THE COTSWOLDS, ENGLAND, SPRING, 1814
The newly widowed Jane, Lady Roxdale, stood at the window of her private sitting room, staring out at the scene below.
Carriage upon carriage, some draped in black crêpe, some emblazoned with noble coats of arms, choked the rush-strewn drive that wound up to the house. Like a train of shiny black beetles, they shuffled between ornate wrought-iron gates, marched through an avenue of oaks, then paused beneath the portico to disgorge mourners.
Their pace was slow, respectful, inexorable. And Jane could not wait for them all to depart as slowly and respectfully as they’d come.
She pressed trembling fingertips to the windowpane. How soon? How soon must she leave her home?
Not hers anymore. His.
Constantine Black. Her husband’s cousin and heir. The scoundrel who had not even bestirred himself to appear at his kinsman’s funeral.
If he couldn’t summon sufficient proper feeling to appear today, was she not right to fear for the estate? But then, the new Lord Roxdale was reputed to be glittering and wild, a philanderer, a drunkard, a gamester, with no thought in his head save the next faro bank, the next wench, the next bottle of wine.
He would run through his new fortune, just as he’d squandered the funds he’d inherited from his father. That would take time, of course, even for an inveterate gamester such as Constantine Black.
The Lazenby estate was vast, bolstered by the spectacular dowry Jane had brought to her marriage. Her family’s money would fund this wastrel’s dissipation, while she was cast out of her home. The utter, galling unfairness of it! If only …
If only she’d borne an heir, this disaster could have been averted.
Her throat ached with a sudden rush of sadness. If only Luke were the son of her body as well as the son of her heart.
Outside, sullen drizzle turned to rain, spattering those barouches and landaus, tapping at her fingertips through the windowpane. Footmen with umbrellas emerged to rescue the mourners inside the stalled vehicles and shepherd them into the house.
Jane let the curtain fall and closed her eyes. Constantine Black would plunder the legacy that had dropped like a ripe whore into his lap. She’d no power to stop him. None.
A jolt of awareness made her eyes snap open. Something must have alerted her. Not a sound, for the rain and the thick panes of glass muffled noise from the outside. More an atmosphere. She fingered the gauzy curtain aside and peered out again to see a flurry, a veritable commotion below.
A man. Yes, a man on a white horse, thundering down the lawn alongside the drive, streaking past all those black beetles like a shooting star through the night.
She couldn’t see his face, merely gained the impression of broad shoulders, muscular thighs hugging the horse’s flanks, and a daredevil billow and furl to his cloak as it streamed out behind.
He reined in where the bottleneck of carriages made passage to the shelter of the portico impossible. The big, milk-white stallion stood quiescent, magnificent, as the gentleman dismounted in a graceful slide.
The newcomer swept off his hat and bowed to the mourners, who were undoubtedly agog but too well-bred to show it. Black curls tousled and damped in the wet breeze.
He stilled. His big shoulders lifted slightly, as if invisible fingers pinched his nape.
Then he turned. And looked up. At her.
Their gazes met, and the distance between them seemed to vanish in a dizzying flash. Somnolent eyes openly stared at her, heavy-lidded, insolent, a touch quizzical.
Jane’s lips parted. Her heart pounded against her ribs. She had to remind herself to breathe.
A sudden smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, then grew in a dazzle of white teeth. It seared through the black pall over her soul like a bolt of summer lightning. She felt it down to the soles of her feet, that blinding warmth, that tingling joy. Bit back an answering gleam that seemed drawn from deep within.
The stranger’s smile faded. His eyes narrowed to an intent, purposeful regard. Jane’s lungs burned as if she breathed smoke, not air. But she kept looking, looking, powerless to wrench her gaze from his.
Heavens, but she’d never seen such a man before. By rights, vice ought to be ugly in its incarnation, but he … It must be true that the devil looked after his own.
Constantine Black. The new Lord Roxdale. Who else could it be? A hard flutter struck up in her chest, like the wings of a finch trapped behind glass. She took a hurried step back from the window, let the curtain swing shut.
Moments throbbed by in silence before Jane collected herself, straightened her spine. She would not cower and blush before that tricked-out scoundrel, with his loose-limbed charm and his careless strength and his swagger. She disapproved of him utterly. He would not beguile her.
“Aunt Jane, Aunt Jane, Aunt Jane!”
The series of jubilant yells made her spin around with a betraying flush. A six-year-old boy flew helter-skelter toward her before skidding to a halt.
“Did you see him?” Luke’s brown eyes shone as he glanced toward the window, then gazed eagerly up into her face. “The most magnificent beast!”
Jane’s thoughts instantly reverted to the dark-haired gentleman.
Her color deepened. “Why, I … Oh!” She let out a shaky laugh. Of course! Luke meant the gentleman’s horse, not the man himself. “Yes, darling. I did, indeed. A most handsome creature.”
Luke dragged a chair to the window and clambered onto it. Pushing the curtain aside, he peered out of the window.
Jane stayed where she was.
“I’ve never seen a stallion that color before.” Luke craned his neck, the better to view this prime piece of horseflesh. “What do you think he is, an Arab or Welsh? Maybe he’s too big to be an Arab. He must be seventeen hands, at least!”
“Why don’t you run down and find out?” she suggested. “I’m sure the gentleman’s groom won’t mind if you go and look. But only looking, mind,” she warned. “That horse is far too large for you to ride.”
Luke turned to regard her with a speculative gleam in his big brown eyes.
Jane held out her hand. “Promise?”
His mouth twisted with reluctance. “Oh, very well.”
Solemnly, he gripped her hand in his smaller one and pumped her arm in a firm shake. “Word of a gentleman.”
Using her hand for balance, Luke jumped down from the chair. She thought he’d take himself off then, but he lingered, his shoulders drooping a little.
“When do we have to leave here, Aunt Jane?”
Surprised at the abrupt change of subject, Jane hesitated. “Oh, not for a little while yet, I expect.” Lazenby Hall was the only home Luke had known since he’d been brought here as an orphaned babe. The last thing Frederick had wanted was to be saddled with his kinsman’s child, but Jane refused to be gainsaid. From the moment Luke held out his chubby arms to her, Jane had been his slave. She’d do anything to keep him safe.
“I don’t see why we can’t stay,” he muttered, lowering his gaze so that his long, black lashes shadowed his cheeks. “It’s not as if there isn’t room.”
“Thirty-seven of them, to be exact,” she agreed lightly. And that was just the bedchambers.
“Thirty-seven rooms and he can’t spare us a measly two.” Luke kicked at the chair leg with the toe of his leather half-boot.
Jane touched her fingertips to his cheek. “I know it seems hard, but this is the new baron’s house now. It doesn’t belong to us anymore.”
“But what will he do here, living all alone? I should think he’d want us to stay, don’t you, to keep him company? Lady Cecily says I’m excellent company, you know.”
Laughing a little, Jane ruffled his hair. “The new baron would be privileged to have us, in fact,” she agreed. “But I’m afraid we must go, for all that.”
Jane repressed a sigh. Lazenby Hall had been her home since she married Frederick at seventeen. Now that she had to leave it, she felt adrift, her spirits more depressed than she would ever admit to Luke. The Lazenby estate and the welfare of its people were no longer her responsibility. She was powerless to help them, much as she longed to do so.
And indeed, she was more fortunate than many women in her situation. Upon her marriage, her guardian, the Duke of Montford, had ensured that her jointure was more than generous. She could live independently if she chose, set up a household of her own.
Besides, she had Luke, and that was the most important thing.
She said to him, “Speaking of excellent company, I have a splendid plan, one I think you will like. You and I shall make our home at Harcourt, with the Duke of Montford and Lady Cecily and Lady Rosamund. Won’t that be fun? We’ll show you all our old haunts, and there’ll be other children there to play with, too.”
His dark brows knitted. “But all my friends are here.”
Jane’s heart ached for him. “Well, perhaps we might come back to visit them.” A rash promise, but she’d do anything to make the change in his circumstances less painful.
She made herself sound cheerful. “In the meantime, there is a very fine horse awaiting your attention. Why don’t you go down to the kitchens for a carrot or an apple to take to him? And if you’re lucky, Cook might spare a jam tart or two for you.”
Luke brightened instantly at the mention of food. “I need my sketchbook, too. I’ll come back later and tell you all about him,” he promised.
“I shall look forward to it.”
Luke shot off in the direction of the kitchens, barely pausing to bow and pant out a greeting to Rosamund, who narrowly missed colliding with him in the doorway.
Rosamund raised her eyebrows at Jane.
“There’s a horse,” said Jane, on a note of explanation.
“Oh!” Rosamund laughed. “How is one poor female to compete with that?”
“I’m so glad to see you.” Jane threw her arms around her cousin and hugged her close. “Thank you for coming. I couldn’t face all this without you.”
She drew back and held Rosamund’s hands in hers. Though the two of them had grown up together, each time they met, Rosamund’s stunning fair beauty struck Jane anew.
“There’s quite a crowd downstairs.” Rosamund’s deep blue eyes held affection and concern. “Cecily and Beckenham are eager to see you, too.”
She lifted a hand and gently tucked one of Jane’s curls behind her ear. “What are you doing up here all alone, Goosey?”
Jane smiled at the childhood nickname. She took a deep breath. “Gathering my courage.”
Her mind flew to that lone horseman. He was downstairs … somewhere, among the throng. The notion made her lungs seize and her pulse quicken. What was the matter with her?
“The duke grows impatient,” said Rosamund. “You’d best come down.”
Jane’s nerves stretched taut as violin strings. Reading the will. Relatives and acquaintances come to gawk and speculate. How she loathed being the center of attention, the focus of every eye.
She needed all her courage today. To face the mourners, yes, but also to deal with the Duke of Montford. His Grace would have plans for her. Plans she’d refuse to countenance this time.
Freedom. The lure of it was like an outstretched hand, beckoning across an abyss. The terror of it was an open-mawed monster, slavering to consume her flesh and spit out her bones.
Rosamund’s voice was firm. “Come on, old thing. I know you hate crushes but you must be there to hear the will read.”
“Yes. I suppose I must.” Besides, she did so want to see her cobbled-together family. The weight of that desire finally tipped the balance.
Jane moved through the connecting doorway of her sitting room to her bedchamber. She picked up her bonnet from the hat stand where it perched and set the horrid black thing on her head. It hunkered over her auburn curls like a malevolent bird of prey.
Over her shoulder, she said, “I know what the will says. And anyway, the estate is entailed. Everything goes to That Lout.”
Rosamund tilted her head. “Do you think he’s as handsome as they say?”
Jane gave an uncaring shrug, but the stranger on the white horse dominated her mind’s eye. “Far more handsome than is good for him, no doubt. I’d be surprised if there’s much substance beneath the surface charm.”
Rosamund slanted a glance at her. “You ought to show some respect, Jane. He’s head of the family now.”
“Not my family.”
Jane checked her reflection in the mirror above her dressing table, tweaked the delicate ruff of her collar into place. Her complexion was still high; no need to pinch her cheeks to warm them.
She drew a deep breath and linked her arm with Rosamund’s. “Very well. Let’s go.”
“The devil!” Constantine Black stood immobile for the longest time, waiting for that curtain to twitch open. Surely, she’d take pity and reveal herself again.
But women, he’d found, were merciless creatures, so of course she didn’t, and of course he was obliged to stand there, rooted to the spot and getting wetter, waiting just in case.
She was … luminous. Not like the sun. There was nothing brassy or flashy or even particularly warm about her. She made him think of the subtle gleam of silver, of moonlight.
Tall, slender, yet with a generous, pretty bosom. Darkish hair. It was difficult to tell exactly what color at this distance, in this light. And she’d flattened her lips and stared at him as if he were a worm, unfit to kiss the tips of her fingers.
At the thought of kissing any part of that mysterious female’s anatomy, his body heated, in fervent contrast to the cool spring rain.
He was still standing there, poleaxed by the sight of her, when he heard the galloping tattoo of hoofbeats gaining, gaining, finally pulling to a stop with a churn and spray of mud.
He turned his head to see his brother, George. They’d raced here cross-country, but George’s mount had refused at a stone wall, leaving him to find the long way around.
Constantine hailed his sibling. “George, I’m in love.”
“Ha!” His brother leaned forward to pat his horse’s gleaming neck. “You wouldn’t know love if it leaped up and bit you on the arse.”
Constantine tilted his head, considering. “You could be right. Let’s go inside and see if we can find her.”
Laughing, George shook his head. They left their horses to a waiting groom and turned toward the house.
A vast pity they’d missed the funeral. Their attendance at a house party in Northumberland had kept them from hearing news of Frederick’s death in time. Constantine had only received the tidings upon their arrival in Town. He and George had ridden hell-for-leather but the funeral had concluded by the time they’d arrived at the church.
Given the bitterness of his parting from Frederick all those years ago, he would not have come at all today, but for the note. Among the pile of correspondence awaiting him in his London rooms, he’d discovered a summons from Frederick dated a fortnight before. Frederick must have known the end was near and wished to confer with his heir. Had he even, perhaps, sought some kind of reconciliation?
Something twisted in Constantine’s gut. Now, he’d never know.
As they joined the throng that surged through the wide-open front door, Constantine’s face settled into a more serious mien. He reminded himself why he’d come today, when he’d rather be almost anywhere else on the planet.
He’d inherited this dear old pile against all expectations. Frederick, dead far too young, before he’d even set up his nursery.
It had been a shock. Yes, a shock.
Poor Frederick. Whispers had it that he’d died in flagrante, which made Constantine all the more curious to meet his widow.
Shagged to death. Not a bad way to go. If one must.
Standing head and shoulders over most of the crowd, Constantine searched the female faces. Who was the woman he’d seen looking out the window? She must live in the house, but it couldn’t be Lady Roxdale. Surely Frederick’s widow would be down here, greeting the mourners, not staring at them from on high like a princess in a tower.
That’s what had captivated him, he realized. She’d looked so remote up there, so solitary, so deliciously untouchable. It made him want to strip her and cover her bare skin in openmouthed kisses until she trembled with delight.
Ah, but she’d appeared a virtuous lady, now, hadn’t she? The kind who wouldn’t lift her skirts if they were on fire. And virtuous ladies, gently bred ladies with spotless reputations, were strictly off-limits for him these days. Had been since that ill-fated affair with Amanda.
As he handed his hat and gloves to a waiting footman, Constantine grimaced. How many people here today would turn their backs on him, pretend he didn’t exist?
“Constantine! George!” A strident female voice rising above the murmuring throng brought George to a halt.
Lord, the man had no sense of self-preservation. Constantine kept moving as if he hadn’t heard.
He recognized the voice. It belonged to that harridan, that harbinger of doom, his aunt Lady Endicott. The displeasure that throbbed in her tone promised him a dressing-down for something or other; he didn’t wait to find out what. He abandoned George to his fate and continued smoothly up the central staircase and out a connecting door.
The door led to a long gallery, where familiar, disapproving faces stared down on him from inside ornate gold frames. Here, the shades of his ancestors roamed.
It was oddly disconcerting to see that nothing had changed. Except for the addition of a new portrait: the late Frederick Black, Lord Roxdale. Looking rather pale and sick, come to think of it, despite the artist’s efforts to romanticize.
Constantine stared down the long, narrow room, and the years slid back. He was here again, playing cricket with Frederick on a day such as this, when the pitch was sodden as a marsh and it seemed the rain would never cease.
Frederick had bowled a sweet one and Constantine forgot where he was, smashing the hard cork ball for six. He still recalled the crack, thump, and roll as it knocked one of the marble busts from its pedestal, chipping their illustrious ancestor’s Roman nose. Constantine smiled faintly, picturing his and Frederick’s desperate attempts to fix the damage so Frederick’s papa wouldn’t see it and thrash them both.
The memory of his final interview with Frederick’s sire was a painful one. Constantine pushed it away, avoided meeting the kind eyes of the tenth baron’s portrait.
He turned back to the likeness of Frederick, his cousin, his friend. Fishing out his brandy flask, he raised it in a toast.
“God bless, old fellow.” He drank, and the brandy warmed his throat as it slipped down. “I’ll prove you wrong about me. Just see if I don’t.”
And yet, even as he made that fine resolution, the lady in the window flashed into his mind. He hissed through his teeth, then took another pull of brandy.
Ah, well. He rarely acted on his good intentions when all was said and done.
Copyright © 2011 by Christina Brooke