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The slight, blond young woman in the faded muslin dress stood hesitantly in the portrait gallery of the huge old house. She was still trying to get her bearings. So much had happened in the last few days. Tears rose to her eyes at the thought, but Rebecca sniffed them back. She was a married woman now and couldn't be going around like a crybaby.
She gazed in awe at the life-size portraits of the previous Burlingames. All dark-eyed and dark-haired, they were. Just like that frightening and exasperating man who only yesterday had become her husband. Rebecca stifled a giggle. Imagine her becoming a marchioness!
Her eyes moved to a painting of a beautiful, fiery woman. Even in the portrait the love and passion in those wild, dark eyes was obvious. Rebecca shivered. This must be Constancia, the beautiful Constancia, whose wraith, astride the ghost of her famed black stallion, was reputed by villagers to haunt the countryside.
Examining the sultry face, Rebecca sighed. She herself felt like a wishy-washy thing, just a schoolroom miss, a mere dab of a girl. As he had announced, she was nothing but a chit.
"Regretting our hasty marriage already, my little bride?" said a deep voice behind her.
Rebecca jumped, startled to find Burlingame so near. "Indeed," my lord," she replied, forcing her voice into a semblance of calm, "it seems a little early yet to make a judgment on our marriage."
"Yes, I suppose it does." Robert, Marquess of Burlingame, stepped from the shadows and stopped before the painting of the woman who had been his ancestress. It was easy to see the family resemblance, the same dark gleaming hair, the same golden skin, and most of all, the samedark eyes full of passion and fire.
Rebecca suppressed a little shiver. And this man was her husband!
He was dressed immaculately. His light breeches above high boots that gleamed even in the gloom of the gallery fitted so close that not a wrinkle was apparent. His square-cut coat of blue superfine cloth stretched taut over his broad shoulders, and his snowy-white cravat was carelessly yet elegantly tied.
Rebecca studied him with something akin to terror. Even his dress inspired respect for his authority.
He swung on her abruptly. "Do you believe in love?" he demanded, his dark eyes gleaming sardonically.
"Of course." The words seemed to have left her mouth of their own volition. But though she had never much considered the matter before, she knew that she had spoken the truth. She did believe in love.
"I might have supposed it." His voice rose cynically. "Country misses usually do."
Rebecca stiffened at his tone. "I am not a country miss." She didn't exactly know what he was talking about, but the expression conjured up a buxom, apple-cheeked village girl. It was a picture she did not like, though she could not say precisely why.
"Well," Burlingame drawled softly, "you certainly appear to be one to me. Were you educated in a young ladies' school?"
Rebecca felt the tears threateningly close. "Of course not. You know that." He was terribly irritating, this handsome stranger she had wed. And he was also frightening.
Burlingame gave an exaggerated sigh. "How lamentable. You are worse than a country miss. You have no learning in needlework or water-colors or the pianoforte, I suppose?"
Rebecca shook her head. Now anger was replacing fear. "Of course I haven't. You know that. Papa--" her voice threatened to break but her anger carried her through. "Papa told you all that. before--before we married."
"Yes, he did." Burlingame's voice had grown surprisingly gentle, but Rebecca was not aware of it.
"I'm sorry that Papa asked you to marry me," Rebecca stammered. "I--I know I'm not g-good enough to be a Burlingame." She blinked rapidly. She would not cry before this man.
The word seemed to snap her head erect and her eyes were caught by his. "Stop this nonsense immediately. You are a Burlingame now. If you have social deficiencies, they will be remedied. Though why you should need to sew or paint or play the pianoforte is beyond me. At any rate your breeding is good and you will learn whatever is necessary."
Rebecca's cheeks flushed scarlet as those gleaming dark eyes held hers, but she was still angry. "I married you because it was Papa's dying wish," she said evenly, while the color slowly faded, leaving her cheeks even paler than usual. "I do not intend that you be ashamed of me. But it is not my fault that I am what you call a country miss. You knew my father's financial condition. You knew how little we had." Absently she fingered her faded gown. "It is unfair for you to taunt me with what I cannot help."
Because her eyes were filled with unshed tears she did not catch the expression of consternation that swept momentarily across his face. "I appreciate your straightforwardness," he said dryly. "As I told you yesterday, your new clothes should arrive within a day or two. They'll be more than sufficient for our life here. Just remember one thing. A Burlingame does not whine."
"Yes, my lord." Rebecca's back was ramrod straight, and with great effort she kept the tears from sliding down her cheeks. "I have forgotten something in my room," she said stiffly.
Burlingame appeared not to recognize the flimsiness of this excuse. "Dinner will be ready within the hour," he replied. "I'll expect you to be on time."
"Of course, my lord." Rebecca managed to get the words out before she turned and made her way back along the gallery to the room that was hers.
Hers alone, she thought, as the heavy door swung shut behind her. He had kept his word about that, at least.
Rebecca threw herself on the huge four-poster bed and let the tears flow. If only her father hadn't sickened and died. Of course, in having her marry Burlingame he meant the best for her. But Robert was so different from that bluff, kindly man.
She had never known the mother who died giving her birth, but she had been her father's constant companion. She knew how to hunt and shoot and ride as well as any man. She could read and write and cipher. But she knew nothing of the skills of being a wife, of being a woman.
She thought back to the day, such a short time before, when she had first met Burlingame. She'd been out taking care of the horses and had returned to find a tall, dark stranger seated by her father's bed. His dark eyes gleamed and his mouth twisted in a cynical smile as he surveyed her.
Rebecca, clad in the boy's breeches and shirt that she habitually wore to ride, had returned his look with one of contempt. She was not afraid of such a man. But when her father spoke, when he had said in his weak, quiet voice, "This is Lord Burlingame. He will be your husband," she had cried out in protest. "Papa, no! I don't want a husband."
"Rebecca, you must. You must have someone to care for you." The old man had reached out to touch her with his frail hand.
Looking across the sick bed at the stranger's dark, sardonic face, Rebecca felt a little shiver of fear--and of something else foreign and unnameable. This was the Burlingame they whispered about in the village.
"Obviously this has been a big shock to your daughter," his lordship said. "Perhaps if I might speak to her privately I might allay some of her fears."
"Of course. Go with him, Rebecca."
Faced with the pleading in her father's tired eyes, Rebecca could do nothing but follow the stranger into an adjoining room. Even in her distress she noticed with what ease and power he moved. She knew instinctively that he would be a fine horseman.
He turned to face her and she found herself trembling. "Please sit down, Miss Stratford. I assure you, I am not an ogre come to gobble you up."
"I am not afraid of you," she asserted. Nevertheless she sank into a convenient chair, thankful for its support.
"Of course not." His smile denied the words, but he did not pursue the matter. He pulled a chair close and faced her. "I came to your father on another matter. I wish to purchase a piece of his property that adjoins mine. He offered me you and his estate."
Rebecca flushed, but he did not seem to notice.
"Your father is dying." Rebecca did not flinch. She had faced that truth some time ago. "His concern is for your future. A young girl alone--"
"I--I can manage." But even as she said the words Rebecca knew that she could not.
"You cannot manage," he said sternly. "And only an idiot would suppose differently. Your father is trying to make provision for your future--and wisely so."
"Yes, but you--" Rebecca stopped. How could she tell this tall dark stranger that he wasn't fit to be a husband? Even as secluded as she and her father had been, she had heard rumors of unscrupulous men of fashion who played with the affections of innocent young girls. It was said that Burlingame was such a rake, and that Roedown House was often without its lord because he preferred the delights of London.
His bushy black brows drew together momentarily. "I see. My reputation has preceded me."
The flush that rose to Rebecca's cheeks made protest useless.
"I want those lands," Burlingame said. "They are important to me."
"But--but you don't want a wife."
Burlingame shrugged, broad shoulders stretching his coat taut. "I'm thirty years old. I shall have to acquire a wife eventually. Why not one whose lands are useful to me?"
Rebecca dug her nails into her palms. "But--but--"
"I assure you, Miss Stratford, that you shall be my wife in name only, if that is what is troubling you. I shall spend most of my time in London, leaving Roedown House to you."
Her flaming cheeks told him that he had guessed rightly. "I shall provide for you." He glanced around the chill, shabby room. "Much better than your father has been able to. I realize that you are still only a child and therefore easily frightened. But I assure you--I am a responsible member of society. And I am a Burlingame. A Burlingame never goes back on his word."
He regarded her quizzically. "Well, Rebecca, will you make your father's last days happy ones and become my wife?"
Rebecca tried to think calmly. Her father's wishes were certainly important to her. And she did need a secure future. And for some odd reason there was something about this darkly handsome man that made her know instinctively that he would keep his word.
She took a deep breath and met his eyes. "Yes, I will be your wife," she replied as steadily as she could.
From that moment on she had had no control over anything. The banns had been posted, the papers were drawn up, her future all provided for. And when the last paper had been signed, when there was nothing left for her father to do for her, he had quietly closed his eyes for the last time.
Rebecca rose from the bed hung with blue-and-white tapestries and wandered restlessly around the room. Yesterday, when Burlingame had brought her here, he had said, "This is your room. Mine is on the other side of that door. You will notice that the key to that door is on this side."
He had left her rather abruptly with a "Sleep well." Exhaustion had claimed her then, the events of the past few weeks taking their toll, and she had fallen into a deep sleep that had been broken only by a tap on the door and Sanders bearing tea and breakfast muffins.
Rebecca moved toward the flowered pitcher and basin that bore the fine cracks of great age. She splashed water on her face and shivered. Even in the spring these old houses were chilly. Then she moved toward the blue-and-white draperies that masked the windows.
The room was a corner one. From one window she looked out on stables and orchards. From another she could see, off in the distance beyond the cliffs, the shimmering blue of the sea. Rebecca sighed, wishing for the feel of a horse between her legs and a swift gallop across a green meadow or along the sandy shores.
With a last, wistful look she turned away. There was dinner to be faced. And then the arrival of Burlingame's younger brother, Jamie. There would be no time for a wild, free gallop today.
She was standing hesitantly at the top of the stairs when Burlingame appeared beside her. "You're just in time," he said.
As his fingers closed over her elbow Rebecca felt a shiver go through her. Then he was guiding her down the great curving staircase to the huge dining hall where their places had been laid in state at opposite ends of the long table.
"Must--must I sit so far away?" Rebecca faltered, standing behind a massive chair.
Burlingame raised an eyebrow. He seemed to be debating with himself and then, as Sanders appeared in the doorway, he said, "Move her ladyship's place up here near mine. This is not a state occasion."
"Yes, m'lord." The portly Sanders's lips were set in a firm, prim line, but Rebecca could see the friendly twinkle in her eye and her own heart seemed lighter somehow.
Finally Rebecca was settled in a chair on Burlingame's right. She found she was famished. The scent of pigeon pie that Evans, the butler, set before her was rising to make her mouth water and her stomach rumble. She picked up her fork and turned to Burlingame.
He gave her a strange smile. "Dig in, girl. You look like you haven't eaten in days."
Rebecca wanted to take exception to his remark, but the food smelled so good. They could argue later. She forked up pigeon pie and savored its rich taste. "Hmmmmmm. Sanders is an excellent cook."
Burlingame chuckled, and Rebecca looked up at him in surprise. For some reason she had never thought of Burlingame chuckling. "Sanders is the housekeeper. The cook's name is Collins. I suppose now that I'm a married man I shall have to have Sanders engage a few serving girls and some more footmen. After all," his lips curved in that sardonic smile, "a marchioness must be properly fed and looked after."
Rebecca flushed. She was still uneasy at being a titled lady. "So your brother is coming today?"
"Yes." Burlingame nodded. "Jamie will be along any time now. You'll like Jamie. He's a good lad."
He chewed thoughtfully. "But be careful around him. He limps, and he gets upset about it--a bad fall from a horse. And he's in love with a girl named Amelia Stapleton whose brother won't permit the banns. At times the lad descends into a fit of the dismals. When he does that, we need to jolly him out of it."
Rebecca nodded. "What will he think of our marriage of--of convenience?"
"He won't think anything of it." Burlingame's voice was stern. "Because he won't know. No one will know but you and I."
Rebecca raised wide green eyes to his. "But why?"
Burlingame quirked a cynical eyebrow. "My reputation is not exactly lily white," he remarked dryly. "But I see no reason to have it bruited about that I have married for land. There will be talk enough in London. There are quite a few mamas who have been trying to lure me with their daughters lo these many years. They will not be pleased to know that I have taken a wife."
Rebecca digested that thoughtfully. "You have never desired to marry?" she asked, aware of a sinking sensation in her stomach.
Burlingame scowled. "There was a woman once--"
Rebecca found that she was holding her breath. "What--what happened?"
"I discovered that she was not worth marrying."
"You must have loved her very much," Rebecca faltered.
"I did not love her at all. Love is for lads in short coats--and schoolroom misses. I, at least, shall never be caught in its toils. Now, as to your future." His dark eyes regarded her dryly. "Our marriage will certainly be the talk of the Season. But, my chit, you will not be an encumbrance to me. You will be here at Roedown House, you see. And I shall resume my previous haunts in London."
At her sudden look, he added, "Oh, discreetly, of course. As a gentleman should. The Burlingames have always been discreet--where women are concerned."
Rebecca felt herself biting back an angry reply. He was so irritating, with his arrogant assurance that he knew everything about the world--and her.
"At any rate, I don't want Jamie to know the reason for our marriage. He's a romantic type--still believes in love and all that. My defection would pain him.
"You're very quiet," Burlingame continued. "Not brewing rebellion, are you, little wife?"
Rebecca, fighting the sudden lurching in her stomach at his use of the phrase "little wife," raised her head and met his gaze calmly. "No, m'lord," she replied evenly, but her sparkling green eyes defied him. "I would never do that."
Burlingame eyed her curiously, then burst into laughter. "You're a game little thing, I'll say that for you, chit. Will you keep our secret?"
Rebecca considered for a moment. "Yes, m'lord, I will. I have no wish to hurt your brother--or you."
"Good girl." Burlingame's eyes held hers for one brief moment, and Rebecca felt a warm glow spread over her. Then there was the sound of carriage wheels in the drive.
Burlingame clapped her on the shoulder. "He's here," he said. "Jamie's here."
And then he was gone, striding happily toward the front hall, his joy at his brother's arrival written across his face.
Rebecca, staring down at half-eaten pigeon pie, was vaguely aware of a longing within herself, a longing to have Burlingame look upon her with such joy. She sighed and put down her fork.