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The Earl's Prize
By Nicola Cornick
Mills & BoonCopyright © 2003 Nicola Cornick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJoss - 1792
My Lord and Lady Tallant had been quarrelling for the best part of two hours, which was an improvement in their relationship, according to the more cynical members of the servants' hall, for normally they barely exchanged a word. The words that were being exchanged now were less than civil. The Marquis's deep tones vibrated with sufficient anger to shatter the priceless vases on the drawing-room mantelpiece whilst his spouse responded in the shrill accents of one who was determined to break the glass in the fine gilt gesso mirror.
'You've never cared a fig for me, yet now I have the chance of true happiness you have not the generosity of spirit to let me go! Well, I won't stay with you! Never, never, never!'
'Cease this foolish prating, madam, and retire to your room until you can view matters in a more reasonable light. I have tolerated your tiresome infidelities for more years than I care to remember, but give you up to Massingham in this appallingly public manner I will not!'
The sound of breaking china greeted this assertion. The whole structure of the house seemed to shiver. The servants, going about their business via routes that took them close to the drawing-room door, shivered with it.
'I want you to divorce me, Bevill!'
'Pray do not be so absurd, madam. Now kindly withdraw.'
'I shall run away!'
'Foolishness! I will never permit it.'
'You are all bluster and no substance. You always were! I know you will not stand in my way.'
The drawing-room door was flung open and the Marchioness of Tallant flounced through in an explosion of silks and neroli perfume. She threw a challenge over her shoulder.
'I am going to pack my portmanteau -'
'Do so.' The Marquis sounded bored. 'It will keep you from making an even greater fool of yourself, at least for an hour or so.'
'Massingham will have a carriage waiting for me ...'
'If he brings it closer than Oxford I shall have him horsewhipped from my estate.'
The Marchioness gathered up the cherry-red silk of her skirts in one hand and ran up the staircase, her slippers pattering on the oaken treads, her petticoats foaming about her ankles. She scattered servants before her like corn in the wind. One of her golden curls had come loose from its elaborate coiffure and curled artlessly in the hollow of her throat. Her blue eyes were wild. She looked beautiful and abandoned.
'Out of my way! Where is Trencher? Send her to me at once!'
On the upper landing, beneath the three-light mullion window, a child was sitting. He was playing with a set of toy soldiers, lining them up, and laying out his battle plan with studied absorption. The light from the window lay across him in coloured bars of red, green and gold. The Marchioness almost tripped over him before she realised that he was there. She swooped down on him in a flurry of silk.
'Joscelyne! What are you doing here? Where is Mr Grayling?'
The boy shrugged. His amber eyes swept over her indifferently for a moment.
'I am sorry, I have no notion, Mama.'
The Marchioness suppressed a shudder. It was not the boy's fault that he looked so like the Marquis, but just at the moment it made her feel quite ill. Joss and his father shared the amber eyes of the Tallants, hair of the richest, darkest auburn, and a tawny complexion to match. They had features that were so pure and classical that the Marchioness had once imagined Bevill Tallant to be some Greek god, come to pluck her from her narrow existence and take her to some other, more exciting plane. But that had been nine years before, when she had not actually known her husband at all. Now she knew better, knew him to be a narrow-minded bigot who denied her even the smallest of pleasures with a self-satisfied smile. But never mind small pleasures now - the greatest pleasure she had found in the past months was waiting for her out there, somewhere beyond the lion gates and the double avenue of elms, waiting in a closed carriage to whisk her away from dreary England and her grey existence, dull as the weather.
Clive Massingham. She shivered again, this time with anticipation.
It would mean losing her children. Her calculating blue gaze fell on Joscelyne once again as, head bent, he brought his cavalry into play. Such a strange child, with his self-absorption and his martial games. But he would barely notice her absence for she seldom saw him as it was, and soon he would be going away to school.
As for his sister upstairs in the nursery, that puling, puking child - she could never be quite sure who had fathered her but she knew that Bevill would do his duty by the girl. She had done hers by giving him an heir of undeniable Tallant blood. Juliana's parentage might be in doubt, but Bevill would never say so openly.
Dropping to her knees on the step below Joss, she looked her son in the eye. The bitter bile rose in her throat.
'I am going away now, Joss darling, but before I do I beg you to remember this piece of advice always. It is the best thing that I can do for you.'
She paused. The boy was looking at her now, unblinkingly, and it was quite uncanny. She put a hand on his arm and felt the tension in his body through the rich copper velvet of his sleeve.
'Never fall in love, my darling boy. Love is for fools and it will only make you unhappy. Do you understand me?'
There was a pause. The boy gave her back look for look.
The Marchioness nodded. She got to her feet. 'I am going away for a space but I will see you soon. Be a good boy.'
'Of course, Mama.' There was something faintly amused in the boy's tone. The Marchioness frowned slightly. It felt odd, saying such things to the child, as though she were giving redundant advice. Joss had always seemed so self-contained.
'Goodbye then, darling.' She patted his cheek. At the top of the stairs she looked back, but Joss's head was already bent over his soldiers again. She sighed. Bevill would never let him join the army, not when he was the heir and there was no spare. Still, that would be none of her concern and already she was late for her rendezvous. She cast one last look at her son, absorbed in his play, and went to pack her cases.
Excerpted from The Earl's Prize by Nicola Cornick Copyright © 2003 by Nicola Cornick. Excerpted by permission.
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