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Beatrice halted her horse beneath the spreading canopy of a great beech tree. The scene was like a little tableau to be viewed by any who passed by. The summertime smells of Larkhill wafted around her. She knew every tree, every meadow and bridal way and rutted track, and every stream where trout could be found. Everything around her was pulsating with life, except the beautiful old house where the squire, her father, had once ruled. The house sat like a queen in the centre of her domain. It faced due south so the sun, before it sank over the gently rolling hills in the west, shone on the mellow stone walls all day, making them warm to the touch.
From her vantage point she watched a happy group of fashionable society people stroll along the paths in the longneglected gardens. The beautiful ladies wore highwaisted dresses, their fair complexions protected from the sun by delicate parasols, the gentlemen attired in the pinnacle of fashion. Her eyes were drawn to one of the gentlemen like metal filings to a magnet. He stood out from the others by his admirable bearing and heightened stature. She had never seen him before, but by instinct she knew who he was.
Lord Julius Chadwickthe Marquess of Maitland.
Her heart tightened with a longheld hatred and resentment. He was walking at a leisurely pace with his hands clasped behind his back. Making no attempt to hide herself from view, she continued to watch him as he strolled closer to the house. The sun's rays caught his hair. It was thick and dark and curled into his nape.
As if he could feel her eyes on him he paused and waited a moment before he turned and looked directly at her. Surprised to see her there, he broke away from the party. His handsome face was set in lines which were quite unreadable, but his amber eyes danced as though he found their meeting and the manner of her dress vastly entertaining. Below a white silk shirt, skintight breeches clung to her long, shapely legs above black riding boots. Being buff in colour, from a distance the breeches gave the impression that she was naked from the waist down. She had tied back her abundant goldandcopper curls with a bright emeraldgreen ribbon.
Beatrice sat on her horse unmoving, as if she were some stone goddess, insensate but powerful. She gripped the reins in her slender fingers and stared back at him, defiance in every line of her young body. She was seeing this man in the flesh for the first time in her life, but she had thought of him often over the years. He had appeared in her mind like some sinister spectre, a malevolent giant, with the power to do as he likedas he had when he'd blotted all happiness from her future.
Her head lifted and there was no softness in her eyes, which had turned to flint. Her mouth hardened to an unsmiling resentment. She had no doubt that he was curious and wondering who she was and what she was doing trespassing on his land so close to the house. He made no attempt to approach her or speak to her. Neither of them moving, over the twenty yards or so that separated them they continued to watch each other until, with a casual toss of her lovely head, Beatrice turned her horse and disappeared as silently as she had come amongst the tall, shadowy trees.
At Standish House, just two miles from Larkhill, Lady Moira Standish was taking tea in the drawing room. She was a striking woman, tall and robust with irongrey hair, good cheekbones and a square jaw. Her husband had killed himself when he had taken a tumble from his horse during a hunt three years ago, leaving her a very wealthy widow. With a twentyfiveyearold son and a nineteenyearold daughter, she had much on her plate if she was to see them affianced before the year was out. Her son, George, had inherited Standish House on his father's demise. The dowager Lady Standish continued to act as mistress. When George took a wife she would move into the dower house.
She had returned from London that very day, where she had been on a short visit with her daughter, Astrid. She sat stiffly upright on the greenandgold brocaded couch. With a firm hand she fluttered a delicate ivoryandlace fan before her heated face. Her grey eyes were narrowed with annoyance as she darted sharp disapproving glances at her niece, who had just burst into the room, shattering the peace. Beatrice presented a frightful vision in her breeches, stained from her ride. Shoving her untidy mop of hair back from her face, the girl sank into a chair in a most unladylike pose and yawned, doing little to hide her boredom.
As she looked at her, Lady Standish wondered if this niece of hers would ever grow up. She was clever, intelligent, quickthinking and sharp witted. She was also problematical and a constant headache. Beatrice was little more than an impoverished orphan, but she still walked about with her head high, just like her arrogant, reckless father before her. She was more beautiful than Astrid would ever be, but she lived for the moment and noticed nothing that was not to do with outdoor pursuits and horses.
'Really, Beatrice,' Lady Standish exclaimed sharply, wrinkling her nose as the smell of horses wafted in her direction. 'I have told you time and again not to appear before me dressed in those outrageous breeches. They smell of the stables and that is where I wish they would remain. It's high time you stopped gallivanting about the district and occupied yourself with something useful. I swear one would think the expensive governesses we provided for you would have taught you about behaviour and comportment. Do you forget that you are quality born with bloodlines, breeding and ancestry? And don't slouch. It's bad for the posture.'
Beatrice sat up straight and obediently squared her shoulders and raised her chin, though she continued to fidget in her chair. Her aunt rarely spoke to her, except to lecture, criticise, instruct or command. 'It is certainly desirable to be well bred,' she remarked calmly, 'but the glory belongs to my father and his father, not to me.'
Lady Standish rolled her eyes upwards and worked her fan harder, the corkscrew curls on either side of her face almost springing to life. 'That is rubbish, Beatrice, and just another one of your absurdities. Glory? See what good his glory has done youhaving to live off your only kin. Your father was a fool, throwing his money away without a care to anyone but himself.'
Beatrice looked at her wearily. She had heard the argument so often she knew it by heartit failed to shake her kinder memories of her father. 'I loved him dearly,' she said simply. 'He was a good father.'
'That's a matter of opinion. The devil did his work when he made you just like him, you ungrateful girl.'
Beatrice flinched, but her aunt ranted on, turning her narrowed eyes upon her and shaking a bejewelled, damning finger. 'He left you in a fixno dowry and now you're eighteen years old with not a penny to your name. There isn't a man that will marry you without one. The Lord knows what a task you are for me.' Lady Standish sighed heavily, as if tired of her burden. 'It's better that you were married and off my handsand I know I shall have to provide your dowry to bring that about, but I pity the man who would wed you. I swear you will be the death of meI know you will. And do wear a bonnet when you are out. Your face is much too brown and freckles are most unbecoming on a young lady.'
'Yes, Aunt Moira.'
Beatrice knew she was a disappointment to her aunt, that she had never considered her anything but an irksome responsibility. Lady Standish tried to instil discipline in her and to make her into an obedient, biddable young woman like AstridAstrid had exquisite manners, was skilled in everything a young woman of quality should be, would sit still and work her sampler, would stay clean and tidyand she failed miserably.
Beatrice tried not to fidget for fear that if she moved it would draw her aunt's attention again, but she was weary of tiptoeing about the house and doubted her ability to last much longer. Life was hard for her at Standish House, but she wearily accepted the way her aunt treated her without complaint. She had been out since dawn, for the countryside was the only place she could seek succour from her aunt's angry, cruel taunts.
Beatrice glanced at her cousin Astrid, whose face was alight with intense excitement over her forthcoming birthday party in two weeks. It was to be an afternoon of enjoyment at Standish House, which was more appealing to Astrid than a grand ball. Bright sunlight on the windows streamed through her light brown ringlets shot through with chestnut glints. She was pouting prettily and sitting poised and straight backed, her hands folded in her lap. She was small and slender, with chinablue eyes and rosy dimpled cheeks. She bore only the faintest resemblance to her cousin Beatrice and was cast in a sweeter, gentler mould than Beatrice's nature could ever imitate with success. The apple of her mother's eye, Astrid was in the ascendant.
'I have returned to organise Astrid's birthday party,' Lady Standish said. 'It is to be a large affair, with only the finest society people invited. You should have seen her in London, Beatrice. I think Lord Chadwick was most struck.'
Beatrice was all attention. 'Lord Chadwick? The Marquess of Maitland?' she said mechanically. She realised her aunt was watching her intently and that her face was unguarded before her.
'Of course. There could scarcely be a better match.' Lady Standish paused to take a sip of tea. 'There is no need to look so incredulous. It is quite natural. Did you not think Astrid was to marry some time?'
Beatrice gaped at her. If she had not been so taken aback by her aunt's pronouncement that made her want to shriek, she would have laughed aloud. She had given little thought to the matter of Astrid's future. She never thought beyond her own life, what she wantedof returning to Larkhill, which was so very dear to her.
'Lord Chadwickhe has been abroad for several months on one of his ships and only recently returnedshowed great interest in Astrid. Indeed, the attention he showed her was commented upon by several; I am hoping he will approach me to offer for her. He is of excellent family, of sound character, sharp wits, intelligence and his fortune is quite remarkable.
Through his own endeavours there is a fleet of ships flying his flag and carrying his cargo. He has mines of gold and silver that bought those ships, and his ownership of land is so vast no one knows how much. Astrid will indeed be a fortunate young woman if she manages to secure him.'
'He sounds an impressive figure, Aunt Moira, but a grand title, wealth and happiness don't always come hand in glove,' Beatrice retorted tersely.
Lady Standish gave her a sour, disapproving look. 'Any woman would be a fool to turn away from it. Astrid is certainly willing to entertain Lord Chadwick. The wedding will be a truly grand affair, with one of those newfangled wedding tours to France and Italy, before they settle down to married life at Highfield Manor in Kent. It is an estate of some significance.'
While her aunt twittered on, Beatrice kept her face lowered, feigning interest in a magazine so Lady Standish could not see her, would not see that her face was white. She blindly turned a page so that her aunt would not be able to tell she could not control a grimace of anger and the tears stinging hot. She felt murderous. She wanted to leap to her feet and remind her aunt of the harm Lord Chadwick had done her family, harm she seemed to have forgotten, or considered unimportant when it came to choosing a husband for her darling Astrid. But Beatrice had not forgotten.
Beatrice wanted Lord Chadwick to suffer all the torments of the damned and crawl to her for forgiveness for being the architect of all her misery. She simply could not bear the thought of Astrid being the Marchioness of Maitland, Lady Chadwick, living her life in grand style, while Aunt Moira would have Beatrice married off to the first suitor who chanced her way.
'Of course, should Astrid marry Lord Chadwick it will be a perfect match. If he offers for her now, they can be betrothed before the little Season starts in the autumn.'
Astrid had come out the year before and had been the toast of the Season. She had received several offers of marriage, but Lady Standish had considered the young men who made them too low down the social ladder and not rich enough for her daughter and had declined their offers, hoping for better things, a brilliant match, and to that end she had in mind Lord Chadwick.
'If he does indeed offer for Astrid, it will be a spring wedding.'
Beatrice was unable to keep quiet a moment longer. Blinking back angry tears, she looked at her aunt. 'But, Aunt Moira, how can you let such a thing happen? He alone is responsible for all the misfortunes that have befallen me. I shall neither forget nor forgive what he did to Father. Would you not feel as I do?'
'That is in the past and you would do well to put it behind you since nothing can be done about it now.' She gave her niece a watery smile. 'If you think of your scriptures, Beatrice, you will remember being taught that Jesus told us to love our enemies?'