Prologue

Prologue

Early October 1811

Nathaniel Pembroke, Marquess of Ravenwell, threw a saddle on Zephyr’s back, mounted up, and pointed the black stallion’s head towards the fell, the words of the letter searing his brain and his heart. As Zephyr’s hooves flashed across the ground the tears spilling from Nathaniel’s eyes evaporated in the wind and his roar of rage was heard by no man. The fells above Shiverstone Hall were avoided by local villagers and farmers alike, and that was precisely how Nathaniel liked it.

The great black’s pace flagged and, reluctantly, Nathaniel steadied him to a trot. The anger and the grief burning his chest had not eased—the hollow place where his shrivelled heart had struggled to survive this past nine years was still there, only now it was cavernous…a vast, stygian void. He should know by now grief could never be outrun. It cleaved to you like lichen clung to the rocks that strewed the dale below.

Hannah. Tears again clouded his vision and he blinked furiously, gazing hopelessly at the gunmetal grey of the sky. Dead. Never again to see his beloved sister’s face, or to hear her laugh, or to feel the rare human contact of her arms around him, hugging, reassuring. And David, Hannah’s husband of eight years and Nathaniel’s loyal and steadfast friend…his only friend. Also gone.

The raw lump in Nathaniel’s throat ached unbearably as the words of his mother’s letter—delivered as he had broken his fast that morning—reverberated through his brain: a carriage accident; Hannah and David both killed outright; little Clara, their two-year-old daughter, the only survivor.

You are named as Guardian to the child, my son. If I can help you, you know that I will, but I cannot, at my age, shoulder all responsibility for her upbringing. Neither will I live in that Godforsaken place you please to call home in order to help you with the task.

I urge you to come home to Ravenwell and we shall raise Clara together. It is time you took your place in the world again.

If you choose not to, however, then you must come and collect your ward. It is your duty and you owe it to your poor, dear sister to take charge of and care for the child she loved more than life itself.

Your loving

Mother

Nathaniel turned Zephyr for home, the realities of his dilemma bearing down on him. He could not deny the truth of Mother’s words—she was getting no younger and she would never be happy living at Shiverstone Hall—his cadet estate near the border between the North Riding of Yorkshire and Westmorland—nor would it be healthy for her. She lived most of the year at Ravenwell Manor, his main estate in the far more civilised countryside that surrounded the town of Harrogate, on the far side of the Dales.

But…he considered those alternatives, neither of which appealed. Go home to Ravenwell? He shook his head in dumb denial. Never. He could tolerate neither the memories nor the looks of sympathy from those who had known him before. Still less could he stomach the recoil of strangers at the sight of him.

By the time he rode into the yard behind Shiverstone Hall, his decision was made. He had one choice, and one choice only. He must fetch Clara and bring her to Shiverstone to live with him. His courage almost failed at the thought—what did he know about children, particularly one as young as Clara?

* * *

‘You have responsibilities, Nathaniel. You cannot continue to hide away. How are you ever to produce an heir otherwise? Not every woman will react like Miss Havers.’

Nathaniel bit back a growl at the reminder of Miss Havers. He had suspected how that would end as soon as his mother had told him of the woman who had agreed to a marriage of convenience. Even the lure of his wealth and title was not enough to compensate for his scars. Miss Havers changed her mind after one meeting and Nathaniel had retreated to Shiverstone Hall, resolving to live a solitary life. She hadn’t been the first woman to react to his altered appearance with horror: Lady Sarah Reece—with whom he’d had an understanding before he was injured—had lost no time in accepting another man’s proposal.

He did not miss his former carefree life as one of society’s most eligible bachelors: such frivolous pleasures no longer held any allure for him. Nor did he miss his erstwhile friends. He would never forget the shock on their faces, nor the speed with which they had turned their backs on him after the fire.

He was happy with his life, dammit. He had his animals and his hawks—they did not judge him by how he looked.

His mother forked a morsel of roast grouse into her mouth and then placed her knife and fork on to her plate whilst she chewed, watching Nathaniel expectantly.

‘I am but thirty, Mother. There is more than enough time to produce an heir.’

‘Would you pour me another glass of wine, please, Nathaniel?’

He obliged. They were dining alone in the dining room at Ravenwell Manor, the servants having been dismissed by Lady Ravenwell as soon as the dishes had been served. That had prompted Nathaniel to suspect their conversation would prove uncomfortable and his defences were already well and truly in place.

‘Thank you.’ His mother sipped her wine, then placed her glass on the finely embroidered tablecloth. ‘Do not think I am ignorant of your plan, son,’ she said. ‘You arrive here after dark, at a time you know Clara will already be asleep. What is your intention? To snatch her from her bed before dawn and be away before you need to see anyone, or be seen?’

He hated the sympathy in her eyes but he also knew that behind that sympathy there existed a steely belief in duty. His duty: to the estate, to his family, to the memory of his father, and to the future of the marquessate. Her jibe about snatching Clara from her bed sailed too close to the truth.

‘I came as soon as I could after reading your letter, Mother. My late arrival was because I did not want to wait until tomorrow to travel, but I am afraid I must return in the morning.’

‘Must?’

‘It will not do to expect a two-year-old child to travel late into the night.’

‘Then stay for a few days. At least give the poor child a chance to remember you.’

He had last seen Clara four months before, when she had come up to Shiverstone with Hannah and David from their home in Gloucestershire. They had stayed with him for a week. Thinking of his sister and his friend brought that choking, aching lump into his throat once more. He bowed his head, staring unseeingly at the food in front of him, his appetite gone.

‘I could invite a few neighbours for dinner. Only people you already know, not strangers.’

I can’t… Bile rose, hot and bitter in his mouth.

He shoved his plate from him with a violent movement. Mother jumped, her fork clattering on to her plate and her face crumpled, the corners of her mouth jerking down as her eyes sheened. Guilt—familiar, all-encompassing—swept through him and he rounded the table to fold his mother into his arms as she sobbed.

‘I’m sorry, Mother.’ She had lost her precious daughter and he had been concerned only with his own selfish fears. ‘Of course I will stay for a few days.’ A few days would be all he could endure of his mother’s efforts to reintroduce him into local society, he was certain of that. ‘But no dinner parties, I beg of you. Do not forget we are in mourning.’

Mother’s shoulders trembled. ‘You are right,’ she whispered. ‘But…please…stay with me a short time.’

He dropped a kiss on her greying head. ‘I will.’

Poor Mother, left with only him out of her family. He was no substitute for Hannah. Why couldn’t it have been he who died? Hannah had so much to live for, whereas he… He batted that wicked thought away. No matter how black his future had seemed, he had never been tempted to take his own life. He was content enough with the life he led. The villagers avoided him and he had his dogs and his horses and his hawks: they provided all the company he needed.

Nathaniel resumed his seat, but did not draw his plate towards him again.

‘What about Clara’s nanny?’ He remembered the woman from Hannah’s last visit to Shiverstone. At least she was not a complete stranger. ‘I assume she is here and will stay with Clara?’

His mother’s gaze skittered past him. ‘I am afraid not. She has family in Gloucester and does not want to move so far away. You will need to appoint a new nanny and then, later, she will need a governess.’

He battled to hide his dismay, but some must have shown, for she continued, ‘You must put Clara’s needs first. She is two years old. What do you know about taking care of such a young child? Of any child? And Mrs Sharp has enough to do with running the Hall. You cannot expect her to take on more responsibility.’

She’s right. I know she’s right…and yet every fibre of his being rebelled against the notion of not one, but two, strangers coming into his home. He eyed his mother. Perhaps…

‘And do not think I shall yield if you try to persuade me to raise Clara on your behalf.’

His mother—one step ahead as usual. He must accept that, once again, he had no choice.

‘I will advertise for a governess,’ he said. One person—surely he could cope with one person. Once she was used to his appearance, all would be well. He need not see much of her. ‘Then Clara will not have to adapt to another person in her life later on. She needs consistency after losing her parents.’

Poor little soul. Unwanted by her own mother—an unfortunate girl in trouble—and now losing her adoptive parents. And she was a sweet little poppet. Too young to react with horror to his scars as other children had done in the past, Clara had accepted her uncle and she, in turn, had delighted him with her gurgles and her first attempts at speech. An unaccustomed tingle warmed his chest. She would be his. She might only be two, but she would provide some human contact apart from his servants.

‘You must do as you deem right for Clara.’ Mother’s sceptical expression, however, suggested that she was completely aware of his real reason for choosing a governess rather than a nanny. ‘And for darling Hannah.’

A lone tear spilled over and tracked down her lined cheek. How had he never been aware of those wrinkles before? His mother had aged. Grief, he thought, did that to a person and poor Mother had faced more grief than most.

‘I will,’ he vowed.

He owed it to his sister, who had tackled her own heartbreak of trying and failing to give birth to a healthy baby with such dignity and grace. She had been besotted by Clara from the very first moment she held her in her arms and impotent anger raged through Nathaniel that she would now miss the joy of seeing her adopted daughter grow and mature. Hannah had been one of the few constants in his life since the fire that had taken his father and changed Nathaniel’s life for ever. He would not let her down now. He would write to the editor of the York Herald, with instructions to run an advertisement for a trained governess who was willing to come and live at the Hall.

For the first time he felt a sliver of doubt—what sort of woman would agree to bury herself in such an isolated place?

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