Early June 1812—Worcestershire
Lady Cecily Beauchamp’s face ached with the effort of maintaining her smile. Not for the world would she reveal the sudden misery and doubt that assailed her as she watched her brother, Vernon, walk his new bride back up the aisle of the little country church where they had just made their vows. The happy couple were followed by Cecily’s oldest brother, Leo, Duke of Cheriton, his new Duchess on his arm. In the space of four months both of Cecily’s brothers had found love and wed, totally shaking Cecily’s comfortable, settled world. She had spent her entire adult life in charge of the Beauchamp household and had raised Leo’s three children from his first marriage with as much love and care as if they were her own.
Cecily stifled a gasp as a touch to her elbow almost catapulted her out of her skin. She glanced sideways into the face of a stranger and pressed her hand to her chest to quell the sudden thump of her heart as a pair of the darkest eyes she had ever seen captured her gaze. Black unruly locks framed his face, harshly handsome with chiselled cheekbones, skin the hue of dark honey and a hint of dark stubble shadowing his jaw, even though it was still before noon. A swift sweep of his body—tall and powerfully built—offered the solution to his unkempt appearance and tanned face. His clothing was clean and serviceable, but well-worn.
No doubt he is a servant of the Markhams, invited to attend the wedding.
Dismissing both the stranger and her own wayward twinge of regret—servants were servants, after all—Cecily smiled graciously and moved out of the pew to allow the man to pass.
She had arrived late at the church, very nearly missing the ceremony entirely after one of the carriage horses threw a shoe that morning, delaying the final leg of their journey. Rather than cause a disturbance, she and Dominic—Leo’s eldest son, who had escorted her on the journey from London to Worcestershire—had slipped quietly into the back pew.
Her gaze swept the interior of the church. Dominic had already gone, as had the remainder of the small congregation. She had barely noticed the exodus, too caught up in her own sudden awareness of the changes that had rocked her world.
‘Are you unwell? Should I fetch someone?’
The rich voice came from behind her. She turned. The stranger, his brooding gaze on her, stood by the open church door. Cecily felt a flush start low on her chest and rise to wash over her face, although she did not know why she should feel embarrassed by what a servant might think of her standing and wool-gathering when she should be outside, congratulating her brother and her new sister-in-law.
‘I am quite well, thank you.’ She walked towards the door. ‘There really was no need for you to wait or to be concerned.’
He filled her vision as she neared him and a glint caught her eye. She blinked. She was not mistaken. She felt her eyes widen. The man had a diamond in his earlobe.
Quickly, she wiped any hint of surprise from her expression. The stranger still watched her, his features impassive, but she got the impression he missed nothing with those ebony eyes of his. Sure enough, as her gaze locked with his, amusement glimmered in their depths before he swept a bow.
‘After you,’ he said.
Cecily stalked past him, her nose in the air. Her heels clacked rapidly against the flagstones as she continued through the church porch and outside, blinking as she emerged into bright sunlight.
‘Cecily!’ Vernon swept her into a hug and then kissed her soundly on the cheek. ‘I’m so pleased you decided to come.’
Cecily thrust aside her troubles and doubts. This was Vernon’s day. She loved her brother dearly and she would not cast a shadow by revealing her fears. She could not be that selfish.
‘You gave us very little notice, Brother dear. We only just made it in time.’
‘Did Olivia not accompany you? I have not seen her. Or Alex.’
‘Unfortunately, Livvy took ill the morning we left.’ Cecily still did not quite believe in her eighteen-year-old niece’s sudden bout of sickness, but she’d had no choice other than to leave her behind. ‘We decided it was best for her not to travel. And as for Alex—well—Alex is Alex,’ she added, of Leo’s rebellious younger son. She pushed all thought of her challenging niece and nephew from her thoughts and smiled up at her brother. ‘Congratulations! I never thought I would see the day you trod this path willingly.’
Vernon grinned, and pinched Cecily’s chin. ‘You will understand when you meet her.’ He caught Cecily’s hand and tugged her over to where Leo and Rosalind stood with the bride. ‘Thea! Meet your new sister.’ Cecily was immediately charmed by Vernon’s new wife. She was tiny, with a neat figure and a vibrant face topped by a halo of copper-coloured curls. Her infectious smile invited everyone to share in her joy and she gave the impression of barely contained energy as she moved.
‘I have heard so much about you, Cecily. I hope we can be friends.’ Thea’s voice was unexpectedly deep for a woman and endearingly gruff.
‘I am sure we shall.’ Cecily kissed Thea on both cheeks. ‘Are your parents here?’
She would be staying at Thea’s parents’ home, Stourwell Court, for the next few days and it was only good manners that she should greet her hosts.
The spark in Thea’s eyes seemed to fade. ‘They have gone home. My father had a stroke six years ago. He is not strong and cannot walk. He insisted on attending the wedding in his wheelchair, but Mama took him straight home afterwards. You will meet them later.’
‘I shall look forward to it.’
Vernon’s letter had related the story of Thea’s father’s infirmity and the awful circumstances that were the cause of it. A swindler had courted Thea and then cheated her father out of a fortune before jilting poor Thea at the altar. Her family—not part of the aristocracy or even the landed gentry, but hard-working manufacturers of lead-crystal glassware—had been almost bankrupted and the shock had caused Mr Markham Sr’s stroke. Thea and her younger brother, Daniel, had worked tirelessly to pull both the business and the family back from the brink of ruin.
Cecily glanced around the small group of people gathered outside the church. Apart from Leo and Rosalind, and Rosalind’s grandfather, Mr Allen—all of whom had already been in the Midlands in order to collect Mr Allen’s belongings from his Birmingham home—and Dominic, there were few others. Of the servant with the diamond in his ear, there was no sign and she supposed he had attended the wedding in order to help Mr Markham get to and from the church. A strange sensation stirred her insides at the thought of the man and his dark, unfathomable gaze. Irritated, she cast him from her thoughts.
‘Allow me to introduce you to my brother,’ Thea said and she drew Cecily towards a young man who was talking to Dominic.
Daniel looked nothing like his sister, being tall and dark, but there was little time to talk for Vernon soon ushered them all into motion, urging them ahead of him.
‘Come now, it is time for the wedding breakfast. I intend to spend the rest of this day in celebration of my good fortune in marrying this gorgeous, perfect woman.’
He swept one arm around Thea’s waist and pulled her close for a kiss. The sting of tears took Cecily totally unaware. To see her much-sought-after, handsome brother so utterly smitten with Thea, even though she was not of their world…that was true love. It had been the same with Leo and Rosalind. Almost from the first time Cecily had seen her powerful oldest brother—a duke from the age of nineteen—with Rosalind it had been clear he was besotted. Cecily ducked her head and blinked rapidly until she was sure her emotions were under control again and then she plastered another happy smile upon her face and allowed Dominic to hand her into the coach for the journey to Stourwell Court. She barely noticed the house as they drove up to it, so preoccupied was she. Then the carriage halted and they entered the house and were shown into the dining room where the wedding breakfast was laid out.
The first person she saw was the man from the church. And he was not a servant, as she had first thought, because Leo himself carried out the introductions.
‘Cecily, my dear, this is Mr Gray, a very good friend of Daniel Markham. Absalom—my sister, Lady Cecily Beauchamp.’
Mr Gray bowed. When he straightened there was such a look of bemusement on his face that she almost—but not quite—giggled. And she never giggled. Ladies do not giggle, especially thirty-year-old spinsters who are sisters of a duke. But the giggle bubbled dangerously in her chest nevertheless.
‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Gray,’ she said.
His dark eyes narrowed and she felt a whisper of caution deep down inside, but she could not fathom what it meant.
‘Likewise, Lady Cecily.’
He moved away abruptly and they did not speak again, but her eyes were drawn to him again and again during the wedding breakfast. His stillness. His watchfulness. A quiver ran through her every time his dark gaze touched upon her and she deliberately looked away so she did not meet his eyes. Later, she questioned Thea—casually—about the presence of Absalom Gray and she learned that he was a gipsy—‘or Romany, as he prefers,’ whispered Thea—who had recently saved Daniel’s life. Nothing much else was known about him. He was, Thea had confided, a man who guarded his privacy.
And then the diamond earring, which made him somehow mysterious and dangerous, and the faded, loose-fitting clothing—serviceable but not that of a gentleman—made sense. Cecily noticed that Mr Gray disappeared after the wedding breakfast and the toasts, and she felt at once relieved and disappointed:elieved in that she no longer needed to be on her guard against catching his eye and disappointed in that his brooding presence had at least diverted her from agonising over her own future.
* * *
She maintained her cheerful mask all through the afternoon and on into the evening, when neighbours and friends of the Markhams had been invited to share in the celebrations. Her life had prepared her for just this outward mien of calmness and grace, even when her insides were in tumult and even while her inner voice berated her ceaselessly for her mean-spirited response to both of her brothers’ good fortune in finding love and happiness. She gazed around the drawing room, at the happy, champagne-flushed faces and, of a sudden, it all felt too much. She needed to get away. She needed a few minutes alone where she did not have to act a part.
She caught Rosalind’s eye and gestured, indicating that she was going to relieve herself, before quietly leaving the room. Instead of heading to the ladies’ retiring room, however, she found a side door that opened into the garden and she let herself out into the fresh air. She did not linger by the house, but followed a gravelled path that bisected a formally laid out garden, instinctively heading away from the laughter and the light to a place where, as twilight dimmed to dusk, she would be invisible to any other guest who ventured outside. As she walked, a breeze sprang up and she chafed her arms against its unexpectedly sharp bite, wishing she had thought to fetch her shawl before coming outside. She glanced back at the Court, its every downstairs window blazing with light, wondering if she should return to the celebration, but—just for the moment—she could not face it. The strange agitation that roiled her insides was making her nauseous. Inside the house, joy and congratulations continued to flow as freely as the champagne. And Cecily shared the joy and congratulated the happy couple with all her heart. Truly she did. But…
She needed time alone to sort through her thoughts and her emotions, which felt precariously balanced, as though the slightest nudge might result in a complete loss of control. And one thing Cecily prided herself upon was that she never lost control. She shivered, hugging her arms around her torso, and rubbed again at the gooseflesh on her bare arms, deliberately allowing her deepest fears a free rein as she continued to stroll along the broad path flanked by glorious roses in full bloom, intermingled with sweet-smelling herbs. The moon, brightening by the minute, was already high in the sky and the stars winked on, one by one, as the velvet cloak of the night shrouded the garden.
It wasn’t that she begrudged either Leo or Vernon their happiness. She was thrilled to see them both so wonderfully, ecstatically in love. And she liked both Rosalind and Thea. Very much. But Vernon’s marriage, coming so soon after Leo’s, had left Cecily…where, exactly?
And now she could allow her innermost fears to float up to the surface and form into coherent thoughts, she could pin down the source of her greatest fear: these two momentous changes in the life of the Beauchamp family had left Cecily fast travelling down the road to that unenviable position: the unwed dependant.
The maiden aunt.
The recipient of pitying looks and the butt of snide jokes.
No longer mistress of anything, but a supplicant.
Her life had changed, through no fault of her own, and she had no power to prevent what would, inevitably, come. Her stomach clenched with resentment at the unfairness of the hand life had dealt her and she quickened her pace, as though she could outrun her shame at such mean-spirited and selfish thoughts and feelings. She reached the end of the path, turned a corner and thumped straight into a solid wall of flesh.
Cecily teetered for a moment and two hard hands encircled her arms to steady her, the grip powerful and hot against her bare skin. Her heart thundered in her chest as she realised how reckless she had been, wandering around a strange place in the dark, with only the moon and stars to light her way, and she struggled to free herself. The man instantly released her, his hands falling to his sides, and her pulse steadied. She tipped back her head to see a pair of dark fathomless eyes set in a barely visible face, framed by a silhouette of straggling dark curls. The glint of a diamond in among those curls triggered recognition and her breath caught in her chest as her pulse rocketed once again.