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Northumberland, England, 1785
Most women would go to any lengths to be married to the son of a duke.
Lady Meleri Weatherby was not among them. Betrothed to Philip Ashton, the Marquess of Waverly, since birth, she would have done anything to get out of her engagement absolutely anything.
As a child, she had adored Lord Waverly. Philip was ten years her senior and her idol. Tall, blond and handsome with a heart-thundering smile, he could do no wrong. Those were the days when she considered herself most fortunate.
But nothing remains the same. The years passed and she grew older. Things began to change. It was through a woman's eyes she viewed the world now, and not those of a child. What she had once adored was nothing more than a thin veneer, cracked and peeling away.
Thusly exposed, she saw the true man — one with a cruel side that he frequently exhibited toward animals and underlings. Now she realized Lord Waverly was not the man of her dreams. He was the last man in the universe she would want to marry.
The awareness was gradual, but the realization came to her quite suddenly one warm afternoon when she was on her way home after a long ride. She no more than crested a hill, when she came upon a horrifying sight that both shocked and filled her with revulsion.
Philip was holding the reins of his terrified horse and beating the poor beast unmercifully with his riding crop. Blood was everywhere.
Instinctively, she alighted and ran toward him, screaming, "Stop it! For the love of God, Philip, stop!"
When he turned toward her, with the crop drawn back, she thought for a moment he was going to strike her, and she stopped stock-still, her eyes wide at the sight of a side of him she had never before seen.
She saw the blood-rage in his eyes and the tightly clenched jaw. She knew he fought against the urge to use the crop on her. "Stay out of this, Meleri. It does not concern you."
"I beg to disagree with you, but cruelty of this magnitude not only concerns me, it concerns me gravely."
Never had she seen such raw fury in human eyes. It was only when Philip threw the crop to the ground and walked off that she noticed one of his groomsmen, a young lad they called Will, standing nearby. He clutched the reins of Philip's horse tightly in one hand, while the other hand held a kerchief to a bloody gash on his cheek.
"Will, what happened to your face?" she asked, although she feared she already knew the terrible answer.
"I I hit a branch, milady."
Meleri went to him and pulled the kerchief back, then winced at the deep gash. "That wasn't done by a branch. He struck you, didn't he?"
Will looked down. "I hit a branch, milady."
"I understand," she said softly, then gave his arm a pat. "You need not worry that I will speak of this to Lord Waverly. Can you ride back by yourself?"
Will cast a fearful glance in the direction Philip had taken. "I must wait for his lordship."
"You need to have your face seen to before you lose too much blood. Go on home. I will explain to Lord Waverly that I was the one who told you to go."
"Milady, I thank you, but I cannot ask you to place yourself in harm's way for me. I think it best for both of us if I remain here."
She understood what Will was saying. It would be worse for him if he left, no matter what she told Philip. "As you wish. Wait here. I will see what I can do," she said, then walked off to find Philip.
She met him walking toward her. Apparently, he had recovered, for she saw that all signs of rage were gone. Remarkable though it was, he looked completely composed, as if nothing had happened. When he saw her, he smiled in his most charming and courtly fashion. "Meleri, my dear, I am sorry you had to see that, but things must be dealt with when they happen. It is more cruel to withhold punishment until later."
"Is that what you call it? Punishment?"
"You have a better term?"
"Punishment is one thing, Philip, brutality another."
"You think I was brutal? Well, I suppose it would appear so to a woman of such delicate sensibilities. It would serve no purpose to try and make you understand."
What Philip did not realize was that Meleri understood. She understood all too well. This one incident caused her not only to realize the significance of what she observed, but more important, what that incident revealed about his true nature.
After leaving Philip, she rushed home and found her father sitting in silence in the garden. "Hello, Papa," she said, and seated herself beside him. She picked up his hand and held it in hers as she gave a full accounting of the incident with Waverly. "I have never seen so much blood on a man or a horse."
Next to them, a bee droned in the lavender bush. From the kitchen came the sound of pots being banged about. From somewhere in the distance came the frantic bellow of a lost calf. The seconds ticked on, and still he did not respond.
Only when several minutes had passed, did he direct his attention to her. "Do you come here to sit in the garden often?"
It was the first time he had looked at her as if she were a stranger, or spoke to her as if she were someone he did not know. Panic ripped through her, followed by a sense of dread. Of late, her father seemed to be changing, sometimes into someone she did not know. He was her beloved Papa, and then again, he was not. Where do you go, Papa?
She saw the expectant way he looked at her, and in spite of a heart that seemed too fatally cracked to live on, she managed to say, "Yes, I do come here frequently."
"So do I. Don't you find it odd that I have never seen you here before?"
"I I am here earlier than usual."
"Aaah that would explain it then. I prefer to come here late in the morning."
She felt as if her father had gone away somewhere — on a long trip, perhaps — for the man she saw seemed more shadow than substance. You are not my father! You are his shadow, she wanted to shout. Go away! I want my father back!
He was back, the next day, as brilliant and bright as he had ever been. Overjoyed, Meleri hovered about him until he retired for the evening, afraid his shadow would return if she so much as stepped away for a moment.
Time passed, and as she watched her father gradually slip away, she had ample time to fully grasp an even more detailed impression of what her recent encounter with Waverly meant. From that day forward, she was careful to note, with systematic observation, what she could not previously foresee. The result was, that in Philip, she discerned not a single defect, but many. This enabled her to note what her life would be like if she married him, and that led to her final conclusion that Lord Waverly was not only cruel and cunning. He was dangerous.
Although she knew she would not — could not — marry him, she was not so foolish to think there would be an easy way out. Next to impossible was more like it. He was, after all, the son of one of England's most powerful dukes — a man who was also a relative of the king. Impossible or not, though, she had to find a way out, which meant she would have to turn her back on her home, Humberly Hall, and the life she had here.
Her father was the only hindrance, the one consideration that prevented her from being completely free to flee to America, or Australia, or anywhere Lord Waverly would not find her. To even consider her father a burdening responsibility, or a drawback to her future happiness, was unthinkable. There were so few days, anymore, when his mind did not wander too far away to communicate with him. Poor Papa, she thought. So forgetful, so careless and inattentive, even of the daughter constantly before him. He had given her so much. It hurt now to realize he could not help her any more than he could understand.
Her maid, Betty, concurred when Meleri told her of her intention to escape marriage to Lord Waverly. She was readying Meleri's bed for the evening, fluffing the pillows with wild abandon when Meleri broke the news.
"Cry off? Break your engagement? Your father will not understand, milady. Even if he did, he would forget by the next morning what he understood the night before. You will get no help from that quarter, and without your father's support and help, I fear what you seek is beyond impossible."
"I am in a dilemma, truly. I must rely on myself and take action before Philip has the slightest suspicion. Yet, I am my father's child, and I cannot trample that in the dust of my hurried departure. I suppose the only consolation in all of this is, at least I won't have to suffer knowing I am a terrible disappointment, or that he will suffer humiliation over my action."
"You are right. Truly, milady, I do not know that your father would notice overmuch that you were gone. Don't be forgetting the doctor told you only a fortnight ago that it will get worse."
"Knowing was never a soothing balm."
"This is all too much to fall on your young shoulders. Have you written to your sister?"
"Yes, I wrote Elizabeth several weeks ago. Last week, I received a reply. She is coming here. She should arrive today or tomorrow."
"Did you mention your desire to put an end to the engagement?"
"No, I thought I would wait until she was here."
"It would be nice if she understood and offered you some help in that quarter."
"I cannot depend too strongly upon the chance of that happening. Although she is my favorite half sister, we were never really close — not because there was a problem, you see, but because of the vast difference in our ages."
Meleri's two half sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, were older than Meleri's mother. They were both married before Meleri was born. Of the two, Mary had always been distant and judgmental, but Elizabeth had managed to offset that somewhat by being more understanding and sympathetic, especially after Meleri's mother died. Her kindness extended so far as to invite Meleri to come to London and live.
But her papa had quickly dismissed that idea. "Live with you in London! I should say not! Melli is all I have left, now that her mother is gone. I cannot let her go to London with you, Liz'Beth. Whatever were you thinking, to extend such an invitation?"
"I was thinking of Meleri, Father. I was considering how lonely it is for a young girl her age to be reared in the country, to grow up without a mother or other children her age about. Humberly Hall is lovely, but it is remote."
"It is also her home and her inheritance." Sir William had turned to Meleri and said, "Well now, my little princess, do you want to go to live in London with Liz' Beth, or stay here with your poor old Papa?"
How vivid was the memory of the way she had thrown her plump little arms around her father's neck and hugged him fiercely. "I don't ever want to leave you, Papa. Never, never, never."
Little had she known then, that in the end, it would be her papa who left.
"Are you thinking about something sad, milady?" Betty interrupted her reverie.
"No, I was thinking about the past. It is the present I find sad.
How does one learn to accept all of this — to see those we love growing old; to watch them leave, little by little each day?"
"Keep thinking like that and you will find yourself married to Lord Waverly."
Betty was right. She could drown herself in sentimentality, or turn her thoughts to extracting herself from this ghastly betrothal. No one would do it for her. She would have to do it herself. The only thing certain was, she could not marry Waverly, no matter the cost. It would belie her truest sentiments if she did not at least try to save herself.
Betty had begun to pound the pillows harder with each word Meleri spoke, until so many goose feathers were floating about her head that she sneezed.
"Thank you, milady. I've thought about what you said, and I know how you feel, but you cannot think to stop a betrothal that was made so long ago."
"You think that is a valid reason to marry?"
"I didn't say that, only that I don't see you have any choice. I was told betrothal contracts are binding. If that is so, being a woman, you have no more say about it than you have power to change it."
"That is true," Meleri answered, "but there is another side to everything, or at least another way around it."
Betty arranged the pillows, then opened the trunk at the foot of the bed. She withdrew a white cotton nightgown with a satin ribbon at the neck instead of buttons. "Will this one do, milady?"
Meleri half glanced at it and said, "Yes, it's fine." She turned around to give Betty better access to the row of tiny buttons that ran down the back, but her mind wasn't on getting undressed. "It isn't right for a woman to be treated so unfairly or so differently from a man. No one should be forced to marry, especially someone they cannot tolerate."
Betty handed the gown to Meleri, then turned back the bed while she dressed. By the time Meleri began brushing her hair, Betty was running her hand over the white cotton sheets, smoothing them until they were flawless. "I am sorry to say, milady, but the only choice you have is to do as countless other women before you, and that is to take it like a lady."
Meleri stopped brushing and wrinkled her nose at that disgusting recommendation. "That is the most unpalatable advice I have heard! Surely, you did not mean I should meekly surrender. You must know me better than to think I would blindly submit to nothing more than becoming a suffering saint. I could sooner drink vinegar."
"We do what we have to do, milady."
Excerpted from The Bride Of Black Douglas by Elaine Coffman Copyright © 2005 by Elaine Coffman. Excerpted by permission.
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