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Louise Vail has fled to her birthplace, hoping to find her family—but handsome Jonathan stops her in her tracks!
Jonathan's task is simple: escort the spirited miss promptly home. Then he learns Louise can use a sword, play whist and has the courage of a lion! Now, Jonathan finds ...
Louise Vail has fled to her birthplace, hoping to find her family—but handsome Jonathan stops her in her tracks!
Jonathan's task is simple: escort the spirited miss promptly home. Then he learns Louise can use a sword, play whist and has the courage of a lion! Now, Jonathan finds himself embroiled in her search—wanting to claim her as his own!
The Vicarage garden, though not large, was a haven of tranquillity. Its flower beds were bright with the colour of hollyhocks, sunflowers, larkspur and feverfew and redolent of the scent of roses, lavender and pinks. Louise had always loved it and, even as a small girl, she had enjoyed helping the gardener with sowing seeds and nurturing the plants. The old gardener was gone now, replaced by young Alfred Rayment, but she still liked to tend the garden and was never happier than when she was on her knees, clad in a plain round gown covered with a sacking apron, weeding or picking off the dead blooms.
Today was warm and sunny after a little rain the day before, and she had decided it was time to tackle the weeds in the narrow bed beneath her father's study window. She had been working contentedly for some time when she heard voices through the open window.
'Elizabeth, Louise will have to be told. She is no longer a child, she is a woman grown and old enough to understand.' Louise clearly heard her father's words, wondering what it was that occasioned them. He sounded unusually grim. Had she breached his strict code of conduct? Had she whispered to her brother Luke during his sermon on Sunday? Had he seen her riding astride which he did not consider at all ladylike? But if that had been the case, he would have summoned her to the study and rung a peal over her. She had never been in awe of him and could usually wind him round her thumb, so she would have been penitent and he would have smiled and forgiven her before letting her go. On so trivial a matter, he would not have had a discussion with her mother beforehand.
'No.' This was her mother's voice, unusually resolute for her. 'We left Moresdale to escape the past, to make a new beginning and I do not see why we should rake it up again now.'
'My dear, I know it is distressing for you and will be for her, but she will soon recover. It is not as if we are rejecting her, or that we have ceased to love her, but she will want to marry soon and the gentleman she chooses will have to be told the truth.'
Louise had ceased to pull up the weeds; she was sitting back on her heels, her weeding fork idle in her gloved hand, trying desperately to understand what was being said, hardly daring to breathe for fear of betraying her presence. That they were speaking of her, she had no doubt, but the words they were uttering were incomprehensible. What truth? What past did they need to escape from? She had a vague recollection of moving to Chipping Barnet when she was very small, but her memory of where they had lived before that was hazy.
'But why say anything at all?' her mother asked.
'Because it would be fraudulent for her to enter into a marriage with such a secret and aside from that, there is always the possibility of someone discovering it and telling her prospective husband. That would not do at all, you must see that. It would be despicable of us to allow him to learn it through a third party.'
'Who will discover it? No one knows but you and I '
'And Catherine,' he reminded her.
'Catherine will never breathe a word about it. It is more than she dare do.'
'Surely you do not think she has managed to keep it a secret from her husband all these years? Augustus Fel-lowes is no fool; he would likely know if Catherine was hiding something from him. And there may be others. I was not present when Louise was born and neither were you, so how do you know no one else knows?'
Louise put her hand over her mouth to stop her cry of distress becoming audible. How could he say her mother was not present at her birth? It was nonsense. Unless Unless Oh, no! She would not, could not, believe that, but her mother's next words confirmed her worst fear.
'She has been so happy with us, to learn her parents are not really her parents at all will break her heart,' she was saying. 'I may not have given her birth, but I am as real as any mother. My feelings for her are the feelings of a mother. I am happy when she is happy, sad when she is sad, hurt when she is hurt, and this will undoubtedly hurt her. I don't know how you can even think of doing it to her.'
A cool wind played about Louise's hair, but it was not cold that made her shiver, but shock. She could hardly take it in. Papa, the man who had nurtured her from babyhood, praised her when she had been good, chided her when naughty, given her an education, clothed and fed her, loved her, was not her papa at all. And Mama, to whom she had turned with all her problems, which had somehow always been miraculously solved, was not her mama. It must also mean Matthew, Mark and Luke were not her brothers. They were older than she was. Did they know the truth, that she was Who was she?
'Elizabeth, I am a man of the cloth,' her father went on. 'I am supposed to set an example of honesty and reclilude, but, for your sake, I have harboured this secret all these years, but my conscience will not allow me to let her marry in ignorance. She could marry a nobleman ' He wandered further from the window and Louise did not hear the end of his sentence.
'Oh, Edward, she was never so puffed up as to hope for that. It was only Luke's teasing when he said she should marry a viscount.'
'Well, of course it was. I know that, but the truth ' Again his voice was lost. He was evidently pacing back and forth.
'Then can you not postpone speaking to her until she is ready to marry? Please leave her in ignorance a little longer, I beg of you.'
Louise did not hear his reply. She flung down the gardeni ng fork, ripped off her apron and gloves and scrambled to her feet, her mind in turmoil. She did not know which way to turn and set off at a run down the garden path. But she was not thinking of the garden, not thinking of anything except the conversation she had just heard.
At the end of the path was an arbour of honeysuckle and pink climbing roses and here she flung herself on to a bench, too numb even for tears. She had lived all her life not knowing she was anything other than the beloved daughter of the Reverend Edward Vail and his wife, Elizabeth. And now it seemed that was a lie. She felt as if she had been broken into tiny little pieces, like a smashed vase dropped from a great height, never to be put together again.
She still could not take in what she had heard and wished with all her heart the last half-hour had never happened. If Papa and Mama were not her parents, who were? How did she come to be living with the Reverend? Had she been given away by her true parents? Whatever it was, it seemed it was a stigma that could possibly make a prospect ive husband reject her. She had often wondered why her own eyes were an unusual hazel flecked with green when all three brothers' eyes were blue and her father's were grey. The boys had fair hair, but hers was dark. Had she, along with her colouring, inherited some bad family trait she might pass on to her children? Even if that were so, how could any mother bring herself to give away her child?
Catherine. Catherine Fellowes. The name had burned itself into her brain. Was she her natural mother? Who was she? Where was she? From what she had heard, the woman was alive and afraid to divulge the truth, even to her husband. Did that mean Louise was not her husband's child? It seemed the most likely explanat ion. How many people knew she was a.? What was she? A bastard? There, she had thought that dreaded word even if she had not said it aloud. She was a nobody without a name except the one given to her by the Reverend and his wife. Why had they taken her in? Why keep the secret from her?
Could she go on, living the life she had, helping her father teach the village children, helping her mother with good works, going out riding with Luke, the youngest of her brothers, the only one still living at home, going to social occasions, meeting her friends, looking forward to falling in love and being married one day, just as if she had never heard those words? It was impossible. From now on, she would look at everything and everyone with fresh eyes, as if she had never seen them before. The people around her, the comfortable old rectory, the church where her father preached and where the whole family worshipped, the servants, her friends, the villagers: all would look different.
A cuckoo sang somewhere close at hand, its note repeating itself in her head long after it had flown away and could no longer be heard. 'Cuckoo. Cuckoo.' She was a cuckoo in the comfortable nest of the vicarage. Oh, it hurt; it hurt badly. The tears flowed at last, hot and blinding, streaming down her face unchecked.
She mopped them up until her handkerchief was sodden, but they ceased at last and gave way to anger. It was easier to be angry, anger did not hurt quite so much. She stood up and hurried purposefully back to the house, intent on confronti ng her parents and demanding an explanation, but they were nowhere to be found. Her father had been summoned to a sickbed and her mother had gone into the village, so she was told by Hetty, the parlourmaid. Even Luke was out, but she did not think she could confide in him, even though they were very close and he was the favourite among her three brothers, perhaps because he was nearest her own age. Apart from the servants, she was alone in the house.
She went up to her room, the pretty little room that had seen her grow from a tiny child to a beauliful woman, had seen her in all her moods, happy and sad, but never as miserable as she felt now. She sat on her bed, staring at the wall opposite her on which hung a picture of Christ surrounded by children and under it the text: Suffer the little children to come unto me. As a child she had loved that picture, but today its message seemed especially poignant. Papa had suffered her to come to him, but it seemed now as if he had changed his mind. Who was Catherine Fellowes? Where was she? The unknown woman seemed to be beckoning to her from the past. Come unto me.
Viscount Jonathan Leinster rode into London on the Edgware Road in leisurely fashion. It was a warm day and he was in no hurry, which was just as well because the crowds around the Tyburn gibbet were thicker than usual. He had just come from a dutiful visit to the family estate near Barnet and had endured the usual lecture from his father about venturing into matrimony and settling down to raise a brood of children. He would do that when he was good and ready and not before and certainly not with Dorothea Mantle, whom his parents had decided was eminently suitable. By suitable they meant she had the breeding, the social position and the dowry they considered necessary for the heir to an earl, and the Earl of Chastonbury at that. They took no account of her looks, disposition or standard of cleanliness, which, as far as he was concerned, made her eminently unsuitable.
He understood, though he did not see eye to eye with, their anxiety to have him married and produce the next heir, but their marriage did not set an example he wanted to follow. His mother had once told him it had been arranged by their respect ive fathers and she had dutifully accepted it. To everyone outside the family, they were a contented married couple, but they led separate lives with very little in common at all, except their parenthood of himself and his young sister, Arabella. His mother had not said it was a disaster, but he knew it was. His father had had a string of mistresses and his mother in desperation had taken lovers, none of which seemed to bring either of them any happiness. Belle had followed in her mother's footsteps and married the man her father had chosen for her and that had been an even bigger disaster. Henry was fifteen years older than Belle, a cruel man who used his wife ill. Jonathan had advised her to leave him, but she had a horror of the scandal and preferred to endure the misery, especially as their mother had told her it was her duty to do so. Jonathan had sworn it would not happen to him; he would need to be very, very sure before he got himself leg-shackled. The visit had not been a success.
He reined in, not so much because he was interested in what was happening around the gibbet but because the crowds were so thick it was almost impossible to force a way through them. It was then he remembered this was the day Robert Shirley, the second Earl Ferrers, was to be hanged for murder, the first peer ever to suffer that fate; the usual capital punishment for a member of the nobility was to have his head severed from his body with a blow from an axe. His pleas to be sent to the Tower for execution had been in vain; he was to be treated like any other common criminal. Even thinking about it made the hairs on Jonathan's neck stand on end and he felt as if his cravat were choking him. Not that he had ever killed anyone, except once, and that was in a duel and did not count. It was a fair fight and a long time ago, when he was a cabbage-head and had not yet learned to temper conquest with mercy.
Posted February 6, 2012
Posted May 28, 2011
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