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Anne pushed the heavy oak church door open just enough to allow her to enter. Its well-oiled hinges made no sound in the vast interior of the structure. A lovely mixture of muted color splashed across the interior of the church, cast from the tall windows of stained glass. Dust motes danced in rainbow-hued air. The scent of flowers mingled with the damp mustiness found in churches, unheated and unused so much of the week. Anne found the church as welcome a refuge as people had in ages past.
Before the magnificent altar with its tall ivory candles and array of gold plate, a bishop faced the assembled guests and the couple standing before him. His words echoed in the vastness of the interior.
She frowned at the sight of the wedding taking place at the distant altar. She was late. The ceremony had already begun, and the music she enjoyed listening to had been played. She had hoped to sneak away from her maid long enough to see the wedding of the year--a love match, everyone said. Romantic.
She hesitated, not wishing to join the others toward the front of the church, not wanting to call attention to herself in the least. Glancing about her, she saw several chairs against the wall in a shadowed area where she would be easily overlooked. Gathering the skirt of her violet muslin in hand, she tiptoed over to the last chair, sinking quietly to the woven-rush seat. Surely Dolly wouldn't seek her here. The maid was merely one of the more annoying aspects of living with her aunt and uncle. Aunt Winnefred loomed largely as another, while Uncle Cosmo was the worst. How he and Anne's dear Papa could have been related was more than she could imagine.
Voices floatedacross the expanse of the church interior, low and commanding, high and sweet. Vows. Soon she would have to make the same vows. How could she avoid them? And if not, could she say those promises to obey, serve, love, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health, forsaking all others? Honor, serve, and obey she supposed must be compelled. But love? Her uncle had declared that he intended to arrange a marriage for her and that she would have no say about it at all. That could not please, for she suspected her uncle's choice would not be hers but one that suited his needs.
Anne had always hoped for a love match and had forestalled her uncle's matchmaking schemes the past few years. But it seemed he would not wait any longer. A few tears escaped to trickle down her cheeks, and she didn't bother to wipe them away. There might be more. Weddings always brought tears, didn't they?
From what Aunt Winnefred had hinted, there were particular reasons her uncle was in a hurry to see Anne wed. What those reasons might be had been kept from her, presumably not considered important for her to know. There would be a wedding and soon, if her uncle had his way! Considering her dreadful uncle and his taste, Anne very much feared his choice. Could she bear to live with such a man?
True, there were good husbands to be found. Anne suspected that Uncle Cosmo did not know any of that type. He was a gambler, a crude man, and not one given to kindly consideration of others.
She closed her eyes to think and, ignoring the crunch of her neat little straw hat, leaned her head against the cold stone wall to reflect on the past days of hectic activity. She didn't agree with her aunt regarding the selection of wedding clothes. In fact, she did not agree with her aunt on much of anything, as Aunt Winnefred insisted a love match was foolishness.
Was Anne foolish to desire love in marriage? She was quite convinced her dearest father would have allowed her some say in her future husband. But he was no longer alive to protect his daughter, and her uncle had other notions regarding Anne's future spouse. The very thought frightened her.
Uncle had ordered her to select a wedding gown. Of course he'd not informed her who her husband would be. Never mind it was an accepted way of managing this business of marriage. She was a silly girl to desire more. Yet she did. How she longed to flee her uncle, escape his manipulations. Indeed, she feared his selection, for she had learned to know her uncle well, and she didn't trust him one bit. Sly, cruel, covetous--that was her uncle.
She peeked at the couple before the altar again--what joyous voices, such firm responses. Indeed, it must be as had been rumored, the marriage was the culmination of true love. How wonderful--true love! They had not suffered an arranged marriage as so many young women faced--as Anne faced.
The lack of sleep--result of her worries over her future--caught up with her. In the dim light and faint scent of flowers Anne slipped into much-needed slumber, her cares forgotten for the moment. She didn't hear the procession that paraded from the church, nor the conversation of those guests who followed. Lost in the deep shadows off to the side, she was not noticed.
Certainly, the gentleman who ushered out a tall older woman with a commanding air about her didn't see the girl huddled in the shadows far off to one side. He was intent upon the lady at his side.
With the happy couple seen off on their way to a wedding breakfast, Justin Fairfax, Earl of Rochford, was settling his aunt in his carriage when he exclaimed, "I seem to have forgotten my cane in the church. I cannot think how I managed to set it down, then forget it," he concluded, appearing vexed with his absentmindedness, yet with a twinkle lurking in his eyes. "It's a favorite of mine, the one with the clouded-amber handle. I must return; I'd not have it lost. Why not go ahead without me, Aunt Mary? Besides," he admitted, "I'd as soon not go to the breakfast. I have some business that needs tending."
"I know you find Katherine's mother a dreadfully encroaching woman," Lady Mary replied with a shrewd smile. "I'll offer your excuses. It is quite sufficient she saw you here at the ceremony. What a good thing it is that the newly wed couple are so well liked that most will attend in spite of that woman."
Bestowing a grateful look on his favorite aunt, Justin saw her into the town coach, then returned to the dim coolness of the church. He marched to the area where he had been seated and retrieved his cane from where he had nudged it beneath a chair.
He was sauntering down the aisle, looking about him while speculating on his afternoon when he saw her. She seemed a delectable creature from what he could see; ash blond curls peeked from beneath her little hat--could they really be that lovely color?--and a charming figure, from what he could see of it. Poor girl probably slipped into the church to view the wedding, then dozed off, a victim of a late night ball. He knew well how these young girls plunged into the exhausting whirl of a Season.
Curious, he approached where she sat, noting she appeared sound asleep. What an exquisite mouth she had, now slightly and temptingly relaxed. She stirred, and her clever little hat slipped a bit to reveal more of those charming curls.
Normally the most circumspect of gentlemen, indeed, a man noted for his decorum, he nevertheless felt compelled to quietly sit down beside her. There was something extremely appealing about her, and he certainly wanted to learn the identity of this delightful creature. Her clothes were of the highest quality, evidence of her position. He ignored the odd sensation in his heart, unable to place it. She ought not be alone, and he thought he might offer her proper escort, for he was a most proper gentleman. Usually.
When he looked more closely, he was dismayed to see the remnants of tears on her delicate cheeks. Tears for the wedding? Or had she other woes? Poor girl.
An oddly protective and compassionate feeling came over him, quite sweeping away his common sense. Justin did something that was far from his customary behavior, certainly something he could never explain to himself later when he reflected on it. He leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on a tearstained cheek.
His reward was fluttering eyes, the dawning of awareness, and--a look of shock! Sensing she was about to scream or call out, he hurriedly sought her lips, taking his time to sip from lips too tempting to ignore. As a means of silencing a woman, it proved most effective.
Upon her release, she again opened her mouth, and Justin placed a finger over the velvet softness he'd found so satisfying. "Hush, now, I shan't harm you." That he had never done anything of this sort in his life he didn't reveal. He was in a bit of shock himself.
The glare fixed on him by lovely blue eyes should have frozen him on the spot. He carefully removed his finger, quite willing to apply his means of silence again should it prove necessary. When she spoke, her voice was husky with anger.
"I merely sought to view the wedding without my maid. I thought I would be safe inside a church," she declared in elegant accents that bespoke the very best of education and gentry status. "Were I less sensible, I am sure I would have swooned. How dare you, sirrah!" Heavenly blue eyes flashed with indignant anger.
Justin closed his eyes a moment, then met her gaze with a rueful look. How could he explain something he didn't understand himself? "I do beg your pardon, miss. I intended to offer comfort, nothing more."
She sniffed and said nothing.
"What is so bad that it brings tears, or do you merely cry at weddings like so many women?" He hazarded a smile he hoped she would not take amiss. A smile, were it gentle enough, might reassure her he harbored no evil intentions.
"Indeed." Anne glanced at the prettily gloved hands in her lap, clenching and reclenching them as she toyed with the idea of slapping his face ... or worse. Another tear slipped down her cheek, and this time she searched for and found a handkerchief. Dabbing at the wayward tear, she considered the man at her side. He spoke well, likely a guest at the wedding. Why had he bothered with her, not to mention offered comfort at her tears?
A proper young lady ought to be highly offended by such outrageous behavior as a kiss. It merely served to prove that she was a trifle improper, as Aunt Winnefred often declared. Yet he said he wanted to comfort her, and she'd known little enough of that. She looked at the man again. He was handsome, assured, and from his garb and speech of the highest ton. And--while she was no expert judge of the matter--he also knew how to kiss! She waited to see what he might say next.
The elegant gentleman leaned back slightly, one hand on his knee, the other grasping his cane. His dark eyes studied Anne--she felt he searched her very depths. "Why have we not met before?"
"I have been in London for some weeks, sir," she said in frigidly polite tones. "I have but lately entered the whirl that constitutes Society. As to my tears, they have nothing to do with this wedding." She fixed her gaze on him, then most improperly inquired, "Who might you be?"
"Rochford," he replied promptly.
"I am Miss Haycroft." Anne relaxed a trifle, although she was well aware that they ought to be introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Even she had heard of the earl, for he was deemed of the highest ton in London Society. He also had a reputation of great respectability. Surely he would be trustworthy?
"I have met your uncle," he said, a grim note entering his voice.
"Please, do not mention that dreadful man to me," she whispered, unable to prevent herself from glancing around as though he might pop up from behind a screen.
"I understand he is arranging a most advantageous marriage for you?" Justin asked, his manner gentle.
"Indeed, I suppose he is, although to whom I cannot say." With most uncharacteristic candor, probably because this was the first sympathetic person she'd found in London, Anne continued, "I have been instructed to order a wedding dress, but do not know my groom. I suppose Uncle has not discovered which man will give him the most money. It is the customary thing in arranged marriages, is it not?" She could not keep the bitterness from her voice.
Anne turned away from this stranger in whom she felt she might confide and stared off into the dimly lit church. What could she do? Where could she flee if necessary? How? Instinct urged her to escape, run away while she could. She then gave the gentleman at her side a defiant look and said, "Well, have you no reprimand for me?"
"Do you not have the slightest notion of the identity of the possible groom?" Lord Rochford asked softly.
"A number of gentlemen have paid me particular attentions as of late, so I cannot be certain. If only I could know." She gave his lordship a look of inquiry.
"I am acquainted with most of Society." There was little he could say to ease her fears. He knew of several men who hunted for a wife and whom he had observed in company with Cosmo Haycroft. "Can you tell me the names of some of these gentlemen?" he asked, so as better to understand, not pausing to consider how highly unusual it was for him to become involved in the life of anyone outside his family. That she utterly captivated him didn't cross his mind. He only knew her dilemma called to something good and decent within him.
"Well, there is Lord Bowlton. He was introduced to me at Lady Sefton's rout a fortnight ago by my uncle and proclaimed an admirable parti. Lord Gower is another. Uncle insists Lord Alington is most desirable. He attended Mrs. Cathcart's musicale last week as I did. I played the pianoforte during the evening. I must say," she said with a shiver, "his gaze was off-putting."
Then she tilted her head to study Justin, and seemed reassured at what she saw. "I cannot think why I tell you this."
"Because you sense me as a friend. What brought you here?" He gestured to the church interior.
"I wished to view the wedding."
"Where is your maid?" Justin asked, knowing no heiress would be allowed out of the house without at least a maid, if not a footman also in attendance. If Haycroft might brag about snabbling a husband for his niece, she must be well to grass.
"Actually, she is my aunt's maid. She snoops on me, so I sent her on an errand. I expect she is hunting for me even now." A look of panic settled on her face.
He recalled some of the disastrous arranged marriages he'd seen and inwardly shuddered. As well, he knew something of Alington, who was considered one of the better catches of the Season, and he felt abhorrence at the idea of this innocent girl with such a man.
Justin--who had never before even experienced a desire to interfere in the affairs of a young woman--found himself saying, "I shall help you." As he realized what he had just said, he further amazed himself by finding that he felt drawn to her and fully intended to do what he could for her.
"What can you do?" Miss Haycroft replied, skepticism showing in her voice.
"Allow me to consider your dilemma a moment." It might not be as bad as she suspected. What if the chap her uncle intended as her husband was not the villain he thought? It was highly improper for Justin to interfere, but he felt sorry for her. That he also felt something deeper, he ignored.
"I ought not trouble you," she murmured, smoothing the delicate kidskin of her gloves over her hands, unconsciously revealing her distress. "I have no claim on you or your time." She thought of his kisses, how they had stirred her, had made her tremble with their intensity, the leashed desire she sensed in spite of her inexperience. And, she realized with great shock, the kisses had made her desire another! She gave herself a faint shake. This would never do. She was beyond propriety as it was, and to even think such a thought was wicked.
He ignored her softly uttered protest, saying, "I believe for the moment you had best return to your uncle's. As soon as you know what fate he intends for you, your plan of action can be decided."
"What plan?" she inquired with a trace of suspicion.
"Your uncle's choice may be none of the gentlemen you imagine. It could be someone you deem most acceptable." From his expression he thought it unlikely.
"I am supposed to attend a musicale at Lady Chalfont's this evening," Anne volunteered. "Lord Alington may be there, for it appears he likes music."
"Do you perform this evening?" When she nodded, he frowned, then said, "I believe I shall also attend. I would enjoy an evening of good music."
She rose from the chair to be joined by Lord Rochford. He seemed concerned, and she was much affected by that. She said, "I cannot thank you enough for any assistance you may be able to offer." She prudently overlooked the infamous kisses. Best not to bring that into the conversation at this point. Offering her hand in a proper farewell, she was disconcerted when he took it in his, bending to lightly kiss it while holding her gaze. No doubt the look from his dark eyes was just as intent as Lord Alington's, but it held an allure missing in that other man's gaze.
Justin was grateful she ignored the matter of the improper kisses. Probably they hadn't stirred her as they affected him ... nor made her desire another, as he did. His gaze fastened on those tender, delectable lips, and he was compelled to wrench his attention elsewhere. It was not like him in the least to behave in this manner!
Looking down to the cane he held, he thought a moment, then said, "I shall escort you from the church and go with you until you can locate your maid or possibly find a decent vehicle in which to ride to your uncle's house. You should not be alone."
"I am appreciative of your concern. But should someone see us leave the church together, might there not conceivably be gossip? The wedding party left some time ago." She walked at his side until they reached the great oaken door.
Justin placed his hand on the latch. "I doubt there will be anyone of importance about at this hour. All the ton are either at the wedding breakfast I had promised to attend or attending to other equally diverting matters."
He opened the door, glanced about, then offered her his arm. They left the scented confines of the church for the chill of a spring day. Few people chanced to be nearby. Fewer yet were those who might be interested in the pair exiting the church.
"There is my maid," Anne whispered. "She looks a bit frantic. She'd never comprehend my wish to be alone."
"I quite understand," Justin replied, thinking that he did discern her wish for privacy and some time to herself. From what little he knew of her aunt Haycroft, the elderly woman was a confounded harpy. He couldn't begin to imagine living with such a woman around.
"Until this evening," she murmured as she drifted down the shallow steps away from the church.
He said with quiet urgency, "I shall see you later."
She turned then, glancing back at him with a flash of those remarkable eyes. Her smile was her only answer, but it was sufficient.
Anne hurried to where her maid stood, anticipating a scold from the older woman, who thought of herself as a chaperon as well as a maid.
"Here I am. I said I would wait for you by the church and I did. I saw a wedding; the bride was so lovely and the groom quite the most handsome of men. Do tell my aunt that I chanced to see the wedding of the Season. I feel certain she will be pleased." Anne knew all that transpired while absent from the house would be reported to her aunt by her faithful spy.
The wedding proved to be a splendid diversion for Dolly; her aunt's maid listened avidly to the invented description. That an account might appear in the newspaper made little difference;
Dolly could not read.
When they entered the house, Anne found her aunt in the drawing room and in a dither, not an unusual condition.
"There you are, you unnatural girl. Why you shy away from the wedding planned for you I cannot think. Most any girl would be in alt to find herself betrothed to either of the gentlemen Mr. Haycroft has found for you."
Anne didn't betray her feelings by so much as a flicker of her eyes. "Oh? And who are these gentlemen?"
A crafty look settled on Mrs. Haycroft's face, one Anne instantly mistrusted.
"Why, none other than Lord Bowlton and Lord Alington. Fancy that! You have a baron and an earl both a-wanting you."
"How, how ... interesting," Anne stammered, aware she might have given her revulsion away. So much for Lord Rochford's suggestion her groom might be someone more agreeable.
Her aunt paid her no heed, however. She nattered on about a wedding dress of orange-blossom watered silk with lace, bows, and flounces. She followed with all sorts of other nonsensical plans as they drifted through her mind. Coming to an end at last, she turned to face her niece--actually her husband's niece and hers only by marriage, something of which she was supremely aware. "You best go to your room to ready yourself for this evening. Have you practiced your music?"
Knowing her aunt had little actual interest in her music, Anne merely nodded. She left her aunt as quickly as possible, hurrying to her room with Dolly trailing behind her.
Ignoring the maid's chattering, Anne wondered what the evening might bring. Lord Alington would probably attend, so she had best control her nerves and plan to play her finest. That Lord Rochford might actually be there did not seem possible. And yet she trusted him. If anyone could find her a way out of this dreadful dilemma, she thought it might be Lord Rochford. He possessed an air of resolve, although why he should care about her she didn't know.
"What's the matter with you?" Dolly demanded. "You don't look like a gel who has had two respectable offers of marriage, you surely don't."
"I am merely feeling a bit downish. Perhaps if I take a nap, I shall feel more the thing?" Not waiting for her maid to reply, Anne turned around so she might be assisted from her day gown, then crawled into her bed as though she intended to sleep. There was little the nosy Dolly might do but leave the room.
Privacy! How little of it she could attain. The only time was such as this, by subterfuge, or when she practiced the pianoforte. Dolly didn't like the music Anne played; Bach, Clementi, and Mozart did not please. Dolly by far preferred a jig. Staring at the gathered folds of the top of the canopy over her narrow bed, Anne considered what best to do. She would run away if she could only get her hands on some money. That was the rub of it all. She was an heiress of some substance, and she scarce had a pound in hand. Unless she walked off with her green traveling bag in hand, she was trapped. And, afraid as she was, she determined she would do precisely that if necessary. Somehow she would find a way out of this unwelcome marriage!
Hours later, Justin strolled into the elegant town house belonging to Lord and Lady Chalfont, where the musicale was to be held, without a hint of his unease. The trick of it was to find Alington and Gower and learn what it was that drew them to the girl. Justin had little doubt as to Bowlton's motivation. All one had to do was to look at Miss Haycroft and know what that was; the greasy old wigsby would likely lick his lips when he eyed her.
At first he couldn't see his quarry. The room thronged with the fashionable ton, and it wasn't easy to spot a man who was but average in height and as thin as a banister.
Justin was standing to the rear of the concert room when he caught sight of his man. Garbed in black, his white linen cleverly draped about his neck in a neat Osbaldeston arrangement, Alington looked the very image of the elegant peer. Justin wondered what went on behind that bland facade.
When the harpist had completed her charming bit of music, Justin made his way around the back of the room to where Alington stood in anticipation of the next performer.
"Evening," Justin said in his most laconic manner.
"What on earth brings you here, Rochford? I cannot recall seeing you at a musicale before," Alington replied with a faint sneer in his voice.
"I was told that I was missing a talented performer and decided to rectify my error," Justin shot back smoothly, settling into a position at Alington's side.
"The harpist?" Alington inquired lazily, but with the watchfulness of an asp ready to strike.
"No, a young woman quite gifted at the pianoforte."
"Miss Anne Haycroft. She will play next. Your much-vaunted charm will do you no good there. Her uncle has plans for her. You may as well leave," Alington said in a harsh whisper, a sly smile on his thin lips.
"Leave? I barely arrived. Besides, I like pianoforte music. You apparently do as well."
"She is perfect," Alington said softly. "A true gem I must have. She has looks, breeding, and ability, and will grace my home quite nicely."
Shivering inwardly, Justin thought Alington looked upon Anne Haycroft as an item to add to his exquisite collection of beautiful things. What might happen as Anne grew older? When he tired of her or she lost her looks, would he discard her in favor of a younger, more beautiful woman? He'd likely divorce Anne on some trumped-up excuse, then select another young beauty.
Justin decided at that moment that he would do all in his power to help Miss Haycroft flee her scheming uncle and the men she feared to marry. It was unconscionable to permit a lovely young woman to be forced into a marriage so utterly wrong and distasteful to her.
That he also recalled her response to his kisses was for the moment ignored. He shouldn't allow his personal reaction to affect his judgment in this case.
At that moment Miss Haycroft walked to the pianoforte, seated herself with a minimum of fuss, and when all was quiet, began to play. He had never disliked music, nor had he contempt for the pianoforte. However, this was not merely music, it was magic from the heavens. He listened for a time to the remarkably gifted girl when he chanced to look at the man at his side.
Alington stared at Miss Haycroft with that alarming intensity of which she had spoken. It seemed to Justin that there was a hint of madness in that stare. Obsession gleamed in Alington's eyes; his entire body seemed tensed with his fixation.
At last the ethereal music drew to a conclusion. The people around him stirred, talking in subdued voices as though it were a desecration to speak in normal tones.
"You now see why I must have her," Alington said softly for Justin's ears alone.
"She is not yours as yet, my friend," Justin replied a trifle grimly, not able to keep his contempt out of his tone.
"You want her for yourself? 'Tis not possible. You see, I tendered an agreement to her uncle this afternoon." Alington's smile was not nice to observe. "He won't reject me."
"Indeed?" Justin said in his own quietly menacing way.
Alington's nasty smile broadened. "Indeed."
Justin excused himself and went to the back of the room, wondering how he could get in contact with Anne--Miss Haycroft, that is. He was about to search for writing paper when he heard a whispered "Psst."
He strolled from the drawing room, then looked about to find Miss Haycroft behind a potted palm in the hall. "You were superb." He wished he had words to tell her how her music had stirred him.
"Thank you," she said with the modesty he might have expected from her. "You sat next to Lord Alington." There was a question in her voice.
Recovering his usual aplomb, Justin swiftly revealed what he had discovered, then added, "What may I do to help? I do not trust Alington any more than you do."
"I must escape, get away from my uncle at once, else I shall be married before I can sneeze--with such choices!" Her eloquent eyes were full of fear. "If I can but hide away until my birthday on June the seventh, I shall be free of Uncle's guardianship--with only my trustee to order my life."
Justin instantly decided to go with his earlier impulse to aid this young woman in any way he could. "Gather what you wish to bring, and I shall pick you up first light tomorrow. You may stay with my aunt. I fear there is no time to waste."
"I agree," she whispered after a small hesitation, a hint of her alarm in her eyes. "Thank you. I hope you will not regret this action."
Justin gazed down at the lovely face and suspected he would. But a man had to live dangerously at least once in his life. "I shall be there."