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'Your turn next then,' the Dowager Duchess of Dettingham told her eldest granddaughter with a smug nod at the posy of late China rosebuds the bride had thrown into Persephone Seaborne's hands before driving off with her besotted bridegroom.
Suddenly Persephone wouldn't have been surprised to look down and find it made up of thistles and stinging nettles instead of cosseted late blooms, and almost dropped the lovely thing in the dust. Jessica's purposefully accurate throw showed what a schemer her best friend had become since she had fallen in love with Jack Seaborne, Duke of Dettingham, and she wondered at herself for catching it more by reflex than desire to be the next one to marry as tradition demanded. Wondering who her grandmother expected her to marry this time, she coolly returned the Dowager's gimlet-eyed stare and silently fumed about matchmakers of all ages and abilities.
'Please don't plague the girl about such things on my daughter's special day, your Grace,' Lady Pendle, mother of the bride, intervened. Her youngest daughter had just married Persephone's cousin Jack, Duke of Dettingham, yet she found time to rescue Persephone from her domineering relative, and she was truly grateful.
'Anyway, I think Miss Brittles and Sir John will walk up the aisle long before I do. I see all the classic signs of mutual enchantment,' Persephone mused aloud.
She marvelled that a couple so very different from Jessica and Jack could wear the same smitten look whenever they set eyes on each other as the happy couple had been modelling for weeks. Sir John and his lady love seemed to manage to find their mark remarkably often among the large group of aristocrats and friends invited to the wedding of the year, let alone the Season, as well. Realising too late she'd placed them in the Duchess's sights by doing her thinking out loud, she sincerely wished she'd held her tongue in the terrible old lady's presence.
'Hah, that pair are far too old to go about smelling of April and May in such a ridiculous fashion,' the Dowager snapped with a fierce frown in their direction.
Miss Brittles took an involuntary step backwards and Sir John Coulter glowered back with compounded interest. Sensing more interesting prey than her stubborn granddaughter, the Dowager forgot her reluctant companions, so Persephone and Lady Pendle cravenly slipped into the crowd of guests milling about the famous gardens and made good their escape.
'Sir John seems very well equipped to fight his own battles,' Lady Pendle muttered sheepishly.
'And I'm sure Miss Brittles thinks him even more wonderful than usual for defending her from the dragon Duchess,' Persephone replied.
'So it's probably not really chicken-hearted of us to leave her Grace having fun in her own peculiar manner,' Lady Pendle agreed as she led Persephone to where her second-youngest daughter was standing with her doting husband, holding their baby son in her arms and taking in the finer nuances of a happy family occasion with her usual good-humoured intelligence.
'Never mind, Persephone dear, her Grace can't endure the countryside for more than a day or so and must be pining for the noise and stink of the city by now. Although making her grandchildren squirm is one of her favourite occupations, you do all seem to share a stubborn habit of going your own way. I can't imagine anything more exasperating for the poor, dear Duchess than being saddled with such deeply ungrateful descendants as this latest generation of Seabornes, can you, my love?' Rowena, Lady Tremayne, observed wickedly as she passed his son and heir to Sir Linstock instead of his hovering nurse, who seemed constantly surprised the child's parents were unwilling to leave him to her until he was old enough to be seen and not heard. If that day ever came in the lively Tremayne household, which Persephone doubted.
The dashing Baronet took his child from his lady with a rueful smile and a shrug that admitted the wild reputation he'd once worked so hard to earn was ruined, first by his uniquely fascinating wife and now the robust little son upon whom he clearly doted. There was a look of quiet contentment in his dark eyes Persephone had never thought she would see and Sir Linstock gently rocked his son as if he'd been practising to become a loving father for years. He had enjoyed a wild career as one of the worst rakes in London until he met Rowena's laughing blue eyes one night in May-fair and fell flat at her daintily shod feet like any awed boy fresh up from the country.
'I expect the Duchess will shortly decide she's not being treated with the reverence she deserves and demand to be taken home at a breakneck pace she would find deplorable in anyone else,' he observed laconically. 'Her coachman is probably supervising the harnessing of his team as we speak, in anticipation of his call to duty.'
Persephone laughed, but, as she chatted easily with the wider Pendle family and enjoyed their witty but never vicious byplay, she wondered why the idea of even so close a marriage as Rowena's with her Sir Linstock left her shivering. She was nearly two and twenty now and should make a creditable alliance, if only to stop her mother worrying about at least one of her children. Yet she hadn't met one gentleman she could endure being tied to for life during three successful Seasons in town.
Another shiver ran through her at the thought of meeting her imaginary groom in their nuptial chamber on their wedding night to trust him with so much of her true self. It was her parents' fault, she decided, picturing her father and mother together and knowing how desperately hard Lady Henry's life had become without her beloved husband to share it with. Like swans, Seabornes seemed fated to pair for life, with the notable exception of her grandfather. That famously raffish gentleman married for money and kept a succession of exotically lovely mistresses once the heir and a spare had filled the Ashburton nurseries with their robust cries. Persephone often wondered if her husband's careless infidelity was the reason for Grandmama Dettingham's famous irritability, even so many years after his death.
Despite his ramshackle example, the idea of marrying for less than love made Persephone shudder with distaste. She knew the intimacy of the marriage bed would never beckon her unless she was passionately in love, yet couldn't imagine actually being so. She would probably become the family quiz, but even that would be better than submitting to a husband she might grow to hate, just for the sake of children and an assured place in the world as a wife.
To avoid the uncomfortable jar of fear and denial in her heart at the very thought of such a husband, she watched as groups of chattering guests drifted on to the South Terrace, with its spectacular views of the distant Welsh hills one side and the rolling Herefordshire countryside the other. The vast Seaborne and Pendle clans had settled into casual groups and couples, along with Jack's friends and neighbours, and looked happy and relaxed as they exchanged news and enjoyed good company.
Sir Linstock was probably right about the Dowager deploring such simple pleasures and the fact that the company didn't hang on her every word as they clearly should. Persephone met Rowena Tremayne's laughing gaze for a rueful moment when an expected stir came from the Dowager's direction. A goodly part of the Pendle clan and Lady Henry Seaborne's own family moved to surround her ladyship in a protective huddle while she did duty as Jack's hostess once again to bid her exacting mother-in-law farewell.
When the Dowager finally departed, with as much stir as she could whip up to reassure herself of her importance, Persephone returned to the terrace with the rest of her family. The shock of a chilling shiver ran through her and made her want to hide in the crowd from malicious eyes that felt as if they watched her every move. She refused to cower like a coward inside the house, even if the warning instinct raising goose-bumps along her bare arms on this hot August day happened to be right. Trying to look as if she wasn't inspecting the crowd for a source of this odd sense of unease, she drifted about the terrace, greeting friends and acquaintances, and even forgot portents of evil as she met the infinitely complex gaze of Alexander Forthin, Earl of Calvercombe, and found him far more disturbing.
Now here was a man who would never love anyone but himself, she decided tetchily. Even if she disliked him more than any other male she had ever laid eyes on, fairness made her acknowledge he wasn't the one provoking this warning sense of danger she'd struggled with all afternoon, as if she were being sized up for her coffin by some ruthless but invisible enemy. Alex Forthin always provoked a very particular unease in her and it certainly wasn't this shivering sense of impending evil that had been nagging at the edges of her mind all afternoon.
So that was fairness out of the way and it was hard to maintain impartiality about him when the Earl constantly irritated her without any effort at all. My Lord Calvercombe would certainly be declared a deliciously brooding romantic hero by the flightier elements of the ton, if only they set eyes on him more often. Such breathless young ladies would be taken faint with delicious frissons of panic and desire on beholding his flawed male beauty, but it would take more than a few battle scars and a cynical smile to make the wretched man her beau ideal.
Yet she had to admit there was more to him than a wry smile and an intriguingly marred and still very handsome face. He had an ancient title, a suitably mysterious past, a vigorous masculine body that looked fit and hard with sleek muscle and that air of cool command. He somehow defied his own kind to see only the fine scarring over one side of his face and the one damaged, deep blue eye he wouldn't cover to make the world feel better when it looked at Alex Forthin.
She was a fair woman, Persephone told herself, as she wondered why he always made her itch to be an unfair and petty one instead. The man would make a model heroor villainfor one of the Gothic novels her contemporaries loved to lose themselves in with shivering delight. He would be revolted by the idea of fictional vices or virtues inflicted on him when he had plenty of his own, so just as well she wasn't a susceptible young girl. Persephone almost smiled at the idea, but stopped herself in the nick of time, horrified he might think she was casting lures in his direction when nothing was further from her mind.
Little wonder she was suffering imaginary horrors today with spectres like him drifting about her head, she decided, with a quick frown, and avoided his sharp blue gaze with as much dignity as she could manage. She flitted to the other side of the terrace and did her duty by the cream of local society and half the nobility of the land still milling about Jack's immaculately tended lawns. As most of them were curious about the reclusive Earl of Calvercombe, there seemed to be no getting away from him today even with as much distance as possible between them.
It said much for Lord Calvercombe's love of solitude that he'd escaped the combined attention of gentry and nobility as long as he had. She was surprised he'd risked encountering so many of them today to stand as Jack's groomsman and tried to tell herself it was unfair to blame him for standing in the place where her elder brother Richard should be. If Rich hadn't sauntered out of their lives three years ago, without a single word to reassure them he was still alive from that day to this, Jack would have accepted nobody else but the cousin who had been close as a brother to him. They had raked and larked about Oxford and London until both of them grew bored, after which Rich went off on his adventures and Jack had had to learn the burdens and privileges of being a great landlord and aristocrat, and bear them with style.
Persephone might admire the reclusive Earl for doing his duty by an old friend when her brother failed to turn up and do so, but that didn't mean she was attracted to the wretched man, or even had to like him. Luckily she had more sense than to want a lone wolf focusing his formidable attention on her and shot him an exasperated glare to prove it. How unfortunate that he was looking her way and raised a quizzical eyebrow, as if there was no point blaming him for her wayward thoughts. Turning her back on the annoying creature to prove he meant nothing, she went back to charming Jack's guests.
Their conversation might have revolved round Richard Seaborne's odd disappearance, if the occasion hadn't been Jack's wedding and she hadn't been Rich's sister. Few guests dared ask where he could have got off to, but the question was in many eyesfrom sharply curious to genuinely sympathetic. Despite his absence, Lady Henry Seaborne had organised this joyful celebration so flawlessly that everyone who came to be charmed by the happy couple seemed content and even Grandmama had enjoyed herself in her own peculiar fashion.
Persephone's eyes threatened to tear up if she gave herself time to think how deeply her beloved father would have enjoyed it all. When Jack's father broke his neck shortly after his Duchess died in childbed with her stillborn daughter, her own parents had moved to Ashburton New Place to help sixteen-year-old Jack grieve, and then enjoy his minority with as few cares as possible resting on his young shoulders.
To her shame, Persephone recalled being acutely jealous and sulking about the changes in her own life and the new burdens on her father and mother as Jack's guardians. She wondered if her brother Richard had felt the change even more acutely, at fifteen years of age, to her eight. No, she refused to think any more about the significant gaps in their ranks while there was so much still to be done, so she wove through the crowd as if she hadn't a care in the world and smiled and laughed until her face ached.
At last the company began to disperse to rest before dinner, or return home if they lived nearby, and Persephone was able to escape. Once she was out of sight of the house and terrace she gave a heartfelt sigh of relief and sped towards her favourite sanctuary. She was delighted for Jack and his new Duchess and exasperated with herself for feeling acutely uneasy on such a joyful day, but that didn't stop worry nagging at her like a sore tooth.
Even on this brilliantly sunny late-summer day there was the whisper of autumn in the air and she could almost scent something dangerous trying to blow in on the dusty south-west breeze along with it. She shivered despite the heat of a sunny August afternoon and felt everything was changing around her. Instinct was warning her again that an undefined evil was nipping at the safe world the Seabornes built here and it would damage them ruthlessly to achieve its purpose.