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Whistling softly to himself, Patrick Blackburne took the steps to his rented house on Hamilton Place, two at a time. It was a fine September morning in London, and having just come from a sale at Tattersall's, where he had bought a nice chestnut mare that had caught his eye, he was feeling pleased with himself.
Life had been good to Patrick. He had been blessed with a handsome face and form, as well as a fortune that allowed him to live where and how he pleased. Across the Atlantic Ocean from England, he owned a large plantation and fine home near Natchez in the Mississippi Territory. His father had been a rich, wellborn Englishman who had taken a respectable fortune and had made it a magnificent one in the New World; his mother, even more wellborn, was related to half the aristocracy in England and possessed a large fortune of her own. Patrick's father had died fifteen years ago and Patrick had inherited that fortune at the relatively young age of twenty-three; in time, since he was an only child, he would no doubt inherit his mother's fortune.
It could be argued that his mother, Alice, had abandoned Patrick at twelve years of age when she had decided she could no longer bear to live in the backwoods splendor of Willowdale, the Blackburne plantation near Natchez. Only England, London in particular, would suit her. Her husband and Patrick's father, Robert, had given a sigh of relief and had helped her pack, not about to give her a chance to change her mind.
It was known that theirs had been an arranged marriage and that they had been indifferent to one another from the beginning. Within months of the wedding, their indifference had turned to outright loathing, and Patrick, arriving almost nine months to the day after the wedding, had been born into a household that resembled nothing less than an armed camp.
Used as a weapon between the warring partners, Patrick had continually found himself in the middle of his parents' frequent and virulent battles. It had not engendered in him any desire for the married state and was the main reason he had reached the age of thirty-eight with nary a matrimonial prospect in sight.
His mother's rejection of Natchez and everything connected with it had hurt and confused him as a child. Patrick loved his home and thought the spacious, three-storied mansion at Willowdale to be comfortable and elegant. To this day, he still enjoyed tramping through the wilderness that bordered the plantation and had never quite understood why his mother detested everything connected with Willowdale and Natchez. When he was twelve, his mother's attitude had baffled him and, to a point, it still did, but he had learned to accept her contempt of a home and place that he adored, though her occasional comments about it could still cause a pang of resentment.
His parents' marriage, Patrick admitted, had been like trying to mate chalk and cheese, and neither had been really at fault. With his wife gone, Robert finally had peace and enjoyed his remaining years-never setting foot in England again for fear of coming face-to-face with his wife. As for Alice, she was wildly happy in England. These days she bore little resemblance to the miserable woman who had lived at Willowdale. Her relationship with Patrick was a trifle distant, more because he had grown up apart from her and had chosen to live the majority of the time at Willowdale. When he did come to England, she always greeted him with warm affection, and he enjoyed seeing her.
Patrick's mother was the last person on his mind this particular morning as he entered the house. Setting down his narrow-brimmed hat on the table in the foyer of the house, he frowned when he spied an envelope lying there, addressed to him in his mother's fine script.
Now what? he wondered. Surely not another ball that she wished him to attend? Since his arrival in England only two weeks ago, he'd already escorted his mother to a soiree; driven her on three different occasions around Hyde Park in his curricle; and endured an uncomfortable family dinner with her husband of just over a year, Henry, the tenth Baron Caldecott. Surely he had shown himself to be a dutiful enough son. Couldn't she now leave him to enjoy his own pursuits?
Sighing, he opened the letter, his frown not abating one whit as he read the missive. She wanted to see him this afternoon. Urgently.
A thoughtful look in his deceptively sleepy gray eyes, Patrick wandered into his study. Now why would his mother need to see him urgently? Especially since he had just taken her for a drive around Hyde Park not two days ago and at that time she had been relaxed and carefree. Certainly there had been no sign that she had anything more urgent on her mind than what she was to wear to Lady Hilliard's ball to be held on Thursday evening.
Seating himself behind the impressive mahogany desk, he proceeded to write a reply to his mother. That done, he wrote another note, canceling the plans he had made with his friend Adam Paxton to watch a match at Lord's Cricket Ground on St. John's Wood Road. Naturally they had a friendly wager on the outcome.
At two o'clock, as requested by his mother, garbed in pale gray pantaloons, a bobtailed coat in plum, his dark gray waistcoat extravagantly embroidered and his cravat neatly tied above his frilled shirt, he mounted the steps of the Caldecott town house on Manchester Square. After giving his hat to the butler, Grimes, he walked through the grand hallway into the front salon.
His mother was seated on a sofa, her pale blue bouffant skirts dripping onto the floor. A silver tea tray sat in front of her, and, as Patrick entered the room, she said, "Ah, precisely on time. I worried that I'd had Grimes bring me the tea too soon."
The resemblance between mother and son was not pronounced. Except for the fact that both were tall and had the same wide-spaced gray eyes and black hair, their features were totally dissimilar: Patrick was, to Alice's dismay, the very image of his father. It always gave her a shock when he first walked into a room, the sight of that firm, determined jaw and chin, the straight, bold nose, and arrogantly slashed black brows making her feel for a second that her first husband had come to drag her back to that godforsaken plantation, Willowdale.
After pressing a kiss to Alice's powdered cheek, Patrick seated himself across from her. Long legs in front of him, he watched as she poured tea and passed a cup to him.
"You are," she said a moment later as she stirred sugar and lemon into her own tea, "no doubt wondering why I wanted to see you."
Patrick inclined his head. His mother looked as regal as always, her hair arranged in an elegant mass of curls on top of her head; the wide silver wings at her temples one of the few signs of her advancing age. For a woman who had just passed her fifty-ninth birthday in June, Lady Caldecott was very well preserved. The pale, flawless skin was only faintly lined, the proud chin was perhaps a bit fuller than it had been in her youth, and there was a delicate network of wrinkles that radiated out from the corners of her eyes. Still, she was a striking woman, her body slim and well formed, and Patrick wasn't surprised that Lord Caldecott had asked her to marry him. What did surprise him was that, after being a widow for so many years and considering her first foray into the married state, she had accepted him. What astonished him even more was that the marriage seemed to have been a love match, if the open affection he had noticed between Lord and Lady Caldecott was anything to go by. Truth be told, Patrick was puzzled by his mother's second marriage. Why would anyone, having escaped from the noose once, deliberately stick their head into it again?
Watching his mother as she stirred her tea, it occurred to him that she looked more worn and tired than he had ever seen her, and, for the first time, it crossed his mind that her demand to see him might have a serious overtone. He gave her a few minutes, but when she said nothing, seeming fascinated by the swirling liquid in her cup, he asked, "Mother, what is it? Your note said it was urgent that you see me."
She forced a smile and, setting down her tea untouched, admitted, "It is urgent, but now that I have you here, I do not know how to begin."
"At the beginning, perhaps?"
She made a face, her reluctance to proceed obvious. If he had not known better, Patrick would have sworn that his mother was embarrassed-she was certainly not acting in her usual forthright manner.
When several minutes had passed and his mother still remained silent, Patrick said, "Perhaps you have changed your mind about seeing me?"
She shook her head and sighed. "No-you are the only one I can turn to. It is just that I am ... humiliated to have to explain to anyone, and particularly my son, the predicament in which I find myself."
There was such an expression of misery on her face that Patrick felt the first real stirrings of unease.
"I am your son," he said slowly. "Surely you know that you have no need to be embarrassed by anything that you tell me?"
Her gray eyes met his and she flashed him an unhappy look. "You're wrong there. I know that we have not always seen eye to eye ... and I hesitate to tell you something that may lower your opinion of me." Seriously alarmed, Patrick bent forward. "Mother, tell me! Surely it cannot be that bad."
"You're probably right," she said reluctantly. "It is just that I-" She stopped, bit her lip, and then, apparently steeling herself, she said, "I have to tell you something that happened over twenty years ago when I first left your father and returned to England." She hesitated, and color suddenly bloomed in both her cheeks. She cleared her throat and went on, "I was still a young woman, and I made the mistake of falling madly in love with another man. A married man of high degree." Her eyes would not meet his. "We embarked willy-nilly into an affair. The fact that we were both married and that he was a member of the Court made it imperative that the affair remain secret. I would have been utterly ruined if it had become public, and he, well, he would have been banished from the king's presence." She made a face. "George III is not known for his tolerance of adultery." She glanced across at Patrick. "Are you shocked?"
Patrick shrugged, not certain what he felt. He was startled that his mother had had an affair, but not shocked. He was, after all, a gentleman of the world, and was privy to the various follies that people commit in the name of love- another reason why he avoided that state. Aware of his mother's silence, he admitted, "Surprised is more like it. But why are you telling me?"
Alice took a deep breath. "Because someone is black-mailing me about it."
"With what?" Patrick asked with a frown. "From what you have just told me, the affair was two decades ago-who would care now? Your former lover?"
She shook her head. "No, he is dead-has been for at least ten years." Her gaze dropped. "I wrote some letters. Some very explicit letters." Tiredly, she added, "The affair wasn't of long duration-less than a year, but it was intense while it lasted. And when it ended, when I came to my senses and realized that I was acting little better than some Covent Garden soiled dove, I simply wanted to put it all behind me. I told the gentleman that it was over between us and that I no longer wished to see him. He took it well-e had been a faithful and honest husband until I came into his life, and I am sure that our liaison caused him much soul-searching and anguish." There was a faraway look in her eyes. "He was an honorable man, and I think, as I look back on those days, that he was as horrified by our passion for each other as he was entranced. I suspect that he was secretly grateful when I ended it. At any rate, once we had parted, I never gave the letters a second thought." Her mouth drooped. "I certainly never thought that someone would try to extort money from me for their return twenty years later."
Despite his impassive expression, a dozen thoughts were jostling around in Patrick's mind. His mother's confession made him look at her differently, to see her not just as the unhappy figure of his childhood, the stately matron she had become, but also as a woman with needs and desires of her own. It was difficult to imagine her in the throes of an illicit, passionate affair, but he had her word for it that it had happened- and that someone was blackmailing her because of it. His mouth tightened. Now that was something that he would not allow.
"How were you contacted?" he asked, his heart twisting at the look of vulnerability on her face. He had never seen his mother look vulnerable before, had never thought she could be vulnerable, and he was conscious of a growing anger against the person who put that look on her face.
"A note was waiting for me," Alice said, "when I returned home from our drive on Monday in the park. I did not recognize the handwriting, but the contents alluded to the affair and the letters. Along with a demand for money for their return." She sighed. "It was very cleverly done-nothing was stated outright, but whoever wrote it knew of the affair and the letters and wanted to be paid to keep quiet about it."
"When and how much?" asked Patrick grimly.
"I have already paid the first installment," Alice admitted. "The sender knew that Henry and I were attending Mrs. Pennington's 'at home' that very evening. I was told to put a thousand pounds in my reticule and to leave it with my wrap when we arrived. When I got home, I looked inside my reticule and the money was gone. As promised, there was also one of my letters ... just in case I had any doubts about whether the blackmailer actually had the letters." Her mouth thinned. "I burned it as soon as I was alone."
"Your blackmailer was clever-those 'at homes' are crowded affairs, with people coming and going all the time. Anyone could have slipped into the cloak room and taken the money." He shot her a keen glance. "Since only one letter was returned to you, it is obvious that this is to continue indefinitely."
She nodded. "I had hoped the one demand for money would satisfy them-foolish, I know. This arrived this morning."
"This" was another note that had been lying on the table beside the tea tray. Reaching over, she handed the folded paper to him. Swiftly Patrick scanned the missive.
"Two thousand pounds this time." He glanced at her, concern in his gray eyes. "Can you stand the nonsense? I can, if you cannot."
"Money isn't the issue-although it may become one, if these 'requests' continue and the price keeps doubling."
"Have you talked to Caldecott about it?"
Her gaze dropped. "N-n-no," she admitted after a long moment. When Patrick continued to stare at her, she stood up and took several agitated steps around the room.
Excerpted from Swear by the Moon by Shirlee Busbee Copyright © 2001 by Shirlee Busbee. Excerpted by permission.
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