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"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation..."
A shaft of autumn sunshine shone low through St Wulfric's ancient stained glass and rested on Canon Harmond as he spoke these opening words of the marriage service. It coloured his surplice and halo of white hair with rich blues and greens, reds and golds. He could have just stepped down from the gathering of saints in the west window.
The sunshine rested on the bridegroom, too, but he certainly didn't look as if he belonged to any gathering of saints. Tall, standing as usual with an air of cool arrogance about him, Richard Deverell was very much a man of this world. In his black coat and close-fitting pantaloons, both obviously made by a master tailor, in his starched cravat, snowy linen and white silk waistcoat, he looked what he was, a member of one of the most exclusive and worldly societies in Europe — the English aristocracy.
But the strength in his broad shoulders and lithe, athletic figure owed more to four years spent fighting the French than to dancing the waltz in London's ballrooms. His tanned features and the small lines round his cool grey eyes were the result of long days spent in the saddle under the Spanish sun, and the scar on his cheek was a reminder of a very narrow escape at Waterloo. But then Richard Deverell was said to have the luck of the devil, and certainly his success at cards and other games of chance was legendary.
From her vantage point in the Deverell family pew the bridegroom's aunt, Lady Honoria Standish, viewed the congregation with a critical eye. Not a single member of the ton to be seen. She doubted any had been invited. With the bride's father barely in his grave it could hardly have been otherwise. Still, it was a pity. Richard's wedding ought to have been more impressive than this shabby affair.
"First, it was ordained for the procreation of children..."
That was more like it. It would be quite pleasant to have some children at Channings again. The place had been like a tomb for too long. It was high time Richard produced some heirs, too — the Deverell estates couldn't be allowed to go to some obscure cousin or other. She eyed her nephew and nodded. This marriage would put an end to any fears of that sort! Alexandra Rawdon came of good healthy stock and Richard was in his prime. Few women would find themselves able to resist him — it wasn't at all surprising that the Rawdon girl had been eager to marry him.
Lady Honoria frowned. But why had Richard chosen Lexi Rawdon of all people? She was attractive enough, but Lady Honoria knew of several real beauties — girls of elegance and wealth as well as breeding — who would have given their eyebrows to have become Lady Deverell. Any one of them would have made a more suitable chatelaine for an estate the size and importance of Channings than Alexandra Rawdon. The girl had always been an impulsive, high-spirited harum-scarum, more interested in roaming the countryside, keeping up with whatever her brother Johnny and Richard were doing, rather than sitting at home learning to be a lady.
As a boy, it was true, Richard had spent most of his time with the Rawdons. He and Johnny Rawdon had been the closest of friends, and Sir Jeremy and Lady Rawdon had always treated him as one of their own, giving him the love and affection he had never found in his own home. Was he marrying their daughter out of a sense of obligation to them? She was now quite alone in the world. She had lost her mother a few years ago, Johnny Rawdon had died tragically earlier in the year, and now Sir Jeremy was dead, too. Was this the reason Richard was marrying her?
Lady Honoria turned her attention to the bride. Alexandra Rawdon bore herself well enough — tall, slender, straight as a wand in her white silk dress, her mane of bright copper hair kept in check by her veil and hat. But surely Richard could have hoped for a more radiant bride. It was clear that the events of the past few months had taken their toll. The girl standing beside her nephew was as stiff as a board, and far too thin. Lady Honoria sighed. She had suggested that the wedding should be postponed, but Richard had been adamant — it could be as quiet as anyone chose, but it was to go ahead as planned. He was probably right. Rawdons had owned Rawdon Hall since the days of the Tudors, but Alexandra and her cousin, Mark Rawdon, were the last of them, and Mark, or Sir Mark as he was now, was still a comparative stranger.
Sir Mark must be relieved to have Lexi taken off his hands. Her old home had now passed into his possession, and, even though the cousins seemed to get on well, they could hardly have carried on living there together for very much longer with only an old nurse to chaperon them. He couldn't have married her himself, even if he had wanted to. Though it was hard to believe, rumour had it that the heir to Rawdon would have to marry a girl with a decent fortune if Rawdon Hall was to be saved.
She turned her attention to the young man standing on the other side of his cousin, ready to give her away. Sir Mark Rawdon. Now there was an open, good-natured fellow — nothing enigmatic about him. Lady Honoria had already experienced the charm of his frank smile and laughing eyes, and thoroughly approved of him. In his own way he was as handsome as Richard, and he was much better looking than his cousin Alexandra, if the truth were known. They both had the highly distinctive Rawdon looks, though Mark Rawdon's hair was a touch darker. He was very presentably dressed in a dark green coat and buff pantaloons, and his short chestnut locks, brushed into careless elegance, glowed in the shaft of sunlight.
"Richard Anthony, wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife... Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour and keep her in sickness and in health..."
Lady Honoria's wandering attention was caught as the couple started to make their vows. Those solemn promises in Richard's deep voice sounded as beautiful as she had ever heard them: 'To have and to hold...in sickness and in health...till death us do part..."
She listened with a rare smile on her face as Richard finished the lovely old words and it was Alexandra's turn. Her voice was clear enough, but it sounded... forced. What was wrong with her? She ought to be beside herself with joy. After all, she was marrying the best catch in the county! In England!
"For better, for worse...for richer, for poorer...to love — " The voice broke off abruptly, then went on: 'To love, cherish, and to obey, till death — " There was another abrupt halt, and this time the pause was longer. When she began again her voice was harsh as she repeated, 'Till death us do part..."
Richard had heard the sounds of strain. He put his arm round her and pulled her gently towards him as he made his final promise. 'With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow..."
Lady Honoria nodded. Richard had far more than his fair share of worldly goods — he was disgustingly rich. And though he might not wear his heart on his sleeve, as the saying went, he would look after his wife. All in all, Alexandra Rawdon was a very lucky girl.
When Canon Harmond began his homily she settled herself back against the cushions — the Deverells always made sure they were comfortable in church — and got ready to look as if she was listening. It was always the same speech, and usually quite short. In a minute or two they would all go into the vestry for a few signatures and the rest, and all would be done. Except for the lack of display, it had been a perfectly conventional wedding. And Richard would settle down at last to a peaceful family life at Channings. She closed her eyes... * * *
Lady Honoria was not the only person present who was failing to give Canon Harmond the attention he deserved. The bride's nerves were as taut as a violin string as she waited for the end of the service. It wouldn't be long now. Soon they would go into the vestry for the last signatures, the delivery of the last documents and then...and then it would all be over.
Only dimly aware of Canon Harmond leading the way ahead of them, and Mark and Lady Honoria following behind, Alexandra felt Richard's hand on her elbow, escorting her out of the church and into the vestry. Once inside the little room she allowed herself be drawn to the table, where the lawyer sat with papers spread before him. She signed where he told her, then took a step back. Her head and her heart were pounding so hard she felt she might explode. She took off her hat and veil to relieve some of the pressure, and put them down on the table near the all-important document. Her wedding gift from Richard.
"Alexandra? What's wrong? Aren't you interested in the gift I promised you?" Richard was smiling at her.
Bile rose in her throat, but she forced it down and made herself smile in return. "Of course!" she said. "Is it ready?"
"I think so. Mr Underhill?"
The lawyer cleared his throat. His manner was disapproving, but he said clearly enough, "I have here a deed drawn up in favour of Sir Mark Satterly Rawdon, of Rawdon Hall in the county of Somerset. Put briefly, it returns in full everything formerly belonging to the Rawdon Hall estate that was acquired during the past three months by Lord Deverell from Lady Deverell's father, the late Sir Jeremy Rawdon. The lands and monies are detailed below..." He looked up. "The list is quite a long one."
Ignoring the exclamations of wonder and surprise from Lady Honoria and the Canon, the lawyer took off his pince-nez. "An extraordinary document. I can say with confidence that I have never known anything like it. Lord Deverell has been outstandingly generous! Do you wish me to read out the list, Lady Deverell?"
"No," said Lexi tonelessly. "I accept that it is as we planned."
"Ah! We have inserted one clause, which I should perhaps point out to you," said the lawyer.
Lexi was instantly alert. "What is it?" she asked. "That should Sir Mark predecease you or Lord Deverell without issue, the contents of this deed of gift will not form part of his estate, but will revert to your husband."
A curious smile passed fleetingly over Lexi's face. "I have no objection to that. By all means leave the clause in. May I have the deed?"
Richard took the bundle of papers from the lawyer before it reached Lexi's hand. "Are you sure you want this, Alexandra? It's a strange sort of wedding present — there's nothing in it for you."
"There is everything there for me! It makes Rawdon safe for the future. That was what my father would have wanted," she said tightly. "May I have it?"
"Don't you think I deserve a reward first?" he said with a smile. "A kiss from my wife, perhaps?"
Lexi felt a surge of panic-stricken revulsion. "No!" she exclaimed.
She looked round at the shocked silence that followed her cry. "N...not yet," she faltered. "Let me give this to Mark first."
Richard's eyes narrowed. "Very well," he said. "But I think we can dispense with Mr Underhill. He has done his bit." With a brief nod and a word of thanks he dismissed the lawyer. Then he raised Lexi's hand to his lips before putting the document into it.
Lexi had been waiting with every sign of impatience. Now she snatched her hand away and thrust the deed into her cousin's hands. "Take it!" she said fiercely. "And look after Rawdon. Our family has lived at the Hall for centuries. You're the last of them, and it's up to you to see that it carries on. It's all perfectly, legally, yours, and, now that its lands have been restored, it has the means to survive."
"Lexi, I don't know what to say — " 'Don't say anything. Take it! And stand back!" She turned to the shelves behind her, and when she faced the room again she was holding a pistol in her hand. "All of you stand back!" The pistol was pointing at Richard. There was a moment of stunned astonishment.
Then Lady Honoria exclaimed, "Alexandra! What do you think you're doing? Is this a joke? It's in extremely poor taste if it is. Put that thing down at once!"
"Oh, no! Not till I've done what I've sworn to do." Her eye caught a movement. "I warn you all. If anyone moves, I shall shoot Deverell straight away. And I won't miss."