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All Things Beautiful
She stood poised in the doorway, the late autumn sun streaming through Danescourt's mullioned windows highlighting the curves of her silhouette and the shine of her glorious dark hair. Suddenly, in that very second, Peter Jamison realized how much he had been in love with her, might still be in love with her. The thought shocked him.
Ethereal. Graceful. Even in a sadly threadbare dress, Lady Julia Markham had the bearing of a duchess.
But she was different from his memories. In the depth of her dark blue eyes were shadows. Maturity. No longer the girl but a woman. A stunning woman.
Peter rose from the sturdy but utilitarian chair, his ready smile plastered to his face. For the briefest of moments he allowed his eyes to search for the faint scars at her wrists. So! The rumors were true. She had attempted to take her own life.
A rush of shame for the incident that had ostracized her from polite society ran through him. His smile felt strained, but he held it while moving his gaze ever so slightly to avoid hers and studied the faded wallpaper behind her. At one time a painting of a Markham ancestor had hung on that wall, a painting sold off long ago to pay the debts of the present Markhams.
Her mother's sharp tone called his attention back. "Well, Julia, don't stand there dallying in the doorway. I detest staying in the country for one moment longer than I must. Come and let us have a look at you. It has been, what? Three years?" Waving a multi-ringed hand at Peter, Lady Louisa Markham added, "You do remember Peter Jamison, Lord Carberry?"
Peter forced himself to look directly at her again. Neither of her parents had offered their hand or even spared their daughter a glance since her appearance in the doorway. Her reception in the room was colder than the breeze racing down the hillside outsideor whistling through the house, Peter amended, wishing a small fire had been laid in the reception room. He didn't say a word. Everyone knew the Markhams were done up.
But then, he too was starting to learn a thing or two about taking drastic economies.
Julia hesitated. Lord Roger Markham was far more interested in the sparse selection of biscuits on the tea cart than in his daughter. Her fingertips touching the door handle shook slightly. Peter suddenly understood the emotional courage Julia needed to face these uncaring persons who were her parents.
Help came from an unexpected source. A slight rattling of china drew Julia's attention from her parents to Chester Beal, the family retainer. Chester had been with the Markhams as long as Peter had known them, well over twenty years. Even then, he'd been an old man.
Almost imperceptibly, a silent communication flew between Julia and Chester, who stood silent, waiting to serve his master and mistress. From him, she gathered strength. Her chin lifted; her eyes regained their flash. Here was the woman who had had London at her feet when only a chit of a girl fresh from the country.
Gracefully, Julia came forward, a hand outstretched. "Of course I remember Peter. How is Arabella? I was so pleased to read the announcement of your marriage."
Peter took her hand, surprised at the slight roughness of calluses. Arabella would never have allowed her hands to be in this condition, nor would the Julia Markham he had known. The old Julia would have also been conscious that he and Arabella had given her the "cut direct" by not sending her an invitation to their wedding and by pointedly ignoring her note to them expressing her best wishes.
An uncomfortable heat stole up his face as he answered in his best manner. "She is very well. Thank you for asking." He hid himself behind the safety of small talk, uncomfortable with the role he was being forced to play. "It appears that life in the country agrees with you."
Again, Julia looked past his shoulder to Chester, and her eye took on the sparkle of a jest, reminding him of the Julia of his memories. "Yes. Yes, it does." She smiled. Did anyone have a smile lovelier than Julia's?
"This is not a social visit," Lord Markham snapped irritably, "so sit down and let us get this matter settled. I want to be back on the road to London within the hour. Here, Chester, let me have one of those biscuits. Tell Mrs. Beal she's setting a poor repast, from what I remember. Where is the Madeira?"
Chester floundered a moment before Julia's quiet, firm voice answered. "The Madeira, along with any other amenities around Danescourt, has long been gone to pay your gaming debts."
Gray eyebrows flew together in an angry frown as Markham scowled at his daughter, apparently truly seeing her for the first time since her entrance into the room. "You always were an impertinent child. Seems three years in the country hasn't helped to sweeten your disposition."
Peter glared. He'd never liked Markham. The man owed his mark to half the world and had been in dun territory for as long as Peter had known him. Definitely bad ton ... and one of the reasons Peter had been unable to bring himself to make an offer for Julia. For with the lovely Julia's hand came four lazy brothers and their father, all hardened gamesters. His mother had said that Julia, too, possessed the Markham streak of corruption, and if her family didn't ruin a man, her selfishness would make his life miserable.
And mayhap she would have. Julia had appeared vain and often imperious ... except he sensed this woman in front of him was definitely different from that Julia. Nor could he imagine another woman more the man-eater than Arabella, the wife he had chosen ...All Things Beautiful. Copyright © by Cathy Maxwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.