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Anne shivered as she stood in the arched doorway to see her parents off at the outset of their hastily arranged visit to Dublin. It was not a journey they'd undertaken lightly, for it involved traversing the Irish Sea, which was of uncertain temper at the best of times, let alone at the depths of winter. As if to emphasize the hazards lying ahead, the February wind moaned beneath the barbican and rustled the ivy that grew so profusely on the courtyard walls. The draft also rattled the trapdoors that gave into Llandower's ancient cellars, as if someone were trying to open them from below. It wasn't a pleasant notion, and Anne shivered again.
Mr. George Willowby, a large, bluff Irishman whose charming manner concealed great sadness in his past and constant financial worries in his present, assisted his wife into the waiting traveling carriage, then turned to his daughter. "This April twentieth will be the first of your birthdays your mother and I have missed." His Irish origins were easily detectable, even though he hadn't set foot in his native land in more than thirty years.
"Father, I don't think the world will end on account of the omission. Besides, I've grown up now, and promise not to cry," Anne replied with a fond smile.
"Are you sure you'll be all right here on your own?"
"Quite sure. Besides, I won't be alone, I'll have the servants." She nodded toward the nearby kitchen door, where the plump housekeeper, Mrs. Jenkins, and the gardener, Joseph Greenwood, both of whom she'd known all her life, stood watching the leave-taking with the general boy, Martin.
Her father sighed. "All three of them, and one a mere child."
"They are sufficient, and beforeyou harp on about it yet again, yes, with their help I can see to the running of Llandower for a few months. After all, it isn't exactly a huge estate."
"Nevertheless, we shouldn't be leaving you alone like this."
"It's unavoidable when there hasn't been time to appoint a new agent," she reminded him. The sudden retirement due to ill health of the old and valued Mr. Ayers had caused innumerable difficulties, but she was confident of being able to manage.
He gave her a hug. "Oh, if ever a father was blessed with a jewel for a daughter, I am." Then he added, "And if ever a fellow was undeserving of such a prize for a wife, it is the new Duke of Wroxford!"
She drew away. "Some might say that a duke is far too good for the daughter of one of his tenants." Her voice was almost lost as the chill wind gusted again, cutting through her brown dimity gown and woolen shawl.
Mr. Willowby looked into her wide gray eyes. "I'll never understand this match, Anne. Why has Gervase Mowbray offered for you? It has something to do with his late father's one and only visit here last summer, hasn't it?"
"Has it?" She met his gaze squarely, wishing he would realize by now that she had no intention of telling him the truth about her startling contract.
"Oh, come on now, it must have! I wish I understood what's going on. One of England's greatest catches elects to marry a woman he still hasn't met, and who brings him nothing because her father only just manages to keep out of debt, then he does all in his power to postpone matters by toddling off to Italy with his cousin. It's unlikely to say the least."
"Don't look for reasons. Father, just accept that the daughter you thought was on the shelf has somehow managed to make the sort of dazzling match of which fairy tales are made."
He searched her face. "I thought you were on the shelf because you wished it so in order to remain here."
"You think I love Llandower that much?" she asked with a wry smile.
"Yes, I do," he replied seriously.
She glanced around. "It's true that I love it here, but then so do you."
He didn't reply, but kissed her cheek.
She gave a quick laugh. "Anyway, I shall soon be mistress of one of the grandest Palladian houses in all England."
"Oh, Anne, I wish I could be at ease over this match. For instance, what of his penchant for actresses? Can you accept that?"
Anne drew a long breath. "If we're to believe rumor, it was only one actress, and anyway I'd be a fool indeed if I expected such a man to be celibate."
Her father hesitated, and then nodded. "I suppose so, and once you're a duchess, you'll rank among the highest in the land. Why, I imagine you will even secure an invitation to Princess Charlotte's wedding!"
"What wedding? She blows so hot and cold that one wonders if she wishes to make the Prince of Orange her husband at all. Besides, I doubt very much if the duke will have returned by then, so I do not for a moment think I will be attending anything as important as a royal wedding. Now then, please climb into the carriage and go, or you will not reach the first inn before nightfall.
Anne's mother leaned out rather crossly, the ribbons of her blue velvet bonnet fluttering wildly around her still pretty face. "Oh, do come on, George. After all, it's your brother who has seen fit at last to extend a long overdue olive branch!"
Anne understood how her mother felt, for this journey to Ireland had resurrected some very painful memories. Long ago George Willowby, eldest son of a well-to-do Irish landowner, had been disowned after being accused of selling family property to pay off gambling debts. Penniless and disgraced, he'd come to England, where he'd married and taken over the tenancy of Llandower, the small Monmouthshire castle he'd grown to love deeply, even though it was far from profitable. He never spoke of the events that had brought him across the water to England, but the tortures of the past still shadowed his eyes from time to time. Now it had all been dragged to the fore again by an urgent message summoning him to Ballynarray, the family estate outside Dublin, where his only remaining relative, a brother, was ill.
Mr. Willowby gave Anne another hug, and then clambered into the vehicle, stepping first onto the block of Roman masonry that he always used as a mounting block, and which had been dug up in the grounds of Llandower. The carriage sank on its springs as he sat heavily on the worn leather seat. Then Anne closed the door, and the coachman tugged his hat low over his forehead before stirring the team into action.
The servants shouted their farewells, and the narrow courtyard took up the echo of voices, hooves, and wheels as Anne hurried to the ancient gatehouse, from where she waved her handkerchief as the vehicle passed the windswept hedges of the great maze. She watched the carriage drive through, the little park that bordered the River Wye, which was not only renowned as one of best salmon rivers in Britain, but also one of the most beautiful. Along its banks there were weeping willows and tall undulating reeds. There was also a small jetty, where several rowing boats swung on water that in sunlight sparkled like diamonds, but which today was dull and gray. In a few weeks the whole scene would be bright with spring leaves, blossom, and daffodils, but in February it was bleak and cheerless, and as the carriage passed out of sight, she hurried gladly back into the fortified manor house, for such Llandower was, even though it gloried in the name of castle.
Once in the entrance hall, she paused just to inhale the beloved smell of the old building, which the Mowbray family had outgrown in their meteoric rise to a dukedom. Now it was deemed worthy only of a tenant, while the dukes of Wroxford occupied a grand but soulless estate in Berkshire. Llandower had a soul, and a heart, and sometimes Anne could almost imagine the ancient stone was breathing. When she left, it would be the hardest wrench imaginable, but the old duke had made it impossible for her to stay. Blinking back sudden tears, she crossed the hall and hurried up the staircase to the warmth of the blue tapestry drawing room, where the first thing that confronted her on entering was her own reflection in the mirror above the fireplace.
She saw a slender but plain woman in brown dimity, who in two months' time would be all of twenty-nine. Apart from her long-lashed eyes, which were an arresting and handsome green, there was little to commend in the future Duchess of Wroxford. Her complexion wasn't pale enough to be fashionable, her mouth was too wide, and her dark golden curls, although a pleasing enough color, were an unmanageable mane that resolutely refused to bow to the dictates of brush, comb or pin. She snatched off her mobcap so that the mutinous tresses in question tumbled willfully around her shoulders.
Oh, the number of times she'd striven to achieve a fashionable coiffure, only to eventually admit defeat by resorting to a cap of one sort or another. What a drab nonentity she was. No wonder her father had expected her to remain unmarried! And as for the opinion of London society, well she would always remain a very average, very provincial creature who did not warrant the miraculous good fortune of a contract with the handsome eighth Duke of Wroxford. If only what she'd said to her father were untrue, and the match was indeed the stuff of fairy tales, but it wasn't in the least romantic, rather was it a duty she could not avoid. She did not know how Gervase regarded it, but didn't doubt he was being coerced as well.
With a sigh Anne moved closer to the fire and held her hands out to the warmth. Flame light flickered on the brass fender and set rosy shadows leaping over the blue silk walls of the small but elegant room. Her mother's touch was everywhere, for Jane Willowby had stitched all the tapestry for the chairs and cushions. In the alcove to one side of the fireplace there stood a tall lamp holder in the form of a beautiful life-size wooden sculpture of the water nymph Penelope. Made of the palest and most flawless of local beech, she wasn't the work of an expensive London craftsman, but of Joseph Greenwood, the gardener. A descendant of none other than the great Grinling Gibbons himself, Joseph had inherited some of his forebear's brilliance, and had carved Penelope for Anne's parents on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The wooden nymph had a delicacy and grace that seemed truly ethereal, as if she would at any moment set aside the tray and candelabra she held above her head, gather the filmy skirts of her gauzy gown, and slip silently from the room to find the nearest pool or river in which to swim. She had once been very badly scratched, but Joseph had gone to work on her, and now her wooden surface was pristine again.
Originally there were two lamp holders, the other being the god Mercury, who had seduced Penelope in mythology. Mercury had come to grief when Joseph's highly inflammable beeswax polish mixture had been heated a little too much. The resultant fire had not only severely burned the god's nether regions, but also half the kitchen at Llandower, and since then Joseph had taken much greater care with his hazardous wax and turpentine brews!
A log shifted, and a cloud of sparks fled up the chimney, reminding Anne that the security of Llandower would do the same if she declined to marry Gervase Mowbray. Her father had been right to link her match with the late duke's visit, for it had all begun then. The old man, who had never before visited the property where his family had its roots, suddenly chose to do so the previous summer. Anne had soon become aware of his pensive gaze upon her, which made her feel as if she were being assessed, which indeed proved the case, for prior to his departure he had sought a private meeting with her. He told her that if she agreed to marry his son and heir, Llandower would immediately become her father's property; if she refused, George Willowby's lease would not be renewed at the end of this coming summer. She had no idea why the late duke had been so determined that she should be the next duchess, but faced with such an ultimatum, she felt she had no option but to agree. What pressure the duke had put upon his son she did not know, but it was clearly equally as forceful, for a man like Gervase Mowbray would never have chosen such an insignificant bride.
Anne reached up to take a small bundle of letters from behind a candlestick. Each missive was brief and impersonal, but amounted to the only contact she had ever had with the man she was to marry. Written on costly parchment, they all bore the impressive seal of the Mowbray family, whose badge was a representation of the Llandower maze. The last one had been sent a few months ago, shortly before Gervase's departure for Italy with his only cousin, Hugh, and on impulse she read it aloud, adopting the pompous tone she imagined Gervase to possess.
"Wroxford Park, December 1st, 1815.
"Miss Willowby, I trust this note finds you well. I also trust that my decision to oblige my cousin, Hugh, by accompanying him to Italy for six months will not cause any inconvenience with regard to our betrothal, the formal celebration of which will take place immediately on my return.
"With all courtesy. Wroxford."
How warm and charming his communications were, she thought wryly as she refolded the letter and replaced the bundle behind the candlestick. It was clearly an afterthought to even inform her of his intention to go abroad, and it was equally clear that he did not care about her opinion. On the evidence of his letters, the new Duke of Wroxford was a man of few words, and even less thought for the feelings of others. Was this how it would be on their marriage night? Would he write a note to say he trusted that what was about to occur would not cause her any inconvenience? Perhaps she should have a written reply in hand, stating that she sincerely hoped the same!
She was certain that Gervase Mowbray was going to prove as pompous, cold, and disagreeable as his letters, and if that was indeed the case, one day she would take him to the little ornamental rotunda in the center of the maze, then desert him, leaving a note trusting he wouldn't be put to too much trouble finding his way out of the puzzle that was his family's emblem!
She glanced away then, for it was all very well to be facetious, but the fact remained that she was going to marry him, and the moment she did, her body became his property. She wasn't ignorant about what happened during lovemaking, because at the age of ten she had watched two lovers in a wheat field. Spying upon the fashionable lady and gentleman hadn't been a deliberate act, for she'd been innocently gathering honeysuckle when an elegant carriage had suddenly pulled up on the other side of the hedgerow. Because she was out when she shouldn't have been, she'd instinctively ducked down out of sight among the summer leaves, and oh, the things she'd learned that day....
Like every other bride since time began, she had always dreamed of surrendering her virginity, hoping it would be a joyful initiation. Instead, she was entering into a cold contract with a man she did not know, and who seemed to lack all consideration. What manner of marriage really lay ahead? Not a matter of ecstasy and soft sighs in a sun-drenched wheat field.