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Lord Buckingham's Bride
By Sandra Heath
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2008 Sandra Heath
All rights reserved.
Flames flickered brightly through the cold May night as the British merchant ship burned out of control at her anchorage in Stockholm harbor. A thick pall of smoke drifted on the chilly Scandinavian air, and the blaze was reflected on the still, dark water.
The fire had broken out just after twelve during the brief hours of night that prevailed at these northern latitudes, and everything had been quiet until then. The lights of the Swedish capital had twinkled across the harbor, and the distant sound of singing and laughter had drifted from the many quayside taverns. Now the air was ringing with shouts of alarm from other vessels that were in danger from flying sparks, and a noisy crowd had gathered on the waterfront to watch the conflagration that would soon take the Duchess of Albemarle to the bottom. All attempts to save her had failed, her crew had abandoned her to her fate, and now the final rowing boat was pulling swiftly away toward the shore.
There had only been one passenger who intended completing the ship's voyage from London to St Petersburg, and she'd been fast asleep in her cabin when the fire broke out. Miss Alison Clearwell was eighteen years old and, through no fault of her own, was traveling alone. In the panic of the fire, at first no one had remembered her, but then Captain Merryvale had burst unceremoniously into her cabin to tell her to pack what belongings she could into a small valise, as they were abandoning the ship.
Terrified, she'd flung on her fur-lined green velvet cloak over her white nightgown, snatched up what she could, including the book she'd been reading during the voyage, and then she'd stumbled along the smoky deck behind the captain, who'd handed her swiftly down into the last rowing boat.
As the little craft slid away from the blazing ship, she sat in the stern, next to the captain, who was himself manning the tiller. Her gray eyes were huge with fear, and her cloak's hood was pulled over her unruly tangle of long ash-blonde curls. Her heart-shaped face was pale and tense, and she clutched the valise close to her breast, as if it somehow gave her comfort.
Suddenly the night was filled with the splintering groan of falling timbers as the burning ship's mainmast collapsed, bringing sails, rigging, and another mast crashing to the deck where only moments before Alison had been led to safety. There were cries of horror from the shore, for everyone in this seafaring city knew that it wouldn't be long now before the doomed ship sank finally beneath the waves.
The sailors stopped rowing and everyone turned to watch the Duchess of Albemarle's dying moments. Captain Merryvale looked sadly at the vessel he had commanded for the past three years. He was a lean, rawboned man with a bearded, weather-beaten face and gray-streaked brown hair, and in all his long years at sea this was the first time he had lost a ship. As he watched, the Duchess gave up the struggle, and with a hissing and bubbling that resembled a gigantic cauldron, she slid down out of sight. The flames were abruptly extinguished and suddenly everything seemed very dark. The pall of smoke began to drift away into the night, and all that was left of the ship was a swirl of bobbing flotsam.
Alison stared toward the scene, her heart pounding, and then she began to shiver, not only because it was so much colder far north, but also because she was so very frightened. She felt lonely and vulnerable, and with five days of journey still ahead of her before she reached St Petersburg, England seemed to be a lifetime away.
When the Duchess of Albemarle had left London, the daffodils had almost been over, and the lilac had been coming into bloom, but up here in these northern climes the daffodils had yet to blow and the lilac was still in the tightest of buds. Only a few weeks ago the waters in Stockholm harbor had been littered with ice, and the Baltic itself had been frozen over; it would be much colder again in St Petersburg, which was one of the most northern cities in the world. The Duchess of Albemarle would have been one of the first foreign ships to sail right into the Russian city after the long hard grip of winter, for until now all shipping had been able to sail only as far as Kronstadt, the huge fortress island twenty miles west of Peter the Great's beautiful city on the delta of the Neva River. With the coming of spring the ice had gone and the Baltic was free again, but the poor Duchess of Albemarle would no longer be able to sail past Kronstadt and into the heart of St Petersburg, for now she would rest forever at the bottom of Stockholm harbor.
Alison shivered again, for the cold seemed to seep right through to her bones. She wished with all her heart that she had never been prevailed upon to make the journey to stay with relatives she didn't even know. Everything that could go wrong with the journey had proceeded to do just that, and now this had happened. She loathed Europe, which had been at war with Britain until only two months or so before, and she resented the fact that she had been made to press ahead with the visit to St Petersburg when instead she could so easily have stayed with her friend Lady Pamela Linsey, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Marchington, at beautiful Marchington House, on the Thames at Hammerswith on the outskirts of London.
She turned to look toward the quay, which was much closer now as the sailors rowed strongly across the shining black water. The crowd was still gathered on the waterfront, and she could hear the low hum of their voices. At the beginning of this year of 1802, Britain had stood virtually alone against the might of Bonaparte's France, but now that a peace treaty had been signed, the frontiers were open again and everyone was indulging in an orgy of travel. But there was peace only because it suited Bonaparte and if it hadn't been for Britain's singular naval victory at the Battle of Copenhagen and the assassination of the half-mad Czar Paul I, both of which events had forced the Corsican's hand, then all those people on the quayside would still be at war with Britain. The new twenty-four-year-old Czar Alexander I was not so eager to support the French cause, and from the moment he had assumed the throne, he had made it clear that he did not intend to pursue war at any cost. Support for the French had begun to crumble away, and Bonaparte had perceived that the moment had come to sue for peace – for the time being, at least, since it was unthinkable that his ambition to be master of all Europe had in any way diminished. He was now engaged upon wooing the reluctant czar, who was showing signs of softening.
Alison lowered her eyes, staring at the bottom of the boat. If only her father had been able to return from Jamaica at the beginning of the year as originally planned, then she wouldn't have had to set out on this most loathed of journeys. As it was, it would be another six months before he returned, and now that she was eighteen, she'd become too old to remain at Miss Wright's Academy for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. The exclusive establishment in Bath had been her home for the past six years, ever since her mother had died so tragically and her father had sold everything to go to Jamaica in order to forget his grief.
Her family had been comfortably off rather than wealthy, and their estate in Wiltshire had been modest, unlike the magnificent country estates and town residences of her fellow pupils at the academy. Tears filled Alison's eyes as she recalled the dreadful events that had led to her being sent to the school. On the night of her mother's death, the family had been on a midsummer visit to friends in nearby Chippenham and, as they'd returned, a violent thunderstorm had broken out. Lightning had struck a tree just as the carriage was passing, and it had fallen on the vehicle, killing Alison's mother. Alison and her father had escaped with little more than bruises and shock, but their lives had been inexorably changed from that moment on, because her father could not come to terms with his immeasurable grief. He had loved his beautiful wife, and he was reminded of his loss every time he looked at his daughter, who resembled her so much. He had sold their home, using part of the proceeds to pay for Alison's exceedingly expensive education at the academy, and the rest to purchase a plantation in Jamaica. He had left England vowing to make his fortune, and to return to launch his daughter into London society with every possible advantage. It had taken him six long years to build up the plantation and make that promised fortune, but he had succeeded, and at the beginning of the year he had intended to come back and purchase a fine London town house for them both, but the sale of the plantation had not been smooth, a number of complications had arisen, and he had been forced to postpone his return.
Alison sighed, remembering how dreadfully unhappy she'd been when first she'd gone to Miss Wright's. She had felt so wretchedly out of place among the daughters of lords, marquesses, and dukes, but then she had been befriended by Lady Pamela Linsey, who was a year older than she and who was by far the most popular girl at the school. With Pamela's friendship she had been accepted by everyone, and her misery had gradually turned to happiness, although she had continued to miss her father, especially at vacation time, when she was the only pupil without any family in the country and had had to remain with Miss Wright. Pamela had left the school over a year before her, but their friendship had endured and they were still as close as ever.
Alison wished that things hadn't worked out the way they had. Because of the delay in her father's return, he had written to his brother Thomas in St Petersburg, whom he hadn't seen in many years, asking him to accommodate Alison for the next six months, and then he had written to Miss Wright instructing her to make all the necessary arrangements. Everything had been settled without Alison even being consulted, and when an alternative solution had appeared on the scene, it had been too late to do anything about it. The alternative solution was for her to stay instead at Marchington House with Pamela, but Miss Wright had been adamant, and the St Petersburg visit had gone ahead as stipulated by Mr Clearwell in Jamaica.
Alison wondered what her uncle Thomas Clearwell would be like. He had gone to St Petersburg soon after she'd been born, and he had more than made his fortune there, for he had become a very successful merchant with wharves and ships of his own. Now he lived in a mansion on English Quay, where most of the considerable British community were to be found. After being a widower for many years, he had recently married a much younger Russian lady by the name of Natalia Razumova, and according to his son William by his first marriage, he was devoted to her and very happy indeed.
Alison smiled a little, for it wasn't quite true that she didn't have any family in England, for she had her cousin William, who had left St Peterburg for London and who had immediately made it his business to seek out his little cousin at her school in Bath. William was very much a dashing man-about-town, with tall, sandy-haired good looks and a witty, charming nature, and Alison had been the object of much envy from her fellow pupils when he had driven her out in his flamboyant curricle. However, she wasn't so green that she believed she was the sole reason for William's visits to Bath, for she'd very swiftly become aware of his tendre for Pamela, who had turned his head from the moment he saw her. At first Pamela had seemed to return his interest, but when the matter had been brought to Miss Wright's attention, and she in turn had acquainted the Duke and Duchess of Marchington with what was going on, the liaison had been very abruptly brought to an end. Pamela had left the academy and had been guarded very carefully at Marchington House, and poor William had been left to nurse his broken heart.
When it was felt that William had been successfully discouraged, the Duke and Duchess of Marchington had launched their lovely daughter into her first London Season, and she had immediately become the belle of every ball. Pamela had everything – wealth, a title, dark-eyed beauty, a vivacious personality, and a warmth that drew suitors to her like pins to a magnet – and it wasn't long before her name was being connected with that of Francis Buckingham, Lord Buckingham, a gentleman who was not only one of the foremost names in aristocratic horse-racing circles and a friend of William's, but who was also reputed to be the most handsome man in England. William Clearwell had evidently been entirely forgotten, for Pamela's letters had been full of the handsome earl, and now the betrothal was to be celebrated in July.
The moment Pamela had realized that Alison was being forced to go to St Petersburg, she had written to Miss Wright telling her that Alison was more than welcome at Marchington House, where she could stay as long as she wished; but it had been to no avail, and the plans for St Petersburg weren't altered by so much as a day. And so Alison had set out on the loathed journey to Russia, and Pamela had been left to twiddle her thumbs impatiently because Lord Buckingham was also out of the country, visiting different places in order to purchase new horses for his stud at Newmarket. His decision to go had put Pamela in a considerable miff, so much so that she had quarreled with him before his departure, and had refused to even discuss his plans.
On a perfect spring morning in April, in the company of Mrs Taylor, the chaperone Miss Wright had engaged, Alison had reluctantly embarked on the Duchess of Albemarle, which was to convey her from London to St Petersburg by way of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. From the outset the voyage had been an ordeal. First of all, the fine weather had changed as the vessel crossed the North Sea, and a terrible gale had whipped up seas so mountainous that Alison had suffered the worst mal de mer imaginable. Reduced to a state of utter wretchedness, she had remained in her cabin, her face almost as green as the sea itself.
Mrs Taylor hadn't suffered at all, and had spent most of her time flirting with the various gentlemen on board. She wasn't a suitable chaperone, she was a predatory widow on the lookout for another husband, and her charge's welfare couldn't have been further from her mind. When the ship had at last entered Amsterdam harbor, Mrs Taylor was in the company of a Prussian cavalry officer, but when it became apparent that marriage was the last thing he intended, she gave him his congé and turned her attentions to a particularly handsome and engaging American gentleman from Boston.
The Duchess of Albemarle sailed on to Copenhagen, where the year before Nelson's fleet had demolished that of the Danes, and where the American gentleman demolished the chaperone's hopes by confessing that he had a pretty wife at home in America. Furious, the formidable Mrs Taylor had been in a very disagreeable temper for several days, but then her ambitious gaze happend on a widowed Swedish baron, who, although of somewhat gloomy temperament, was both wealthy and available. She descended upon him like an eagle on a witless rabbit, and Alison doubted if he ever knew what had hit him, for by the time the vessel reached Stockholm he was so firmly in her talons that she was set to become his baroness.
When the Duchess of Albemarle dropped anchor earlier that very day, the chaperone and her prey had departed for his estate on the shore of Lake Malaren, west of the Swedish capital, and Alison had been left entirely alone for the remainder of a journey that she hadn't wanted to make in the first place, and that she now found both intimidating and hazardous. Indeed, the only good thing that could be said about it was that Miss Wright had insisted on sending most of her wardrobe and other belongings on ahead, so that instead of reposing now at the bottom of the harbor, they would already have arrived at the Clearwell residence on St Petersburg's English Quay.
Excerpted from Lord Buckingham's Bride by Sandra Heath. Copyright © 2008 Sandra Heath. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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