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By Bertrice Small
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2003 Bertrice Small
All rights reserved.
Frances Devers had spent the several weeks crossing the ocean in a fog of sorrow and pain. A short year ago she had been courted by the handsomest man in all the Colonies. And then at Christmas Parker Randolph had asked for her hand, and she had accepted. He was a Virginia Randolph, although not from the more important branch of the Randolphs who were involved in the politics of the Colony. His family were distant cousins, but still he was a Virginia Randolph, her sister Maeve said enviously, admiring the diamond-and-pearl ring her youngest sibling now wore. Maeve was married to the eldest son of a local tobacco farmer.
The preparations had begun for a June wedding. There had been parties and balls and even picnics once the spring came. There was a trousseau to be made. A modiste and a tailor had come all the way from Williamsburg with their staffs to do the work, helped, of course, by the plantation servants. There were virtually no slaves on her family's tobacco plantation. Neither Kieran nor Fortune Devers believed in slavery. While they bought blacks at the slave auctions, the Africans remained slaves only long enough to be civilized. Then they were freed legally, paid a wage, and given shelter and food. Whether they remained was their decision, but most did for the Devers were known to be good employers.
The wedding of Frances Devers and Parker Randolph had been one of the most anticipated affairs of the year in the Colonies. The guests had come from as far as Massachusetts Bay and Barbados. The bride was the youngest child of a very wealthy and distinguished family. The groom was a Virginia Randolph. No expense had been spared to make this a gala event. The bride was beautiful. The groom set hearts a-flutter among the female guests. And then, the girl in the duke of Lundy's coach shuddered, putting from her mind the terrible images that refused to cease torturing her.
In the scandal and the chaos that had followed that terrible day, she had been comforted by her family, interrogated by the local king's justice, and prepared to be sent away from Maryland after her husband's funeral. She would go to England. To her grandmother, a woman she had never met. To a part of her family she didn't know. Six weeks after her wedding, she was put upon a ship. The ship belonged to her family's trading company, she was informed. She hadn't been aware her family owned ships. She was distantly related to the ship's captain, she was told. His wife would be her chaperon. Her longtime, and loved personal servant, a young black woman named Junie-Bee, would not accompany her. The break with Maryland was to be complete.
The day Frances boarded the Cardiff Rose II, her entire family accompanied her to the vessel. Her eldest sister, Aine, a nun with the Sisters of Saint Mary, had come for the wedding. She remained on in the tragic aftermath to comfort their mother. There as well were her eldest brother Shane and his wife, her brothers Cullen and Rory and their wives, her sister Maeve and her husband, and all her nieces and nephews. The youngest of her parents' sons Jamie and Charles, unmarried and adventurous, envied her. But they all cried, even her roughnecked brothers who had been closest in age to her. No one knew if Frances Devers would ever come home again.
Fortune Devers was pale. She wept copiously at having to part with her youngest child. She silently cursed the Virginia Randolphs for not knowing their son. Kieran Devers was drawn and, for the first time in his life, looked old. His heart had not been strong these past few years. This dreadful misfortune and the resulting consequence had taken a toll on his now-frail health.
"I am so sorry, Papa!" Frances sobbed on her father's shoulder a final time.
"Nay, lassie," he reassured her, stroking her dark hair. "You were right." He should have listened to his voice within, for he had sensed something off about young Parker Randolph. But he loved his child too much, and so he had pushed his doubts away, and let her follow her heart. Now they were all paying for his mistake. And they would lose her for it.
"These people you are sending me to ..." she began.
"Your grandmother knows the truth of the matter, lassie," he said. "She will love you, and you will love her. Jasmine Leslie is a good and sensible woman. Listen to her, my wee Fancy," he continued, using the nickname she had had since childhood, "she will guide you well. Your mother's family are wonderful people." And he kissed the top of his daughter's head. "You have her eyes, you know. Hers are that marvelous turquoise, too."
"They are?" Frances sniffed.
"Aye, they are," he said, smiling for the first time in weeks. "She was a princess from a foreign land. She traveled to England for over six months aboard a great vessel, the first one to be called Cardiff Rose. You will travel only a few weeks, my dearest daughter. And while I am an Irishman born, England is a lovely land, too. You will be happy there."
"Not without you and Mama!" Frances cried. "Not without my family, Papa!"
"You have a very large family, my child," Fortune told her daughter. "Most of them you have never met. But I have spoken to you over the years of them all. You will live with your grandmother on my brother Charlie's estate. You will have two of your cousins for companions. They are young girls like yourself. Your uncle is related to the king himself! You will probably go to court, Fancy! And one day, knowing my mother, you will again find a man to love, and this time he will really love you."
"Never!" Fancy spat.
"Surely you do not still hold an affection for Parker Randolph?" her mother said nervously.
"No, I do not," the girl said stonily.
Fortune heaved an audible sigh of relief, and remembering it Fancy Devers almost laughed aloud. No. She held no passion for her departed husband. But she would never again allow any man to gain the slightest hold on her heart. Men could not be trusted, except, of course, for her father, and brothers.
Finally the ship was ready to sail. With much kissing and crying, Frances Devers bid her family and her childhood a final farewell. She then proceeded to weep her way across the Atlantic until England came into her view. The captain's wife, a motherly woman who had raised two daughters of her own, was wise enough to offer Frances her warm companionship but no advice unless solicited. She coaxed the grieving girl to eat and spoke warmly of Lady Jasmine.
When their vessel had finally anchored in the London Pool, there had been a smaller boat awaiting her, a barge. They lowered her in the boatswain's chair from the deck of the Cardiff Rose II to the deck of her waiting transport. The little cabin was elegant with its green velvet bench and fresh flowers in crystal holders on either side of the enclosure. There were pink roses, daisies, and delicate ferns. Her luggage finally stowed aboard the barge, and a second river transport, Fancy Devers began her journey upriver to Chiswick-on-Strand where she would stay the night at a place called Greenwood House.
It was midafternoon of an early September day, and the great bustling city through which the river Thames glided was a revelation to a girl who had never before in her entire life seen a real city. She didn't know which way to turn next, or if she should be afraid. The door to her enclosure was open to allow the river breeze to cool her. One of the rowers kept shouting out the places of interest as they passed.
"There be Whitehall, miss. King's not there right now. The gentry likes the country in the summertime. There be Westminster Palace. There be the Houses of Parliament for all the good the gentlemen politicians do us common folk. There be the Tower where traitors are kept and then gets their heads chopped off, miss." This last was said with great relish.
Finally the barge nosed its way into a stone landing quay and docked. Liveried servants hurried down the green lawn to the water's edge and helped Fancy out. Her luggage was already being unloaded. A young woman servant ran down from the house and curtsied before her. She had dancing gray-blue eyes, and her hair was ash brown beneath her cap.
"I be Bess Trueheart, mistress. Your grandmother has sent me to serve you. We are to depart for Queen's Malvern on the morrow. Please come into the house. You will want a bath, I am sure, and your dinner. And a bed that does not rock," she concluded with a smile. Then she curtsied again.
Fancy laughed. For the first time in weeks she actually laughed. "Thank you, Bess Trueheart," she replied, "and you are correct. I am hungry, tired, and dirty."
In Greenwood House she had been greeted by the servants, many older than younger, who welcomed her warmly. They remarked on how very much she resembled an ancestress, whose picture hung in the Great Hall overlooking the river. The housekeeper took her there, and Fancy was surprised by the portrait of the woman that was pointed out to her. She had dark hair, skin like cream, and her head was held at a proud tilt. She wore an elegant gown of scarlet velvet, embroidered with pearls and gold thread. They did resemble each other, but Fancy thought the woman far more beautiful than she was.
"Who is she?" she asked the housekeeper.
"Why, miss, that be your great-great-grandmother, Skye O'Malley. But you do not have her eyes. You have the duchess's, your grandmother's, eyes. I never in all my born days saw eyes that color except in her, and now you."
The next morning, Fancy and her new maidservant departed for Queen's Malvern, outside Worcester. It would be a trip of several long days. Her uncle, the duke, Bess told her, had arranged for the best of inns along the way. She was not to worry herself about anything at all. The weather was usually good in early autumn. The roads would be, if not dusty, dry so they should be home in no time at all.
Fancy sat back and took Bess's advice. She closed her eyes and thought about Maryland, and her family, and tried to push what had happened from her memory. But along with the thought of tobacco being harvested, the sweet smell of it drying in the barns, and the long skeins of geese soaring above the Chesapeake as the trees began to turn, came images of Parker Randolph.
They called him the handsomest man in the Colonies, and outwardly he surely had been. He was tall and lean of body, with wavy dark blond hair, and the bluest eyes she had ever seen. His smile had been quick. His laughter infectious. His manners and his charm legend. And she had believed him when he said he loved her. Fancy blinked back her tears.
But Parker hadn't loved her at all. His soul had been as black as his features were beautiful. And she had found out too late. Too late to prevent their marriage. Too late to prevent the scandal that surrounded his death. Her dreams of love, a life of happiness like her parents had shared, had been brutally crushed. But she had at least been fortunate to escape Parker before he caused her worse pain than the reality of what he was already had. If only they had learned of his true character, and that of his family, before she had become his wife.
But they hadn't known, hadn't even suspected. After all, as Maeve so succinctly pointed out, he was a Virginia Randolph. His more important Virginia relations had helped Kieran Devers quell the storm of controversy that had erupted over Parker Randolph's death. Faced with the true facts of the situation, and as horrified as the few others who knew what had really happened, they had used their considerable influence to extinguish the uproar as swiftly as possible. The truth was not pretty and had it been known, the scandal would have been impossible to contain.
So they had agreed with Devers that the sooner the widow departed the Colonies for England, the quicker this disgraceful situation would die down. With Frances Devers gone, the talk would fade away, probably by winter, everyone was quite certain. And so she had been exiled from everything and everyone she had loved. But Parker Randolph had taught her a valuable lesson. He had taught her that men could not be trusted. He had taught her that her father and her brothers were unique.
And when she had asked her parents why they had not told her these things before she wed, her mother had wept bitter tears. They had been so happy together, Fortune explained, that the difficulties they had faced in their youth in England and Ireland had been forgotten as the years passed. Aine, her eldest sister, had known the real story. So had Shane, Cullen and Rory, who had been named for deceased relatives and friends in Ireland. When pressed, Maeve recalled something about their father's wicked younger brother but little else. Neither Jamie, Charlie, nor she had known a great deal of their father's early history. And they weren't particularly interested.
They knew about their mother's family, who it seemed were wealthy and powerful people. Their grandmother was, in their minds, a colorful character who had outlived several husbands and had had a royal prince for a lover. She had known dukes and kings. Their mother said that her mother's own father had been the ruler of a great land thousands of miles across the earth. Fancy remembered that as children they had not quite believed their mother's tales. She was, it seemed, a great storyteller, touched with the gift of gab, her father would tease, for their mother had also been born in Ireland although she wasn't raised there.
But now, Fancy considered, those stories did not seem quite as outlandish as she and her siblings had believed. The comfortable luxury she had experienced so far was eye opening. She had never before known servants who had been with a family for generations. She had never experienced the fawning respect given to her and her equipage as they entered the assigned innyards and the inns. The lady wished a bath? At once! The lady preferred duck to capon? Immediately! It was all most revealing, and her curiosity was piqued. She found she was anxious to reach Queen's Malvern. And then suddenly they were there.
The elegant carriage that had been drawn all the way from London by six perfectly matched bays with cream-colored manes and tails moved smartly through the gates of the estate. Interested, Fancy pulled down the window and peered out. Located in a small valley in the Malvern Hills between the rivers Severn and Wye, the house and its lands had once been a royal property. Late in the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, the queen, in need of monies, had sold the estate to the de Marisco family. They had left it to their favorite granddaughter, and it was her son, the duke of Lundy, who now possessed it.
Constructed in the reign of Edward IV as a gift for his queen, the house of warm mellowed pink brick was built in the shape of an E. The brick outer walls were covered in shiny dark green ivy except for one wing that had been burned during the Commonwealth and reconstructed just five years ago following the king's restoration. The windows were tall and wide with leaded panes. The roofs were of dark slate with many chimneys. It looked a comfortable home to Fancy. Waiting before the house upon the carefully raked gravel drive was a small group of people. The most striking of the group was a woman in a garnet silk gown, the cream-colored lace of her chemise showing above the neckline, a lacy shawl draped about her shoulders. The lady had silvery hair with two ebony wings on either side of her head. Next to her stood a younger woman wearing a silk dress of ocean blue. Her hair, a dark blond, was fashioned with elegant curls. Next to her was a tall gentleman in a black velvet suit with snow-white lace cuffs, and a white shirt. His auburn hair was cropped short, and he had silver buckles on his shoes. With these three stood two young girls, quite similar in appearance. One wore a gown of deep green silk, and the other a gown of rich violet. Both had dark hair as did Fancy. How alike we are, Fancy considered. We could be sisters. How odd. I wonder if Mama knew. They are more like me than my own siblings.
"The old woman is your grandmother," Bess said. "The gentleman by her side is the duke, your uncle. The blond lady is his wife, Lady Barbara. The two lasses your cousins, Lady Cynara and Lady Diana."
"Are they sisters?" Fancy asked.
"Nay," Bess quickly said. "Lady Cynara is the duke and Lady Barbara's daughter. Lady Diana is the duke of Glenkirk's lass."
Fancy struggled to sort out the relationships as her mother had explained them to her. "She's a Leslie?"
"Her father is my mother's brother," Fancy said aloud. "He is the eldest of my grandmother's Leslie children. My mother is the youngest child of her second marriage to the marquis of Westleigh."
Excerpted from Vixens by Bertrice Small. Copyright © 2003 Bertrice Small. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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