An Heiress at Heartby Jennifer Delamere
A New Beginning
A youthful indiscretion has cost Lizzie Poole more than just her honor. After five years living in exile, she's finally returning home, but she's still living a secret life. Her best friend Ria's dying wish was for Lizzie to assume her identity, return to London, and make amends that Ria herself would never live to make. Bearing a striking/b>… See more details below
A New Beginning
A youthful indiscretion has cost Lizzie Poole more than just her honor. After five years living in exile, she's finally returning home, but she's still living a secret life. Her best friend Ria's dying wish was for Lizzie to assume her identity, return to London, and make amends that Ria herself would never live to make. Bearing a striking resemblance to her friend, and harboring more secrets than ever before, Lizzie embarks on a journey that tempts her reckless heart once again . . .
A committed clergyman, Geoffrey Somerville's world is upended when he suddenly inherits the title of Lord Somerville. Now he's invited to every ball and sought after by the matchmaking mothers of London society. Yet the only woman to capture his heart is the one he cannot have: his brother's young widow, Ria. Duty demands he deny his feelings, but his heart longs for the mysterious beauty. With both their futures at stake, will Lizzie be able to keep up her façade? Or will she find the strength to share her secret and put her faith in true love?
This sweet and charming romance will touch your heart."Sabrina Jeffries, New York Times Bestselling Author"
Jennifer Delamere sets a new standard in Victorian romance with characters who shine and a plot that'll keep you guessing."Abby Gaines, author of The Earl's Mistaken Bride"
A sweetly rendered tale of discovery and forgiveness with a refreshing touch of innocence."Cindy Holby, bestselling author of Angel's End
Read an Excerpt
An Heiress at Heart
By Jennifer Delamere
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Jennifer Delamere
All right reserved.
New South Wales, Australia, February 1846
Beyond this breach, my friends, lies the great Bathurst Plains!”
This announcement came from a man on horseback who was leading the procession of four bullock drays—large two-wheeled carts piled high with supplies and pulled by oxen.
From her perch atop one of the drays, Lizzie Poole strained to catch her first glimpse of the valley beyond the Blue Mountains.
It had been a long journey from Sydney. For three days they’d traveled the narrow road painstakingly cut through the mountain pass. The road had risen and fallen sharply and taken countless turns through narrow gorges. Lizzie thought they might never escape the dense woods, which were at times so thick she could barely see the sky above. And she did not care at all for the bird they called the kookaburra, whose call sounded to her like maniacal laughter.
But they were at last moving into bright sunshine. The drivers brought the rigs to a halt at the point where the road crested a ridge, and the western valley opened before them in a breathtaking vista. Beyond the steep cliffs with their dramatic rock formations, the land stretched away for miles: trees and plains making a tapestry of green and brown, dotted here and there with colorful flowers. Lizzie even glimpsed a sparkle of blue from a distant river. Although she had spent four months looking at the ocean’s endless horizon, the world never appeared as large to her as it did now.
“Tom, isn’t it magnificent?” she called down to her brother, who had been walking beside the dray.
“Aye,” agreed Tom. “It looks bigger than all of England.”
Lizzie could see the same awe she felt reflected on the faces of the other newcomers: there were three single men who had been hired straight off the ship in Sydney to work on the sheep farms, and a clergyman, Rev. Greene, who had traveled with his wife and two children to preside over the small church in Bathurst.
Their guide, Mr. Edward Smythe, appeared pleased at their reactions. He spread his arms wide and proclaimed in theatrical tones:
“The boundless champaign burst upon our sight,
Till nearer seen the beauteous landscape grew,
Op’ning like Canaan on rapt Israel’s view.”
Lizzie smiled. She was not surprised that Mr. Smythe should be spouting poetry at a moment like this. He was a handsome man, with dark hair and expressive brown eyes, and Lizzie could easily picture him as an actor on the stage. He was young, too; like Lizzie and her brother, he looked to be still in his twenties. What intrigued Lizzie most, however, was that although his accent revealed him to be an English gentleman, he seemed perfectly at home in this rough and untamed land.
“Canaan,” repeated Mrs. Greene, who was seated on the dray with Lizzie and cradling an infant in her arms. “I suppose the Promised Land was indeed as beautiful as this.”
Lizzie considered these words as the drays once more took up their slow, steady advance. She and Tom had left behind everything in England. Would they really find a new beginning here, as Tom had promised her? She desperately hoped so.
After another hour or so, they came within sight of a group of men digging a ditch along the edge of the road. There were ten of them, and Lizzie thought she had never seen such miserable-looking creatures. Dirty and ragged, they worked with grim determination under the oversight of three men—the master of the crew, shouting orders from horseback; a tall man with a sunburned face, who was holding a shotgun; and a third very large fellow, who was wielding a whip.
When the master saw the caravan, he immediately rode up to meet them and exchanged greetings with Mr. Smythe, riding along with him for a few minutes as the caravan kept its forward pace. The other two men, Lizzie noticed, kept the road crew mercilessly at work.
“This is Captain McCann,” Mr. Smythe announced to the travelers. “He is in charge of keeping this road maintained and safe.”
“Welcome,” said the captain, riding his horse up the line of oxcarts so he could greet everyone. “I am happy to see more immigrants to the valley.” When he saw Lizzie, he lifted up his eyebrows in surprise, then turned and said over his shoulder, “What’s this, Smythe? Did you take your wife with you all the way to Sydney and back again?”
Mr. Smythe’s eyes glinted in amusement. “No, sir,” he said. “This is Miss Poole. Lately arrived from England with her brother.”
A look of confusion crossed the captain’s face. After a moment’s hesitation, he replaced it with an apologetic smile and raised his cap to Lizzie. “I beg your pardon, miss.”
“Are those… convicts?” the minister’s wife asked timidly, pointing to the workers.
“Indeed they are, ma’am,” the captain responded. “We’ve brought them up here to repair the culverts.”
Two of the convicts turned from their work to watch the drays as they passed, but a flash of the whip from the burly man sent them back to their labors once more.
“Poor creatures,” she said, echoing Lizzie’s thoughts.
“Do not give them too much pity, ma’am,” the captain said. “They brought it upon themselves by their evil ways. ’Twas no more than they deserved.”
“Why, what have they done?”
“Thieves, mostly,” he replied coolly. “Some are murderers, too. You’ll do well to stay clear of them.”
As their cart passed the convicts, two others managed to throw them dark glares without their overseer being aware of it.
Rev. Greene’s son turned to him and said, “Papa, do you suppose God has forgiven those fellows?”
“He has if they have repented and asked Him for forgiveness,” he replied.
“Do you really believe it is that simple?” Tom asked him. “Wouldn’t a just God exact vengeance?”
The minister gave Tom an inquiring look. Tom’s impassive face gave little indication of what he was thinking. But Lizzie knew what must be on his mind. Four months had passed since Tom had killed Freddie Hightower in a duel, exacting his own vengeance on the man who had seduced his sister, taken her to Europe, and abandoned her there. The memory of that cold, miserable morning when Tom, still bloody from his duel, revealed to her what he’d done still sent a chill to Lizzie’s heart. Even though Freddie had cruelly mistreated her, she had never wished for his death—certainly not at the hands of her own brother.
“Perhaps after we are settled, you might visit me at church,” the minister suggested to Tom. “Then we might have leisure to discuss these matters more fully.”
“Thank you, sir,” Tom said with a nod of his head. But Lizzie doubted such a meeting would ever take place. Tom had made it clear to her that he felt justified in acting as he had. He had done it “for her sake,” he said, and he would not allow anyone to change his mind. Despite his words, Lizzie knew his actions had left a stain on his heart and given him no real peace. She was in no better condition herself, she reflected bitterly. Her foolish actions had brought on those terrible events. Surely there was no pardon for that.
“It’s for certain the Crown is not so forgiving,” the captain said to Tom. He gestured dismissively toward the convicts. “These men will be paying for their crimes for the rest of their lives. It’s a fate worse than death. Be glad you’ve come to Australia as a free man.”
The captain could not have known how close he was to the truth. If Tom had been arrested for what he’d done to Freddie, he might well have arrived in Australia in chains. But Tom had escaped. He’d arranged the duel for the morning they left for Australia, not telling Lizzie of his plans until the deed had been done. They had been out to sea within hours of the duel, their trail untraceable to anyone who might wish to follow. No one here was aware of the sordid tale that caused their departure from England.
It all seemed as a dream now, as they began moving across the open valley, full in the light of the brightly burning sun. Odd, too, that it was February and yet they were in the heat of summer. Everything was different here. The world she had known was gone.
Would she ever feel at home in this strange new land?
Mr. Smythe had insisted they would. He had seen them as they disembarked from the ship at Sydney harbor, and had immediately worked his way through the crowds in order to meet them, offering work on one of the largest sheep ranches in the Bathurst Valley. He said that he’d been sent by the owner to hire able-bodied laborers from the immigrant ship, whose arrival had been keenly anticipated. With transportation of criminals now limited to other parts of Australia, the region of New South Wales was in dire need of free workers.
“My wife will be overjoyed to meet you,” Mr. Smythe had said upon their agreeing to go.
Lizzie had lost count of how many times he’d repeated this sentiment over the course of their journey. “Are there no other ladies to keep her company?” Lizzie had asked.
“None have given her the close friendship she craves. But something tells me you two will be very close.”
Lizzie had asked for more particulars, but he would say no more. It would have to remain a mystery until she met this Ria Smythe.
The day was far advanced when they finally reached the town of Bathurst and pulled up to the place where they would lodge for the night. A sign above the door proclaimed this to be the Royal Hotel. It seemed far too grand a name for the two-story wooden building. And yet, after three nights of sleeping on the ground, Lizzie was sure it would feel as grand as a palace.
Tom helped Lizzie descend from the oxcart. At the front of the caravan, Mr. Smythe dismounted from his horse and was immediately met by a lovely young lady. “Eddie, you’re home!” she cried happily. She tossed back her bonnet as she ran toward him, giving Lizzie a clear view of her face before the woman threw her arms around him and kissed him.
“Blimey,” Tom remarked to Lizzie. “If that lady ain’t the spittin’ image of you!”
Lizzie could only stare. The woman did look amazingly like her. She was a match in so many ways, from her pale blond hair to her face and figure. Lizzie could not see the woman’s eyes from this distance, but she was certain they were blue like her own. She had the oddest feeling she was looking in a mirror.
Tom grinned. “Now I see why Smythe asked us so many questions about our family!”
“It might also explain why he seemed so disappointed that I had never had a sister,” Lizzie observed. “He must have thought there was a connection.”
Mr. Smythe gently set his wife at arm’s length to get a better look at her. “How well you look. I cannot believe you came all the way to town to meet me. But, my dearest, I fear you have scandalized these good people with your actions just now.” He spoke as if he were chiding her, yet it was clear he was pleased by her enthusiastic greeting.
“Why, Eddie,” she answered, “you know I could not wait even one more day to see you.”
They gazed at each other with such loving affection that Lizzie’s heart twisted in envy. She had once felt love like that. But she had never known such happiness. Falling in love had brought her only ruin and heartache. She would never again dare to open her heart in that way.
“Ria, my darling,” said Mr. Smythe, “aren’t you going to ask me what I brought you from Sydney?”
“Have you brought me a present?” she asked gaily. “What could it be?”
“Come and see,” he said, and began to draw her toward Lizzie. The moment Ria saw Lizzie, she pulled up short. Her mouth fell open and her eyes—blue, as Lizzie had known they would be—lit up with wonder and joy.
“Indeed I have brought you a present,” Edward said with a satisfied smile. “I have brought you a sister.”
London, June 1851
If you’ve killed her, Geoffrey, we will never hear the end of it from Lady Thornborough.”
Geoffrey Somerville threw a sharp glance at his companion. The man’s flippancy annoyed him, but he knew James Simpson was never one to take any problem too seriously. Not even the problem of what to do with the young woman they had just accidentally struck down with his carriage.
The girl had been weaving her way across the street, seemingly unaware of their rapid approach until it was too late. The driver had barely succeeded in steering the horses sharply to one side to keep from trampling her under their massive hooves. However, there had not been enough time or space for him to avoid the girl completely, and the front wheel had tossed her onto the walkway as easily as a mislaid wicker basket.
Geoffrey knelt down and raised the woman’s head gently, smoothing the hair from her forehead. Blood flowed freely from a wound at her left temple, marring her fair features and leaving ugly red streaks in her pale yellow hair.
Her eyes were closed, but Geoffrey saw with relief that she was still breathing. Her chest rose and fell in ragged but unmistakable movements. “She’s not dead,” he said. “But she is badly hurt. We must get help immediately.”
James bounded up the steps and rapped at the door with his cane. “First we have to get her inside. People are beginning to gather, and you know how much my aunt hates a scandal.”
Geoffrey noted that a few people had indeed stopped to stare, although no one offered to help. One richly dressed young lady turned her head and hurried her escort down the street, as though fearful the poor woman bleeding on the pavement had brought the plague to this fashionable Mayfair neighborhood. At one time Geoffrey might have wondered at the lack of Good Samaritans here. But during the six months he’d been in London, he’d seen similar reactions to human suffering every day. Although it was no longer surprising, it still saddened and sickened him.
Only the coachman seemed to show real concern. He stood holding the horses and watching Geoffrey, his face wrinkled with worry. Or perhaps, Geoffrey realized, it was merely guilt. “I never even seen her, my lord,” he said. “She come from out of nowhere.”
“It’s not your fault,” Geoffrey assured him. He pulled out a handkerchief and began to dab the blood that was seeping from the woman’s wound. “Go as quickly as you can to Harley Street and fetch Dr. Layton.”
“Yes, my lord.” The coachman’s relief was evident. He scrambled up to the driver’s seat and grabbed the reins. “I’m halfway there already.”
Geoffrey continued to cautiously check the woman for other injuries. He slowly ran his hands along her delicate neck and shoulders and down her slender arms. He tested only as much as he dared of her torso and legs, torn between concern for her well-being and the need for propriety. Thankfully, nothing appeared to be broken.
James rapped once more on the imposing black door. It finally opened, and the gaunt face of Lady Thornborough’s butler peered out.
“Clear the way, Harding,” James said. “There has been an accident.”
Harding’s eyes widened at the sight of a woman bleeding on his mistress’s immaculate steps. He quickly sized up the situation and opened the door wide.
Geoffrey lifted the unconscious girl into his arms. She was far too thin, and he was not surprised to find she was light as a feather. Her golden hair contrasted vividly with his black coat. Where was her hat? Geoffrey scanned the area and noted with chagrin the remains of a straw bonnet lying crushed in the street. Something tugged at his heart as her head fell against his chest. Compassion, he supposed it was. But it was curiously profound.
“She is bleeding profusely,” James pointed out. “Have one of the servants carry her in, or you will ruin your coat.”
“It’s no matter,” Geoffrey replied. He felt oddly protective of the woman in his arms, although he had no idea who she was. His carriage had struck her, after all, even if her own carelessness had brought about the calamity. He was not about to relinquish her, not for any consideration.
He stepped grimly over the red smears her blood had left on the white marble steps and carried her into the front hall, where James was again addressing the butler. “Is Lady Thornborough at home, Harding?”
“No, sir. But we expect her anytime.”
Geoffrey knew from long acquaintance with the Thornborough family that Harding was a practical man who remained calm even in wildly unusual circumstances. The childhood escapades of Lady Thornborough’s granddaughter, Victoria, had developed this ability in him; James’s exploits as an adult had honed it to a fine art.
Sure enough, Harding motioned toward the stairs with cool equanimity, as though it were an everyday occurrence for an injured and unknown woman to be brought into the house. “Might I suggest the sofa in the Rose Parlor, sir?”
“Excellent,” said James.
As they ascended the stairs, Harding called down to a young parlor maid who was still standing in the front hall. “Mary, fetch us some water and a towel. And tell Jane to clean the front steps immediately.” Mary nodded and scurried away.
Another maid met them at the top of the stairs. At Harding’s instructions, she quickly found a blanket to spread out on the sofa to shield the expensive fabric.
Geoffrey set his fragile burden down with care. He seated himself on a low stool next to the woman and once again pressed his handkerchief to the gash below her hairline. The flesh around the wound was beginning to turn purple—she had been struck very hard. Alarm assailed him. “What the devil possessed her to step in front of a moving carriage?”
He was not aware that he had spoken aloud until James answered him. “Language, Geoffrey,” he said with mock prudishness. “There is a lady present.”
Geoffrey looked down at the unconscious woman. “I don’t think she can hear me just now.” He studied her with interest. Her plain black dress fit her too loosely, and the cuffs appeared to have been turned back more than once. Her sturdy leather shoes were of good quality, but showed signs of heavy wear. Was she a servant, wearing her mistress’s cast-off clothing? Or was she a lady in mourning? Was she already sorrowing for the loss of a loved one, only to have this accident add to her woes? “If she is a lady, she has fallen on hard times,” Geoffrey said, feeling once again that curious pull at his heart. He knew only too well the wretchedness of having one’s life waylaid by one tragedy after another.
A parlor maid entered the room, carrying the items Harding had requested. She set the basin on a nearby table. After dipping the cloth in the water, she timidly approached and gave Geoffrey a small curtsy. “With your permission, my lord.”
Something in the way the maid spoke these words chafed at him. He had been entitled to the address of “my lord” for several months, but he could not accustom himself to it. There were plenty who would congratulate him on his recent elevation to the peerage, but for Geoffrey it was a constant reminder of what he had lost. Surely nothing in this world was worth the loss of two brothers. Nor did any position, no matter how lofty, absolve a man from helping another if he could. He held out his hand for the cloth. “Give it to me. I will do it.”
The maid hesitated.
“Do you think that is wise?” James asked. “Surely this is a task for one of the servants.”
“I do have experience in this. I often attended to the ill in my parish.”
“But you were only a clergyman then. Now you are a baron.”
Geoffrey hated the position he had been placed in by the loss of his two elder brothers. But he would use it to his advantage if he had to. And he had every intention of tending to this woman. “Since I am a baron,” he said curtly, motioning again for the cloth, “you must all do as I command.”
James laughed and gave him a small bow. “Touché, my lord.”
The maid put the towel into Geoffrey’s hand and gave him another small curtsy. She retreated a few steps, but kept her eyes fastened on him. Geoffrey suspected that her diligence stemmed more from his new social position than from the present circumstances. It had not escaped him that he’d become the recipient of all kinds of extra attention—from parlor maids to duchesses—since he’d become a baron. The years he’d spent as a clergyman in a poor village, extending all his efforts to help others who struggled every day just to eke out a meager living, had apparently not been worth anyone’s notice.
Geoffrey laid a hand to the woman’s forehead. It was too warm against his cool palm. “I’m afraid she may have a fever in addition to her head injury.”
James made a show of pulling out his handkerchief and half covering his nose and mouth. “Oh dear, I do hope she has not brought anything catching into the house. That would be terribly inconvenient.”
Harding entered the room, carrying a dust-covered carpetbag. He held it in front of him, careful not to let it touch any part of his pristine coat. “We found this near the steps outside. I believe it belongs to”—he threw a disparaging look toward the prostrate figure on the sofa—“the lady.”
“Thank you, Harding,” James said. He glanced at the worn object with equal distaste, then motioned to the far side of the room. “Set it there for now.”
That bag might be all the woman had in the world, Geoffrey thought, and yet James was so casually dismissive of it. The man had a long way to go when it came to finding compassion for those less fortunate.
He turned back to the woman. She stirred and moaned softly. “Easy,” Geoffrey murmured, unable to resist the urge to comfort her, although he doubted she could hear him. “You’re safe now.”
James watched from the other side of the sofa as Geoffrey cleaned the blood from her hair and face. “What a specimen she is,” he remarked as her features came into view. He leaned in to scrutinize her. “Look at those high cheekbones. And the delicate arch of her brow. And those full lips—”
“This is a woman, James,” Geoffrey remonstrated. “Not some creature in a zoo.”
“Well, it’s clear she’s a woman,” James returned lightly, unruffled by Geoffrey’s tone. “I’m glad you noticed. Sometimes I wonder if you are aware of these things.”
Geoffrey was aware. At the moment, he was too aware. He could not deny that, like James, he had been taken by her beauty. Except her lips were too pale, chapped from dryness. He had a wild urge to reach out and gently brush over them with cool water…
“Good heavens,” James said, abruptly bringing Geoffrey back to his senses. He dropped his handkerchief from his face. “This is Ria.”
Geoffrey froze. “What did you say?”
“I said, the young lady bleeding all over Auntie’s sofa is Victoria Thornborough.”
No. Surely that was impossible. There were occasions, Geoffrey thought, when James seemed determined to try him to the absolute limit. “James, this is not the time for one of your childish pranks.”
James shook his head. “I am absolutely in earnest.”
“But that’s preposterous.”
“I think I should know my own cousin. Even if it has been ten years.” He bent closer as the woman mumbled something incoherent. “You see? She heard me. She recognizes her name.”
The room suddenly became quite still. Even the servants who had been hovering nearby stopped their tasks. All eyes turned toward the sofa.
Was this really Ria? Geoffrey had to take James’s word on it for now; he had never met her. He had been in Europe during her brief, clandestine courtship with his brother. This woman, to whom he had been so curiously drawn—for some reason he could easily believe her to be a lady, despite her dirty clothes and bruises. He had no trouble believing Edward could have fallen in love with her—had he not been taken with her himself? No, he told himself again. It had been mere compassion he’d been feeling. And it was utterly incomprehensible that his sister-in-law should appear like this out of nowhere.
“If this is Ria,” Geoffrey said, “then surely Edward would be with her?”
“So one would expect,” James replied. “I agree that the situation is most unusual.”
“Unusual,” Geoffrey repeated drily. The word might describe everything about what had happened between Ria and his brother. Their elopement had taken everyone by surprise, causing a scandal that was bad enough without the embarrassing fact that Ria had been engaged to his other brother, William, at the time.
“At least we can surmise that they were not aboard the ill-fated Sea Venture,” James said. “Where did they go, I wonder?”
“That is only one of the many things I’d like to know,” Geoffrey said. He’d exhausted himself with searches and inquiries after Edward and Ria had disappeared without a trace. The best they could discover was that the couple may have booked passage on a ship that had sunk on its way to America. And yet all was conjecture; there had never been answers.
Geoffrey took hold of the woman’s left hand and began to remove a worn glove that was upon it. He heard the maid behind him gasp, but he was beyond worrying about the possible impropriety of his actions. If this was Ria, he wanted evidence that Edward had made an honest woman of her. He did not think his brother would deliberately trifle with a woman’s affections, but he also knew Edward was prone to rash whims and irresponsible actions. Anything might have kept him from carrying out his plans.
With one last gentle tug from Geoffrey, the glove came off, revealing a hand that was rough and calloused. It was a hand that had done plenty of manual labor. Though she was not wearing a wedding band, she was wearing a gold and onyx ring that Geoffrey recognized as having once belonged to Edward. The sight of it nearly devastated him. He could think of only one reason she would be wearing it instead of his brother.
“Why?” Geoffrey asked roughly, as his concern melted into consternation. “If they were in dire straits, why did they stay away? Why did they not ask us for help?”
“If you were in their shoes,” James answered, “would you have wanted to face William’s wrath? Or Lady Thornborough’s?” He looked at the woman thoughtfully. “Perhaps they were not always so destitute. Look at her, Geoffrey. Look at what she is wearing.”
Geoffrey allowed his gaze to travel once more over the slender figure in the plain black dress that seemed to declare her in mourning. “No!” Geoffrey said sharply. How could she have survived, but not Edward?
Geoffrey rose and gave the towel and the glove to the maid. He walked to the window and peered through the lace curtains to the street below. It was filled with carriages moving swiftly in both directions, but he could see no sign of either his coach or the doctor’s. He knew it was too soon to expect their return, but he could not quell the anxiety rising in him.
Which was worse: the continual pain of not knowing what had become of his brother, or the final blow of discovering he really was dead? If anyone had asked him that question before this moment, he might have given an entirely different response.
He had to get Ria well again. And he had to get answers.
She was dimly aware of voices speaking above her, of a soft, cool cloth against her burning face.
A sweet scent of roses kept urging her to inhale deeply, trying to lure her back to consciousness. But a piercing pain shot through her side with every breath, and the pounding behind her right temple kept forcing her back into a gauzy daze, unable to open her eyes.
The murmuring paused, seemingly stilled by a rustle of skirts and a quick tread upon the floor. A woman’s sharp voice said, “Have you done nothing to bring her around?”
“We have sent for Dr. Layton,” a man replied.
“Tut, tut. You are as useless as your father was.”
“My dear aunt, I must protest. I am sure I am a good deal more useless than he was.”
Another disapproving noise, then a curt order. “Quick, Mary. Bring my smelling salts.”
More rustling, followed by the assault of an acrid smell under her nose. She sneezed hard, wincing as a bolt of pain surged through her head.
Gradually her eyes focused on an elderly lady dressed in a heavy silk gown of very dark green. The woman was looking down at her with a mixture of shock and astonishment.
And then she remembered.
She had been standing across the street from Lady Thornborough’s house, trying to make up her mind whether or not to approach it. Even now, after coming so far, she had hesitated. Could she carry out her plan? Would they believe her story?
It had to be done. She had made a promise to a dying woman, and she would keep it. Both fever and chills had plagued her during the long walk up from the docks, compelling her to keep moving lest she faint dead away on the pavement.
“You must go,” Ria’s voice had echoed in her ear. “I am counting on you.”
Gathering her courage, she had stepped into the street. Her aching head had blurred the multitude of sounds on the busy thoroughfare, and the glare of the late afternoon sun had hidden the approach of a swiftly moving carriage.
Now, Lizzie Poole lay motionless as she returned the gaze of the lady standing before her. The woman’s gray eyes matched the color of her hair, which was pulled back in a tight bun. Her regal manner indicated she was the lady of the house. This must be Lady Thornborough—the stern, implacable woman who had raised Ria.
Would Lady Thornborough believe she was now looking at the granddaughter whom she had last seen ten years ago, when the girl was just seventeen? Or would she instantly recognize Lizzie as an imposter? Not entirely an imposter, she corrected herself. Ria had convinced her they were half sisters and told her where she could find proof. This made Lizzie a granddaughter of Lady Thornborough, too, although the old woman did not know it.
And if Lizzie pretended to be Ria, what of it? Ria was dead now. Her relationship with Lady Thornborough had been a stormy one, and Ria had begged Lizzie to help her make amends. What better way to do this than to become Ria—to be the dutiful granddaughter Lady Thornborough had always wished for? As an illegitimate granddaughter, Lizzie could do nothing; as Ria, she could claim everything. Ria had given her blessing to the scheme; in fact, it had been her idea.
For several long, agonizing moments Lizzie watched as Lady Thornborough’s face remained stern and inscrutable. Then she frowned and shook her head.
Lizzie closed her eyes. I have failed, she thought. She knows I am not Ria. She fought a surge of disappointment. Ria had so thoroughly described the family, the house, and the servants that Lizzie believed she could walk through the door and take up the life her half sister had left behind. Now she was seized with fear that they would toss her into the street before she even had a chance to explain.
At last, Lady Thornborough spoke. “Ria, where have you been?”
Her words were crisp, but not unkind—and sweet to Lizzie’s ears. Relief washed over her, for one blessed moment stemming the pain that wracked her body. Lady Thornborough believed her to be Ria. She could stay. She reached for the cloth on her temple and sat up, despite the fresh round of pain this set off in her throbbing head. So many things she had planned to say, yet all she could do was answer Lady Thornborough’s question: Where have you been? “Why, Australia, of course…,” she murmured, her voice trailing off.
“Australia?” Lady Thornborough repeated in mortified surprise. She sat down and put her arms around Lizzie. “Oh, my dear girl.”
This was not at all what Lizzie had been expecting, but she accepted it gratefully. She relaxed into the woman’s comforting embrace, thankful for the way the cool silk of Lady Thornborough’s dress soothed her burning cheek. Soft whispers of guilt stirred within her, awareness that this plan could hurt the woman whose love and respect Ria had so longed for. But Lizzie was ill and exhausted, and her body ached everywhere. She had set her course, and she would stick with it. And in any case, she had nowhere else to go.
Slowly she became aware of a man sitting on a nearby footstool. He leaned his chin on a gold-handled cane and examined her with curiosity.
“You have changed, Ria,” he said. “I don’t remember your eyes tending so much to the violet. You are certainly much thinner, and your skin is brown as a farm girl’s. But you remember me, don’t you, my girl?”
He gave her an encouraging smile. Lizzie studied him carefully. He was a slender man of about thirty, with curly brown hair and cornflower blue eyes. And well dressed. He wore a fine gold vest and white shirt under a tailored blue coat that showed off his square shoulders to their best advantage. A cravat of the same color as his waistcoat was tied in an expert knot at the base of his crisp shirt collar. The only thing marring his handsome features was the tiniest bump on his nose—a souvenir, Ria had called it, of a day long ago when he had fallen out of a tree.
The man must be James Simpson. He met every one of Ria’s descriptions of her favorite cousin. His clothing proclaimed that he was still a dandy, and Lizzie wondered if he was also, as Ria had said, “a wastrel and a wild one, the sort who was always getting into the kind of trouble that requires ‘hushing up.’ ”
Certain as she was, Lizzie was still anxious as she answered him, hoping fervently that her instincts were correct. “It appears you have not changed, James.”
“That’s a girl!” He laughed and slapped his knee. “You see, Geoffrey, it is Ria.”
This last remark was addressed to a man standing on the opposite side of the parlor. Lizzie could just see him beyond the large round table in the center of the room, upon which sat a brightly painted vase of yellow roses.
The only “Geoffrey” that Ria had ever spoken of was her husband’s younger brother. Ria had never met Geoffrey, but Edward had once described him as staid and scholarly, destined for a life in the church. Given this description, Lizzie had envisioned a short and nondescript man, perhaps wearing spectacles, shabbily dressed, and stooped from too much studying.
The man watching her from the fireplace was nothing like that. He stood tall and straight. His fine brown hair was clean and expertly cut; his short side whiskers trimmed a face that was pleasantly intriguing, if not classically handsome. His dark eyes, unguarded by spectacles, watched her intently. His black suit was far more understated than the royal blue coat James was wearing, but it was new and fit him well.
No, this could not be Ria’s brother-in-law. And yet James had called him by his Christian name. Was there someone else in the family by that name? Was Lizzie not as well prepared as she thought she was?
She tried not to panic, telling herself he was probably not a family member. Ria had said that James had a wide circle of acquaintances. Given his easy and irreverent manner, he might well refer to his close friends so familiarly. But this thought did not reassure her. How many of James’s social set might Ria have known? How many would Lizzie be expected to “remember”?
Lady Thornborough gently moved the hair back from Lizzie’s face. “Ria, I have worried myself sick,” she said. “I have no doubt you’ve taken some ten years off my life.”
“Years off your life, Aunt?” James repeated. “I doubt it. You’ll live to be a hundred; that’s my wager.”
Lady Thornborough gave him a disapproving look. “Do not speak of betting in this house. I will not have that shameful language used here.”
James tilted his chin in acquiescence. Once his aunt had turned her attention back to Lizzie, he gave Geoffrey a smile and a wink.
The man by the fireplace did not respond to James’s playful gesture. He was studying Lizzie—taking in every inch of her with an expression that hovered somewhere between curiosity and contempt.
Who was he?
Lizzie’s face burned—whether from the fever or the man’s unwavering scrutiny, she could not tell. She found herself riveted to his dark eyes as she tried unsuccessfully to regulate her breathing. Suddenly the room seemed quite close.
Lady Thornborough’s cool hand on her forehead provided some relief. She inspected Lizzie’s wound. “And now James has managed to run over you as though you were a dog in the street.”
“It was not I,” James protested.
Lady Thornborough ignored him. “Why were you alone and on foot, like a common servant? And why, in all these years, did you never contact us? Do you realize what agonies we have been through on account of you?”
“I will explain everything, Grandmamma,” Lizzie said, trying out the word for the first time. It came off her tongue easily enough. Surely this was a good sign. She was Ria now, and she would soon discover what secrets this family was hiding. The Thornboroughs held the keys to her own history, one she had never dreamed of until the day she met Ria.
Kind, sweet, silly Ria. Given to impulsive actions, yet resolute once she’d made up her mind on something. Yes, they had shared those traits as well as their looks. When Lizzie had agreed to this plan so far away in Australia, she had thought it was a good one. Now that she was here, the magnitude of what she was doing washed over her with more force than her fever.
Lizzie fought to keep her mind in the present, here in this room. One misstep could be disastrous. But she was so hot. Her head was pounding and the room was beginning to spin again. She sank back heavily on the sofa.
“Ria!” Lady Thornborough cried.
“I’m terribly sorry… I did not plan to arrive this way…”
She was assailed by a rush of heat from her fever, followed by a rising tide of nausea. She closed her eyes, willing her stomach to stay put. Her plan was going well, she thought. Except for the fact that she had nearly gotten herself killed on the way in. And except for the man staring at her whom she could not identify.
The room was once again spinning dangerously out of control…
Geoffrey crossed the room and knelt beside her, his eyes fierce. “Please forgive me—I can see you are not well, but I must ask you. I have to know. I have waited ten years with no news. What is this talk of Australia? Where is my brother?”
Lizzie pulled together a few remaining threads of thought. “You are my brother-in-law?” she asked dazedly. How tall he was. How striking. How different from what she expected. And yet… how like Edward. She could see it now, see vestiges of Edward’s confident bearing and the way he looked at people—really observed them—when he was talking to them. How odd, she realized now, to think it could have been anyone else.
“But where is he?” Geoffrey demanded, as though he wanted to drag the information out of her. “What has happened to him?”
“He…” She shut her eyes. Now that she saw the resemblance, it was too painful to look at him. Too many memories. Her mind was drifting, she knew. All she could say was, “He… described you… quite differently.”
She had just enough time to see his look of frustration and anger before the darkness enveloped her.
Geoffrey strode briskly down the street, glad to be free to move and to think. The walk to his home was not far, and he had left his coachman with instructions to take Dr. Layton wherever he needed to go after he had finished tending to Ria.
Geoffrey’s pace quickened, giving much needed vent to his irritation. She’d been on the verge of giving him the answers he desperately wanted, only to lose consciousness before she could make any sense.
Dr. Layton had confirmed that Ria’s injuries were not life-threatening, but that her fever could be. This pronouncement had set off a maelstrom of panicked activity. Lady Thornborough had been beside herself, dispatching all the servants on multiple errands, from preparing a room to heating water and bringing food—all the while commanding them to stop and give the doctor whatever assistance he needed. She’d been far from her usual steady calm, issuing contradicting orders and expecting them to be carried out with unrealistic speed.
Geoffrey was glad to be away from the chaos, if only for a few hours. He needed time to recover from the shock of the day’s events. Time to reflect upon what they signified.
William’s death last winter had forced Geoffrey to confront the question of the family estate and the title. He had been compelled to resign his small parish in order to assume the barony and all the responsibilities that went with it. He had been uneasy about doing this, not wanting to take the necessary step of having Edward declared dead for legal purposes. It struck him as traitorous to his brother’s memory. He’d never been able to shake the belief that Edward was alive.
Geoffrey pulled up short and squeezed his eyes shut, fighting back the frustration that threatened to overtake him. Australia! Why had Edward gone to such a harsh and dangerous place? And where was he now?
He blinked and took a deep breath, considering the sad irony of his situation. His official period of mourning for both his brothers had ended weeks ago. If Edward’s death was now confirmed, no one would expect him to begin the process again. But he knew he would be doing just that—in his heart, if not publicly.
As Geoffrey turned onto his street, he bowed a greeting as he passed those he knew, but did not stop. He moved swiftly up the steps to his town house and let himself in through the front door.
As he set down his hat on the small side table, he noticed that the silver tray for receiving calling cards was piled high. A stack of letters and notes lay next to it. He did his best to stifle a groan. All of society, it seemed, was taking the first opportunity to cultivate the acquaintance of the new Lord Somerville.
Geoffrey lifted one of the cards to read the name printed on it. His nose crinkled as a rich fragrance wafted up from the card, signaling the real reason for his sudden popularity. Women who had ignored him before were now angling to fill the position of baroness.
Did any of these elegantly engraved cards hold the name of someone who would understand his aspirations and share his dreams? Not likely. It had been difficult enough trying to find such a person among those willing to marry a clergyman with a modest living. Although the ranks of ladies desiring to become a baroness were considerably larger, Geoffrey had no illusions that the search would become any easier. Frowning, he returned the card to the pile. He would not have a marriage that was based solely on the dictates of society. He would take a wife whom he could truly love and cherish, as the Bible commanded. No woman who cared only for his title or his wealth could gain his heart.
He turned at the sound of footsteps to see Mrs. Claridge, the housekeeper, coming down the stairs. “Oh, Reverend, I beg your pardon for not opening the door. I didn’t hear you come in.”
Mrs. Claridge was a sturdy and sensible woman who had known Geoffrey since he was five. She should now be addressing him as Lord Somerville, but she preferred “Reverend,” and he was glad of it. To be a member of the peerage was so contrary to his former way of life that he appreciated having someone who could remind him of his true calling. “You were listening for my carriage, I expect. However, I walked home.”
He consulted his pocket watch. Six o’clock. Less than two hours since Ria had walked in front of his carriage and turned his life around completely.
Something in his tumultuous thoughts must have shown on his face, which Mrs. Claridge was an expert at reading. “Is everything all right, sir?” Before he could reply, she spotted the blood on his shirt and exclaimed, “What has happened? You’ve been injured!”
“I’m fine,” he assured her. “The blood is not mine. I was… helping another.”
“How very like you, sir,” she said with pride. Her kindly face looked up at him with concern. “Shall I have tea brought up? You look as though you could use a bit of food, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Geoffrey was sure the news of Ria’s arrival would spread quickly, and he wanted Mrs. Claridge to be among the first to know. She had been loyally serving the Somervilles for over twenty years, and she deserved to be kept abreast of such important family news. “Would you be so kind as to bring it yourself in about half an hour? There is something I must relate to you, but I should like to have time alone first.”
She gave him a sympathetic smile. “Of course, sir. I’ll make sure you are not disturbed.”
Mrs. Claridge bustled off to the kitchen as Geoffrey took the stairs to his study. He sank into a leather chair by the fireplace, glad to finally be alone. The weather was too warm for a fire, but this was still his favorite spot to relax and think.
He let his thoughts move freely, with memories of his brothers coming to him in random order. He recalled the games they’d played as children and the fights and childish arguments that sometimes ensued. It had often come down to two against one, but which two against which one had been different on any given day. Sometimes it was Geoffrey who was outnumbered. More often, it was Edward or William. Geoffrey had usually been the peacemaker.
As they grew older, William became more distant. He’d been caught up in learning his duties as a future baron. He’d spent hours in discussions with their father or accompanying him on visits to nearby landowners, enjoying the honors and privileges of being the heir.
Edward had been the first of the three to develop a keen interest in women. He had learned how to dance, how to behave at social events, and how to speak in ways that were pleasing to the ladies. And Edward had pleased them. They found his good looks and warm demeanor irresistible. Many a time Geoffrey had seen a young lady casting her gaze around a crowded ballroom, searching for Edward while trying not to appear to do so.
Geoffrey recalled their whispered conversations together, late at night, when Edward described the very interesting things he was discovering about women. Things their father certainly had never told them.
Edward could have had his pick from among every eligible lady in England. Instead, he ran off with William’s betrothed. Their speedy courtship and subsequent elopement proved that Ria was just as headstrong and reckless as Edward.
William had been furious, of course. But Geoffrey soon discovered that the cause of his elder brother’s anger was not lost love, but hurt pride and concern for his family’s reputation. Within a few months he had simply found another woman upon whom to bestow his favor. William had evidenced the exact attitude toward marriage that Geoffrey detested: all that mattered was a lady’s position in society and her willingness to play by its rules.
Geoffrey shifted in his chair, idly setting one foot on the iron grate and staring moodily at the dark fireplace. Women were still an enigma to him. He never had the smooth magnetism of Edward, nor William’s cool detachment when it came to affairs of the heart. He was still trying to thread his own way.
Above all, his thoughts kept returning to Ria. Why did she appear in such reduced circumstances? If Edward was dead—God forbid—what would she expect from his family? Would she demand a widow’s dower of some kind, even though there had been no prearranged settlement?
What had she and Edward been doing all these years? There was no telling how many days it would take for Ria to recover enough to give them a complete account. There was nothing to do but wait—and this was infinitely more frustrating than not being able to take action of some kind. Of any kind. Geoffrey stood and began pacing the room. The wait was going to be very hard indeed.
Lizzie pushed her way up through deep, cold water, desperate to reach the shaft of sunlight that glittered down through the shadowy depths. Reach the top, find air…
She awoke with a start. Turning her head toward the source of the light, she realized sunlight had indeed been teasing her eyelids. It poured through a gap in the window curtains and bathed her bed in light and warmth. She breathed in deeply, drinking in the room’s tranquil stillness. Gradually, the noise and confusion of her dreams faded.
Violent nightmares of storm and shipwreck were nothing new to Lizzie. She’d been plagued with them ever since Tom’s death, as though some part of her were constantly trying to imagine her brother’s terror when his ship was breaking up in that savage gale. The things she’d been through during the voyage from Australia had only increased their severity.
It had taken all of Lizzie’s determination to set foot on a ship back to England, when Tom had been lost on a mere trip from Sydney to Melbourne. Her fears had been justified. They’d been battered for days on end by rough seas and bad weather, and more than once Lizzie was sure she would meet the same fate as her brother.
Mercifully, the ship reached England, but not before many of its passengers had succumbed to illness. Day after day the burials at sea grew to a horrifying number. Lizzie had somehow kept well while aboard the ship, but in the end the influenza found her, too. She had been told the symptoms could come without warning, but she had not expected them to strike with such force. The fever had come upon her during her walk up from the docks and left her staggering in the street, close to fainting—only to be run down by a carriage.
Raising a hand to her temple, Lizzie pressed tentatively on the bandage covering it. The wound was still tender, but no longer throbbed in agonizing pain. She tried to piece together what had happened after the carriage struck her.
She had a vague memory of being taken up into warm, strong arms. After that, brief snatches of conversation had somehow drifted into her consciousness. She’d heard Ria’s name. Then she’d been pulled back to her senses and found herself face-to-face with Ria’s family.
That had been a revelation. Even in the midst of her pain and confusion, Lizzie had instantly recognized Lady Thornborough. The knowledge had burst upon her with startling clarity. Ria’s descriptions of her grandmother had certainly been accurate, but Lizzie sensed a deeper reason for the connection. It was a curiously powerful sensation—as though she’d been waiting her whole life for a reunion with someone she’d never met.
Her encounter with James had followed a similar pattern. He had looked and acted exactly as Lizzie had pictured he would.
Only Geoffrey had taken her utterly by surprise.
The memory of Geoffrey brought Lizzie’s heart to a quicker pace, much as the shock of meeting him had done. He was no retiring cleric; in fact, he could not have been more different from the man Lizzie had imagined. As she recalled his tall form, his powerful presence, his urgent questioning, another image pressed itself on her memory as clearly as if she were seeing it now.
There had been bloodstains on his shirt and collar.
He had carried her.
His arms had provided a warmth and comfort that she had not seen later in his eyes.
What must he have thought of her? She could easily guess. His look of contempt had been clear enough. There could be no doubt what he thought about the woman who had run off with his brother, and who now returned home in such an embarrassing state.
And yet, Lizzie reminded herself, the critical thing right now was not so much what he thought of her as who he thought she was. Somehow, despite such a bad beginning, she had convinced them all that she was Victoria Thornborough. She had managed to step into the life Ria had left behind.
But had she really done it? What if they had somehow discovered their error while she’d been lying here, unconscious? Although she was alone right now, a wooden chair close by the bed gave evidence that someone had been sitting with her. Had they been keeping vigil because of her illness, or because they planned to confront her as soon as she awoke?
Fighting a rush of fear, Lizzie pushed herself to a half-sitting position, trying to ascertain where they had brought her. Her bed was a large four-poster, with a counterpane of rose-patterned chintz. Through the partially opened window curtains she could see a cozy window seat lined with a deep red cushion. On the far side of the room stood a dressing table covered with an assortment of perfume bottles and a wooden box inlaid with ivory.
It was Ria’s room, exactly as she had described it. Lady Thornborough must have kept it unchanged during all these years. More important, they had brought Lizzie here. Despite her illness, the accident, and a few missteps, they seemed to have accepted that she was Ria. Lizzie sank back into the pillows and let out a long sigh. She hoped this boded well for what was to come.
The bedroom door opened and a large, round woman entered the room. She was dressed as a servant, yet she settled herself on the chair beside Lizzie with an easy familiarity. “So you are awake at last,” she said with a smile, which showed a small gap between her front teeth. “You gave us a hearty fright, collapsing like that the moment you come through the door.”
Lizzie quickly reviewed the woman’s features. Her rosy face was framed with graying hair just showing from underneath a white cap. A faded scar was barely visible under her left eye. Ria’s former nursemaid had a scar like that. Whenever Ria used to vex Martha—which, to hear Ria tell it, happened often—the old scar would stand out clearly.
A surge of excitement ran through her, similar to what she’d experienced before she’d taken the risk of addressing James by name. It was like walking off a cliff and yet somehow knowing there would be a bridge there. It gave her a heady feeling, and she liked it. “You see that you have your Ria to fuss over again, Martha.” Lizzie spoke in a higher tone of voice, copying Ria’s inflections. She had always been an excellent mimic of the wide variety of accents she’d heard every day in London. It was a skill that she and Tom had once used to entertain themselves for hours—now her future depended on it.
The old servant beamed. “Bless my soul!” She took one of Lizzie’s hands into her own, fleshy and calloused ones. “We were afraid we’d got you back after so many years only to lose you to a fever.” She let go of Lizzie’s hand to wipe away a tear. “I beg your pardon, miss. But we are so very happy to have you back.”
“Are you really glad, Martha? And Lady Thornborough—Grandmamma—is she happy, too?”
“Why, of course!” Martha replied without hesitation. “She was naturally very angry when you left as you did, with no word and so much bad blood between you. But time heals all wounds, they say. I have often seen her sitting alone in the garden, all pensive-like, and I know’d she was a-thinkin’ of you.”
So Lady Thornborough had been pining for Ria’s return. Half a world away, Ria had been longing for the very same thing. During the final weeks of Ria’s illness, when she’d shared so much about her life with Lizzie, Ria had often voiced the fear that everyone here had forgotten her. Clearly she’d been mistaken. The entire household, Lady Thornborough included, had been holding their collective breaths, hoping that Ria might someday come home to them. Tears stung Lizzie’s eyes at the thought that Ria would never know.
Martha gave her a comforting smile, and then placed a hand on Lizzie’s forehead and nodded in satisfaction. “Dr. Layton told us yesterday that the worst was past and you would be coming around again soon. All a matter of time, he said.”
“Martha, how long have I been here?”
“Five days, miss.”
“Five days!” Lizzie tried to sit up, but Martha gently restrained her.
“Easy, miss,” she said. “You’re not fully recovered yet.”
Lizzie took note for the first time of the soft linen nightdress that fell loosely against her skin. She scanned the room for evidence of her clothes, but could find none. “Martha, where are my clothes?”
“Not to worry. Her ladyship has ordered four new dresses for you. Yours was too worn, and not in keeping with the latest fashion, she said.”
These words were meant to be reassuring, but they only brought a new fear—that the precious heirloom Lizzie had come so far to return might now be lost. She had visions of her petticoat being sold cheap in the used clothing stalls, its new owner unaware that a diamond and sapphire bracelet was sewn into the waistband. She grabbed Martha’s arm. “Who undressed me?”
Martha beamed complacently. “I did, miss. Just like in the old days.” Martha leaned in close. “Rest easy,” she said softly. “The bracelet has not been lost.”
Relief washed over her. “I suppose you recognized it?”
“Indeed I did, miss.”
“I have every intention of returning it to Grandmamma.”
Martha patted her hand. “I know my Ria is an honest soul and would never keep what weren’t hers. I’m sure her ladyship will be overjoyed when you give the bracelet to her.”
“You have not already done so?”
Martha shook her head. “That was not my place.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “However, I did not want any of the other servants to find it, so I put it away for safekeeping. I put it in your secret hiding place.”
Lizzie stared at her blankly.
Ria had described a hiding place at Rosewood, their country estate in Kent. That was where Lizzie would find the love letters that had been written years ago between Lizzie’s mother and Ria’s father—letters Ria insisted would prove Lizzie was a blood relation. But Ria hadn’t mentioned a hiding place in the London house. How could Lizzie admit to Martha that she didn’t know where it was?
Martha gave her a reproving look. “Come now. There have been many years and many miles gone, but you must remember that.”
Was Martha deliberately testing her?
Lizzie gave her a coaxing smile, imitating the one Ria had often used to wheedle Edward into anything she wanted. “Martha, you are such a clever old thing. But you know I haven’t the strength to get out of bed, and I would like to return the bracelet to Grandmamma right away. Would you be a dear and get it for me?”
Martha remained seated. “Her ladyship was crushed when you ran away. She will be too proud to say so, but she has wished for nothing else all these years but that her dear Ria would return to her.” She gave Lizzie a deep, questioning look. “I do hope that you will not do anything to cause her more suffering.”
Lizzie was taken aback by Martha’s words. She had never in her life had servants, but she was fairly certain they did not question their employers in such a way. Did Martha suspect her of being a fraud?
No. For the moment she must assume that Martha was simply a faithful old servant who was secure enough in her position to chastise her charge. Especially one for whom she cared so much. “Martha, there are many things I must set straight. And I will.” She pursed her lips into an exaggerated pout. “Don’t be such a weeping willow.”
These last words, a common retort of Ria’s, seemed to have the desired effect. The shade of doubt in Martha’s eyes lifted. “I’ll get the bracelet for you straightaway, miss.”
Martha left through a door that most likely led to the old nursery. That would, of course, be the perfect place for Ria to hide something, Lizzie thought. She sighed. In her mind’s eye she saw herself picking her way, rock by rock, across a rushing stream. One misstep and she would be carried away by the current.
The door to the hallway opened, and Lady Thornborough entered. The next step across that stream, Lizzie thought.
“You are awake. Thank God.” She crossed the room to the bed. “Where is Martha? I instructed her to stay with you.”
“Don’t be cross, Grandmamma. I sent her on a small errand for me, that’s all.”
Martha reentered through the nursery door. “I’m here, my lady.” She made a show of straightening the bedclothes, and quietly placed a folded white handkerchief into Lizzie’s right hand as she did so. Lizzie guessed from its weight that the bracelet was wrapped inside.
Lady Thornborough placed a hand on Lizzie’s forehead, just as Martha had done. “How are you feeling?” Lady Thornborough’s hand was cool and dry, like a piece of parchment. But Lizzie found it soothing.
She took a deep breath. Just a few days before, her lungs would have been screaming in pain from the effort; now she felt only a whispering ache. “I feel as though I’ve just come up for air.”
The old woman’s brow wrinkled. “I beg your pardon?”
“I dreamed I was in the ocean, swimming upward but never able to break the surface.”
“Do not talk of oceans,” Lady Thornborough said sharply. “They have done nothing but separate people who should have been together.”
Her words and her rigid exterior seemed to illustrate Ria’s claim that her grandmother was harsh and unyielding. Ria might once have responded with an angry defense of her most excellent reasons for crossing those very oceans. But that was long ago, and Ria had gone to her grave with an unfulfilled desire for reconciliation. Armed with the knowledge Martha had just given her, Lizzie was determined to find a softer spot in Lady Thornborough’s heart. She gave her a tiny smile. “Then I shall just say that I am much improved. And hungry, perhaps.”
“Martha,” said Lady Thornborough, “tell Cook that we are in need of her special broth.”
“Right away, my lady.” Martha hastened out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Lady Thornborough took the chair next to Lizzie’s bed. “You know we are so very anxious to hear all about what has happened. Lord Somerville has been calling every day to inquire after you.”
Lizzie frowned. Lord Somerville. That would be William, of course. As head of the Somerville family, he would naturally want to question her about Edward. No doubt Geoffrey had already filled him in on the particulars of her disgraceful arrival. She wondered if Geoffrey had been round to ask about her, and was suddenly quite anxious to know. She felt a particular urge to see him again—a need to explain why she had been in the street, and to thank him for his kindness in bringing her in, even if he seemed much colder to her later. What if he wished to have nothing to do with her? It was an unsettling thought. “I’m sure that both my brothers-in-law are desirous to hear everything,” Lizzie said, in an effort to subtly draw out the answer from Lady Thornborough.
“Both…,” Lady Thornborough repeated, clearly perplexed. A pained expression crossed her face, and she cleared her throat. “Yes, of course.” The guilty way she looked away as she spoke seemed to contradict her answer.
It was disappointing, but really, not so surprising. After all, Geoffrey would have plenty of reasons for disliking his sister-in-law. His feelings toward her were based, Lizzie knew, on his belief that she was Ria. It was yet another obstacle that Lizzie would have to overcome. By taking up Ria’s identity, she would also have to accept responsibility for all the hurtful things Ria had done.
The weight of so many lives pressed upon her. The joys and sorrows not only of her own life, but of Ria’s and Edward’s, too. She had thought she would be leaving behind her burdens in order to step into a new life. Now she realized she must carry the burdens of both.
Lizzie dropped a disheartened gaze to the ring on her left hand. Edward’s ring. Ria had insisted she take it.
Lady Thornborough lightly touched the ring. “You and Edward were married, weren’t you?”
“And Edward? Is he…”
For a moment, Lizzie could not answer. Two graves, side by side in a small churchyard at Bathurst, filled her mind’s eye. “Yes,” she said at last with a shaky sigh. “He is dead.” She contemplated the ring, thinking of the two people who had worn it before her, knowing their loss was beyond regaining.
After a few moments’ silence Lady Thornborough said, “We were concerned when you appeared at our door in widow’s weeds. But I refused to believe the worst until you confirmed it. Even though I did not wish you to marry him, I want you to know how deeply grieved I am about his death. I know how hard it is to lose a husband.”
The words were simple, but heartfelt. Lizzie could see it in the old woman’s eyes. She was offering both forgiveness and solace.
“Grandmamma…,” Lizzie began. The word came out a little easier each time she said it. “I know I have behaved wickedly. But please understand that I acted out of love for Edward. It was not my intent to bring scandal upon the family.”
“Intended or not, that is what happened,” Lady Thornborough said. “But it cannot be undone now.”
Lizzie’s hand closed around the wrapped bracelet in her hand. She knew it had a sentimental value that was higher even than the worth of the precious stones. It had been a gift to Lady Thornborough from her husband on their wedding day. She held it out to Lady Thornborough. “There is perhaps one thing I can set to rights. I have wanted to return this to you for a very long time.”
Lady Thornborough’s hands trembled as she opened the small bundle. The cloth fell away, and the diamonds and sapphires sparkled in the light. “My bracelet,” she murmured, her rigid exterior softening visibly. “I was sure you had broken it up and sold it years ago.” She shook her head. “I cannot believe you kept it all this time.”
Lizzie knew the words Ria wanted her grandmother to hear. She had practiced them many times during the interminable voyage from Australia. “I was unforgivably selfish to take this bracelet, but I hope that by returning it, you will find it in your heart to forgive me anyway. I took it because I was so afraid of being destitute, but Edward insisted that we would never sell it. And we never did. Somehow we always managed.”
The same could be said for Tom, Lizzie realized. He had given everything to protect and care for her, working tirelessly in a harsh land to give her a new life. She would have no difficulty playing the part of a bereaved widow. She was bereft, her loss felt no less deeply because it was her brother and not a spouse. “He said he would be my provider,” Lizzie found herself saying, “and he was.”
And then, the tears came.
Lady Thornborough wrapped her arms gently around Lizzie, murmuring soft words of comfort. “You have come home, my dear child, and we will muddle through together.”
She spoke with a tenderness that might have amazed Ria herself.
Lizzie let the tears spill, unheeded, that she had held back for far too long. In Australia, she’d been required to be strong, to soldier on as Edward, Tom, and finally Ria were taken from her. She’d had no time to grieve as she faced one tragedy after another.
The three people who had once meant the most in the world to her were gone. Lizzie clung to the woman now offering her comfort. This was her home now, she thought fiercely. This was her family.
Geoffrey sat at his desk, trying to focus on the papers in front of him. As a board member of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, he was responsible for arranging the dedication ceremony of the newest building, a block of flats in Spitalfields.
Normally such a task would readily consume his thoughts. After years of service as a clergyman, he refused to take up the dissolute and careless lifestyle that many of the peers were living. Having a title didn’t prevent him from continuing to do at least some good in the world.
Today, however, despite his best intentions, all he could think of was Ria.
He could not forget her pale face as she lay unconscious on the sofa, nor the way he had been riveted to her violet-blue eyes when they had finally opened. She had been weak from fever and exhaustion, but Geoffrey thought he had seen a glimpse of the spirited woman who had captured Edward’s heart.
He assured himself that his thoughts kept returning to Ria solely because he wanted information from her. He had to know what had become of Edward. Nearly a week had passed, and she had yet to regain consciousness. Geoffrey had spent most of that time consumed with worry. If she should slip away before telling him what had happened to Edward…
No. Surely the Lord is too merciful for that. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. He looked down and noticed his pen had left a blot of ink on the paper where his hand had been resting, unmoving. He quickly placed the pen back in the inkstand and wiped his hand on a cloth.
Mrs. Claridge entered the room. “I beg your pardon, sir, but Lady Thornborough is downstairs.”
Lady Thornborough would not have come in person unless the news was either very good or very bad. Geoffrey dropped the cloth and rose from his desk. “Please show her up.”
Geoffrey paced the room as he waited, praying that the news was good.
Lady Thornborough breezed through the study door ahead of Mrs. Claridge, not waiting to be announced. She crossed the room and took both of his hands in hers. She did not even bother with formalities but simply said, “Her fever broke last night. She’s awake.”
Geoffrey found himself exhaling a deep breath that he had not been aware he’d been holding. “Have you spoken to her?”
A shadow crossed Lady Thornborough’s face. “Yes. We had quite a little chat.”
Lady Thornborough gently withdrew her hands from his and glanced around the room for a place to sit. Belatedly remembering his duties as host, Geoffrey motioned to a chair by the window. “Would you be so kind?”
Lady Thornborough seated herself, taking a few moments to arrange the folds of her gown. She looked up at him expectantly. “Won’t you sit down, Lord Somerville?”
Geoffrey would have preferred to stand, to pace the room if necessary. Movement always helped when dealing with difficult matters. But Lady Thornborough appeared unwilling to speak until he was seated. With great effort he acquiesced and took the chair next to hers. “What other news do you have for me, Lady Thornborough?”
He did not have to elaborate. She would be perfectly aware that the question of Edward’s fate was uppermost in his mind.
Her gray eyes held his. “I fear you already know what I have to tell you.”
He did. He could see the pity written on her face. His last shred of hope on the matter was now gone. In spite of Lady Thornborough’s uncharacteristic gentleness, pain shot through him as surely as if she had wielded a knife. “How did he—” Suddenly his mouth was parched, his voice dry and brittle. “When?”
“Nearly two years ago.”
“Two years!” All his anguish about having Edward declared dead, and the man had gone to dust long ago. The absurdity of it was too painful even to contemplate.
“As to how,” Lady Thornborough continued, “I do not have the particulars. Ria asked that we all be assembled together so that she need only tell the tale once.”
“Is it really so bad, then?”
“I gather it is most unpleasant. In spite of the time that has passed, it is clear to me that she still suffers deeply.”
Geoffrey tried to remind himself that he was not the only one mourning. It did not help. Whatever Ria was feeling, Geoffrey was certain he could match it. He was numb and nauseous at the same time, having both an urgent desire to run and a complete inability to move. A dull ache pulsed through every part of his body. “Oh, Edward,” he moaned.
Lady Thornborough pulled a handkerchief from her reticule and gently held it to her nose. Somehow, through all of his warring emotions, Geoffrey was dimly aware of the scent of lavender wafting from it.
What could have possibly befallen his brother? All sorts of possibilities began to enter his head. A terrible accident, a mortal illness… “She gave you no clue?”
“None, I’m afraid.”
“Were they really in Australia? Or was the fever making her confused?”
“They were in Australia. Like you, I am anxious to know how they came to be in such a wretched place.” Lady Thornborough returned the handkerchief to her reticule. “Dr. Layton says she should be well enough to get out of bed within a few days. I will contact you as soon as she is able to receive visitors.”
More days to wait. More interminable days. He would have preferred to get all the details quickly, rather than in this excruciating fashion.
“Lord Somerville, you must not think me unaware of the poignancy of our situation,” Lady Thornborough said earnestly. “Although I am overjoyed at Ria’s safe return, I am also deeply grieved at the loss of your brother.”
Geoffrey could only acknowledge her words with a nod, not trusting himself to speak.
“You must be feeling alone in the world,” Lady Thornborough went on. “However, even though Edward is dead, we can never forget the tie that has been so closely bound. You must always consider yourself a member of our family.” Her gaze, though kind, held more than a trace of her usual imperious manner, an expectation that her wishes would be carried out.
Geoffrey searched for his voice. “You are very kind.”
His response seemed to satisfy her—for now. She seemed to know better than to press him. She stood up, and Geoffrey did likewise, more out of thankfulness to be on his feet than from mere custom.
“I will trouble you no more for the present.” The decisive, brusque woman Geoffrey knew was once again in evidence. She checked her reflection in the mirror over the fireplace and readjusted her hat before turning toward the door. “I must be going.”
“I’m sure you are anxious to return to Ria.”
“Indeed I am, although I must go to Regent Street first.”
This pronouncement took Geoffrey by surprise. Regent Street had many of the more fashionable shops. It was odd to think Lady Thornborough would be shopping today.
“I must order new dresses for Ria. She has not brought back anything that is suitable for either the current fashion or her position.”
Geoffrey paused in the act of opening the drawing room door. “Her position?”
Excerpted from An Heiress at Heart by Jennifer Delamere Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer Delamere. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >