Secrets of the Heart Candace Camp ???? HarperCollins EUR On the eve of her wedding to Michael Trent, the Earl of Westhampton, Rachel Aincourt tried to elope with another man?only to be unceremoniously returned to her fianc? by her strong-willed father. Burdened by guilt and shame, Rachel felt she'd gotten what she deserved: a loveless marriage to a cold, enigmatic husband. She was wrong.Behind Michael's proper demeanor lay a man who thrived on danger and intrigue?and now he'd been drawn into one of Bow Street's toughest cases. When the crime turned into a murder that involved Rachel, Michael found a new way to employ his mastery of disguise: seducing the wife he secretly loved. But would he finally be able to win her heart?or would he destroy his last chance for happiness? The carriage jerked and jolted to a halt. The door opened, and a black-clad figure stepped inside. Rachel struggled to keep her expression neutral. ??Ere, now,? he said. ?Where?s the guv?nor?? ?This is Lord Westhampton?s carriage,? Rachel replied, ?if that is what you mean. Westhampton is back at his estate.? The man was silent for a moment. Finally he asked, ?Are you the missus, then?? ?I am Lady Westhampton,? Rachel admitted. ?Right. Well, I?m thinkin? you can deliver the message, then.? ?The message?? Rachel felt as if she had stepped bizarrely into a scene from a play, one in which everyone knew the lines except her. ?Aye. Tell ?im he needs to watch ?is back. ?E?s gettin? too close. There?s some?un wishes ?im ill.? He nodded, then sprang from the carriage. Behind him, Rachel gazed in stunned silence. ?This is a suspense tale with a witty twist.? ?Romantic Times on The Hidden Heart Secrets of the Heart Candace Camp www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Secrets of the Heart Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 1 Rachel leaned back against the soft velvet squabs of the carriage seat and stifled a sigh. She glanced across at Gabriela, who was curled up in a corner of her seat, asleep. She envied the girl the easy sleep of youth. Rachel had not been able to fall asleep, despite the monotonous rumbling of the coach. She could not dismiss the odd feeling of ennui, even sorrow, that had plagued her ever since they?d left Westhampton yesterday morning. When Michael had handed her into the carriage, she had felt a distinct urge to turn back and say that she had decided to delay her trip for a few more days. But, of course, that had been impossible. She had already put it off three days longer than she had planned. She had to get Gabriela back to her guardians; they were waiting for her at Darkwater. A shout outside the carriage startled Rachel from her reverie, and she lifted a corner of the curtain to look out. She could see nothing but the dusk of evening, the branches of the nearby trees a darker shape against the grayness. Then there was a shout from the coachman, and the carriage lurched forward. In the next moment, Rachel heard the sharp report of a gun. She dropped the curtain with a gasp. The coachman?s voice rang out, calling to his horses, and the carriage jerked and jolted to a halt. Rachel grabbed the leather loop beside her seat and held on. Across from her, Gabriela let out a squeak of surprise as she tumbled unceremoniously to the floor. The girl scrambled back up onto the seat and turned to look at Rachel, wide eyed. ?What is it?? Gabriela whispered. ?What happened?? ?I don?t know.? Rachel tried not to let her fear show. She could think of no good reason for the sound of gunfire or the coachman yanking his animals to a stop. What came to her mind was highwaymen, although it seemed bizarre to find them this far from London. She heard voices and turned toward the door, her fingers curling into the palms of her hands. She would be brave, she thought, reminding herself that she had Gabriela now to look out for, and she tried to envision what her redoubtable sister-in-law Miranda would do?or her friend Jessica, with her soldier?s daughter?s courage. But she could not help a brief, desperate wish that Michael had decided to accompany them to Darkwater. The door opened, and a black-clad figure stepped inside. Rachel struggled to keep her expression neutral. He was a smallish man, she told herself, and it was only the black attire and the scarf across the bottom of his face that made him seem sinister. She would give him her money and he would leave, and the incident would be over with no harm to anyone. The man?s eyes above his mask looked startled, and he glanced around the carriage, then returned his gaze to Rachel. He looked, she thought with some astonishment, puzzled. ??Ere, now,? he said somewhat plaintively and jerked down the scarf to reveal his entire face. ?Where?s the guv?nor?? Rachel?s fear subsided dramatically as she looked at his face, almost comical in its dismay. ?I beg your pardon?? she asked, pleased at how calm her voice came out. ?The lord,? the man went on. ?This is ?is carriage, ain?t it? I saw the sign on the door.? ?This is Lord Westhampton?s carriage,? Rachel replied, rather puzzled herself now. ?His coat of arms is on the door, if that is what you mean.? ?Aye, that?s the one. Westhampton. It?s ?im I?m wanting.? ?I am afraid that you are in the wrong place, then. Westhampton is back at his estate.? Their visitor was silent for a moment, digesting this news. Finally he asked, ?Are you the missus, then?? ?I am Lady Westhampton,? Rachel admitted. ?Right. Well, I?m thinkin? you can deliver the message to the guv?nor, then.? ?The message?? Rachel felt as if she had stepped bizarrely into a scene from a play, one where everyone knew the lines except her. ?Aye. Tell ?im Red Geordie sent it. Tell ?im he needs to watch ?is back. There?s some ?un wishes ?im ill.? Rachel stared at the man. ?Excuse me?? ??E?s gettin? too close, I?m thinkin? and there?s them as don?t like it. Word?s out that there?s those as wants ?im taken care of.? He stopped, then gave a short nod, seemingly satisfied with his words. Rachel blinked, unable to think of an adequate reply. The man grinned then and said, ?Sorry. I?ll be needin? to take somemat?you know, for the boys.? He nodded toward Rachel. ?Them earbobs?d do nicely.? Rachel gasped, her hands flying up to cover the emerald studs in her earlobes. ?No! Not these. Michael gave them to me. It was a wedding present.? He paused, considering this information. ?Oh. Well, I wouldn?t want to cross the guv?nor, that?s a fact.? ?How about money?? Rachel offered, digging into her reticule and pulling out a small purse of coins, which she offered him. The small man grinned and took the purse, opening it to peer inside. ?Aye, that?ll do it, my lady.? He gave a respectful tug of his cap toward her, still grinning. ?I can see you?re a cool ?un, just like his lordship. Pleasure doin? business with ye.? He nodded toward Gabriela. ?Miss. Good evenin? to ye both.? He pulled up his scarf to cover his face again and turned, opening the door and springing lightly down from the carriage. Behind him, Gabriela and Rachel gazed at each other in stunned silence. There was the muffled sound of voices outside the carriage, then the whinny of a horse, followed by the noise of hoofbeats. ?What in the world?? Gabriela began, her eyes round as saucers in her face. ?I have no idea,? Rachel replied frankly. The door was jerked open again, but this time it revealed the worried face of her coachman, who peered up into the carriage. ?Are you all right, my lady?? ?Yes, we are fine, Daniels. No harm done.? ?There were four of them, ma?am, with pistols. Jenks and I thought it best not to challenge them, what with you and the young miss in the carriage. His Lordship?d have my hide if anything happened to you.? ?You were quite right,? Rachel reassured him, though she knew that his statement was more hyperbole than fact. Michael was the most reasonable of men, not one to blame his servants for something out of their control. ?Westhampton would not want you to risk your lives or ours that way. You did well. Let us drive on to Darkwater, if you please.? ?Aye, my lady.? The coachman gave her a respectful nod and shut the door. They could hear him climb back onto his high perch, and a moment later the carriage started forward again. Rachel looked over at her charge. ?Are you all right, Gabriela?? ?Oh, yes!? The girl nodded emphatically. ?But it was terribly exciting, wasn?t it?? ?Rather too exciting, I?d say,? Rachel replied dryly. ?Yes, I suppose,? Gabriela said, sounding unconvinced. ?But I?ve never seen an actual highwayman before.? ?Nor I.? ?Did you not know him? He seemed to know Uncle Michael. Isn?t that strange?? ?Very,? Rachel agreed. ?I cannot imagine how he could know Michael?.? Michael was not the sort of man who had a passing acquaintance with highwaymen. Now, if it had been her brother Dev the fellow had claimed to know, Rachel would have had little trouble believing it. Until he had married Miranda and settled down, Devin had known his share of unsavory characters. But Michael? The idea was absurd. Michael was a quiet, scholarly man, kind, responsible, reliable and generous?the very epitome of a gentleman. His title was one of the oldest and most respected in the land, and, unlike his father, Michael had never done anything to tarnish it. He was happiest on his estate in the country, overseeing the various renovations of the house and outbuildings, and experimenting with the newest innovations in agriculture and land management. He corresponded with men of like nature and interests, ranging from gentleman farmers on vast plantations in the United States to men of science and letters at universities here and on the Continent. He was hardly the sort of man to have met a highwayman, let alone have one deliver vague warnings about danger to him. What was it the man had said? That Michael was ?getting too close.? That some vague personage ?wished him ill.? Too close to what? And who was this enemy? Rachel could not imagine Michael having an enemy. Whatever disagreements he might have with anyone, they were courteous and usually concerned some scholarly subject that few people had even heard of. The worst that she had ever heard anyone say about him was that he was too respectable, bordering on dull. Hardly the stuff of threats to do him bodily harm. ?It?s ridiculous,? Rachel told her companion firmly. ?Michael doesn?t have an enemy in the world. The man must have made some sort of mistake.? She looked at Gabriela, who was still looking a little troubled. The poor child had experienced too much death for such an early age. Gabriela?s parents had died when she was only eight years old, and she had been raised by her great uncle until he, too, had died last year, leaving her in the care of a guardian who had been friends with her father many years before. It was through this guardian, the Duke of Cleybourne, that Rachel had come to meet the fourteen-year-old girl. The duke had been married to Rachel?s older sister, Caroline, who had died, along with their daughter, in a tragic carriage accident. Rachel had remained close friends with Cleybourne and often worried about his descent into a black pit of grief in the years after their deaths. Then Gabriela had come to Castle Cleybourne last Christmas, and with her, her governess, Jessica Maitland, a flame-haired beauty with a tragic scandal in her own past. Jessica and Cleybourne had fallen deeply in love, but even that happy time and the security it brought Gabriela had been marred by the ugliness of violent death. A killer had struck at the castle, doing away with one of the other guests and even almost murdering Jessica herself. It was little wonder that Gabriela?s fears would be roused by the stranger?s threats, however vague and absurd they were. Gabriela had spent the past two months with Michael and Rachel, for they had taken her home with them after the wedding in order to give the duke and his new duchess a honeymoon, and she had grown quite fond of them both. Rachel reached across the carriage to take one of Gabriela?s hands in hers and squeeze it gently. ?Don?t worry, Gaby. I am sure that it is all some silly mix-up. He can?t have meant Westhampton. No one would wish Michael ill. It?s clearly a mistake, this talk about his getting ?too close? to something. To what? A political theory? A scientific discovery? Some new method of crop rotation? Those are scarcely the sort of things one kills over.? Gabriela had to smile, and the worry receded from her eyes. ?You are right. Who could have anything against Uncle Michael?? She squeezed Rachel?s hand in return. ?You must be very glad to be married to him.? There were many, Rachel knew, who would say the same thing to her. Her husband was titled and wealthy, the descendent of one of the best families in England. That in itself was enough for her marriage to be considered a success. But Michael was also thoughtful and kind. He provided her with a generous clothing and household allowance. Though he preferred life in the country, he did not try to impose it upon her. She was free to live as she chose, to spend her time in their elegant house in London, giving the parties she was justly known for, paying calls and in general living the life of a Society hostess. She had a large circle of friends and admirers, and was adjudged one of the reigning beauties of the Ton. In short, her life was perfect?as long as one did not mind the fact that her marriage was a sham. There was no love in their marriage. They lived apart, had never shared a bedroom, never even spoken words of love or passion. And it did not help matters a bit to know that it was all entirely her own fault. Rachel gave her young companion a smile, hoping the girl would not notice the brittleness of it. ?Yes,? she agreed, settling back into her seat. ?I am very lucky to be Lady Westhampton.? Torches burned in front of Darkwater. It was a beautiful house, named for a nearby tarn that was black as night, not for the house?s limestone walls, which were pale, almost golden in the Derbyshire sunlight. At night one could not see its graceful lines or centuries-old mullioned windows, only grasp the vague outline of its considerable hulk. But Rachel had grown up here, and she knew it without having to see it. She flung open the carriage door as soon as the vehicle rolled to a stop and leaned out to look at the house. Jenks scrambled down from the top of the carriage to pull down the steps and help Rachel and Gabriela out. Even as they emerged, the front door of the house opened, and two footmen came out carrying candles to light the ladies? way into the house. ?Lady Westhampton!? A middle-aged man, dressed in the formal attire of a butler, hastened out the front door, smiling broadly. ?I am happy to welcome you to Darkwater again! We have been expecting your arrival any time this past day.? ?Hello, Cummings.? Rachel smiled warmly at the man who had been the butler here since she was a child. ?Allow me to introduce Miss Gabriela Carstairs. Miss Carstairs is the ward of the Duke of Cleybourne.? The man bowed gravely to Gabriela. ?May I welcome you to Darkwater, Miss Carstairs? The Duke and Duchess have been waiting eagerly for your arrival. Ah, here they are now.? Foregoing formality, the members of the household were hurrying out the opened front doors despite the chill of the night air. In front were a tall, stunning red-haired woman and a man of dark mien, both smiling broadly. Slightly behind them came another couple, a pretty pregnant woman and a devastatingly handsome man, followed by a young girl of about Gabriela?s age. ?Gaby!? The redhead, who was the new Duchess of Cleybourne, threw her arms open wide to her charge. She had been the girl?s governess for six years before marrying Gabriela?s guardian, and she looked upon her almost as her own child. ?Miss Jessie!? Gabriela flew into her arms and hugged her tightly. When she was at last released, she turned to the man beside the duchess, smiling up at him a little shyly. ?Your Grace.? He smiled, lighting up his dark face. ?Have you forgotten, Gabriela?? he asked lightly. ?I thought we agreed we were not to be so formal.? ?Uncle Richard,? she corrected with a smile, and when he, too, held out his arms to her, she went into them quickly for a heartfelt, if somewhat less energetic, hug. The duke and duchess turned to Rachel, who had been caught up in hugs by the other couple, her brother Devin, the Earl of Ravenscar, and his wife, Miranda, who was several months along with child. There were more greetings all around, with Richard introducing his new ward to the earl and countess. ?And,? Richard went on, with a smile to Gabriela, ?there is someone else who has been eagerly awaiting your arrival. Lady Ravenscar?s sister, Miss Veronica Upshaw, is here visiting, and she is just about your age, fifteen last month. Veronica?? The girl stepped forward, smiling at Gabriela. She was a pretty thing, with light-brown hair and blue eyes, though there was little about her that resembled her sister Miranda. She was, Rachel knew, Miranda?s stepsister, rather than any blood relative, the daughter of the woman whom Miranda?s father had married when Miranda was in her teens. Mr. and Mrs. Upshaw lived much of the time in London, Miranda had told Rachel, but all had agreed that Devin?s country estate was the best place for the young girl. There would be time enough for London in a few years, when she had her coming out. Rachel smiled a little, thinking that these two girls would probably have their coming out in the same year. The Ton, she thought with unabashed delight, would doubtlessly reel under the joint assault upon it by the formidable team of the duchess and the countess. Rachel intended not to miss a party that Season. Laughing and talking, the group went inside. The girls retreated to Veronica?s room upstairs, both of them thrilled at finally having someone their own age to talk to, while the adults returned to the music room, where the two couples had been wiling away the evening before Rachel?s arrival. Their conversation turned first to polite inquiries as to Rachel?s trip. With studied calm, Rachel replied, ?It was all right, really, except for being stopped by a highwayman.? The four other people in the room stared at her speechlessly for a long moment. Then Devin sprang to his feet, his ready temper rising. ?What? Are you joking?? ?No. Not at all. It was the most peculiar thing.? ?Peculiar!? Dev exclaimed. ?That is hardly how I would describe it.? ?Oh, yes, you would, if you had been there.? ?Rachel! Why didn?t you tell us immediately?? Miranda cried, getting up a little awkwardly and coming over to her sister-in-law. ?Are you all right? You weren?t hurt, were you?? ?No. I just lost a few coins, that is all. He did not threaten me at all.? ?What the devil was he doing all the way up here?? Cleybourne asked. ?Have you heard anything about this chap before, Dev?? ?No, not a bit. I can scarcely think it would be profitable patroling the byways of Derbyshire.? ?I?m not at all sure that profit was his primary motive. He indicated that he was taking the money mostly for show?so his men would not suspect.? ?What? Suspect what?? Dev looked at Rachel suspiciously. ?Are you sure you aren?t having us on?? ?No, I promise you. I told you it was most peculiar. He seemed?well, he apparently thought Michael was in the carriage. He said he saw the coat of arms on the door. I?m not sure if he meant he was lying in wait for his carriage?I cannot imagine how he would know that it would be coming by any time soon?or if he was traveling to Westhampton and just stumbled upon us.? ?A highwayman was meeting Michael?? Miranda asked. ?Whatever for?? ?He said he wanted to warn Michael. So he told me to give Michael this message?that someone wishes him ill, that Michael is ?too close,? and there are people who mean to stop him.? Her words were met with another stunned silence. ?Are you sure you heard him right?? Dev asked finally. ?Yes. Ask Gabriela. She witnessed it all. That is what he said. Then he said he was sorry, but he would have to take something to make it look right, or something like that. And he wanted my emerald studs, but I protested and said they were a bride?s gift from Michael, and he took a purse full of coins instead. Then he left.? ?I?m sorry,? Jessica said tentatively. ?I don?t know Lord Westhampton as well as the rest of you. What did he mean?? ?I don?t have any idea,? Rachel replied frankly. ?I was hoping Richard or Dev would have some idea?that perhaps there was some sort of male activity involved which you conspired to keep secret from us females. Or from me, at least?so I wouldn?t worry or be afraid or something.? ?I haven?t a clue,? her brother responded, looking perplexed. ?And if I were in on some male secret, you can be sure that Miranda would have wormed it out of my by now.? He cast a fond glance at his wife, who gave him a dimpled smile in return. ?Maybe it is some sort of code,? Miranda mused. ?I know Westhampton told me once that he had always been fond of puzzles and things like that.? ?Yes, he is. ?The fellow must have been mad, that is all I can think,? Richard added. ?Best thing, I suppose, is to send a message to Westhampton, let him know what happened. Perhaps he, at least, will understand it.? ?Yes, I guess you are right,? Rachel agreed. ?I will write him a letter tonight.? ?I shall send one of the grooms up to Westhampton with it first thing tomorrow,? Dev assured her. ?I?m sure there?s nothing to it, but best be safe, you know.? So later that night Rachel sat down at the small secretary in her room and dashed off a letter to Michael, telling him everything that the stranger had said to her and adding a few questions of her own. Dev entrusted the missive to his head groom, who would leave at dawn the next morning on one of Dev?s excellent horses, so that Michael would know as soon as humanly possible about the strange occurrence. But knowing that she had done all she could to warn Michael?if, indeed, there was any truth to the highwayman?s words?did not bring Rachel peace of mind. As she dressed for bed and took down her hair, her thoughts kept returning to the events of the evening, much as a tongue sought out a sore tooth. Suddenly everything connected to Michael seemed unsure and awkward. She and Michael were not close in the way that Dev and Miranda, were. There was not that intimacy between them that seemingly only love and passion could bring. But she had thought that she knew Michael well. She knew the subjects that interested him, the foods he liked and disliked. She could have named the tailor and boot maker he frequented, and the clubs to which he belonged, the names of most of his friends and even those of some of the people with whom he corresponded. However, the encounter with the Cassandra-like highwayman had left her wondering how much she really knew Michael. The man ?Red Geordie? had spoken of seemed to be someone altogether different from the Westhampton she knew?a person involved in something that threatened someone else, someone who needed to be warned. Someone who would be acquainted with a highwayman. She kept thinking that the odd man must have been mistaken, that he was talking of another man besides her husband. Yet he said that he had recognized the crest on the side of the carriage. He had called him Westhampton?or had it been she who had offered the name and the man had simply agreed? Perhaps, as one of the others had suggested, the intruder had been quite mad. Or it was all some bizarre hoax. After all, neither Dev nor Richard had known what the man was talking about; they had been as much in the dark as she. And Richard had been friends with Michael since before Rachel herself had met him. Surely he would know if Michael was somehow involved with a highwayman. But Rachel could not escape the thought that a wife should not have to depend on someone else?s knowledge of her husband to be sure of him. Surely she, as his wife, should know him the best of all! Rachel felt sure that if Miranda had been in her situation, she would have known exactly what Dev was involved in. Rachel sighed as she sat down in front of the vanity and began to brush out her hair. She studied her reflection in the mirror as she did so. She was still an attractive woman, she told herself. Her hair was thick and black, and moonstruck admirers still wrote odes to her green eyes. She had retained the slim figure of her youth, and no wrinkles marred her skin. She was twenty-seven, still young. She paused in her brushing for a moment, looking intently into the mirror. Had she changed since the day Michael had met her? But she knew the answer to that question?the change had all been inside her. Her hand tightened involuntarily on her brush. She had married as she was supposed to, as Society expected and her father had demanded. But in doing her duty, she had given up her hopes and dreams. She had denied the longings of her heart. Rachel could still remember the awful pain of her decision. There had been nothing else she could do, she knew. Her father had been right; had she not married Michael, it would have been scandal and ruin for her family and herself?as well as for Michael, who had been entirely innocent in the whole matter. She had done what she had to do, but in doing so she had condemned her heart to despair. She had married Michael and had said goodbye to the man she loved. 2 Rachel remembered with clarity the evening that she first met Michael. It had been at a rout of Lady Wetherford?s, a boring crush of an affair, attended, it seemed, by half of London Society. She could not remember exactly who had been there; indeed, she only vaguely recalled Lady Wetherford introducing her and her mother to Lord Westhampton. Her first impression of him had been merely that of a tall blond man, several years older than she and good-looking in a rather nondescript way. Knowing Michael as she did now, Rachel felt sure that he had been impeccably but plainly dressed, his clothes dark and formal and nothing that would attract attention. He would have been the perfect picture of an English gentleman, for, indeed, that was what Michael was. But Rachel had paid little attention to him, smiling?for that evening she had been able to do little else but smile, so radiant was the feeling inside her?and returning the usual polite chitchat about the weather and the crush of the party and the opera, which she had attended the evening before. All the time they had talked, her senses had been tuned to the rest of the room, seeking out the same person whom she sought at every social occasion, the man who had engendered her radiant joy that night. For she remembered the evening, not because of Michael, but because that was the night when Anthony Birkshaw had told her that he loved her. Even now, a faint smile touched Rachel?s face at the memory. Rachel was nineteen, and in the midst of her first Season. It was a year late in coming, a result of her family?s usual state of impecunity. Cleybourne, her older sister?s husband, had given her mother the money for Rachel?s debut the next year, and Rachel was well aware that it was up to her to do her best to recoup the family?s fortunes. Few expected her to attain her sister?s success, for Caroline had married a duke, the highest rung on the ladder of nobility. But Rachel had the Aincourt good looks and a pleasing personality, and her family was one of the best in England?albeit one seemingly incapable of holding on to money. It was generally expected that she, too, would make a good marriage. Rachel did not question her role in such plans. It was, after all, the way people of her class married. There were no longer the arranged marriages of old, of course, where a wedding was primarily an alliance of two families for purposes of wealth, power and political advancement, and the couple might not even have met each other before their wedding day. But, still, the aristocracy did not marry for love, as her mother had drummed into her head from childhood; they married for the good of their family, both present and future. In the case of the Aincourt family, this dictum nearly always translated into marrying wealth. For generations the earls of Ravenscar had gained and lost money, but more gold, it seemed, left their hands than entered them. The reason for this, Rachel?s narrowly and dogmatically religious father believed, was a Papist curse laid on the head of the first Earl of Ravenscar, who was given Branton Abbey during the Dissolution by his friend King Henry VIII as a reward for his loyalty and friendship. Edward Aincourt, Lord Ravenscar, had torn down the abbey and used its stones to build his family?s home. The Abbot of Branton, legend said, had had to be dragged out bodily from the abbey, and as Ravenscar?s men had done so, the abbot had laid a curse upon the earl and all his descendants, declaring that ?none who live within these stones shall ever know happiness.? Whether it was the result of the curse or simply the nature of a family too given to pride and profligacy, it was true that the Aincourts had rarely been happy in affairs of either the heart or the purse. It was good, everyone agreed, that the Aincourts were also a family tall and graceful in stature and of handsome mien, for they were always able to replenish their fortunes through marriage?though there were those who pointed out that it was perhaps this tendency that doomed them to live out the curse?s prophecy of unhappiness. In this particular generation of Aincourts, the lack of money had grown acute. The earl, a religious man of stern views, had not extended his religious beliefs to living an ascetic life. He loved to live well and buy beautiful things, as had his father before him, and as a result, the family fortunes had declined at an ever greater rate. It was generally considered up to the daughters of the family to provide for the family, as the earl had parted with his only son, Devin, the heir to the family title and what remained of the family fortune. Devin had, in his teen years, given himself over to a life of what his father deemed pagan excess, for years loving a married woman and refusing to marry as his father wished. So Rachel dutifully expected to marry as her father determined, but she could not help but dream secretly that her marriage would turn out to be one of love as well as duty, as her sister Caroline?s had been. Everyone knew that the Duke of Cleybourne loved his wife to distraction, and she had seemed to love him in return, though later the truth of her feelings had been proven to be more shallow. At the very least, Rachel intended to enjoy her time on the marriage market, wearing the new dresses and ball gowns bought for her debut, going to parties and balls and fetes, enjoying the plays and operas and other amusements that London had to offer a girl who had spent most of her life on a crumbling estate in Derbyshire. Rachel was an immediate, dazzling success. Her life was a whirl of social activities that would have left anyone but a vibrant young girl exhausted. She received her invitation to Almack?s. Every dance saw her card filled within minutes after her arrival. She had a choice of corsages sent by hopeful suitors for every ball, and there was never a shortage of young men calling at her house. But Rachel had eyes for only one man. She met Anthony Birkshaw two weeks into the Season, and as soon as she saw him, she knew that this was the man of her dreams. He was a well set up young gentleman a few years older than she, with a frank and open manner that charmed her instantly. His hair was dark brown, thick and falling carelessly over his forehead, and his eyes, she thought, were those of a poet?large and brown, rimmed with thick, sooty black lashes. And he was, miraculously, as taken with her as she was with him. He did not, of course, make a cake of himself as Jasper Hopkins was wont to do by dancing the two dances with her that were all that was proper from a young man not a girl?s fianc?, then pointedly standing apart and watching her the rest of the evening, not dancing with any other girl. Anthony was all that was proper and courteous, dancing and chatting with other young women, not devoting himself so exclusively to Rachel that he caused gossip. That night, after their waltz together, as they had taken a long promenade around the ballroom, Anthony had told Rachel that he loved her. Her feet had scarcely touched the floor the rest of the evening. She spent the rest of the summer in a giddy state of love. Given the assiduous way young unmarried girls were chaperoned, she was almost never alone with Anthony. Their love subsisted on looks, daydreams and waltzes. She ?ran into? him now and then as she walked with her maid to or from the lending library, fueling a renewed love of reading. When he sent her a posy, she slept with it by her bed, and when it began to wither, she carefully pressed the flowers between heavy books and saved them. Every now and then, at some huge rout or ball, they were able to sneak away together for a few moments, get lost in the crowd after a dance or during a midnight supper, and find a spot in the gardens or some dim alcove in the house. There, briefly, they could whisper of their feelings, pour out the excitement that thrummed in them whenever they were together, even exchange a chaste kiss or two. Rachel lived for those moments. Lost in her haze of love, Rachel was scarcely aware of how often Lord Westhampton came to call or led her onto the dance floor. She was too wrapped up in Anthony to take much notice of any of her other suitors, but she had not even put Michael among that group. He was almost ten years older than she, as well as a friend of Caroline?s husband, and she merely assumed that he was part of the circle of friends around the duke and duchess. As she and her family were living for the Season at the enormous Cleybourne House, their own house in London having been sold some years before, it did not seem untoward to her that one of the duke?s friends often came to call or was frequently included on their various outings. He did not form part of the circle of young men around her at parties, maneuvering to be the one to bring her a glass of punch, pick up a dropped glove or lead her down to supper. Had she been older or less naive, she would have realized that his absence had in fact signaled to her parents a more serious intent. He was too mature and important, too serious in his regard, to have joined the group who pursued her. He was not a man who wanted to flirt and admire; he was a man who intended to marry. She did not think much about him, but if she had, she would have said that she liked Lord Westhampton. He was quiet, a good listener, and if she made a social gaffe or a naive remark, he would only smile a little and smooth it over. Because she did not count him as one of her circle of admirers, she did not feel any pressure to sparkle or enchant him as she did with many other young men. Though she was not interested in any of them except Anthony, it was accepted that the number of suitors in one?s circle was the mark of a young woman?s success in the Ton, so it would not do for people to see that the knot of admirers around one was shrinking away. So she had to flirt without seeming bold, had to be witty and lively and respond to their attempts at wit without ever seeming to favor one over the others. With Westhampton, she found, she could talk more easily. She did not worry about trying to appeal to him or needing to maintain a certain image. She simply treated him as she always had any of her older brother?s or sister?s friends. It did not take her long to realize that if she had a problem concerning social etiquette or needed to find out who someone was and where they fit into the pattern of the ton, Lord Westhampton was the person to ask. Then, one day late in July, her father called her mother and her into the library. Her heart speeded up a little, and her cheeks flushed attractively. Such a summons from Ravenscar meant something important was up, and her thoughts jumped instinctively to Anthony Birkshaw. He had asked Ravenscar for her hand in marriage! In her young, love-drunk mind, it was the only possible outcome to the summer. Her father stood behind one of the library tables, looking large and imposing, as he always did. Rachel had grown up fearing the man. Stern and religious, with no sense of humor, the Earl of Ravenscar had little liking or understanding of children. He rarely saw his own progeny except on Sundays, when the family went to the church in the village and afterward endured a long reading from the Bible by the earl, followed by a careful catechism from him concerning their religious training at the vicarage and what particular sins they had committed that week. He lived by the precept that children were placed on earth to honor and obey their father, and any form of rebellion was immediately and thoroughly quashed. The youngest of the three children, Rachel had grown up seeing the battles that raged between the earl and his son, finally ending in a cataclysmic rupture in which Ravenscar had thrown Devin out of the house and told him that he would no longer be received there. Since that time, Rachel had not seen her beloved older brother until this summer. The aching hurt and loss of that split, the terror of her father?s purple-faced rage, were indelibly imprinted on her psyche. Rachel had managed to avoid such painful and frightening confrontations by staying out of her father?s sight as much as possible and never crossing him openly. Her thoughts were her own, but she was careful never to reveal them to Ravenscar. On that particular day almost seven years ago, however, her father was smiling and pleased. ?Well, Rachel,? he said cheerfully, ?I imagine you have some idea why I?ve called you in here today.? ?I?I think so,? Rachel answered a little hesitantly. She would not have thought her father would have been this pleased about Anthony?s proposal. She knew nothing about his finances, of course, but he was a younger son of a younger son, his lineage perfectly respectable, of course, but without a title or any prospects for one, and not, she would have assumed, a man of such wealth as to make her father beam with pleasure. ?I?ll warrant you do,? Ravenscar went on in a hearty avuncular way. ?Lord Westhampton is quite a catch. Not a duke, of course, like your sister?? He gave this little quip the chuckle he thought it deserved, and went on. ?But still an excellent prospect. Title. Lands. Family dating back to one of William the Conqueror?s barons. Yes, I am quite pleased that Westhampton has taken such a fancy to you. Offering a very generous settlement, of course?haven?t worked out the details yet. Of course, he wants to ask you the question himself. But I think we all know what your answer will be, eh?? ?Lord?Lord Westhampton?? Rachel got out through suddenly bloodless lips. There was a strange roaring in her ears, and she thought for a dreadful moment that she might actually faint. ?Lord Westhampton has asked for my hand?? ?Why, yes.? Her father cast her a look of surprise that quickly turned dark and suspicious. ?Why? Were you thinking it was someone else? Have you given your affections to another?? His voice rose with each question until it was close to a shout. ?Nonsense,? Rachel heard her mother say smoothly, moving up to wrap a hand around her daughter?s arm. ?Of course she has not given her affections anywhere. I am sure she was just surprised that a man of such consequence as Lord Westhampton had been so taken by her. Any young woman of proper modesty would be. He is quite a catch, as you said, especially for a mere slip of a girl.? ?Yes, no doubt you are right.? Ravenscar accepted her explanation easily, for he could not imagine his youngest daughter, the one with the least spirit of any of them, opposing him. Rachel?s mother, fingers digging into Rachel?s arm, then told her husband that she and Rachel must decide exactly how to dress and act for Westhampton?s upcoming proposal, and she deftly steered her daughter out the door, leaving Lord Ravenscar to congratulate himself on landing yet another excellent son-in-law, an accomplishment that he was sure was in large part a reflection of his own consequence. ?Whatever are you thinking?? Lady Ravenscar snapped as she led her daughter down the hall and into the ladies? sitting room, where she closed the door firmly after them. ?You gave me quite a turn. I thought Ravenscar was going to explode. Is it really such a surprise to you? Westhampton has been haunting Cleybourne House all summer.? ?But?but he is a friend of the duke?s. I thought?? Her mother let out an exasperated sigh. ?And to think I imagined that you were handling him skillfully! Ah, well, it?s no harm done. No doubt he assumed you were merely becomingly modest and innocent. Men in love, fortunately, are great fools. Now?we need to plan. Doubtless he will be coming over this afternoon to speak to you, since Ravenscar has given his permission. We must decide what you shall wear. Perhaps Caroline will lend you her Lucy to put up your hair. You must look just so?beautiful, yet not as if you were anticipating his question.? ?But, Mama!? In her panic, Rachel reverted to her childhood name for this woman who was in general far too cool and reserved for a more affectionate name than Mother. ?I cannot accept Lord Westhampton! I?? Her mother stared at her in astonishment, and Rachel?s words faltered to a halt. ?Are you mad?? Lady Ravenscar?s voice was like the crack of a whip. ?What do you mean, you cannot accept?? She drew in her breath sharply. ?No! Was your father right? Have you given your affections elsewhere? My God, girl, what have you done!? Fear and fury mingled in her face. ?Do not tell me you have let a man have his way with you!? ?No!? Rachel gasped, shocked. ?How could you think that? I have never?he would never?? ?Good.? Lady Ravenscar relaxed a little. ?Then it is nothing that cannot be put right. Who is this man? I cannot believe that I have not seen this happening.? ?It is Mr. Birkshaw. Anthony Birkshaw. And he has done nothing untoward. He has been all that is proper and correct. He would never have incurred gossip by dangling obviously after me.? ?Birkshaw!? Her mother?s first look of puzzlement changed quickly to one of horror. ?Anthony Birkshaw! That penniless pup? He dared to try to engage your affections! Oh, Rachel, how could you have been so foolish? What have you said to him? Have you promised him?But, no?no one would regard a silly girl?s promise as binding when he had not had the courtesy or courage to speak to your father first.? ?He has not asked me to marry him,? Rachel assured her. ?I tell you, Anthony?I mean, Mr. Birkshaw?has been all that is proper. We have made no promises, done nothing that anyone could construe as wrong. I swear it. But I?I love him, and I know that he returns my feelings. I thought today, when Father called us into the library, that it was he who had asked for my hand.? Her mother looked at her with a touch of pity. ?My dear girl, you cannot think that Ravenscar would have approved such a match, can you? Mr. Birkshaw could not hope to get his permission. He has no money. No prospects. His father is the third son of Lord Moreston. The family runs to males. A plague would have to hit for him to come into the title. And it is only a barony, anyway. I cannot imagine how the man could think he could aspire to the daughter of an earl.? ?I don?t think he thought much about my father?s title,? Rachel replied with rather more asperity than she was accustomed to using with her mother. ?It was me he fell in love with.? ?Then all I can say is that he is a proper ninny and so are you.? Lady Ravenscar shook her head. ?Well, you had better put such foolish thoughts out of your head?and with no time wasted, either. You have to accept Westhampton this afternoon?and with no unhappy looks, either, to give him second thoughts.? Rachel?s heart turned in her chest. ?But, Mother, how can I accept him? I don?t love him! I scarcely even know him! I?I love another man!? ?There is no reason for him to know that,? Lady Ravenscar retorted. ?And it would be best if you got that thought out of your head instantly, as well. Your father would never let you waste yourself on Anthony Birkshaw. I can scarcely believe that you have been so foolish as to have given your heart to a?a pauper!? ?He is not a pauper!? ?Bah! You know nothing about the matter!? Her mother faced Rachel, her lovely face set in cold, adamant lines. ?Do you think any of us married for love? That any of us knew our husbands before we became engaged? I can assure you that I did not, and neither did your sister.? ?But Caroline and Richard love each other.? ?Your sister was wise enough not to give her heart until she had given her hand,? Lady Ravenscar snapped. ?I cannot believe that you are acting like this. You were always the most biddable of my children, the one I could count on to be reasonable. Obedient.? She paused and gathered her composure, then started again. ?What did you think we were coming here for? For you to have a summer of parties and fun? Your father had to swallow his pride and accept a loan from Cleybourne to enable you to have this Season. You knew the reason for it. You knew what you were expected to do.? ?Yes, but?? Tears glittered in Rachel?s eyes. The dreamworld she had been living in this summer was crashing down around her ears. She could see now how foolish she had been, believing that the man she had fallen in love with would be an acceptable spouse in her parents? eyes. She had let herself believe that her love and the brilliant match she must make would somehow turn out to be embodied in the same person. ?I cannot!? she cried out in a low voice. ?I cannot marry Lord Westhampton when I love someone else!? ?You can, and you will.? Lady Ravenscar?s voice was implacable. ?I am sorry that you were so silly as to let your feelings be engaged. Obviously I was not careful enough. I did not see this foolish romance developing and nip it in the bud. For that, I apologize. But I will take care to correct that mistake now. I will tell Caroline to inform the butler that you are no longer home if Mr. Birkshaw calls.? ?No!? Pain stabbed through Rachel?s chest like a knife. ?Mother, you cannot?? Lady Ravenscar gave her a long, level look. ?If I have to, I will tell Ravenscar, and he will send the young man on his way.? ?No!? The thought of her father railing at Anthony and barring him from their house filled her with even more fear. Her father was terrible in a temper; there was no telling what he might say to Anthony?or do to him. It would not surprise her if he took a cane to the young man. ?You will get over this infatuation,? her mother went on, her cool voice like a knife lacerating Rachel?s heart. ?I know it must seem to you that your world is ending, but this feeling will pass, and soon. Young girls? fancies always do. In a few weeks, after you have gotten involved in planning the wedding and choosing dresses for your trousseau, why, you will look back on this calf love and realize how absurd it was.? ?No,? Rachel said in a choked voice. ?I will not.? ?You must try. Because I can assure you that you will not marry Mr. Birkshaw. You can turn down the best offer you could hope to receive if you insist, but you still will not marry Mr. Birkshaw. If you think about it, I am sure you will see why Birkshaw has not offered for you. He knows that he cannot: I imagine he barely has the money to support himself, let alone a wife. It is my best guess that he must marry money himself. Perhaps he was foolish enough to think that you had some.? ?It was not about money!? Rachel cried. ?We love each other.? ?Well, it is a love without hope,? her mother said remorselessly. ?Your father and I will never allow you to marry him. And if you are so foolish as to turn down Lord Westhampton because of this piece of lunacy, I can guarantee that you will regret it the rest of your life.? Rachel could no longer hold back her tears. She began to sob, sinking into the nearest chair and covering her face with her hands. Her mother watched her with exasperation for a moment, then pulled a dainty handkerchief from her pocket and handed it to her daughter. ?Cry it out, then,? she said. ?And when you are done, lie down with a cool rag over your eyes to keep the swelling down. You cannot meet Lord Westhampton this afternoon with puffy eyes.? ?I cannot marry him,? Rachel repeated through her tears. ?It would kill me.? ?No. I assure you that it will not. You are not the first young girl to fancy herself desperately in love, and you certainly will not be the last. It never kills them. Of course, if you choose to turn down the prospect of being Lady Westhampton, of having a husband who adores you and will answer your every whim, of owning two of the most admired homes in the country and a limitless number of dresses and jewels?? Lady Ravenscar broke off with a sigh. ?Well, we cannot make you accept him, though what your father will say about it, I dread to think. It will be a wonder if I can convince him not to pack us all up and go storming back to Darkwater in a rage, and, lord knows, that will be the end of all your hopes. But one may hope he will see reason. You are admired by other men?though none, of course, as fine a match as Lord Westhampton. There might be another chance for you to get a decent offer before the end of the Season, when we shall all have to return to the country to finish our lives in penury.? Rachel thought with horror of continuing to stay here this Season, going to parties and trying to attract a husband, when all the while her heart would be breaking. ?Mother, I cannot?.? ?Then you plan to live the rest of your life a spinster? For you will have no more opportunities to meet marriageable men. We cannot afford a second Season for you, and I can assure you that your father will have no desire to do anything for you if you cross him in this.? Rachel shuddered, thinking of her father?s ire. She had never been on the receiving end of one of his truly terrible rages. ?Mother, please?? ?Child, I cannot help you. You have only two choices?do your duty to the family, accept Lord Westhampton and have a nice, satisfactory life, or refuse and remain with us until we die, and then I suppose you will have to live as a companion to your sister Caroline. ?I want you to lie down now. I?ll send the maid up with cucumber slices and a cool cloth for your eyes. And I want you think about what you are going to do. I want you to consider what will happen to us all if you do not marry Lord Westhampton. I want you to remember this Season and all we have done for you so that you could get a good offer and have a good life. Then decide whether you want to shame your family this way. Whether you are really willing to refuse to do what you are expected to do. What you have to do. I am sure you will come to the right decision about how to answer Lord Westhampton.? Even now, Rachel thought, closing her eyes, she could feel the pain she had felt all those years ago, the numbed, emotionally battered state in which she had stumbled to her room and lain down on her bed. Exhausted with grief and plunged into despair, she had cried until she could cry no more, while the maid fussed and dried her tears and did her best to repair the damage her outburst had done to her face. She had lain there and thought, as her mother had told her to do. She knew, bitterly, how foolish she had been, how much she had lived in a dreamworld. And she faced the void of her future, living immured in Darkwater, the object of her father?s displeasure, constantly reminded of what an undutiful daughter she was and how she had failed the family. She could not marry Anthony without her father?s permission, at least until she was twenty-one, and she knew that her mother was right?her father would not give her permission to marry Anthony, the man who had ruined her father?s plans for gaining a wealthy son-in-law. And she knew, too, with sinking despair, that her mother was right about the state of his finances. Lady Ravenscar always knew such things. Besides, it explained why, despite his love for her, he had not asked for her hand. He had known that he would not be acceptable to her father; probably he, too, must make a good match. Her dream of love died that afternoon. She faced the world as it was, the world in which a daughter married as she ought, as her parents desired. She saw reality, in which love did not hold sway, but only cold, hard reason. Her whole being ached at the thought of joining that world. But in the end, she had risen and let her maid dress her in the afternoon dress her mother had chosen, had let Caroline?s Lucy do her hair up and hide the telltale redness around her eyes with just the barest touch of rice powder. Then she had gone downstairs and accepted Lord Westhampton?s proposal of marriage. 3 Michael jerked awake. He lay still for a moment, drifting back to reality?sweating, heart pounding, hot blood racing. He had dreamed of Rachel. He could not remember the details of the dream, but the feeling was clear?the same mingling of excitement and pleasure, underlaid with sorrow, that was always there when he dreamed of his wife. Being with Rachel was a different thing entirely. The same feelings were inside him, but amplified many times more and shot through with the thrum of nerves and uncertainty. In his dreams, at least he was able to talk to her without turning into a stiff priggish fool, as he did in real life. In dreams he was able to kiss and caress her to the point of thunderous, pulsating lust. The sorrow came as his mind swam back to the surface of consciousness and reality seeped in. It was always worse after she had been here for a visit. Then the dreams would come frequently and with intensity. They tended to fade with her absence. It was easier to live without her, as he had discovered after they had been married for a year or so. Great as the joy was in being with her, the pain grew to an excruciating point, until he could no longer bear living with her, being with her every day, aching with love and passion for her, yet never fulfilled. Never truly being her husband. It was an almost unbearable thing, to love her as he did?and to know that she did not love him in return, that she never had and never would. To know, in fact, that since she had married him, she had lived her life in muted sorrow, aching, as he himself did, for someone she would never have. He knew how she felt; he wished with all his heart that he could take that sorrow from her. He also knew, worst of all, that it was he who had condemned her to that life. With a sigh, Michael pushed aside the covers and got out of bed. The caress of the cool air on his overheated skin was pleasant, and he did not put on his dressing gown as he walked to his dresser and poured himself a glass of water from the carafe that stood there. He drank it thirstily, then strolled over to the window and pushed aside one edge of the heavy velvet drape to look out into the night. His bedroom looked out upon the sweep of driveway and trees that led up to the front of the elegant house. Beyond lay the view of hills that typified the beautiful Lake District of his home. It was not daylight yet, but the dark was lightening, so that one could make out the dim shapes of trees and shrubs in the gray light. It would soon be dawn, he knew, when the light would turn golden, then burn away the mists. There was no point now in trying to go back to bed and sleep. He supposed that he should put on his dressing gown and slippers, and light a candle. Start his day. But it seemed a pointless effort to him. There was nothing in the day before him but loneliness and the ache of loss. It would be so for many days more, he knew. Experience had taught him that. The house was still too full of memories of Rachel, too alive with her presence. Hope still rose in him crazily that he would turn a corner and see her there, or that he would hear her laughter ringing down a corridor. She had been here longer than normal this time, almost three months, and Gabriela had been with them, too, so that there had been the sound of a child?s laughter in the house, as well, a sound missing from here for many, many years. Rachel had been happier, he thought, than he had ever seen her?at least since their marriage, that is. She had been pleased for Dev and Richard, glad that they had finally found love in their lives. She loved both her brother and brother-in-law deeply, and their unhappiness had further dampened her spirits. Conversely, their joy had brightened her own emotions. And Gabriela?s presence had also brought her happiness. The girl was lively and bright, and somehow her being there had made everything smoother with Rachel and Michael. It was hard to maintain formality with Gabriela around, laughing and chattering, throwing herself with enthusiasm into everything around her. It had brought home to Michael how much Rachel would have enjoyed children?another thing of which she had been robbed by marriage to him. He had wanted to give her children, had thought that he would. That had been back in the early days, when he had believed that she would grow to love him someday, that the depth and intensity of his love would eventually warm her heart to him. He had thought they would have a normal marriage in time, with intimacy and its natural result: children. He had lived in a fool?s paradise, not knowing that the woman he loved had already given her heart to another man. He had been naive not to see that she was in love, he supposed. He had known too much about books back then and not enough about the heart of a woman. He had been almost thirty when he met Rachel, far too old to still know so little about love and courtship. He had grown up quiet and bookish, in chosen opposition to his father. His father had tainted the Westhampton name with scandal. An outdoors man with huge appetites, the former Lord Westhampton had lived exactly as he pleased. He had eaten and drunk to excess, never counting it a good evening unless he went stumbling and belching to bed. He had been wild in his youth, gambling, drinking and wenching, and his ways did not change much when at last Michael?s grandfather forced his son into marriage. Michael had been more like his mother, a quiet, intelligent woman who loved books and knowledge far more than the usual feminine pursuits of clothes and parties. Michael had seen the pain in his mother?s eyes, and he had known that his father was the cause of it. He had hated his father for his excesses and his bullying, and he had vowed never to be the sort of man his father was. Michael had learned to ride and shoot and hunt; he had been taught the manly art of boxing, as well as the more gentlemanly art of fencing. His father had insisted on his learning these things, which to him constituted the education of a British gentleman, and Michael had learned them as he did everything, with quiet determination. But while he did not have it in him to do any less than the best he could in such sports, he did not love them as he loved the education of his mind. His happiness lay in books and in the quiet hours he spent reading and puzzling out the mysteries of the universe. He had a thirst for knowledge that equaled his father?s thirst for liquor. He despised his father for his loose, hedonistic ways, for the shame he had brought upon his family?s name and the pain he had brought to his gentle wife, and he had vowed early on never to be like his father. Where his father was prodigal, he was wise with money, recouping the family fortune that his father had tried his best to throw away. Where his father was greedy, he was abstemious. And where his father blustered and roared, he kept his temper in check. Michael was controlled, intelligent and circumspect. He enjoyed his time at Oxford and made friends among the men of letters and science whom he met there. After his father died?from a broken neck in a fall off a horse one night as he rode home inebriated?Michael spent most of his time in solitude at the family estate in the Lake District, reading, restoring the estate and corresponding with those of like mind. The only time he had veered from his quiet life had been during the war, when Sir Robert Blount?a friend of his who worked in the government?had begged for Michael?s help in catching a ring of Napoleon?s spies operating within England. His friend had asked Michael to try his hand at deciphering the coded messages that the spies were using, knowing that such puzzles were precisely the sort of thing that Michael enjoyed. He had soon broken the code, and had found himself being drawn more and more into the game of intrigue. He told himself that he did it only for patriotism and for the intellectual challenge, but he knew, with some degree of shame, that he enjoyed the excitement and danger of it, as well. There was something elementally satisfying in using his wits and physical skills to defeat his opponents, a certain giddy pleasure in escaping danger. He discovered that he had a heretofore untapped talent for disguises and accents, that he was able to mingle with people of widely varying classes and places without being detected. His unobtrusive demeanor and his attractive but unremarkable looks made it easy to disappear into any crowd. After the war ended, his life settled into its former quiet routine. It bothered him a little that he missed the excitement of the intrigue; the love of danger reminded him too much of his father, and he hated to see in himself anything of the former Lord Westhampton. He was not actively looking for a wife. When he chanced to think about the matter, he assumed that he would someday marry someone of appropriate birth and like interests, a woman with whom he could raise a family and share a life. He was not expecting the thunderbolt of passion that struck him the first time he saw Rachel Aincourt. He was in London for part of the Season, as was his custom, and he had attended a large party with his friend Peregrin Overhill. Perry had been waxing enthusiastic over a new beauty in town, but as Perry was the sort who often raved over some girl or other, though without ever actually pursuing them, Michael had, frankly, paid little attention to what he had said about Lord Ravenscar?s youngest daughter. He had little doubt that she was lovely to look at. Michael was friends with the Duke of Cleybourne, and his duchess, Caroline, Ravenscar?s oldest daughter, was, indeed, a beauty. But when he entered the crowded ballroom and caught sight of Rachel, slim and tall in her elegant white dress, the word beauty scarcely seemed adequate to describe her. Her face glowed, the fair skin touched with pink at the cheeks and as soft as velvet. Her green eyes, fringed with lashes as black as the curls on her head, were brilliant and huge. And when she smiled?well, there were not words to convey how his heart had turned within his chest, and his life, formerly so routine, organized and calm, suddenly became a chaotic and glorious tumult of feeling. All his previous thoughts of a pleasant marriage flew out the window. He knew as soon as he crossed the room and spoke to her that this was the woman he wanted as his wife. This soft-spoken girl with the dazzling smile awoke in him such passion, such emotion, that he knew he could never feel this way about anyone else. He set about courting her in a gentlemanly way?never, of course, doing anything untoward or extreme, but consistently calling on her, taking her for an occasional ride in his high-wheeled tilbury, dancing the politely curtailed two dances at balls. He was aided in his efforts by the fact that he was already friends with the Duke of Cleybourne and therefore had frequent access to his house. Both the duchess and Lady Ravenscar, alert to every nuance of interest from a marriageable male, were sure to include him in any party they made up, whether for a picnic or a night at the opera or taking in the newest play at Drury Lane. Michael did not delude himself that he was a figure of high romance to a young girl, but he was aware that he was considered a marital prize, being not only titled and wealthy, but also quite presentable in looks and manner. He knew that Rachel did not love him, but he was hopeful that in time he could win her heart. She did not turn down his offers of a ride along Rotten Row, and she always seemed happy enough to talk to him whenever he made up one of their party. He would have moved more slowly, allowing her time to develop some affection for him, but he knew from Cleybourne that Ravenscar, perennially strapped for cash, was likely to give his daughter?s hand to the first eligible man to make her an offer. Given that one of the most likely men to offer for her had been Sir Wilfred Hamerston-Smythe, a widower old enough to be Rachel?s father and from whom many had suggested his wife had died to get away, Michael knew it was not a matter of conceit to think that Rachel would be happier married to him. He had not really considered the possibility that Rachel would turn down his offer. Daughters generally married as their parents wished, and she, too, would have known that his offer was among the best of her options. So, even though Rachel?s demeanor when accepting his proposal had been subdued and even, he thought, a little red eyed, he had put it down to the remnants of a girl?s romantic hopes that her future husband would be a knight from a fairy tale, come riding to rescue her. He would make her happy, he told himself. He knew that he was probably a rather dull, bookish figure to a young woman, but he thought that his gentle wooing, his respect and love and consideration of her would engender in her some affection that he could build into, if not the fire of passion, at least a warm glow of love. He had not realized then that not only did she not love him, she loved someone else. Just thinking about it now was enough to pierce his chest with pain. Michael sighed and dropped the curtain, walking away from the window. He wrapped his dressing gown around himself and slumped down in a chair, his gaze turning inward to the time over seven years ago when he discovered, only two days before the wedding, that his fianc?e had eloped with another man. Their wedding was to be celebrated here at Westhampton in the picturesque stone Norman church in the village, where all the earls of Westhampton had been married for longer than anyone could remember. The house was packed with friends and family who had come to celebrate the wedding, and still more were staying in the inn in the village and with Sir Edward Moreton, a neighbor whose kind lady had taken on the burden of lodging several of the wedding guests. It was a joyous occasion. Michael could not remember a time when he had been so happy. He thought that Rachel had been warming to him during the past few months. Once they were engaged, they had been allowed to spend more time together in comparative solitude. While Rachel?s mother or sister was always with them when he came to call on her, they now often sat discreetly apart from the engaged couple, allowing them to talk more freely. And at balls he was now allowed to dance with her more than twice in an evening without calling down gossip upon their heads. The fact that she seemed to like him more the more she was around him made him hopeful that he would be able to win her love completely once the massive production of the wedding was over and they were finally alone together. It was two days before the wedding, and as Michael strolled with Rachel from the music room after a convivial evening of song and merriment among their friends, he was thinking with anticipation of the time when they would at last be alone together. He did not intend to consummate their marriage that first night; it would be, he thought, too frightening for a young woman still virtually a stranger to him. No matter how much he wanted Rachel, he intended to take his time and build her trust in him, to awaken her gradually to passion. He had long ago vowed that no woman would suffer at his hands, and he certainly would not inflict any pain or fear upon Rachel, whom he loved. But it would be wonderful just to be alone with her, without the constant presence of a chaperon?to be able to talk with her, to laugh and do as they pleased, to get to know one another, to kiss and hold her, to take her hand, without anyone there to watch or gossip. There had been times in the last few months when he had wondered if that moment would ever arrive. Rachel, he thought, had been quieter than usual all evening, and as he looked down at her, it seemed to him that she was a trifle pale. She was, he supposed, nervous about the wedding approaching so rapidly. As they passed the conservatory, empty and dark, he took her arm and whisked her inside the door. Rachel looked up at him, startled, her eyes wide. ?What is it?? she whispered. He smiled down at her. ?No need to be frightened,? he told her. ?What?? Rachel stared at him and let out an odd little laugh. ?What do you mean? Frightened of what?? ?I don?t know. The wedding. We?ll get through it well enough. Everyone always manages.? ?Oh. Yes, I suppose they do.? Rachel gave him a small smile. ?I am a little nervous, I guess.? ?Don?t worry. I shall be there with you. Just dig your fingers into my arm if you feel that you are about to faint. I?ll prop you up.? ?All right.? He thought that there was the glimmer of a tear in her eye, but she glanced away just then, and when she looked back up at him a moment later, he saw that her eyes were dry. Michael put his hand under her chin and gazed down into her face. ?You trust me, don?t you?? he asked softly. ?Please believe that you always can. I will not hurt you, I promise.? ?Oh, Michael?? Her voice broke with emotion, and her hand came up to curl around his. ?I am not?worthy of you.? He smiled. ?What nonsense. You are worthy of any man.? Overcome by the love that swelled his heart as he looked at her, he bent to kiss her. Her lips were warm and soft beneath his, hinting of such pleasure that he almost could not bear it. He wanted her in that moment more than he ever had before. His blood pounded in his ears and thrummed through his veins. He thought of Rachel?s body pliant in his arms, of her mouth opening to him in passion. His arms went around her, and he pulled her close against him, his kiss deepening. Heat surged through his body, and he pressed her body into his, delighting in her softness. His lips moved against hers, tasting the sweetness he had dreamed about for months. He thought of the days and weeks ahead, of introducing Rachel to the delights of the flesh, of exploring her body with his hands and mouth, of teaching her the pleasure they could bring each other, and a tremor of lust shook him. The last thing he wanted to do was to end the kiss, to release her and step back, but he made himself do it. He must not frighten her with the extent of the passion pounding through him. Rachel stared up at him, eyes wide with surprise. Her lips were soft and moist, dark from the pressure of his mouth, and the sight of them was enough to stir his lust all over again. Michael carefully took another step back, clearing his throat. ?I beg your pardon. I should not?? His mind was too clouded with desire to think of anything rational to say. ?Perhaps we should, um, say good-night.? ?Yes, my lord.? Rachel?s words were barely a whisper, and she whirled and hurried from the room. Michael took a step after her, suddenly worried that it had been fear he had read in her eyes, not merely surprise. Then he stopped, thinking that if she was a little frightened, his chasing after her would only increase her fear. No doubt his sudden kiss had startled her. It had not been, he thought rather disgustedly, a suave or subtle move on his part. It was not like him; in general, he was a man who was in control. But Rachel?s beauty tested his control, and over the months of their engagement he had had to exercise an iron control over his desires. With the end almost in sight, he had let his guard down. He would have to be more careful, he thought, to keep his distance from his fianc?e until after the ceremony. Right now, he told himself, the best thing to do would be to leave her alone. If his passion had upset her, her mother or sister would be much better at allaying her fears than he. Michael retired to his study and poured himself a brandy. He was still there over an hour later, his blood cooler, reading a book and sipping at the last of a second brandy, when there was a polite tap on the door. It was the butler, looking faintly embarassed. ?My lord?? he began somewhat tentatively. ?The, ah, head groom wishes to speak to you. I told him you were in your study, but he was most insistent. He would not say what it was.? The butler looked displeased at that notion, but continued. ?However, he seemed to feel the matter was urgent. I am sorry to disturb you, but, as it was Tanner?? ?Yes, quite right.? Michael rose from his chair, faintly curious. He supposed there must be some problem with one of the horses?or perhaps one of the guests? animals. Tanner was a normally phlegmatic sort, not the kind to urgently seek his employer?s counsel. Tanner was waiting for him just outside the door leading into the back garden, holding his hat in his hands and twisting the soft cloth nervously. Michael had known the man since he had come there as a groom when Michael was just a boy, and there was something in his leathery face that made Michael suddenly apprehensive. ?What is it?? he asked without preamble, striding over to the man. ?Is it Saladin?? He named his favorite mount, a black stallion of unusual grace and speed. Tanner looked faintly surprised. ?What? Oh, no, my lord. Nothing like that. Saladin?s as fine and fit as ever. ?Tis something else entirely.? He paused, looking at Michael uncomfortably. ?I?m hoping you won?t take this the wrong way, sir. I wouldn?t have even come to ye, ?cept that the lad generally has a good head on his shoulders. He?s not the sort to go startin? at shadows.? ?I?m sorry, Tanner. I?m not sure?who are you talking about?? ?One of my lads, sir. Dougie. He?s a good boy, one of the best I?ve had here, and I would say trustworthy. He came to me just now with a story?.? ?Yes?? Michael encouraged him when the other man?s voice trailed off. ?A story you thought I should hear?? ?Exactly.? Tanner sighed, then said in a rush, ?The thing is, the lad thought he saw Miss Aincourt.? ?Miss Aincourt?? Whatever he had expected the head groom to say, it had certainly not been this. ?My fianc?e?? ?Yes. That?s right. Down below the gardens, along the path that leads to the meadow.? ?The meadow! When? You mean tonight?? ?Aye, sir.? The other man looked away, not meeting his gaze. ?Maybe thirty minutes ago or so. Dougie was taking a walk before bed, and he comes back inside, lookin? all distraught, and he pulls me aside and he says he seen Miss Aincourt down there.? ?He must be mistaken,? Michael said automatically. ?At this time of night? I just saw Miss Aincourt a little over an hour ago, and she was going up to bed.? ?I asked him, sir, and he swore up and down that it was the lady herself. He was taken aback to see her, he said, so he moved a little closer. He?? The groom hesitated, then went on in a rush. ?He saw that she was talkin? to a man.? Michael went suddenly cold. His fingers curled into his palms. ?Go on,? he said, amazed at how even his voice sounded. ?Dougie thought it was you at first, so he was goin? to turn and leave, only a horse whinnied. He looked an? seen there was a bay tied to one of the trees, kind of back in the shadow. Now Dougie knows horses, and this wasn?t one of ours, so he?he didn?t know what to do, sir. He was thinkin? he shouldn?t leave Miss Aincourt out there alone, an? he reckoned the man was a stranger, ?cause of the horse. So he stayed, watching, tryin? to decide. And then, well, the man led his horse out, an? Dougie saw his face. It was no one he?d ever seen afore, he said. An? he?he helped Miss Aincourt onto the horse and mounted it after her, an? they?they rode off.? The groom studiously examined the flagstone walkway beneath his feet. Michael felt as if someone had just knocked the wind out of him. He remembered suddenly the look on Rachel?s face after he kissed her?surprise, he?d thought, then wondered if it had been fear. Had the force of his passion scared her into running from him? Then he remembered that she had seemed a little odd all evening. He took a breath and tried to clear the confusion from his head. ?He is certain?? ?He swears it is what he saw. I wouldn?t have bothered you if it had been some of the other lads. But Dougie?well, I?ve never known him to lie or even exaggerate. I asked him over and over, an? he insisted he hadn?t been mistaken. There was no smell of gin on his breath. I didn?t know what to do, sir, but finally I decided I had to tell you and let you decide, you know?.? His voice trailed off miserably. ?I will look into it straightaway,? Michael assured him grimly. ?I needn?t tell you?? ?No one else heard it, and they won?t. I already swore Dougie to silence. He knows he?ll be turned off without a reference if he breathes a word of it to anyone else, including the other lads.? ?Thank you, Tanner.? He went back into the house, feeling strangely numb, and knocked on Lord Ravenscar?s door. Ravenscar came to the door, glowering, with his nightcap on his balding head and a dressing gown flung hastily around his shoulders. In a low voice, Michael explained what he had learned. Ravenscar stared back at him blankly for a long moment, then his cheeks flushed red. ?What? What are you saying?? he barked. ?Do you dare to imply that?? ?I am not implying anything,? Michael responded coolly. ?I am just asking if Lady Ravenscar might step into Miss Aincourt?s room and see if she is in her bed.? Ravenscar looked as if he would have liked to shut the door in Michael?s face, but after a moment he turned away, and Michael heard him talking to his wife. Michael stepped a few feet away and waited. A few moments later Lady Ravenscar rushed out of the room, a dressing gown wrapped around her, the ribbons of her nightcap fluttering as she rushed down the hall. Michael caught only a glimpse of her face, but he saw that it was white and taut with fear. He was suddenly sure that she knew something her husband did not. Lord Ravenscar went down the hall after her at a more stately pace. Before he reached the door, his wife stepped back out into the hall. If possible, her face was even paler than before. She looked at her husband, then at Michael, fumbling for words. Impatiently, Ravenscar shoved past her into the room. Michael strode down the hall to Rachel?s mother and took her arm to steady her. She looked as if she were about to faint. ?She?s gone, then?? he asked in a low voice. Lady Ravenscar nodded dumbly, tears pooling in her eyes. She raised her hands to her cheeks. ?I don?t know what he will say.? She cast an anxious glance behind her toward the room into which her husband had gone. Michael steered her into Rachel?s room and closed the door behind him, guiding Lady Ravenscar to a chair. Ravenscar stood in the middle of the room, shock turning to rage on his face. ?Are any of her things gone?? Michael asked quickly, forestalling the imminent explosion from Ravenscar. Lady Ravenscar shook her head. ?I don?t know. I don?t think so. Her vanity set is still there.? She gestured toward the dresser, where a silver-backed set of brush, mirror and comb lay. Michael glanced around the room. The bed had been turned down, the fire banked. A woman?s white nightdress and dressing gown were tossed onto the bed. She had dressed for bed, he surmised?no doubt because of the presence of her maid?then had discarded the nightclothes and redressed, slipping out into the night. There was no sign of a letter on the bed or anywhere else. He wondered if she had gone out wothout intending to leave the estate, or if she had left her things behind to conceal what she had done for a while longer. ?Do you have any idea who he is?? Michael asked Lady Ravenscar. ?Of course not!? Ravenscar snapped. Michael noticed that Lady Ravenscar cast a furtive glance at her husband but said nothing. He turned to Lord Ravenscar. ?They have not been gone long, and Dougie said they were riding double. It is quite likely that we can catch up with them if we leave quickly. I will send down to the groom to saddle two horses if you want to accompany me.? Ravenscar, still looking as if he might fly into a rage at any moment, nodded his head shortly. ?I?ll get dressed.? He strode out of the room. Lady Ravenscar started to follow, but Michael laid a hand on her arm. ?Do you know his name, my lady?? Rachel?s mother cast him an agonized glance. ?I?I?m not sure. There was a man?the silly girl thought she had developed a tendre for someone. But I made sure he was not admitted to our house any longer and that she was never alone. She hasn?t seen him in four months, I would swear it. I thought she had forgotten him.? ?What is his name?? He had to know, though it cost him some pride to ask. ?Anthony Birkshaw.? ?Birkshaw.? Michael cast around in his mind for a face to go with the name. He faintly remembered a darkly handsome young man among the flock who had hung around Rachel before her engagement. ?She loved him when she accepted my proposal?? ?Love? The chit doesn?t know what love is!? Lady Ravenscar retorted contemptuously. ?She was flattered, and he was a presentable young man. I explained to her that it was impossible. She knew where her duty lay. I cannot imagine what can have possessed her to throw away her future like this.? Her duty. The words lay like lead in his chest. He was the duty her family had laid upon her. He had known she did not love him, but there had been hope. But the knowledge that she loved another, that she had fled from Michael at the last moment, unable to bear the thought of wedding him, cut through him like a knife. There was a part of him that wanted in that moment to simply go back to his room and shut the door, to let her go to her love, to simply wrap himself around with his misery and let Ravenscar answer the storm of questions from the guests. But he knew that he could not. He had seen the light of fury in Ravenscar?s eyes. He could not allow him to catch up to Rachel alone. Besides, her reputation would be damaged beyond repair if word of what she had done this night got out. The scandal would stain his name, as well, of course, but he was the injured party, after all, and, after this, once again a highly eligible bachelor. He cared little for London Society, anyway, and he could ride out the storm alone up here at Westhampton, far away from the pitying glances and malicious whispers about what had driven the Aincourt girl to take such drastic measures. It would be Rachel who would be excoriated by the gossip. Leaving a bridegroom almost literally at the altar?eloping to Gretna Green, with the several nights spent alone with a man, unmarried, that that would entail?her reputation would be in shreds after this. Whispers would follow her all her life. There would be many hostesses who would not invite her to parties or receive her if she called on them. Of course, given what Lady Ravenscar had said about Birkshaw?s finances, doubtless Rachel would not be able to afford to move in her family?s social circle any longer, anyway. She would be living in some rented room, not sure where her next meal was coming from, mending her dresses because she could not afford new ones, no doubt burdened even further by children whom she would have to worry about feeding, too. Michael supposed that such a gloomy picture of Rachel?s future should have assuaged his spirits somewhat, but he found he could not bear to think of her in such dire circumstances. She had been unutterably foolish. Why had she accepted his proposal? Why had she not told him that she loved someone else? But the ruin of her life was too cruel a punishment for her adolescent mistake. He had to find her and stop her from throwing away her future. So, turning away from Lady Ravenscar, he went out to ride after Rachel. 4 Michael sighed and stood up, running his hands over his face tiredly. It had been a long time since he had thought about the night when Rachel ran away from him. For the first two years of his marriage, that night had haunted him constantly, but over time the memory of it had blessedly receded. But when it did come to mind, as now, it was vivid and painful. He could feel once again the leaden sorrow in his heart, the dread of what he would find when they caught up to the escaping couple, the anguish of knowing that Rachel was so revolted at the thought of marrying him that she was willing to forfeit her reputation?not to mention a life of ease?in order to avoid becoming his wife. He had come to know in that evening the depths of pain which love brought?as well as the extent to which love for Rachel had wrapped around his heart and all through his body, to the point that he could not despise her no matter how much he wanted to, could not wish for her the misery his wounded heart cried out to inflict on someone. Pride and bitter hurt had called out for revenge, yet he had known, even as he rode grimly after her, that in the end, given the chance, he would not exact that revenge. The upstairs maid crept quietly into his room and was clearly startled to find him up. She scurried about her business, scraping the ashes from the fire and lighting a new one, then slipped out. Michael rang for his breakfast tray. After that, his valet would bring heated water for shaving and lay out his clothes, and his day would begin. But for now, Michael stood before the fire, holding his hands out to the warmth, welcome in the chill of a spring dawn, and watched the flames dance?and remembered the night he brought Rachel back. He and Ravenscar rode grimly through the darkness. It had not been difficult to follow the escaping couple. From the bottom of the gardens, the tracks of the doubly loaded horse led along the edge of the meadow and onto the road, where they had clearly headed east, toward the village. There, he and Ravenscar stopped to enquire at the inn whether a couple had stopped, and the innkeeper cheerfully responded that indeed, a young man had come by seeking to hire a carriage only an hour or so earlier, and there had been, the innkeeper thought, a young woman waiting out in the yard for him, but as she had been wearing a hooded cloak, he had not gotten a proper look at her. ?Friends of yours, my lord?? the innkeeper asked, curiosity mingling with the friendly respect in his face. Michael smiled with a look of ease that he did not feel, glad that his experiences dealing with spies during the war had engendered in him an ability to dissemble, and replied, ?Yes, a foolish young man who took offense, I?m afraid, and rode off into the night. I must see if I can bring him back before he puts his poor wife through much more trouble.? ?Ah, I see. Yes, I thought he was awful unprepared-like, seekin? a vehicle at that time of night. ?Course, I had nothin? to give him, and I told him so. No place nearer than Coxley would have an inn big enough to be hirin? out post chaises. That?s where I told him to go.? ?Very good. Perhaps I will catch up to him there. Thank you for your trouble.? Michael tipped the innkeeper a goldboy just to ensure his continued allegiance and strode out to rejoin Lord Ravenscar. ?The fool tried to hire a post chaise here at this time of night,? Michael said. Anger surged through him?how could the man have enticed Rachel to run away with him, knowing that he had not even made arrangements for their escape? He was clearly an idiot or a scoundrel or both. They pushed onward and ran the couple to ground in Coxley not long after midnight. There was no bustle of a carriage being prepared in the courtyard of the inn, but the lights were on inside the place, and an irritated innkeeper opened the door to their knock. On hearing they were seeking a young couple, he jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward a closed door across the hall from the public room. ?They?re in the private sitting room there, sir, and if ye can talk some sense into that young man?s head, it?ll be a great favor to me, I?ll tell ye. Fool wants me roust out me grooms and set him and his wife up in a post chaise. At this time of night. I told him he?d have to wait ?til the morning, like any decent body would, but he?s been carrying on like a scalded cat about spending the night in a ?grubby country inn.? I ask ye?? ?He?ll win no awards for tact,? Michael agreed calmly. ?Don?t worry. We shall handle him for you. Go back to bed and don?t worry about it. They will be leaving with us.? ?Thank you, sir.? The innkeeper nodded his head gratefully. ?I can always tell real quality, sir, and yer it, not like some young pups I could mention.? He nodded his head significantly toward the closed door, then turned, picked up his candle and waddled off down the back hall to his quarters. Ravenscar had been waiting impatiently all through the innkeeper?s conversation, and as soon as he left, Rachel?s father strode across and unceremoniously opened the door and walked in. Michael followed quickly, closing the door behind them. Rachel sat in a chair across the room, her elbow propped on the arm of the chair and her head on her hand, looking wilted. A young man with a thick head of black hair and handsome features was striding impatiently back and forth across the floor. He swung around at their entrance, but it was clear from the stunned expression on his face that he was not expecting to see Michael and Ravenscar. ?Good God!? he exclaimed involuntarily. Rachel looked up at the force of his exclamation, and she froze when she saw their visitors. She jumped to her feet, her hands clutching her skirts, and the fear on her face pierced Michael?s heart anew. ?F-father! Lord Westhampton!? ?Did you think you would get away?? Lord Ravenscar roared, his face flooding red with fury. ?Did you think you could just dash off and nothing would happen? Have you gone mad? Are you dead to all sense of propriety?? ?Lord Ravenscar?? Michael began, coming up beside him. Ravenscar cast him a single cold glance, saying, ?No. Unfortunately she is not your wife yet, Westhampton. She is still my concern.? He turned back to his daughter, saying, ?Your mother is prostrate with grief. You have ruined us all.? Rachel?s face turned even paler, and tears welled in her eyes. ?I?m sorry. So sorry. I did not want to hurt anyone.? ?My lord, it was all my fault.? The young man came to stand between Rachel and her father. ?I begged Rachel to run away and marry me.? ?Of course it?s your fault!? Ravenscar roared. ?Do you think I don?t know that? This one hasn?t the wit to come up with an idea like that. But you couldn?t keep from seducing her, could you?? ?My lord!? Birkshaw gasped. ?I did not touch her, I swear! I love your daughter!? Ravenscar?s face went from red to purple as Birkshaw?s words rendered him speechless for the moment. ?You have an odd way of demonstrating your affection,? Michael said crisply, stepping into the gap. ?Convincing Miss Aincourt to elope with you practically on the eve of her wedding, with scores of guests here to witness the scandal. You have exposed her to unimaginable gossip and encouraged her to break her trust, all the while knowing that you have not the means to support a wife. And you hadn?t even the foresight to hire a carriage to make your escape,? he finished in disgust. The other man flushed, whether from anger or shame, Michael was not sure. ?I know you have good reason to hate me, my lord, and I beg your pardon. I had no intention of doing wrong to you. It is just that my love for Miss Aincourt is overwhelming.? Birkshaw turned to look at Rachel, and she smiled at him through her tears, love glowing on her face. Michael felt as if a knife had just sliced through his vital organs. He turned and walked away, struggling to compose himself. Rachel had never looked at him with even a third of that emotion, and he saw clearly now that he had no hope of becoming the man she loved. He walked over to the sideboard, staring blindly down at the rough wood surface, seeing only the bleakness that lay over the rest of his life. A life without Rachel. Without love. ?Overwhelming!? Ravenscar barked. ?You are a fool. Between the two of you, you have ruined her life. Eloping?spending the night on the road with a man who is not her husband?good God, man, the entire world will know she is a wanton. Her good name is destroyed. Are you such a mooncalf you don?t see that? No man would marry her now.? ?I will marry her!? Birkshaw declaimed dramatically. ?Over my dead body,? Ravenscar snarled. ?You have ruined us with your silly posing! Do you understand me? Ruined us! Do you honestly think that after what you have done I would allow you to marry my daughter? And how do you propose to take care of her? Did you think of that before you swayed her to run away with you? Eh? What will you do, take her back to your bachelor?s rooms? Live on some paltry allowance you get from your father?? ?I will find employment, my lord,? the younger man replied stiffly. ?Oh, yes, of course! Secretary to some lord, no doubt. Hah! You couldn?t live on the pittance they pay, and even if you could, what man would hire you? Secretaries are responsible men, not the sort who run off with another man?s fianc?e in the middle of the night. The same is true for any government job. If you had the sense God gave a kitten, you would know it. No one in the Ton would have anything to do with either one of you after this. You will be lucky if you?re able to find a job clerking. I know your situation. You have to marry money. I?ll wager you?re living on borrowed funds now. Did you think she had money? Did you think, if you blackened her name, I would have no choice but to allow you to marry her, and you would batten onto me for the rest of your life?? ?It was not like that, my lord.? Birkshaw?s jaw clenched. ?I realize that my prospects are not very good?.? ?Not good? They are miserable!? Ravenscar roared. ?And you intend to drag my daughter into that? You propose to house her in some tenement in the East End? How will you feed her? How will you provide for the luckless children you will have?? ?I?I don?t know,? Birkshaw faltered. ?You don?t know,? Ravenscar repeated with heavy sarcasm. ?And for that you have ruined my family.? A little sob escaped Rachel at her father?s words. He turned his harsh gaze on her. ?Well, miss, I never expected this of you,? he said bitterly. ?I always thought that Dev would be the one who destroyed our good name. It was his licentious ways I feared. What a fool I was not to see that you were cut from the same cloth. You are a wanton! A trollop!? ?Father, no, please!? Tears streamed from Rachel?s eyes, and her entire body shook with sobs. ?I have done nothing wrong!? ?Ravenscar!? Michael swung back around. ?That?s hardly necessary.? ?It is the truth!? Ravenscar thundered, his eyes flashing with the fire of a biblical prophet. He pointed an accusing finger at his daughter. ?For the sake of your fleshly desires, you have trampled the good name of your family. It is not only that you will never be received in decent company again. Neither will your mother. I will be too ashamed to set foot in White?s again. You are a stain upon the name of Aincourt.? ?I am sorry. I am sorry!? Rachel cried, looking at her father pleadingly. ?I did not think! I was?it was just?? She covered her face with her hands, unable to go on. ?It?s obvious that you did not think,? her father retorted disgustedly. ?Dragging both our names through the dirt just so you could have your pleasure with this boy! There is no way we can keep this quiet. The house is full of wedding guests. The entire Ton will know that you left Westhampton standing at the altar.? Rachel?s hand dropped from her face, and she stared at her father with rising horror. It was obvious that until this moment she had not considered the consequences her actions would have for Michael. ?No, I did not mean?? ?You have made him look a proper fool,? Ravenscar thundered on, disregarding her comment. ?You have dishonored an excellent man, broken your trust?? ?Enough!? Michael exclaimed, striding forward. ?That is enough, my lord. She will not be ruined, and I will not be dishonored. Because no one will know of this.? ?What?? Everyone else in the room turned to look at Michael in astonishment. Ravenscar frowned. ?What are you talking about? We cannot keep this hidden.? ?Yes, we can. No one will know that Miss Aincourt jilted me if we are married two days hence, as planned.? Ravenscar stared at him. ?You would still be willing to marry her? After this?? Michael carefully refrained from looking at Rachel. ?If Miss Aincourt agrees to it. It is the only way to keep it a secret. I am sure Mr. Birkshaw, if he loves Miss Aincourt as he says he does, will ride away and never speak of this.? Michael cast a long, intent look at the other man. Birkshaw?s gaze dropped, and he nodded. ?My servants will never breathe a word,? Michael went on. ?They are loyal to me. I think we can count on you and Lady Ravenscar not to reveal it.? ?I should think not!? Ravenscar exclaimed. ?Then the only way it would be revealed is if I repudiate our marriage contract. If we return to the house quietly, and Miss Aincourt and I are married day after tomorrow, no one will be the wiser.? There was a long moment of silence. Michael turned to Rachel. She was wiping tears from her cheeks, her face averted. ?Well, Miss Aincourt? Are you willing to wed me Friday?? ?Of course she is,? Lord Ravenscar inserted quickly. ?She should count herself a fortunate woman that you would even consider allying yourself with her after this.? ?No. Let the lady speak for herself,? Michael said firmly, his eyes still fastened on Rachel. ?Obviously she accepted me unwillingly before. I do not want that to happen again. It is entirely your decision, Miss Aincourt.? Rachel raised her eyes, still damp with tears, to his. ?Yes,? she said in a low voice. ?I will marry you Friday. I am so sorry. My behavior has been inexcusable. I?thank you for your generosity.? Michael nodded once, gravely. He had spoken up because he could not bear to hear Rachel?s father harangue her any longer; the thought of her having to return to live with the man, forever the object of his anger and scorn, filled him with disgust. This was the only way, he knew, for Rachel to survive this episode with her reputation intact. But he was also aware, with a touch of self-disdain, that his motives had been largely selfish. He had made his offer because he could not bear to let her go. He had to bind her to him, even knowing that she loved another. Birkshaw let out an inarticulate sound of frustration and pain and, turning on his heel, left the room. Rachel cast an anguished glance after him but did not move to stop him. Shortly after, the three of them left the inn and rode silently back to Westhampton, Rachel riding on her father?s horse behind him. On Friday, as scheduled, she became Lady Westhampton. They had been married for seven years now, and she had never been truly his wife. Michael had still hoped?foolishly, he soon found?that somehow, someday, Rachel would grow to love him, or at least to like him well enough that her innate desire for a normal life, with intimacy and children, would lead her to ease into a true marriage with him. He had reassured her, of course, the afternoon before their wedding, that he would not press her or expect a physical relationship with her, knowing her feelings. But inside, he had still believed that in time, with care and consideration on his part, she would change in her regard for him. But over the years, their relationship had scarcely changed. They had begun their marriage in a careful, polite way, and they had continued that way. Hurt and still somewhat stunned, not wanting to rush her and cause her any pain, Michael had been scrupulously courteous and restrained with Rachel. They had spent their honeymoon in Paris, once again open to the English now that the war with Napoleon was over. Their rooms had been separate, joined by a door in the common wall that was never opened. They went to operas and plays, and to a ball at the British ambassador?s. They returned home to London, to a life that was much the same. Rachel made her cautious entry into the life of a Society matron, starting with small card parties and dinners, and growing to a spectacular ball by the end of her first Season. Michael helped her through the sometimes treacherous shoals of a Society life, and she responded with gratitude and, he thought, a certain degree of liking. But there was always between them a certain awkwardness, a formality. Though they learned sundry small facts about one another, they remained, on an important level, strangers. It seemed as though the more awkward he felt, the more polite and restrained he grew, and Rachel responded in kind, until at last he realized in despair that there would never be any love between them. He did not know if Rachel still loved Anthony Birkshaw. He would not have dreamed of violating her privacy by asking her; he knew only that she had not seen the man again after they had wed, for that was the only stipulation he had made regarding their marriage. But whether she loved Birkshaw or not, it was clear to Michael that she did not love him. After a year of marriage, he decided that it was worse to live with Rachel, loving her, wanting her, and receiving no love or desire in return, than it was to live without her. Their parting, as in all things, was polite, even amicable. He reminded her of his liking for the country and quiet calm, but assured her that he had no intention of making her suffer a country existence. She could remain in London, living the life she enjoyed, while he would retire to the estate in the Lake District. There had been in him, he thought, some small, lingering hope that she would protest that she did not want to live alone in London, that she would go with him, or that they must split their time between the two homes. But she did not. She merely agreed, polite and passionless. That had been a lonely, bitter trip north for him, and an even harder winter in the snowy landscape of Cumbria. There was all the beauty he had always loved; there were his books, his studies, repairs to the house and gardens, experiments to try in the fields, letters to write and read?in short, all the things that had made up his life before Rachel. But none of them satisfied. But so it had been for over five years now. He and Rachel lived separate lives. He visited London sometimes during the Season, just to make an appearance; she returned to Westhampton for Christmas. They were married. And they weren?t. He had grown accustomed to it, if not reconciled. There was a discreet tap at the door; then his valet opened it and carried in the tray containing his breakfast. He set the tray on the small table in front of the pair of chairs in the sitting area of the bedroom, then proceeded to pour Michael?s tea and remove the covers of the dishes. ?Good morning, my lord,? the valet said politely. Garson was a person of rigid ideas concerning etiquette, and he was careful never to cross the line into friendliness with his employer, despite the fact that he had been Michael?s valet for almost fifteen years. He bustled about the room, opening the drapes and letting in the morning glow, then paused beside Michael?s chair, waiting until Michael had taken several sips of tea. Michael looked up at him inquiringly. ?You had something to say to me?? Garson folded his hands prissily at his waist. ?There is a person who arrived here this morning. A groom, I believe, from Lord Ravenscar?s estate. He left there yesterday morning, as I understand, and rode straight through.? ?Lord Ravenscar!? Michael set the cup of tea down with a clank and jumped to his feet. ?Why? Is something wrong? Did something happen to Lady Westhampton?? ?He said that all was fine, my lord, or I would have delivered the note he carried to you immediately.? With this, he produced a small note from his pocket. Michael snatched the missive from his valet?s hands. ?Good God, man, why didn?t you?? Garson looked pained. ?I thought to give you a moment to take your tea first, my lord.? Michael grimaced. He broke the seal, unfolded the letter and began to read Rachel?s familiar hand. A moment later an oath burst from him, then he sat back down in his seat and read through the note again. ?Bloody hell!? Garson had remained in the room, ostensibly laying out Michael?s clothes for the day, but in reality waiting, Michael knew, to find out why Lady Westhampton had sent a letter winging swiftly back to the house she had just left. He paused now beside Michael?s chair. When Michael said nothing, he prompted, ?Everything is all right, I trust, with her ladyship?? Michael tapped an irritated tattoo on the arm of his chair. ?No,? he snapped. ?Everything is most definitely not all right.? He paused, then added, ?Pack my bags, Garson. We will be joining Lady Westhampton at Darkwater.? 5 Rachel glanced across the sitting room to where Jessica stood looking down at the bit of knitting in Miranda?s hands. Jessica pressed her lips together, then pursed them. Miranda looked up at her and sighed. ?Oh, go ahead and laugh. I know it looks absurd.? ?No, it?? Jessica glanced at Miranda, and a laugh escaped her lips. ?Actually, you?re right. It does look absurd. Whatever did you do?? ?I haven?t the faintest idea,? Miranda confessed, chuckling, too. ?Obviously my education was sadly neglected. I cannot do any of these things that you and Rachel do so easily.? ?Ah, but I cannot shoot a gun,? Rachel pointed out with a smile at her sister-in-law. Miranda, the daughter of an American who had grown wealthy in the fur trade, had been raised in a manner almost inconceivable to Rachel. She had accompanied her father on fur-buying trips to the wilds, where she had met Indians and trappers, and learned not only how to shoot but also how to use a knife to advantage. As her father?s business had grown, she had moved naturally into it, keeping track of his accounts and investing his money in real estate in the raw, burgeoning city of New York, so that his fortune?and her own?doubled and even tripled. Although Rachel had quickly come to love her sister-in-law dearly?not the least because she had brought Dev back from the edge of ruining his life?there were times when Miranda?s bustling energy left her feeling rather breathless and inadequate. ?That?s true,? Miranda agreed, but added, ?However, that is hardly a useful skill when one is trying to prepare for the arrival of a baby. Right now, a blanket would be more practical.? She looked over a trifle wistfully at the soft pale-yellow blanket that lay on Jessica?s chair. ?How did you learn to knit so well?? ?Actually, my father?s batman taught me,? Jessica, the daughter of a soldier, replied with a small laugh. ?He was quite good at darning, mending, and knitting socks. ?But fine sewing was not his forte. That is why, while I will knit you oodles of little caps and booties and blankets, you will have to depend on Rachel for the christening gown and the fine embroidery.? Rachel smiled at the other two women. ?And I will be delighted to do it. I have been stitching away, Miranda, ever since you told me about your good news.? It was odd, she thought, that only a year ago, she had not even met these two women, yet now she counted them among her best friends. Miranda smiled, and Rachel was a little surprised to hear Miranda echoing her own thoughts. ?Who would have thought that when I married Devin I would also acquire such wonderful friends?? She went on thoughtfully. ?You know, I never really had many friends?certainly not ones I can confide in as I can the two of you.? Rachel was not surprised. She suspected that most women Miranda?s age would have found her rather too intimidating to make friends with. It was easy to see why Miranda and Jessica had become fast friends in just a few days; they had similarly strong personalities and an open, even blunt, manner. She was rather less certain why either one of them had been drawn to her. She did not have their strength; neither of them would have made the mistakes she had made. She returned to the sewing in her lap, a long christening robe for Miranda?s future child. It was made of elegant white satin, put together with careful dainty stitches. She had finished sewing the plainer underdress and the robe, and now she was adding the rows and rows of delicate white Belgian lace that would decorate the hem and sleeves and edge the yoke of the elegant robe. Inside the yoke she planned to embroider flowers in white thread, giving it a subtly rich look. The finishing touch would be matching satin booties and a cap, both also edged in lace and tied with the same narrow satin ribbons as the front of the robe. Rachel had been working on the outfit this winter at Westhampton, as well as some other everyday gowns and cotton receiving blankets for the baby?s layette. Miranda had told Rachel of her lack of expertise at sewing, and Rachel had been happy to apply her skills to the task. Rachel carefully stitched along the pinned lace, then removed the pins. Jessica, coming over to her side, gazed down at the gown. ?It?s beautiful,? she breathed. ?You do such lovely work.? ?Thank you.? Rachel smiled, smoothing out the line of lace. She was aware of a small ache of loss in the area of her heart. It happened now and then as she worked on the baby things?the stab of knowledge that she had never had a child for whom to make such things and probably never would. It was part of the price she paid?the worst part, she supposed?for having behaved so foolishly before her wedding. But she was practiced enough at dealing with it that her smile did not waver as she thanked Jessica for her compliment, and she looked composed as she began to ply her needle again. Then the sound of men?s voices in the house broke the quiet of the room, and all three women looked up expectantly. ?They?re back!? Jessica said happily. Devin and Richard had gone out riding that afternoon, and the house had seemed rather empty without them. ?Good. I was afraid that I was going to have to tell Cook to delay supper,? Miranda said, but the glow that lit up her face belied the asperity of her tone. Dev was the first to enter the room, his handsome face wreathed in smiles. ?Guess whom we happened upon as we were riding home!? Immediately on his heels followed Richard and another man, tall and blond. ?Michael!? Rachel jumped to her feet, a grin breaking across her face. Her heart was suddenly pounding, and she felt almost giddy. She took a step forward, then stopped, feeling slightly embarrassed. ?Wh-what are you doing here?? ?I found I grew quite bored after you left,? Michael said lightly, coming forward to take Rachel?s hand and raise it formally to his lips. ?Westhampton is far too quiet without the sound of Gabriela?s laughter.? ?Well, you will have more than enough noise here, with Gabriela and Veronica together,? Jessica told him with a laugh. Michael greeted the other two women warmly, congratulating Miranda on her upcoming ?happy event.? Rachel noticed, with a pang of hurt, that her husband?s manner toward his in-laws was easier and warmer than toward his wife. ?I am so glad you could come,? Miranda said, smiling. ?We were quite sorry that you had not driven down with Rachel.? ?Had I known that highwaymen were going to be popping in on Lady Westhampton?s carriage, I would have done so,? Michael replied. ?I decided that if things like that were going to happen, I had best escort Rachel the rest of the way to London.? ?Good idea,? Dev agreed. ?I had been thinking that I ought to do that myself.? ?Don?t be silly,? Rachel told her brother. ?I am sure that nothing else will happen.? She turned toward Michael. ?I am afraid that you have put yourself out for nothing.? ?Not for nothing,? Michael answered politely. ?I will have the pleasure of your company on the ride to London.? It was the sort of courteous, meaningless thing men said to women they did not know well, Rachel thought. Not that it mattered, of course. Her life was quite pleasant; it was only the sight of Miranda and Jessica with their husbands that made her a little dissatisfied with her own marriage. Many women would be grateful to have a husband such as she did, who placed so few demands on her, yet was unfailingly thoughtful and polite. ?Who was the man, Michael?? Miranda asked in her blunt American way. ?Did you indeed know him?? Michael grinned at her. ?Do you honestly think that I am the sort of chap to be friends with a highwayman? No, I am afraid he sounds like some kind of lunatic, frankly. The only thing I can think is that it was part of some bizarre jest?that one of my friends hired this man to play a joke on me, and then, when I was not in the carriage, he didn?t know what to do except go ahead and relate the tale they had made up to Rachel.? ?An odd sort of jest,? Jessica offered. ?Yes, well, some of the men with whom I correspond are rather eccentric. Dr. Waller, for instance?? ?The scientist?? Rachel?s eyebrows shot up. ?Yes, I realize that he is a veritable genius, but he has been known to have a distinctly odd sense of humor.? ?I should say so,? Dev grumbled, ?if his idea of a joke is to go about frightening ladies.? Michael had not looked at Rachel as he spoke, and she had the sudden, intense suspicion that he was lying. She would have liked to press him on the matter, but she could scarcely accuse her husband of lying in front of her family. ?I wrote him immediately, of course, to enquire,? Michael went on, turning toward Rachel. ?But in case it was not he or a mistake of some sort, I thought it wisest to accompany you to London.? It occurred to Rachel that her suspicion of a moment before was ridiculous. Of course Michael had not known that man; he did not socialize with thieves and highwaymen. It was absurd to think so, even for a moment. ?Thank you,? she said. ?It will make the ride much more enjoyable.? She realized as she said it that her statement was true. On the drive to Darkwater from Westhampton, she had found herself missing Michael?s company. In fact, now that she thought of it, she had felt sad to leave him. He had a quiet, subtle wit and a calm manner that made any situation more agreeable. Intelligent and well-educated, he could talk on almost any subject, and he was too courteous to let his boredom with one?s conversation show. It would be nice, she thought, if he would even stay with her in London for a while. To her surprise, she heard Jessica echo her thoughts. ?Perhaps you might stay in London for the Season.? Rachel glanced at Jessica, then back at Michael. She found his gaze upon her before he turned toward Jessica. ?Tempting as the thought is, I am afraid that I must go back to Westhampton. It is the busiest time on the estate, as well. I have a number of experiments going concerning the farms.? Rachel knew that Michael?s estate manager was privy to all of Michael?s plans and it would cause little problem if he happened to stay away at least part of the spring and summer. The reason he would not stay the Season was because he preferred to be alone on his estate. He had lived with her the first year of their marriage?for appearance? sake, she presumed?then after that he had retired to Westhampton, visiting her in London only rarely. He had told her that it would be ?easier.? Easier, she supposed, for him not to be reminded of her treachery each day by the mere fact of seeing her. Easier not to have to keep up the pretense of civility towards her. It surprised her sometimes that the thought still had the power to hurt her. Miranda tugged at the bellpull. ?I shall tell the servants to make up your roo?? She stopped abruptly, frowning. ?I?m sorry. Your customary bedchamber is one of the ones that we are currently renovating?.? Since Miranda and Dev had married, they had been restoring Darkwater piece by piece, beginning with the most desperate areas?the roofs and chimneys and worm-eaten wooden banisters and railings. The more cosmetic changes of painting and papering walls, replacing drapes and threadbare rugs, had followed as soon as the structures of the rooms were made sound. As a result, there had not been a time in the past seven months when there was not hammering or sawing or painting going on in some room or other. Miranda had put on a push to be finished with the family area of sleeping and sitting rooms before the arrival of her baby, knowing full well the value of peace reigning where the baby was, while the noisy construction was relegated to the other wings of the house. As a result, all the guest rooms besides the ones currently occupied by Rachel and the duke and duchess were unusable, including the one in which Michael usually stayed when he happened to visit Darkwater. Miranda cast an anxious look first toward Rachel, then back to Michael. She was aware, as they all were, that Rachel and Michael did not have the same sort of warm, intimate marriage that she and Devin did?or Jessica and Richard had, for that matter. Rachel had told her long ago that hers was not a love match, that she and Lord Westhampton ?lived apart.? She also knew that when Michael and Rachel both stayed here, Michael slept in a separate room. However, that was a fairly common arrangement among the aristocracy, and it did not necessarily signify that the couple were not intimate. Typically, if rooms were short, one would expect to put a husband and wife in a room together. But Rachel?s was not a typical marriage. Though they had not, of course, ever actually discussed the matter, Miranda suspected that Rachel and Michael had never actually shared a bed. It made for an awkward situation, and it would be embarassing to even discuss the matter. To make some special arrangement for Michael would highlight the oddity of their marriage, which Michael and Rachel tried to keep normal in appearance. Yet it would create an uncomfortable situation for the couple if she simply stuck him in Rachel?s room. For a long moment, silence hung in the air, then Michael said easily, ?Well, of course I would not trouble you for the luxury of a separate chamber in such a situation. Just tell the footman to put my bags in Rachel?s room.? ?Of course.? ?You would no doubt like to wash up after your journey,? Rachel said quickly, hating the red tint that she knew had washed up her neck into her face. ?I will take you up to our room.? She slipped out of the room, avoiding looking at anyone, and Michael followed her. She did not look at him, either, as they crossed the entryway and began to climb the stairs. There was no need, of course, for her to show him where her room lay; he knew it well enough after all these years. But Rachel had had to get away from the eyes of the other couples. Her family knew, of course, the state of her marriage, at least in general terms, but it was embarassing to have everyone be reminded of it. ?Don?t worry,? Michael said in a low voice beside her. ?It will be easy enough to have one of the servants set up a camp bed in your dressing room for me. It is ample in size, as I remember.? ?Yes, of course,? Rachel replied. Suddenly she felt foolish for having offered to show him the room. Of course he knew the way?did he think she had done it because she wanted to protest his sleeping in the same room with her? They continued up the stairs to the hall above. Rachel tried to think of something to say to break the silence. She wanted to tell him she was glad that he had come to Darkwater, but she could not think of the proper way to phrase it. ?I?um, it was very kind of you to go to the trouble of journeying here. There was no need, I?m sure.? ?Perhaps not,? he agreed with a formality to equal her own. ?However, one can scarcely take the chance. A pretty coward I would look to let my wife travel on to London alone after such an event.? Of course. Appearances. That was all that mattered in their marriage. She nodded her head and walked down the hall to her room. ?Well?? she said, opening the door and taking a step inside. ?Here it is.? She glanced around the room, her gaze falling on the wide, high-testered bed on which she had slept all her life. She felt the treacherous blush returning to her cheeks. She thought about having to get ready for bed tonight in the same room with him. He had never seen her in anything less than her dressing gown; they had never shared a room, even sleeping in different beds. She wondered exactly how they would handle this. ?Well,? she said again, glancing at Michael and away. ?I, um, I guess you would like a chance to freshen up a bit.? Even this situation was awkward, she realized. He would doubtless like to wash off the dust of the road, and of course he would have to change for supper. ?I shall leave you alone,? she went on quickly, flashing a brittle smile. ?I, um, I?ll go tell Gabriela you are here. She will be quite pleased to hear it.? She backed out of the door and quickly closed it behind her. For a moment she stood in the hall. How had her marriage become what it had? But even as she asked herself the question, she knew the answer: she had done it. The cold, loveless state of their marriage was entirely her fault. She had not loved Michael when they became engaged, but he had loved her, and he was a kind and patient man. Looking back on it, she thought that perhaps with time they might have found their way to at least a satisfactory relationship. But before it even began, she had ruined everything?. Three days before Rachel?s wedding, her mother took her aside and explained in vague terms what to expect on her wedding night. Rachel was shocked and even frightened. It was somewhat difficult to understand exactly what would transpire, because her mother?s speech was so roundabout and couched in euphemisms, but Rachel came away with the impression that it was distinctly immodest and unpleasant, and Lady Ravenscar?s frequent, faint assurances that ?the pain does not last long? filled her with dread. She spent much of the next day worrying about her mother?s warnings. To make matters even worse, when she walked into the drawing room that afternoon, she found Anthony Birkshaw sitting there talking to two of Michael?s cousins. She had not seen him for four months, and the sight of him now jarred her. She had almost forgotten how handsome he was and how his thick dark hair curled upon his forehead. The smile that broke across his face when she entered the room was like a blow to her heart. In a rush, all the feelings she had had for him came back to her, and she wanted to giggle, to cry, to throw her arms around him and to run from the room, all at once. It took all her strength to greet him with some semblance of normalcy. They said almost nothing to each other after that, but when Anthony rose to politely take his leave, he murmured as he bent over her hand, ?Meet me tonight at the bottom of the garden. Ten o?clock.? Rachel did not reply. Indeed, she did not intend to meet him. However much the sight of him had shaken her, however forcefully she had been reminded of the love she held for him, she knew that it would be foolish even to speak to him, let alone meet him in the dark of the garden. However much she loved him, she was honor bound now to Michael. But then, that evening, Michael unexpectedly kissed her, and his kiss was deep and hungry, completely unlike the gentle, patient Michael she was used to. She had felt the twist of something dark and unknown deep within her abdomen, something almost more frightening than the sudden strong grip of Michael?s arms around her, pinning her to him. She was thrown into a panic?a panic that sent her slipping down through the garden to meet Anthony a few minutes later. Anthony was there waiting for her, and as she hurried toward him, her heart swelled with love. Even after this time, despite all the discouragement her family had given him, he had not given up on her! He had come at the very end, like a knight in a story, to rescue her. He turned and saw her, and he came to her, pulling her into his arms. He cradled her against him, his head against hers, murmuring, ?Rachel, my love?my love. I was so scared you would not come?that they had turned you against me.? ?Never!? she cried in a low, choked voice, stepping back and looking up at him. In that moment she was sure that what she said was true: she would love him forever; nothing could ever make her stop loving Anthony. She would be married, tied for life to a man she did not love, her heart all the while aching with the sorrow she felt right now. ?I will always love you.? ?Then marry me.? ?What? I cannot!? She looked up at him, horrified. ?I am promised to Lord Westhampton.? ?You do not love him!? His voice throbbed with emotion. ?You love me. You cannot marry him.? ?But Father would never?? ?He doesn?t need to know,? Anthony argued. ?Come with me now. We will ride to Gretna Green and be married. Then you will be my wife, and your father will have no power over you. I will deal with him if he comes after us. And you and I will be together for the rest of our lives.? ?But the money?? ?I don?t give a damn about the money! Not as long as we are together. What is money compared to our happiness? Would you rather live in this huge cold mansion without love, or with me in a cozy little cottage?? ?With you! You know I want to be with you!? ?Then what does wealth matter? I will work. Lord Muggeridge told me only last week that he needed an aide. I know he would hire me. There is no shame in honest work.? ?Of course not.? ?And knowing that I would be coming home at night to you would make it all worthwhile.? His dark eyes shone down at her with love. Rachel gazed back at him, her heart filled with emotion. She ignored the small cold voice of practicality, listening only to the pounding of her heart, seeing only the sweet love that shone in Anthony?s eyes. It was nothing like the fierce fire that had leaped to life in Michael?s gaze that evening. Anthony was sure and safe, and the warm, pure glow she felt when she looked into his face was nothing like that breathless twist of sensation that had curled through her when Michael kissed her. Love was what was important, she reminded herself. She was not the mercenary sort who would marry for money. She thought of making that long walk down the church aisle, everyone watching her, giving her entire life over to a man whom she did not love, a man who was little more than a stranger to her. ?But everyone is expecting me to?? ?Damn what they expect of you!? Anthony rejoined. ?What is important is what you expect of you. You are too fine a lady, too gentle and good, to marry for money! Please?I cannot stand by and let you give yourself to a man who?? ?No, you are right. I cannot do it!? Rachel cried, panicky at the thought. ?Then come with me. We shall be happier than you could ever be immured in some castle married to a man you barely know, no matter what his title. Give yourself over to love.? For a moment Rachel hesitated. Then she flung herself into his arms. ?Yes!? she cried, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from her. ?Yes! I will go with you.? He put her up on his horse behind him, and together they rode through the night. She was blissfully happy at first, clinging to Anthony?s strong back and thinking only of the joy that awaited her. It wasn?t until she stood in the courtyard of the inn in the village, waiting while Anthony tried to arrange for a post chaise for them, that reality began to sink in. She felt like a criminal, lurking out there in the dark because it would be too scandalous to let anyone see her, and the feeling tainted her joy. They had to continue on his horse, for the inn had had no carriage to lease, and it was slow going with the double load. As they rode, she thought about what she had done and what would happen the next morning when Michael and her family discovered that she was gone. It occurred to her that she had not even left them a note. Would they think that something had happened to her? Be frightened and set out on search parties? Her guilt and unease grew, until by the time they stopped at the inn in the next village, she was beginning to realize the enormity of what she had done. She sat huddled in the private dining room, chilled through and through from the night air and numbly tired, while Anthony tried to convince the innkeeper to have a post chaise prepared for them. She could see in the innkeeper?s eyes his doubts about Anthony?s story, as well as her propriety, and she realized how she must look to him?how she would look to everyone. She wanted to cry; she wanted to turn and flee back to Westhampton. Then everything grew even worse, for her father and Michael walked through the door. She jumped to her feet, fear flooding her at the sight of her furious father. He began to berate her, driving home what she already had begun to know in her heart: the scandal of eloping would haunt her for the rest of her life. And the stain of it would spread to the rest of her family, too?her parents, even Caroline and Richard, though they had done nothing wrong. She had failed to do her duty to her family. Darkwater would crumble into ruins; her parents would have to live entirely on Richard?s generosity. ??? ???????? ?????. ??? ?????? ?? ?????. ????? ?? ??? ????, ??? ??? ????? ??? (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39923050&lfrom=390579938) ? ???. ????? ???? ??? ??? ????? ??? Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ? ??? ????? ????, ? ????? ?????, ? ??? ?? ?? ????, ??? 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