you threatened the iron prison in which I had enclosed myself. I told myself you were only a child – which was true, but not my real reason. The real reason was that I rejected the gifts of life and joy that you carried with you. I was afraid of them. “But I never forgot you. In the years since, your spinning figure has haunted my dreams and danced across my vision, never allowing me to forget that I had chosen a terrible path; that there was another path, if only I dared take it. “And then, one day, you returned, grown up, glorious, majestic, asking my help. “But by that time I was in no state to appreciate you. If you hadn’t come into my life when you did, it would soon have been all up with me. “And yet you seemed to resent me, and be angry with me. “I fought you. You’ll never know how hard I fought you. I didn’t want the warmth and life you brought with you. I’d lived so long away from them that they were too much for me.
    • “And yet, while I fought you with one hand I tightened my grip on you with the other. I put bolts and bars on our engagement, anything to keep you with me – and all the time I told myself that it was revenge on Stanislaus that motivated me. Nothing else. But the truth was I was daily falling more and more in love with you. “I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but in my heart I knew. And then, when I thought I was going to die, I knew I had to speak to you, to tell you that I loved you, and wanted your love.” His eyes held hers. She felt they were saying something to her she did not understand, something more than his lips spoke. Then he said very quietly, “I love you. I have loved you for a long time. I am only afraid that I might lose you.” The words seemed to come slowly from his lips. But his hand tightened and somehow she found herself bending nearer to him until his lips touched hers. She loved him as she had never loved anyone before. “I love you! I love you!” he said. Then once again his lips were holding hers captive. She thought it was the most wonderful and the most glorious thing she had ever known. “I love you! I love you!” she wanted to say, but it was impossible to speak when the Marquis’s lips were against hers. Both his arms went round her to hold her closer still. It seemed a long time later that Lavina found herself lying on the bed beside him. Her head was on his shoulder. “Tell me that you love me,” he begged. “I love you!” Lavina whispered. “It is so wonderful that I can’t find words to express it.” “All I want,” the Marquis said, “are your lips. Kiss me again and I will know I am not dreaming and that this is real.” She kissed him again, gently and tenderly, so as not to disturb his wound. “How soon can we be married?” he asked. “Do you really want to marry me?” Lavina asked. “I am going to make certain that you belong to me, and I never
    • lose you,” he said. “You are mine and you must swear to me, on everything you hold sacred, you will never leave me.” “I promise I will never do that,” Lavina replied. “I think I first loved you when I heard you playing the piano, and the music seemed to whisper of the love which I had never known, and never felt until I met you.” “I always knew that you were different from any woman I had met before,” he mused, “but I was desperately afraid of frightening you, and making you and your father have no further use for me once we reached Scotland.” “Even when I thought I was annoyed with you, you were in my heart. You were so different from any other man I had ever met.” “And every man you will meet in the future,” he said softly. “You are my darling, and I will never let you look at another man.” “I’ll never want to do that. I want to be with you, to be close to you and for you to love me, just as the music told me about love. That is how I feel at the moment.” “I have a great deal more than music to tell you about,” the Marquis said. “You are everything I ever wanted and ever longed for in a woman. I swear to you, my darling, I will do everything to make you happy!” “And I will make you happy,” she promised him, “so that you will forget the years of sadness. There are so many wonderful things we can do together.” “I love you, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet,” he said. “I shall love you until the time comes for my life to end.” “On that day,” Lavina said, “my life too will be over. I want nothing in the world but you.” She was unable to say any more because the Marquis’s lips were on hers. She felt as he kissed her as if they were both flying up into the sky to be blessed by God. She knew, in her mind and in her heart, that she had found love. And that she would be true to that love forever more.
    • Where to buy other titles in this series The Barbara Cartland Pink collection is available for download at the following online bookshops :www.barnesandnoble.com - epub format for the Nook eReader www.whsmith.co.uk - epub format for the Smiths/Kobo eReader www.firstyfish.com - epub format ebookstore.sony.com - epub format for Sony eReaders www.amazon.co.uk - For UK Kindle users www.amazon.com - For international Kindle users itunes.apple.com - for Apple iOS users