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Lord Sebastian's Wife
By Katy Cooper
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon July 1521
When Sebastian Benbury stepped onto the water stairs at the Earl of Wednesfield's London residence and began walking through the garden toward the riverside door, there was nothing about Coleville House to indicate that disaster lurked within its walls.
Golden in the July sunlight, the house appeared as it always had, its hundred windows glittering, its roofs reaching heavenward. As he walked the winding path through knots of herbs and flowers, as he crossed the threshold into a screens passage that was blind-dark after the brilliant light outside, Sebastian had no sense that his life was about to be irrevocably changed.
He paused in the passage, blinking his eyes to clear his vision. Out of the darkness an usher murmured, asking him if he wished to be announced. Sebastian shook his head and waved the usher away. Since giving up his post at Court, he had been a guest here, enjoying the Earl of Wednesfield's gracious hospitality. He did not need to be announced.
As Sebastian's vision cleared, a man spoke in the hall. "Why are you in black, Bea?"
The voice was strange yet recognition tickled on the edges of Sebastian's awareness, as if he knew the speaker. But how? He did not know anyone close enough to Beatrice Coleville Manners to call her by her pet name who was not also aware that she had recently been widowed.
"My husband died a fortnight ago. God rest his soul," Beatrice replied in her low, soft voice. The sound of it awoke tangled emotions in Sebastian's chest, pain and anger so mixed that he did not know how to separate them. Instead he swallowed them both, forcing them down beyond awareness with the skill of practice.
In the hall, there was a splatter, as if someone had spilled wine on the flagstone floor. The stranger said, "Then Sebastian Benbury is dead."
Dead? Who was this stranger who assumed that if Beatrice was a widow, Sebastian must be the husband she had lost? Crossing himself against the ill chance raised by the stranger's remark, Sebastian walked through the gap in the screens that led to the hall. "I am alive as anyone in this room. Who says I am dead?"
His glance flicked over Beatrice's sister, Cecilia, and the strange man and woman at her side before going to Beatrice, cool and distant in her widow's black. Beatrice, whom he had once loved.
"John does," Cecilia said. Sebastian brought his gaze back to the strange man. His heart began to pound as if his body recognized the nearly familiar stranger before his eyes did, and then his eyes knew. The stranger was Beatrice's brother, John Coleville. He had left England five years ago, so long ago that he could not know of Beatrice's marriage to Thomas Manners. That was why he had made the mistake about Beatrice's late husband.
John is home. The impact of it struck him all at once and delighted laughter bubbled up, drowning everything but joy in its flood. John had been companion, friend, everything Sebastian had imagined a brother would be. Sebastian rushed forward to embrace him, to confirm the truth of this homecoming with the certainty of touch.
"Thank God! Thank God for it!" he cried, the words hardly serving to convey his pleasure.
His happiness was so intense that it took him a moment to realize that John was neither laughing nor returning his embrace. Sebastian's laughter died. He loosened his grip.
"You do not seem happy to see me, my friend. What ails you?"
"I am glad, more glad than you can know, to see you," John said grimly, reaching up to grasp Sebastian's wrists.
"You look it," Sebastian said, and pulled free of John's hands. "It cannot be grief for poor Thomas Manners that makes you look so black. You never knew the man. Come, tell me, tell us all. Why the long face?"
"Because Bea says she is the widow of a man she cannot have married."
Sebastian stared at him, the back of his neck prickling as if at the rumor of catastrophe. "I witnessed their marriage and Ceci attended her. Do you tell us we were not there, that it was all a dream?"
"No. I am sure there was a wedding. I am telling you that the marriage was invalid."
"Invalid? On what grounds?"
"That she was promised to another man," John said. "Promised in a binding betrothal."
"Another man?" he asked, disbelieving. His heart pounded, loud in his ears, hard against his breastbone. He had thought he knew the worst Beatrice could do. His sense of approaching disaster deepened. "Are you saying she has known yet another man?"
"Another man? What are you babbling about?" John asked, frowning, and shook his head. "She is betrothed to you, Sebastian."
"To me?" The pounding of his heart was swallowed by a vast silence, a numbed stillness.
Beatrice cried, "Are you mad? We are no more betrothed than ... than ... We are not betrothed. Do you think I could make such a mistake?"
"Or I?" Sebastian demanded. "This is not funny, John."
"It is not jest, Sebastian, and I do not think it funny. Do you not remember that Twelfth Night when you and your family joined us at Wednesfield? I filched a ewer of mead and the three of us drank it in the old tower. You and Beatrice promised to marry when you were grown and then we all laughed and drank some more."
"Oh, blessed Virgin," Beatrice said, closing her eyes.
"I do not re -" But he did remember, no matter how he tried to forget. Details he had wanted to bury rose up from the depths of his mind. Words, the words of a vow ... "Yes, now I do! What foolishness is this? We made no promises that bound." Promises to break, yes, not promises to bind.
"That is not what I remember, Sebastian. Think. Think what you said, the words you used. The promises you made bind you."
Beatrice clenched her hands into fists as if she might batter her way out of this. "You are no churchman. How can you know for certain?"
In a distant corner of his mind Sebastian wondered if perhaps he slept and John's appalling announcement was a part of a nightmare from which he would soon awaken. Surely this madness was the stuff of dreams. Otherwise his life had been disordered beyond recognition in the space of five minutes.
"Do you not remember? You promised to have Sebastian as your husband and he promised to have you as his wife. Both of you promised without conditions. You made a binding marriage between you," John said. "I have lived among churchmen for the last three years, Bea. Canon law fills the air in Rome. A man who has ears to hear cannot help learning a little."
Sebastian knew a little canon law, as well. Enough, he had thought, to keep himself from doing just what John claimed they had done. "We did not lie together. It cannot be binding."
"That does not matter in this case. If you never lie with her, she will still be your wife before God," John said gently.
Excerpted from Lord Sebastian's Wife by Katy Cooper Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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