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Lady Juliana Tallant had no memory of her mother. She had been only four years old when the Marchioness had run off with a lover and the Marquis of Tallant had banished his errant wife's portrait from the blue saloon. These days it lay swathed in sheets in the attic, gathering a layer of dust and dead spiders. The Marchioness's warmth and vitality, captured so accurately by the young artist who had been another of her lovers, was quenched by the shadows.
When matters in the house were particularly grim, Juliana would creep up to the attic and pull back the sheet that covered her mother's disgrace, and stand for hours staring at that pretty, painted face. There was an old spotted mirror in the corner of the attic and she would pose before it in her too-small gowns, her slippered feet stirring the dust as she tried to trace the resemblance between her own features and those on the canvas. The eyes were the same, emerald green with specks of gold, and the small nose and the generous mouth, too wide for true beauty.
The shape of Juliana's face was different and she had what she thought of as the Tallant auburn hair, although she had heard her father say that she was none of his begetting and so it was hard to see how she could have inherited his hair.
"It is difficult for the girl to be without her mother," Juliana had once heard her aunt Beatrix say to the Marquis, but Bevil Tallant had given his sister a look that said she was a simpleton and told her that the child had the servants and a governess, and what more could she want?
On that particular summer's afternoon, Juliana had grown bored with the French lessons that Miss Bertie had been trying to drum into her and had begged and begged to be released into the sunshine. In the end the beleaguered governess had agreed and Juliana had skipped downstairs, ignoring Miss Bertie's instructions to take a parasol and behave with decorum. Young ladies always wore bonnets; young ladies did not run through the wild-flower meadow, young ladies never spoke to a gentleman without first being introduced ... Even at fourteen, Juliana knew that being a young lady could be a tiresome business. Even at fourteen, she was a rebel.
The door of the blue saloon was ajar and she could hear her father's voice above the clink of the teacups. Aunt Beatrix was making one of her infrequent visits to Ashby Tallant.
"I found Marianne living in Rome with Count Calzioni," Juliana heard her spinster aunt say, in answer to a question from the Marquis. "She asked after the children, Bevil."
The Marquis grunted.
"I do believe that she would like to return to England to see them, but it is impossible, of course."
The Marquis grunted again. There was a pause.
"I hear that Joss does very well at Oxford," Beatrix said brightly. "I am surprised that you do not send Juliana away to school as well. I am sure that she would blossom this time. You know she is eager to please you."
"I'd be glad to send her away but it is all a waste of damned time," the Marquis said. "Did as you suggested last time and look what happened, Trix! The girl's wild to a fault, just like her mother."
Beatrix tutted. "I do not believe that one can condemn Juliana so harshly, Bevil. The incident at the school was unfortunate -"
"Unfortunate? Reading French pornography? Outrageous, more like. I ask you, Beatrix -"
"It was scarcely pornography," Beatrix said calmly.
"Some naughty cartoons smuggled in by one of the other girls ... Besides, if Juliana wished to read that sort of book, she need look no further than your own library, Bevil!"
The Marquis grunted a third time in a very bad-tempered way. Juliana checked that there were no servants lurking, then leaned more closely towards the half-open door so that she could hear more clearly.
"There is always marriage," Beatrix was saying thoughtfully. "She is a trifle young yet, but in a couple of years ..."
"As soon as she is seventeen," the Marquis said crossly.
"Married off and an end to it."
"Let us hope so," Beatrix said drily. "It was not an end for Marianne, was it, Bevil?"
"Marianne was a wanton," Bevil Tallant said coldly of his estranged wife. "She lost count of her own lovers. Aye, and the child is cut from the same cloth, Trix. You mark my words. She will come to a bad end."
The voices continued, but Juliana turned away and traipsed across the black-and-white marbled entrance hall and down the wide stone steps at the front of Ashby Tallant House. The heat struck her as soon as she was out of the shadow of the portico, bouncing up from the white stones and burning her face. She had forgotten her bonnet. And her parasol. There would be more freckles tomorrow.
She walked across the drive, taking the path that ran between the lime trees and away across the meadow towards the river. Her footsteps were slow and her thoughts dragged as well. She did not understand why her father always wanted to send her away. Every day he would endure a painful quarter-hour with her when she told him what she had learned at lessons that day, but with a child's instinct she knew that he was not really interested. When the clock chimed he would send her away without a backward look. On a larger scale, he had been pleased to pack her off to school at Miss Evering's Seminary and was awesomely angry when she had made her unscheduled return. Now it seemed that if she wanted to please him, she would have to marry as soon as possible. Juliana thought that she could probably do that. She knew that she was pretty. All the same, a little voice told her that she might do that and more, and her father would never be pleased with her. He would never love her.
Juliana took the path through the reed bed that bordered the river. Here the water flowed sluggishly in a series of bends as it approached the village of Ashby Tallant, and there was a big pool by the willow trees where the ducks preened and the fish sunbathed in the shallows. Juliana pushed the willow curtain aside and slipped into the golden darkness.
Somebody was already there. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, Juliana saw a boy scramble hastily to his feet, rubbing the palms of his hands on his breeches. He was tall and gangling, with straw-coloured hair and a face pitted with the cruel spots of adolescence. Juliana stopped dead and stared at him. He looked like a farmer's son, or perhaps a blacksmith's boy. For all that he was the taller of the two, she still looked down her nose at him.
"Who are you?' She spoke with the cut-glass condescension she had heard in Beatrix's voice when she addressed the servants, and she expected it to have the same effect.
However, the boy - or perhaps he could more accurately be described as a young man since he must be at least fifteen years old - merely grinned at her tone. Juliana noticed that he had very white, even teeth. He sketched a clumsy bow that looked incongruous with his grass-stained shirt and ancient breeches.
"Martin Davencourt, at your service, ma'am. And you are -?"
Excerpted from Wayward Widow by Nicola Cornick Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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