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March 1776 London, England
"Lady Marianne peered down through the peephole into the drawing room while her heart raced. Against her back, the heavy woolen tapestry extolling one of her ancestors' mighty deeds pushed her into the wall of her father's bedchamber, nearly choking her with its ancient dust. Yet she would endure anything to observe the entrance of Papa's guest.
Often in her childhood she and her closest brother had evaded the notice of Greyson, Papa's valet, and crept in here to spy on their parents' guests, even catching a glimpse of the prime minister once when he called upon Papa, his trusted friend, the earl of Bennington. But no exalted politician captured Marianne's interest this day.
Her breath caught. Captain James Templeton—Jamie—entered the room with Papa, and warmth filled her heart and flushed her cheeks.
The two men spoke with the enthusiasm of friends reunited after many months of separation and eager to share their news. Unable to hear their words, Marianne forced herself to breathe. Jamie, the Loyalist American captain of a merchant ship. How handsome he was, taller than Papa by several inches. His bronzed complexion and light brown hair—now sun-kissed with golden streaks and pulled back in a queue—gave evidence of long exposure to the sun on his voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. In contrast to Papa's blue silk jacket and white satin breeches, Jamie wore a plain brown jacket and black breeches. Yet to Marianne, he appeared as elegant and noble as Papa.
Hidden high above the drawing room, she could not clearly see the blue eyes whose intense gaze had pierced her soul and claimed her heart less than a year ago. Jamie, always honest, always forthright. No wonder Papa took an interest in him, even to the extent of calling him his protégé, despite his utter lack of social position and being an American.
Marianne suspected part of Papa's interest stemmed from wanting to secure the captain's loyalty now that thirteen of England's American colonies had rebelled against the Crown. But last year she had seen that the old dear truly liked Jamie, perhaps even more than his own four sons, a fact that stung both her and Mama's hearts. Yet, despite that affection, the earl's patronage might not extend to accepting a merchant for a son-in-law.
How she and Jamie would overcome this prejudice, Marianne did not know. At this moment, all she knew was that her own affection for him was unchanged. Last summer, against the better judgment of both of them, their friendship had intensified through shared interests, from reading Shakespeare and Aristotle to spending hours sailing on the Thames. On a short excursion with Papa aboard Jamie's large sloop, the Fair Winds, Marianne and Jamie had whispered their confessions of undying love. Then he had placed the sweetest, purest kiss on her lips, sealing her heart to his forever. Now her pulse pounded at the sight of him, and her heart felt a settled assurance that no other man could ever win her love.
Wriggling out of her hiding place between tapestry and wall, Marianne brushed dust from her pink day dress and hastened to the door. She escaped the bedchamber undetected and hurried down the hallway to her own quarters.
"Lady Marianne." Emma emerged from her closet, her hands clasped at her waist. "Why, my lady, your dress." She took hold of Marianne's skirt and shook dust from it, then glanced up. "Oh, my, your hair." Her youthful, cherubic face creased with concern.
"Yes, Emma, I am a fright." With a giddy laugh, Marianne brushed past her lady's maid to sit at her dressing table. "Make haste and mend the damage. Oh, dear, look at this." She removed a silvery cobweb from her hair, pulling several long black strands from the upswept coiffure Emma had created earlier. "Please redo this. And I shall need another of my pink gowns." More than one dandy had told her pink brought a pretty blush to her cheeks, so she wore the color often.
Her appearance repaired and Emma's approving smile received, Marianne clutched her prayer book and hurried from her room. With a deep breath to compose herself, she held her head high and glided down the steps to the front entry hall. A quick glance revealed Jamie and Papa seated before the blazing hearth, deep in genial conversation.
Marianne opened the book and mouthed the words of the morning prayer as she entered the room, not looking their way. Last year, Jamie's parting words had encouraged her to greater faith, and she must let him know she had followed his advice.
The rustle of movement caught her attention. She cast a sidelong glance toward the men, who now stood to greet her.
"Why, Papa, I didn't realize—" She stopped before completing the lie, while heat rushed to her cheeks. "Forgive me. I see you have a guest. Will you excuse me?" She could not look at Jamie for fear that her face would reveal her heart.
"Come, daughter, permit me to present my guest." Papa beckoned her with a gentle wave of his bony, wrinkled hand. "You may recall him from last summer. Lady Marianne, Captain James Templeton of the East Florida Colony." His presentation was accompanied by a shallow cough, and he held a lacy linen handkerchief to his lips.
Gripping her emotions, Marianne permitted herself to look at Jamie. His furrowed brow and the firm clenching of his square jaw sent a pang of worry through her. Was he not pleased to see her? Worse still, his gaze did not meet hers. Rather, he seemed to stare just over her head. Surely this was a ploy to divert any suspicion from the mutual affection they had spoken of only in whispers during his last visit.
"Good morning, Lady Marianne." His rigid bow bespoke his lower status, but his rich, deep voice sent a pleasant shiver down her spine. "I hope you are well."
Offering no smile, Marianne lifted her chin. "Quite well, thank you." She closed her book and turned to Papa, her face a mask. "Will you be busy all day, sir?"
The fond gaze he returned brought forth a wave of guilt. "I fear that I must go to Whitehall for most of the afternoon. Is there something you require, my dear? You have but to ask." His blue eyes, though pale from age, twinkled with his usual eagerness to please her.
Marianne's feigned hauteur melted into warm affection.
Truly, Papa did spoil her. Yet she lived in dread that he would never give her the one thing she desired above all else: the tall should-be knight who stood beside him. "No, dear. I am content." She sent a quick look toward Jamie, who continued to stare beyond her. "I will leave you to your business affairs."
Before she could turn, Papa coughed again, and she stepped closer, frowning with concern. He waved her off. "Never mind. I am well. But I have need of your assistance." He clapped a pale hand on Jamie's shoulder. "Captain Templeton has just arrived, and I have offered him lodging. Your mother is occupied with one of her charities, and your worthless brother has not put in an appearance for several days. Would you be so kind as to make certain the good captain is taken care of?"
A laugh of delight almost escaped Marianne, but she managed to release a sigh intended to convey boredom. "Very well, Papa. I shall see that he has accommodations." She graced Jamie with a glance. "Do you have a manservant, or shall we procure one for you?"
A hint of a smile softened his expression. "My man awaits out front in our hired carriage, Lady Marianne."
"Very well, then. I shall instruct our butler, Blevins, to receive him." She reached up to kiss Papa's wrinkled cheek, breathing in the pleasant citrus fragrance of his shaving balm. "Do not let His Majesty weary you, darling."
"Humph." Papa straightened his shoulders and pushed out his chest. "I am not yet in my dotage, despite what you and your mother think." Another cough accompanied his chuckle. "You have to watch these women, Templeton. They like to coddle a man."
"Yes, sir." Jamie's tone held no emotion.
Marianne resisted the urge to offer a playful argument back to Papa. The sooner he left, the sooner she would have Jamie to herself. Yet how could she accomplish that and maintain propriety? She lifted the silver bell from the nearby table and rang it. A footman stepped into the room. "Tell Blevins we have need of him."
"Yes, Lady Marianne." The footman bowed and left the room.
"Blevins will attend you, Captain Templeton." Marianne kissed Papa's cheek again. "Enjoy your afternoon, Papa." She shot a meaningful look at Jamie. "I am going to the garden to read."
Gliding from the room with a well-practiced grace, she met Blevins in the entry hall and gave him instructions regarding Captain Templeton. "I believe the bedchamber at the end of the third floor is best. Do you agree?" With the room's clear view of the garden, Jamie would have no trouble knowing when she was there.
"Yes, Lady Marianne. I shall see to it." Blevins, of medium height but seeming taller due to his exceptionally straight posture, marched on sticklike legs toward the drawing room, his gait metered like a black-clad soldier who heard an invisible drummer.
Seated on the marble bench beneath one of the barren chestnut trees, Marianne drew her woolen shawl about her shoulders and tried to concentrate on the words in her prayer book. But at the end of each Scripture verse, she found herself beseeching the Lord to send Jamie to her. As a guest in their home, he could visit her here in the garden without impropriety. Anyone looking out any of the town house's back windows could see their actions were blameless.
After a half hour passed, Marianne shivered in the early spring breeze, closed her book and stared up at Jamie's window, willing him to look out so that she might beckon him down. Perhaps he did not know they could meet here without censure. Yet had Papa not requested her assistance in making him feel welcomed? Tapping her foot on the flagstone paving in front of the bench, she huffed out an impatient sigh. She had told him she would be in the garden. Why did he not come?
A rear door opened, and Marianne's heart leaped. But it was John, one of the family's red-and-gold-liveried footmen, who emerged and approached her with a silver tray bearing a tea service and biscuits. "Begging your pardon, Lady Marianne, but Blevins thought you might like some refreshment." John set the tray on the marble table beside her. "May I serve you, Lady Marianne?"
"Thank you, John. I can pour." Perfect. An answer to prayer. "I should like for you to inform my father's guest that he has missed his appointment with me. Please send Captain Templeton down straightaway."
"Yes, Lady Marianne." The ideal footman, John bowed away, his face revealing no emotion.
In a short time, Jamie emerged from the house. But instead of striding toward her with all eagerness, he walked as if facing the gallows, looking beyond her toward the stables, the hothouse, the treetops, anywhere but at her. By the time he came near, Marianne had almost succumbed to tears. Instead, she stood and reached out both hands to greet him.
"Jamie." His name rushed out on a breath squeezed by joy and misery.
"You summoned me, Lady Marianne?" He stopped far beyond her reach and bowed. "I am at your service."
She clasped her hands at her waist and laughed softly, but without mirth. "Such a cold tone to match a cold day. Where is the warmth that once graced your every word to me?"
For several moments, he stared at the ground, his lips set in a grim line and his jaw working. He seemed to compose himself, for at last he lifted his gaze to meet hers.
"My lady, I beg your forgiveness for my inappropriate conversations with you last summer."
"Please." He raised his hand in a silencing gesture. "I will not betray the trust of Lord Bennington by arrogantly presuming an equality that would permit us… permit me… to pursue a lady so far above me." For an instant, a sweet vulnerability crossed his eyes, but then all light disappeared from his face, replaced by the same blank expression John or any of the household servants might employ, a facade that bespoke their understanding of status and position. "You must not ask me to do that which would dishonor you, your family and my faith." He gave her a stiff bow. "Now, if you will excuse me, my lady." Jamie spun around and strode back toward the house with what seemed like eagerness, something clearly lacking when he had come to meet her.
The last time Jamie had felt such grief was beside his mother's grave in Nantucket some sixteen years ago, when he was a lad of nine, struggling then not to cry. Now his jaw ached from clenching, and his chest throbbed as it had when a young whale had slammed him with its tail, trying to escape his harpoon. No, this was unlike any pain he had ever endured aboard his uncle's whaling ship. He could not seem to pull in enough breath, could barely manage to climb the wide front staircase without clutching the oak railing.
In the third floor hallway, a footman cast a glance at him, and one eyebrow rose. Jamie stiffened. He was no fainthearted maiden who swooned over life's injuries. He'd seen the harm he'd just inflicted upon Marianne…Lady Marianne. Yet despite the pain pinching her fair face, she had not swooned. Or had she? Perhaps after he tore himself from her presence, she'd succumbed to her distress.
With some effort, Jamie drew air into his lungs and strode down the hallway, bursting into the elegant bedchamber assigned to him. He ignored his friend Aaron's shocked expression and dashed to the window to peer down into the garden where he'd left her. There she sat beneath the leafless tree, staring straight ahead, her shawl carelessly draped over the stone bench.
Pain swept through him again, but this time for her. How brave she was. No tears. Even at this distance he could see her composure. Was this not one of the reasons he loved her? As he had prayed, her unfailing good sense prevailed. She knew their romance was hopeless, and would not protest his declaration that it must end. See how she clutches her prayer book. Perhaps even now she is seeking God's consolation. His parting admonition last year had influenced her as he hoped. Surely now she would cling to the Lord, as he did, to ease the agony they both must endure. No doubt she would manage better than he.