Read an Excerpt
Aston Hall, Kent
With a little twitch of her gauzy muslin skirts, Lady Mary Farren took her place among the dancers in her father's ballroom. The evening was warm, the tall windows thrown up to catch any possible breeze from the gardens outside. Beneath the dozens of flickering candles in the chandeliers, the flushed gentlemen around her were trying their best to be handsome and gallant, the ladies striving to be beautiful and flirtatious, and all of them were confident they represented the very cream of their little county society.
This had been the only life Mary had known in her eighteen years—the only life she'd been permitted to know as the eldest daughter of the Duke of Aston. But in three days, that would finally, blissfully change forever, and Mary—ah, Mary couldn't wait.
Even as the musicians finished the last notes of the dance and her partner bowed across from her, Mary was eagerly ticking off the last details for the journey in her head: the bespoke traveling clothes packed in the new brass-studded trunks, the passages booked and the letters of introduction held safely in readiness, the maps and guides and—
"Lady Mary, if you please." Miss Wood, Mary's longtime governess and soon-to-be companion on her journey, stood beside her, her small, plump hands clasped across the front of her plain gray gown. "A word alone, my lady, if you please?"
At once Mary nodded, leading the way to one of the window alcoves where their conversation would be lost in the music and chatter around them. Though at twenty-eight Miss Wood was still a young woman herself, the governess was always the very soul of discretion and propriety, and only a genuine emergency would bring her into the ballroom, where she was as out of place as a mourning dove among gaudy parrots. But since the duchess's long illness and death four years before, Mary had capably assumed many of her mother's duties for her father, and it was quite appropriate for the governess to seek her out now.
But oh, please, let this be nothing that would delay her departure! God forgive her this once for being selfish, and wanting nothing to stop her first chance at a life beyond Aston Hall!
"What is it, Miss Wood?" Mary asked now, keeping her voice low. Possible disasters raced through her head: an accident among the staff, a mishap to a guest, grievous news from afar. Anything could be possible. "What has happened?"
"It's your sister, my lady," Miss Wood said. "Your father His Grace has asked for her to join him, and I cannot find her anywhere."
"Diana's gone?" Mary's anxiety took a sharp new twist. It wasn't that she feared some dire mishap had befallen her younger sister. Diana was always the cause of mischief, never the victim, beautiful and blithe and as irresistible to men as they were to her.
It simply didn't seem to be in Diana's blood to be otherwise.
Where Mary was responsible and considerate, Diana was neither. How many times had Mary been left to soothe their father's wrath after Diana had been traipsing gaily about the countryside with yet another smitten young gentleman, always skipping just on the edge of real scandal and ruin without a thought for how it would affect her chances for a respectable marriage? How many promises had Diana made to reform, only to beg Mary to make things right again with Father when the next gallant appeared beneath her window?
"You have looked everywhere, Miss Wood?" Mary asked, praying that for once the governess might be mistaken. "I'm sure I saw Diana dancing not a half hour ago."
Miss Wood's round face lit with hope. "Do you recall her partner? Perhaps she's with him, my lady, and we—"
"She was dancing with Dr. Canning, as a favor to Father." Mary sighed. Dr. Canning was at least seventy, with thick spectacles and scattered wits, and little ability left for wooing any female. "He's a most kindly old gentleman, but I'd scarcely think Diana would vanish to the garden folly with him."
"I've already looked in the folly, my lady." Miss Wood glanced over her shoulder, to where Mary's father stood with several friends. Despite the gaiety swirling around him, he was not happy, that was clear enough. He had summoned Diana, and as both a duke and a father, he expected instant obedience. But Diana hadn't appeared, and now Father was glaring across the room at them with his arms folded—no, battened—over his silk-covered chest.
"I've checked her bedchamber, my lady," continued Miss Wood more hurriedly, "as well as the schoolroom, the library, the withdrawing room, even the creamery."
"Do not even mention the creamery!" Mary sighed again, this time with exasperation. Whatever had occurred in the creamery last summer between Diana and a certain young tutor down from Oxford still made Diana giggle into her napkin whenever the butter was passed at table. Mary didn't want to know, truly she didn't. "Perhaps Diana's only gone to the privy."
Miss Wood shook her head. "The waiting-maid there hadn't seen her all evening, my lady, and—"
"The stables." To her dismay, Mary suddenly recalled Diana smiling down at the brawny new groom as he'd helped her mount her mare this morning. When he'd returned Diana's smile more warmly than was proper, Mary had thought it only because he was new to the staff, and hadn't yet realized his place. Now she thought otherwise.
And oh, what Father would say if he ever learned of it! "The stables, my lady?" Miss Wood asked. "Do you believe that—"
"It's only a guess," Mary said quickly. "I'll hunt for Diana, while you tell Father that—"
"I am sorry, my lady, but I cannot permit that," Miss Wood answered firmly. "Not to the stables, not alone at night."
"But if I can find Diana before—"
"Your place is here at the ball, my lady," Miss Wood insisted.
"You remain here with His Grace's guests, and I'll go look for Lady Diana."
"She's my sister," Mary said, looking over the governess's head to her irate father, "and I'll go find her myself."
Miss Wood frowned. "But His Grace—"
"Tell Father Diana will be there directly. He won't even realize I'm gone." Mary turned away to slip through the nearest door to the garden before Miss Wood could protest again.
She ran down the slate steps and along the path of crushed stones, bunching her skirts at her sides so she wouldn't trip. Here away from the heat of the candles, the evening was cooler, and Mary breathed deeply, steeling herself for whatever might lie ahead. There was no telling where or how or even if Mary was going to find Diana.
To be honest, she hoped she didn't. Just as she and Miss Wood were set to leave for the Continent, Diana and Father would be setting out this week for London, where Diana would be introduced at court and, with her beauty and a little luck, attract a suitable husband of a suitable rank and fortune. It was exactly what Diana claimed to want most from life, and why she would risk it now for the sake of a flirtation with a groom was beyond Mary's comprehension.
Purposefully she kept to the shadows, taking care not to be noticed. The yard before the stables was filled with the guests' carriages tonight, and the waiting drivers and footmen sat on the carriage-steps or on the lawn, talking and laughing and making bawdy-talk with the housemaids who'd somehow slipped free of the party inside. There was no sign of Diana, nor of the new groom, either, though likely by now they'd retreated to some more intimate place.
Confound her sister for putting her in this position again! Doubtless Diana had convinced herself that she wasn't breaking any promises to behave at all, that dallying with a servant somehow didn't count. Mary hated having to play watchdog again, almost as much as she'd hate having to face Father one more time.
It wasn't that she didn't love Diana, because she did, with all the love and devotion that two motherless sisters could have for one another. That would never change. But standing in Diana's beautiful, irresponsible shadow, always ready to catch her if she tumbled or protect her if she erred, had become an exhausting place to be. Wistfully, and guiltily, too, Mary longed to be known not as His Grace's daughter or Lady Diana's sister, but simply as herself. On the Continent, far from Aston Hall, she prayed she would.
Now she hurried around the curving brick wall and through the stable house's side door. Except for the snuffling and whinnying of the sleepy horses in their stalls, the stable seemed empty and dark.
"Diana?" she called. "Diana, are you here?" No answer came, not that Mary really expected Diana to come popping out from the loft like they had when they'd been little girls playing in the hay. This was different—far, far different.
She cleared her throat and raised her voice. "Diana, Father's asking for you. If you're—if you're hiding in here, you must come back to the house and the dancing at once. Do you hear me?"
No answer again, but this time Mary was certain she heard a rustling that wasn't a horse, a muffled giggle from one of the farther box stalls. For Mary, that was more than enough. She seized one of the lanterns that hung by the door and marched back to the stall, holding the light high before her.
"I am serious, Diana," she announced crossly, the flickering light bouncing and bobbing over the planked walls. "Come now, or I'll flush you out like Father's hounds do with a fox, see if I don't."
At the last box, she shoved the gate open and raised the lantern over her head like a beacon.
It was hard for Mary to tell which were her sister's body and arms and legs and which the groom's, they were that wrapped around one another. Diana's yellow gown was hiked high over her legs with shameless abandon, the man's tanned hand spread possessively over her pale thigh above her bright pink ribbon garter. She'd pulled his shirt free of his breeches, her own hands twisting along his broad bare back. Her blond hair was half-unpinned and loose, her cheeks flushed, every inch a wanton rather than a peer's daughter. "Mary!" Diana squeaked, clinging more closely to the groom and slipping around him as if to hide. "Whatever are you doing here, spying on Will and me?"
"I'm not spying, Diana," Mary said, her own face hot with embarrassment. "Father wants to see you at once, and you know you must go. Can't you see that I'm trying to save you from yourself?"
"Ah, now, my lady, where's th' sport in that?" The groom twisted about to leer at her, keeping one arm curled around Diana's waist while he beckoned to Mary with the other.
"Better t'spend than t'save, I say. Come along, sweetheart, there's plenty o' me t'share with both of you sisters."
Before Mary realized it, he'd reached out and taken her hand to pull her closer. Too shocked to speak, she struggled to jerk free, the lantern swinging wildly in her other hand.
"Stop, Will, don't!" Diana cried. "Mary, hush, it's not—oh, dear God in heaven, Father! Oh, no, Father!"
Her heart pounding with dread, Mary slowly turned. It wasn't a tease; it wasn't a jest. There by the gate stood Father, as furious and grim as she'd ever seen him, with Miss Wood and Robinson, the stable master, hovering behind him.
She gave a tiny, desperate dip of a curtsey, the best she could manage under the circumstances. If only Miss Wood had let her handle this herself, instead of bringing her father into it!
"Father, please," Diana began breathlessly. "This isn't what it must seem."
"No, Father," Mary agreed with desparate haste. "It's not, not at all."
The groom pulled free of Diana and touched his knuckle to his forehead. "Beg pardon, Your Grace, but her ladyship's speaking true. This don't be what it seems, not by—"
"Hold your tongue, you wretched fool!" Father's expression darkened, black thunderclouds by the lantern's light. "No excuses from any of you. I know what I see, and I know what this is."
"Don't fault Mary, Father, I beg you." Diana shoved down her skirts and tried to smooth her hair. "She was only—"
"I'll tell you the same as I told your sister, Diana," Father said sharply. "No more excuses from either of you."
"We're not making excuses, Father," Mary pleaded. "I was only—that is, we were—"
"No more." His hand sliced through the air, a sharp gesture to match the cutting edge of his voice. "Make yourselves decent, and come to me in the library. Now."
He turned on his heel and left them, his back ramrod-straight with his anger, and Miss Wood scurrying after him into the dark. The stable master grabbed the groom by the shoulder and half-shoved, half-dragged him from the stall.
Mary looked at her sister. Diana bowed her head. It was too late for explanations now, too late for remorse or contrition.
All they could do was obey.