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Madeira seemed a perfect escape from an unwanted bridegroom to Eliza. But barely have they arrived when she and her frail young cousin Aubrey find themselves captive on the vessel of Cyprian Dare, who had never forgiven the man who had left his mother and made him a bastard. Now that man's boy, Aubrey, will be his instrument of revenge--however furiously Eliza guards him. Original.
"Tempestuous and seductive, this winner from Rexanne Becnel will enthrall fro the first page to the last." —Deborah Martin, author of Stormswept
"Great characters, a riveting plot and loads of sensuality...A fabulous book, I couldn't put it down!" —Joan Johnston, author of Maverick Heart
London, England, 1844
The formal dining room at Diamond Hall was Eliza's least favorite room in her parents' London residence. It was too cavernous. Too ornate. And on this particular evening, despite the many good wishes directed her way, far too crowded with people.
Across the polished mahogany table and its gleaming array of Emes silver, Waterford glass, and Chinese Trade porcelain, she saw her father surreptitiously nudge Michael, and after a moment the younger man rose dutifully to his feet. All eyes turned expectantly toward him. And why not? Michael Geoffrey Johnstone, sole heir to the Earl of Marley, and Viscount Cregmore in his own right, had a natural charisma that commanded attention wherever he went. It was aided, of course, by his broad shoulders, his golden hair, and a profile reminiscent of numerous Greek statues Eliza had studied.
Everyone listened when he spoke. Her father was forever quoting some opinion of Michael's to her; her youngest brother Perry emulated the way he wore his hair and tied his cravat; while LeClere, her oldest brother, did a faithful imitation of both his walk and histalk. It was enough to make a girl plead a headache and retire to her room. Only she couldn't do that tonight. It was her birthday. Everyone had gathered here to celebrate and she must appear pleased.
"To Miss Eliza Victorine Thoroughgood--"
"Soon to be Lady Cregmore," LeClere threw in from his place halfway down the table.
"Here, here," Perry added. "My big sister shall no longer be here to order me about. She shall order you about instead," he finished, laughing at Michael.
Michael winked at Perry, and a smile curved his well-formed lips. Socially adept as he was, he waited for the wave of chuckles from the other guests to subside before continuing. "To my dearest Eliza on the occasion of her nineteenth birthday. Many happy returns of the day."
He lifted his gold-rimmed crystal wine glass and polished off the contents, then smiled directly at her. "Next year I shall attempt to host a party just as jolly as this one for your twentieth birthday, only it shall be at our home." He swept the attentive group with his clear gaze. "You are all invited to join us there."
Eliza's headache had been real enough before. Mentioning her forthcoming marriage to one of the most eligible and handsome bachelors in the entire British Kingdom set her head to pounding in earnest. In the hubbub that followed--more toasts, the bevy of servants refilling glasses with Veuve Clicquot champagne, and the numerous voices growing ever more boisterous with the free-flowing spirits--Eliza came near to panicking. Her head throbbed and her breath seemed to catch in her chest. Notwithstanding her recent good health, she feared she might have one of her attacks at any moment. She cast a desperate look toward her mother.
Despite her distance down the absurdly long table, Constance Thoroughgood recognized the look on her daughter's face. With her gracious smile kept serenely inplace, she signaled the majordomo, and when he rang his bell, she stood up. "I believe the ladies will retire for a few minutes. Mr. Thoroughgood?"
Gerald Thoroughgood gulped down the rest of his champagne, then also rose, dabbing at his mouth with his embroidered linen napkin. "Very good, my dear. Gentlemen, let us adjourn to have a smoke. I have some very good cigars from the West Indies."
In spite of Eliza's earlier irritation with Perry, she was inordinately grateful when it was he who helped her from her chair and not Michael. If the perfect Michael Johnstone had taken her arm, she feared her lungs would have exceeded their meager abilities and she would have suffocated on the spot.
Why had her parents ever insisted on pairing her with such a paragon? Yes, the two of them were well suited on the surface, equals in both social standing and wealth. But he was incredibly handsome, excessively so. And while she was attractive enough--or so her several other suitors had vowed--she was hardly up to Michael's standard. Added to that, he was smart, quick-witted, and comfortable in any social situation. Whatever the circumstances--at a hunt, in the game room, handling his family's properties, or expounding in the House of Lords--Michael was the master of every domain. She knew because her parents and brothers--and every other relative she had--constantly pointed it out to her.
By contrast she was a shy and retiring little mouse, content to sit and read or do decorative needlework. She was neither flashy, nor even very amusing. Her cousin Jessica Haberton fit that description far better than she. Why Michael had pursued her instead of Jessica was quite beyond her understanding.
At first, of course, she'd been flattered when he'd singled her out for attention. During her season he'd attended every party she did, dancing with her as often aswas deemed socially acceptable. He'd called on her at least once a week and brought her several thoughtful gifts, including an enameled thimble, an inscribed needlecase book, and a pincushion decorated with tiny shells. It was at that point, when his intentions became clear, that she had begun to panic. If she married Michael she would have to run his several households, entertain his vast array of friends and associates, and generally perform the same sort of role in his life that her mother did for her father. Only on a larger scale.
While Eliza took pride in her home and loved making it beautiful, she was not good at the entertaining end of it. Her mother was; she drew people in effortlessly and had the knack of putting everyone at ease. But Eliza knew she could never do that. She didn't begin to know how.
And besides, she was ill. She'd been sickly all her life.
Oh, why must she marry Michael? Why must she marry anyone at all? She'd much rather remain at home, at least for a few more years.
"Are you all right, my dear?" her mother asked as she supported Eliza's arm and directed her toward the drawing room. "Can you breathe all right?"
"If I could just have a minute's privacy," Eliza murmured, her voice shaky and thin.
Her mother steered her without further comment toward the special bedroom they kept for Eliza on the main floor of the enormous residence. They still felt she was not strong enough to use the stairs on a regular basis. Too hard on her weak lungs, they said. It might bring on one of her attacks of short breath, they warned her. But Eliza would far rather endure the rigors of stair climbing than the rigors of marriage to Michael.
"Clothilde, do you think we should prepare a steam tent?" Constance asked once the doors were closed behind them. "Maybe if I just loosen her gown and batheher wrists and neck. Quick, now. We have only a few minutes."
Constance Thoroughgood turned her gentle brown eyes on her daughter. "Now Eliza, you must not let yourself become overly excited. It's only a birthday party."
"Yes, Mama," Eliza dutifully replied. But she leaned her head back against the gilt-stenciled Grecian couch and let her eyes fall closed. "I'll try," she added, her voice even more faint.
It had the desired effect. Her mother pressed her fingers against Eliza's wrist and silently counted her daughter's heartbeat. "Can you breathe better now? Slowly. And count your breaths as Dr. Smalley always advises. Just calm yourself. It's only a birthday party," she repeated, though she didn't sound nearly so certain this time.
Eliza seized upon the moment. "I know it's just a party. But Michael ... the wedding ... oh, Mama, please speak to Papa again." Eliza opened her eyes and stared beseechingly up at her mother. "Please say you'll try to make him reconsider."
After a moment's pause Constance frowned. "Leave us, Clothilde." Once the maid was gone, Constance took Eliza's two hands in hers. "It is your duty to marry. You know that. Your father has gone to great pains to find someone as fine as Michael. Someone gentle and well-read. Someone whose bloodlines are complemented by our financial resources."
"Yes, Michael is certainly perfect in every way," Eliza conceded bitterly.
"I don't understand you, daughter. You act as if that is a flaw."
Eliza pushed herself upright on the cream and gold cushions of the reclining couch and swung her legs around so that her feet rested on the antique Aubussoncarpet. "He is perfect and I ... I am pitiful by comparison."
"Eliza! That simply is not true. You are lovely. Any man would be happy to marry you."
She gave her mother a pained smile. "I admit that we make a 'lovely couple.' I've heard it said constantly by everyone I know--and from an endless number of people I don't know--ever since you and Papa announced our engagement. But it's not that, Mama. It goes deeper. He is--" She broke off, unable to find just the right way to explain it. "Michael is just ... just too grand for me."
"That's simply not true," her mother repeated.
But they both knew it was. Eliza Victorine Thoroughgood was unarguably one of the wealthiest heiresses of marriageable age in England. But she'd been a sickly child and had grown up to be reserved, rather bookish, and when compared to the popular and outgoing Michael Johnstone, very nearly a recluse. He shone as brilliantly as the beacon light at home on Lantern Rock, while she sputtered like a yellow tallow candle.
"Michael does not evidence any hesitation whatsoever," her mother admonished. "Nor should you."
"That's because he shall outlive me," Eliza stated. She was grasping at straws now, shamelessly trying to sway her mother by frightening her. But what other choice did she have? And given her medical history, it might very well be true.
"That's a dreadful thing to say!"
"But probably true! I shall never survive the rigors of childbirth--assuming I even survive the rigors of his husbandly attentions." Assuming he was even remotely so inclined toward her, a miserable voice in her head added. After all, he'd not so much as begged one single kiss from her. Only at their engagement party had he kissed her, and that had been a chaste and perfunctory peck, ashad been expected by their audience of well-wishers. It had certainly not been anything like the passionate kisses she'd read about in Lady Morgan's book or in her brief glimpse of LeClere's tattered copy of Aristotle's Masterpiece.
"Eliza Victorine. I will not hear of such talk. Marriage will be good for you. A change of scenery. A tour of the continent. Why, we shall hardly recognize you when you return, for you shall be much stronger by then. I'm certain of it."
But Constance Thoroughgood was not nearly so certain as she feigned. Eliza had never been strong. Though she hadn't suffered one of her horrible attacks of asthma in a good while, it was only because they were so careful of her. Dr. Smalley attended to her condition and they followed his instructions strictly. No riding. No walking outside on any but the warmest and calmest of days. Keep her warm and keep her quiet, so that her lungs were not overtaxed. Constance had only to recall her daughter's face turning blue from lack of oxygen and to remember that dreadful gasping sound as she fought for breath to grow afraid for her all over again.
LeClere and Perry had been blessed with robust good health. Only her darling Eliza suffered ill health. The entire family took great pains to protect her. She had but to ring her special bell and someone was at her side. Confined as she was, however, she had turned at an early age to books for company. Now she drew, painted, and read, and except for a brief morning sojourn on the terrace when the weather permitted, she spent all her time indoors.
She was beautiful in a delicate way with her fair complexion, expressive gray eyes, and gleaming dark hair. Though she was petite in stature, she'd nonetheless filled out most becomingly. Yet in spite of her femininebeauty, there was a fragility about her, as if she were a lovely doll which, if handled too roughly, might break.
Most of the time her family simply took her delicate constitution in stride. They included her in what activities they could, and did not worry when she escaped to the quiet of the library. This business of her betrothal, however, had sent Eliza into a new sort of decline.
As Constance helped her reluctant daughter to her feet and guided her back to their guests, she couldn't help but wonder whether she should speak to her husband one more time.
In the dining room Eliza chose one of the Chinese Chippendale armchairs near the immense hearth, for she was always a little cold in this house. She bade her mother's sister Judith to sit beside her--anything to make sure Michael did not. Perry wheeled young Aubrey, Judith's son, over to them when the men rejoined the women, and for a few moments Eliza forgot all about Michael. Her ten-year-old cousin Aubrey had become confined to a rolling chair ever since he'd broken his foot in a riding accident during the summer. It had not healed well and he still could not walk. His father, Sir Lloyd Haberton, had had the contraption specially designed, but the boy clearly resented being seen in it.
"Hello, Aubrey. I don't believe I thanked you yet for coming to my birthday dinner. And also for the--"
"When can we go home?" Aubrey cut her off, addressing his mother instead. "Everybody's staring at me. I want to go home."
"Shh," Judith admonished, glancing furtively about. "You mustn't behave so, dear."
"But my foot hurts," the child insisted, his wan face drooping in a frown. "You know it hurts more when I'm cold."
"Let me push you nearer the hearth," Eliza said, rising to help him.
"Now, Eliza. You know you're not strong enough." Judith signaled a manservant to assist her. At precisely that moment Eliza's father strolled up with Michael in tow.
"There you are, daughter. Michael and I were just--"
"Oh, Michael. Just the person I was looking for," Eliza fibbed as an idea occurred to her, inspired by her desperation. He was always so infernally kind to her, he'd be completely unable to turn down her request. "Aubrey is rather uncomfortable. I thought he might enjoy playing with Tattie. Would you see if you could find her?"
"But Eliza," her father began.
"No, no. I'd be happy to find Tattie for Eliza. And for Aubrey." Michael gave an abbreviated but gallant bow, sending her a truly devastating smile at the same time. "Any suggestions as to where she might be hiding?"
Eliza frowned as if thinking, though it was actually to cover the panic that always set in when he turned his easy charm upon her. "Very likely in the morning room," she lied again. But it was a matter of self-preservation, she told herself when Michael moved away to do her bidding. Eliza's old cat was more probably in the kitchen, nestled in the small space between the coal box and the stove's water tank, warm and snug and hidden to anyone who did not know precisely where to look. Michael would never find her and perhaps she'd be spared having to spend any further time with him tonight.
But that did nothing to address Aubrey's peevishness.
"You will like my cat," she ventured, though the boy's face was closed in a pout.
"I hate cats," he replied.
"So do I. So do I," Gerald Thoroughgood muttered, glaring at Eliza. "Especially when they're used on such a petty pretext--"
"What animals do you like?" Eliza asked the child, determined to ignore her father completely.
"He used to like dogs. And horses," Aunt Judith answered for her son.
"Cats can be fun," Eliza persisted, trying to get the boy to speak for himself. "Kittens especially are so comical. Like little monkeys twisting and wrestling all the time."
"We offered him a small lap dog." Judith reached out to push a black curl back from Aubrey's brow, but he turned his head sharply away, and Judith reluctantly withdrew her hand.
Eliza hadn't seen her young cousin much in the four months since his fall, though her mother had kept her apprised of his progress--or lack thereof. As Eliza stared at the sullen child now, confined to the bulky rolling chair, forced to participate in a society he no longer felt included him, she knew exactly how he felt. Though her physical limitations were not so immediately visible as Aubrey's--she at least could get up and walk--she felt no less cut off from the main stream of daily life as he did. Too bad there wasn't a place for pitiful creatures like them to congregate, where being sickly or maimed or just different was the norm and not considered odd at all.
All at once a preposterous idea popped into her head. What its source was, she could not say. Perhaps from something she'd read. It might have come from the Times which her father brought home to her every evening. It could have appeared in the travelogue she'd read last spring, the one written by that eccentric duchess who lived down in Cornwall. Or perhaps when she'd studied that book on migratory birds of the Atlantic coastline.
Whatever the source of her inspiration, Eliza suddenly knew the answer to her dilemma. Madeira. The island of Madeira, haven to myriad migratory birds, andhaven as well for numerous travelers searching for escape from England's cold damp winters. The island's balmy southern shore had made of it a winter colony for ailing British citizens. If she and Aubrey could go there, they'd be with others like themselves--and she'd be away from Michael and her father's determined matchmaking, at least for a while.
She leaned forward, her gray eyes alight with hopefulness. "I have the most wonderful idea," she began.
Long after most of their guests had departed, Aubrey, his parents, and Michael lingered. Aunt Judith had very early on retired from the debate. She sat on the hearth bench, just listening. But Eliza felt sure she was on her side. Michael lounged near the mantle, one elbow propped on it, a drink forgotten in his other hand as he stared at her. Eliza's mother, too, was quiet. Only Uncle Lloyd and Eliza's father voiced their opinions, and they were both opposed.
"If it's the cold, we can send him to St. Mary's, down in the Isles of Scilly," Sir Lloyd said. His thick mutton chops seemed almost to flap independently of the movement of his jaw.
"Madeira is far too ... too far," Eliza's father added.
Not far enough, Eliza wanted to retort, but she wisely held her tongue. "You and LeClere have sailed to Portugal. Several times," she argued instead.
"Yes, but though Madeira is Portugese, it's several hundred miles farther out. And besides, that was business."
"And business is more important than Aubrey's health? And mine?" Eliza demanded an answer, her cheeks flush with emotion. She did not even try to hide her frustration with them.
"She has a point, Gerald." All eyes turned toward Constance. "Though I cannot help but dread the thought of them undertaking such an arduous journey, Ithink both Eliza and Aubrey might benefit from a winter in Madeira. Dame Franklin sent her son-in-law there--the one who suffered from the foxhunting accident. She told me once that it worked miracles for him."
Gerald Thoroughgood frowned. "But what of her wedding?" He gestured toward Michael. "It would hardly be fair to the groom."
"I think she should go."
Michael's surprising comment drew every eye in the room to him. His posture straightened and he set his glass down on the marble mantle. But although he addressed her father, he kept his clear gaze directly upon Eliza. "I think her idea is a sound one. What nobler endeavor could there be than to improve a child's life? I understand that Eliza has known illness in her own life. Who better to accompany Aubrey? Who better to understand and help him regain the use of his injured foot?"
Even Sir Lloyd could not hold firm when society's shining star turned the full force of his persuasive personality on him. Michael's smile was disarming, but it was his words which ultimately carried the day. Who could deny a suffering child perhaps his last chance to heal?
When the two fathers finally agreed, Eliza could only gape at Michael, quite dumbfounded. Was it because he wished to be rid of her for the several months the journey would take? Or was he hoping for a way for him to cry off that would be less humiliating for her? Or allow her to cry off? It would be quite like him to do such a gentlemanly deed.
But the intent expression on his face as he stared at her put the lie to those possibilities. He studied her so oddly, as if he'd never really looked at her before now. Nor was she nearly so disconcerted by his attention as she usually was.
But then, she'd been caught up in her passionate argument with her father and Sir Lloyd.
"I'll check the ship logs in the morning," Sir Lloyd stated as one of the servants helped him into his heavy overcoat. "I believe one of my vessels can carry them there without much trouble."
"And we must see to a chaperone," Eliza's father added.
Eliza stood and crossed slowly to Aubrey who'd been silent through the entire discussion. "We shall have ourselves quite an adventure, you and I." She covered his thin hand with one of hers. "Sailing to an exotic island. Enjoying a warm, sunny winter instead of a cold, dreary one."
"I'm not going if I have to take this bloody chair," the boy snapped.
"Now Aubrey," Sir Lloyd began. "You shall do as we deem best, and I--"
"Before long Aubrey may not need that chair at all." Once again it was Michael who came to the rescue, ending the debate before it could properly begin. Then with that smooth manner that had disarmed Sir Lloyd, he drew Eliza a little aside from the others. To her utter shock, he placed a hand on each of her shoulders then bent his head nearer hers and addressed her in a tone reserved for her ears only.
"And perhaps by the time she returns to us, my bride-to-be will be more eager for our marriage."
"I ... it's not ... that is--"
He cut her stuttering off with a light, pleasant brush of his mouth against hers that threw all her senses off-kilter. But she could feel the smile on his well-formed lips, and when he straightened up again, she wondered disjointedly whether he could feel the round O of astonishment on hers.
"I'll be there to see you off, Eliza. But I will also be there to greet you when you return," he said, his handsomeface hovering above hers. "I am hoping, dear girl, that your doubts about our coming marriage will ease during your sojourn, and that by the time you return, you will anticipate our union just as eagerly as do I."
Copyright © 1995 by Rexanne Becnel.
Posted September 11, 2013
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