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Lord Jonathan Sinclair, the Marquess of Luton, nodded and smiled at his guests, feeling pleased. It seemed nearly the whole of Bedfordshire had arrived at Luton Court for the late February marriage of Miss Helène Phillips and Lord Charles Quentin. The marquess was inclined to take credit for the day's events. Miss Phillips had been, until quite recently, the governess to Lord Sinclair's children-and Lord Quentin was his best friend.
Affairs couldn't be better, the marquess decided, smiling in satisfaction as he watched the wedding guests whirl about his ballroom. The ceremony itself had gone off beautifully that very morning-the bride blushing with happiness, the groom displaying a proper recognition of his own good fortune-and even Lady Sinclair, the marquess's wife, had shed pretty tears.
'Twas a far cry from the fortnight previous, thought Jonathan. When both he and Lord Quentin had been absent from Luton, and the marchioness had accused Miss Phillips of theft, and the governess had been gaoled in the home of that horrid Sir Malcolm, and then Miss Phillips's cousin-the Duke of Grentham-had arrived unexpectedly from the Americas, and--
Lord Sinclair's thoughts broke off as he spied the duke across the dance floor, taller than most, his cropped hair in simple contrast to some of the elaborate arrangements of the other gentlemen. The duke's manners were more rustic than those of the typical English-bred noble, but 'twas what one expected from someone who'd spent the past decade in the wilds of Virginia. Although, Jonathan reflected, by all evidence dancing was not a lost art in that part of the world. Lord Torrance cut an elegant figureon the dance floor, and the ladies had swarmed around him as close as they dared, hoping to be the first to catch his eye as the orchestra began a waltz.
Which it was doing now. Who would be the lucky female? Jonathan wondered, craning his neck and hoping to spy out the duke's choice. But it was difficult to recognize anyone through the mass of people crowding the ballroom, especially as the marchioness had chosen to add huge, potted orange trees-carted in from the hothouse on the backs of groaning footmen, and interspersed with the palms-as decoration. The greenery obscured every line of sight.
The marquess's attention was drawn to a nearby branch, and he realized that his wife had managed, despite his clearly expressed wishes, to find fruit to tie onto the orange trees. Imported from Spain at enormous expense, no doubt. Jonathan's irritation rose for a moment, then he shrugged. Celia would do what she would do. He returned his attention to the floor.
Lady Pamela Sinclair loved to dance. She loved the waltz especially, with its elegant, simple progression of steps, in one sense repetitive, but in another sense...
In another sense, each waltz was unique. Each couple made it their own, each gentleman held his lady in a particular way, made each turn with his own rhythm, the lady's skirts sweeping out just so.
'Twas nothing like the complexities of a quadrille, the steps of a chaîne Anglaise or a pastorelle-but, somehow, all the more individual for that. Lady Pamela thought she must remember every waltz of the past seven years, since receiving her permissions at nineteen. Every waltz, and every gentleman, whether they had danced well or ill.
She waited for one gentleman, now. Lord Benjamin Torrance had requested her hand for the first waltz several days ago, as they returned from a long walk through wet snow to the top of Crabtree Hill. The duke was staying at Luton until his cousin's marriage, and he and Lady Pamela had developed a ... an acquaintance.
She risked a peek over the heads of the crowd, waiting. Lord Torrance was not a shy man. He had been forthright in defense of his cousin Helène-knocking Lord Quentin to the ground on one memorable occasion when he thought Charles had insulted her-but his request for Lady Pamela's hand in the waltz had been halting and unsure.
"Do you suppose-can one-is one allowed, you know-to inquire?"
She had eventually understood, and her answer came with as much blushing stammer as the duke's request. Lord Torrance's manners were never boorish, but he had been in the Americas for ten years and had little of the town polish displayed by other men of his rank. This delighted Lady Pamela. In the few weeks of their acquaintance, she had often found herself favorably comparing the duke-with his good humor and disregard of his own consequence-to the overblown, puffed-up society gentlemen who filled the ballrooms of the haut ton.
Her own brother and Lord Quentin were excepted, of course. Lady Pamela had long realized that she was drawn to the least ton-ish of the ton, those men who had abilities and interests beyond the latest fashion in neckwear, or drinking themselves into a stupor at one of the London clubs. Lord Edward Tremayne, the Earl of Ketrick, for example--
Pamela's thoughts came to an abrupt halt. She did not want to think about the Earl of Ketrick. Not now, not tonight. She took a deep breath and willed composure, as the orchestra, finally, took up the strains of a waltz. She had waited for this moment since the day of Crabtree Hill. She had not bothered to examine her feelings any further, knowing only that she wanted to waltz with the Duke of Grentham more than she had wanted anything for a long time.
The duke stood in front of her suddenly and swept out a bow. Lady Pamela curtseyed low and smiled up at him, so tall, so very handsome, the face that she had met almost nightly in her dreams.
"Your grace," said Lady Pam. She took his offered hand, and they stepped out onto the floor.
The dancers parted for a moment, and Jonathan caught sight of Lord Torrance, discovering that the duke's new partner was Lady Pamela Sinclair, the marquess's own sister. His first thought was that they made a striking match. Both fair-the duke's thick, straight locks were only a shade darker than Lady Pamela's own-and both dressed in a marked simplicity of style. Lord Torrance wore a grey coat, and matching pantaloons without buckles, and he might, thought the marquess, simply lack knowledge of the latest London fashions. But the restrained elegance of his sister's costume was characteristic, a conscious decision. Pamela Sinclair was widely acknowledged one of the most beautiful ladies of the ton, and furbelows-and-lace would only draw attention from her exquisite face and the cascading ringlets of shining, white-gold hair.
She was dressed tonight in a fine cloth of silver, the gown cut modestly and without ornamentation. The marquess saw his sister tilt her head up to the duke, saw her smile and make a laughing comment.
Jonathan frowned. He continued to watch Lord Torrance and Lady Pamela for several minutes, on and off, as the other dancers allowed. Something was amiss....
"Oye! Luton! You've a monkey with my name on it!"
Lord Sinclair turned to see Viscount Merrill and Lord Sawbridge, two of his more distant, and less reputable cousins. Merrill was holding up a deck of cards.
Jonathan smiled and, forgetting his sister and the Duke of Grentham, turned to join them in what he hoped would be a profitable game of loo.
Something was wrong.
The Duke of Grentham was a marvelous dancer, his line controlled and smooth, his movements sure. Lady Pamela could find no fault as he led her through the steps of the waltz. Still, something was wrong. She saw it in his face, felt it in the pressure of his hand against her back, sensed it in the coolness of his replies to her attempts at conversation.
"The snow will soon be gone," she had said, smiling, remembering a previous exchange. "If I am to teach you how to sled..."
"I doubt there will be time," he had answered.
Lady Pamela's heart raced, and her smile threatened to collapse. She thought she would succumb to panic if he would not smile back at her, if they must continue this way much longer, in a waltz that she had longed for so intensely during the waking hours of the past few days, and danced in her dreams.
Lord Quentin and his bride swept by, all blissful smiles, and Pam felt tears start to her eyes. What has happened? she cried silently. What have I done?
Perhaps Lord Torrance felt ill at ease in such a crowded ballroom. Pamela clung to that thought, despite every evidence to the contrary. The duke had squired his cousin, the new Lady Quentin, through a twiller-a raucous country dance of purely Bedfordshire origin-and had laughed with everyone else when a third of the dancers ended up on the floor. 'Ill at ease' did not seem to describe the duke under any circumstances.
But perhaps it was the waltz itself, thought Pam; the permitted touch, the closeness to one's partner.... She longed to ask him what the trouble was, what had brought an unaccustomed severity to the rugged planes of his face. She longed to ask him and was afraid.
Several times the duke seemed to be on the verge of speaking. Pam, feeling that the tension between them increased with each turn, began, uncharacteristically, to chatter.
"Jonathan invites half of England to his parties, I'm afraid," she informed Lord Torrance. "And, of course, our cousins make up the rest. I'm sure you will meet everyone eventually, but--"
"The gentleman in the shocking red pantaloons is Lord Quentin's stepbrother," continued Lady Pamela. "His mother is Lady Susannah, you know, the Earl of Tavelstock's second wife. Celia makes fun of his costume, but he's really quite sweet. And that young woman--"
Good heavens, thought Pam. I'm babbling like a schoolgirl. Lord Torrance murmured an occasional assent, but said nothing else. Until--
"The viscount's wife died a year ago midwinter, poor thing. He's taken a mistress, and--"
The duke started violently. "A mistress?" he said, staring at her.
"Well ... well, yes."
Lady Pamela hesitated. Surely, the duke had heard of such arrangements, even in Virginia. But, of course he had. Just last week their conversation had touched on the marchioness's own situation, prior to her marriage to Jonathan. Touched on it in a roundabout way, true, but Lord Torrance had certainly taken her meaning. The ton was full of gentlemen and their mistresses.
She must have mistaken the duke's response, thought Pamela. A woman in her own position-past twenty-five years of age, standing on her own birth within the highest ranks of society-was allowed to speak of such things. The pause in their conversation threatened to become awkward, and she decided she must forge ahead.
"Lady Bessbranagh is a widow herself," she said, taking a deep breath and refusing to flinch from the duke's continued stare. "She and the viscount are a great comfort to one another."
"A comfort?" replied Lord Torrance. He drawled out the syllables. "You-we-English seem very fond of our comforts, do we not?"
"I suppose..." Lady Pamela's smile was now fixed, for the disapproval in the duke's words could no longer be ignored. What could have happened? He had never before spoken to her thus, ever.
"Even the Earl of Ketrick, I believe, was fond of his comforts."
Lady Pamela had not stumbled while dancing in her life. She did so now with a soft cry, and would have fallen if the duke had not moved swiftly, with an easy strength, to support her as she caught her footing.
"Are you well?" asked Lord Torrance.
Could she see a trace of concern in his eyes? Pam thought she saw something else, an expression new to her in the duke.
"Yes ... yes, of course," she told him, trying to speak lightly, trying again to smile. "How foolish of me..."
"Perhaps you require rest."
"Oh, no. No, I'm sure..."
They had stopped in the middle of the dance floor. Couples swept past on every side, but the music now faded from her hearing. Lady Pamela felt that she must escape from the ballroom immediately, or she would suffer the embarrassment of fainting publicly in the Duke of Grentham's arms. The prospect terrified her, as she could not imagine making such a scene at Helène's wedding. She had never fainted.
A swift movement, half-seen from the corner of her eye. Lady Pam felt herself lifted up and carried easily through the crush of dancers. She closed her eyes, knowing that any protest would worsen the gossip, and perhaps she did faint, for her next memory was of the cool garden breeze on her cheek. She rested for a moment, unmoving, content. Strong arms enfolded her, and she felt a gentle hand brush stray tendrils of hair from her forehead.
This was a different voice from that of her waltz partner; soft, almost a whisper. She heard caring, and worry, something hidden deep...
"I never wanted ... I never meant for you..." She heard her own voice dimly, from a distance.
Fingers touched her lips. "Hush. I know. I'm sorry."
It was as if two strangers were talking, far away. The man spoke directly to the woman's heart, and she to his, but the conversation faded.... Pam reached out, wanting to say more, needing the comfort of words.
"Oh," said Pamela, and sat upright. Her eyelids snapped open, "Oh, how dare you!" She scrambled from the Duke of Grentham's lap and stood, wobbling slightly. He reached out to steady her, but she slapped his hand away. She looked around. They were on the east garden terrace, sheltered in a nook with various pieces of garden statuary. The night was cold but she felt nothing through the heat of anger.
"Who asked your opinion of my life?" She kept her voice low, knowing that the wedding ball continued only steps away. "Who gave you permission to judge me?"
"I'm not judging you."
"I mentioned a man's name, that is all."
"A man's name?" Pamela could not believe she was hearing this. "A man's name, you say, and that is all?"
"Perhaps I was mistaken. Do you avow that you did not know him?"
"Of course I knew Lord Tremayne."
"Then I cannot see that I've committed any fault," said the duke. "If it offends you to hear the truth of your own behavior spoken aloud--"
"You are overset. Let me send for your maid."
She reached out to slap him. Lord Torrance caught her hand in his. The touch was dizzying; time hung motionless in the night air. They stared at each other, unspeaking, until the duke took Pam's other arm and pulled her to him. He was a head taller than she, she looked up into blue eyes and a mouth drawn tight....
Perhaps he was still angry. Lady Pamela could not tell, for he had pressed her against his chest so that she could barely breathe, he buried her lips under his, and they stood swaying together, forgetting for the moment the chill night air and the words so recently spoken. His hands caressed her back, and a soft murmur escaped her. This seemed to rouse him further, and he whispered her name.
"Pamela. Pamela. I know it wasn't really you. I've forgiven you--"
Through the flooding desire, through the tumult of feelings that Lord Torrance awakened in her, Pamela heard those words clearly, and understood.
She put both hands on the duke's broad chest and pushed him away.
I've forgiven you.
Forgiveness? Oh, no indeed, spare me such a favour. I have not asked for your forgiveness. It is not yours to give.
They were both breathing hard; the duke reached forward again, warm protest in his eyes.
"You are wrong," said Lady Pamela.
Lord Torrance looked puzzled. "I beg your pardon?"
"It was me. Really."
Now he understood. "But--"
"I do not apologize for who I am," she added. "I do not apologize to you for anything at all."
The duke shook his head. "Surely you cannot be proud of your former ... association with Lord Tremayne?"
"My affaire," Pam corrected him, "as his mistress. I was the Earl of Ketrick's mistress."
Lord Torrance flinched at the word, and Lady Pamela was goaded into adding, "and no, I would not describe my feelings as pride. But I do not regret a single day, and you have no right--"
The duke made an angry, dismissive gesture. "I do not wish to hear another word."
"Your wish," said Lady Pamela, "is granted."
She turned on her heel and fled back into the ballroom.
-Hillsleigh, London townhome of Lady Pamela Sinclair
-September of that same year
Lady Pamela stood at her boudoir window and gazed silently at the distant burr oaks of Green Park, their colors muted in the fading light of a September afternoon. The street immediately in front of Hillsleigh, her London townhome, was deserted at this hour, its inhabitants indoors preparing for the evening's round of society entertainments.
Entertainments. For a moment, Pamela's thoughts fastened on that single English word-a common word, really, of no offense-and then strayed, uncomfortably, to one of its French counterparts.
S'entretenir. To hold each other together. To be maintained or supported...
As in une femme entretenue. A kept woman.
Pam bit her lower lip. She was not sure why her thoughts turned so frequently to the same subject of late. She had once been a man's mistress, true. But she had made her peace with that part of her life, a part which was, in any event, long past.
And she had never been a kept woman.
Pah. Pamela turned from the window and saw that Lady Amanda Detweiler was pouring herself a second glass of brandy. She felt sure that Amanda, her closest friend and confidante for many years, was aware of the emotional turmoil that had beset Pam since February. But Lady Detweiler, most uncharacteristically, had chosen to say nothing.
At least, nothing as yet. Pam knew she wouldn't be able to hide the truth from her friend much longer.
And she had hidden so little before, not even the truth of her life as Edward Tremayne's mistress. Especially that. Lady Detweiler had known about Edward from the start-had introduced her to the earl, as it happened. Their ... association had lasted almost three years, until he had chanced upon young Claire de Lancie in a hat shop and made her his wife and countess. Lady Pam smiled at the memory. She had encouraged the match, and was still fond of Edward. They had both known, almost from the beginning, that their connection would not last forever. Friends they might remain, but nothing more.
A mistress. It wasn't the worst life in the world, was it? she asked herself, echoing the words of Lord Quentin, a lifetime ago.
No, she had answered him. No, it wasn't the worst life in the world.
The day had been sunny and mild, like most days of late, and Pam had spent much of the morning in her own gardens. In the early afternoon she paid her accustomed visit to Green Park, walking through cheerful fields of autumn crocus and late-blooming aster, with Maggie-her young maid-trailing close behind. Lady Pamela should have rejoiced in the flowers, and in the beauty of the cloudless sky, but her thoughts had seemed determined to escape London.
What is autumn like in Wiltshire? she had wondered, knowing little of that region. Does one find much society? Do the young ladies and gentlemen amuse themselves with country dances and fine balls?
On returning homeward, she and the maid had once again passed by Marchers House, the great London home of the Dukes of Grentham. Maggie grumbled that Marchers was a fair street and a half out of their way, but Lady Pam had found herself drawn to the house, and each time she saw the mansion, she daydreamed of what it must have been like in the days of its glory, with fine lords and ladies gracing every room. A good imagination was necessary, as Marchers House was no longer in any condition for entertainments.
And Virginia, as well. What might one do in the colonies ... the former colonies, now ... for pleasure? How had the duke occupied himself, all those years? He must have left for the Americas in his late teens, twenty perhaps, and handsome as Lord Torrance was, he could not have lacked for female company. Pamela tried not to think of the amusements that a young, rich duke might find, alone in the new world, isolated from the strictures of the ton.
She knew no more about Virginia than Wiltshire, of course. The duke had stayed only a few weeks at Luton and Lady Pamela had little opportunity to learn of his life in Charlottesville. She thought it must be nothing like London.
In London, the ton provided its members with countless opportunities for diversion. One might ride instead of walk in the afternoon, in a phaeton, or fine barouche, or one of the newly fashionable cabriolets. One gossiped and was gossiped about, or spent useless hours in milliner's shops and hatteries. One attended soirées and fêtes, danced at balls, listened to one or another dreadful soprano at the latest musicale--
One even became bored.
"Hmm?" Lady Pam's thoughts returned to the here-and-now. She turned and smiled as Lady Detweiler, mouth pursed in annoyance, closed her chicken-skin fan with a loud snap.
"I said-not that anyone is paying the least attention, mind you-that Sir Jeffrey Kincannon is in town. Until Michaelmas, I hear. Now--"
"Jeffrey who?" interrupted Pamela.
Lady Detweiler rapped the fan sharply on Pam's candle stand. "Sir Jeffrey Kincannon. Sir Jeffrey of the spectacularly broad shoulders and well-muscled thighs. Whose engagement to Melinda Davenworth has just been broken off by the chit herself. The silly fool." Amanda continued rapping. "Pamela, I simply cannot believe--"
"You," said Lady Pam, "are going to ruin that fan. And isn't that the one Lord Burgess gave you? It must be worth a fortune in ivory."
"Lud," said Lady Detweiler, throwing the fan down onto the table. "Do not change the subject. You've been moping around for ages. I'm at my wit's end--"
"I never mope."
"I am merely a bit ... out of sorts with the weather."
Amanda sputtered. "The weather? The beautifully warm, never-before-was there-such-an-autumn weather?"
"Moping does not become you. Now," added Lady Detweiler, "Sir Jeffrey is more than well-favoured, he is intelligent and fond of amusements. And you were born to be beautiful and amusing and happy."
"So you say."
"Posh. It's what you do best."
Lady Pam had begun pacing about the room as they spoke; she now stopped to regard herself in the boudoir mirror. She was of average height, with a neat, nicely rounded figure. White-blonde hair cascaded in heavy waves around her shoulders and clear, cerulean-blue eyes stared back at her from the classic oval of her face. Her skin was smooth, the features finely drawn, but Pamela Sinclair had been praised often enough for her looks that even the most extravagant compliments had been drained of meaning.
It's what you do best. But if you were a beautiful and amusing woman, thought Pam, and were loved by no man, what did that signify? What excuse could you offer?
Lady Detweiler would scoff if she heard these thoughts, of course. Gentlemen have ever loved you with ease, Amanda would tell her. And you could have married any one of them. Even the Earl of Ketrick, I dare say. 'Tis your own stubborn nature...
Her own stubborn nature. Would that it was true.
Pam stifled a sigh. She looked at Amanda and ventured a question. "Have you heard ... is there anyone new in London of late?" Lady Detweiler's sources for society on dits were beyond compare; Pamela knew that-ironically-her own reputation for being circumspect was partly the result of relying on Amanda for the choicest bits of gossip.
Lady Detweiler regarded her evenly. "Anyone new?" she repeated.
Pamela felt herself coloring. "Yes ... you know. In from the country."
"No," said Amanda, offhand. She again busied herself with the fan, avoiding Pam's gaze. "And, if you are speaking of the Duke of Grentham, perchance--"
Pam's color deepened. "Of course I wasn't speaking of Lord Torrance. I was merely curious."
Lady Detweiler's eyebrows shot up. "Dearest," she told Pam, "don't spin me Banbury tales. And don't forget, I saw the two of you waltz at Luton. The man is molded like an Adonis."
Lady Detweiler shrugged. "At any rate, I should be very much disappointed in you-as a woman, you understand-if you had forgotten Lord Torrance."
Silence greeted this remark. Lady Pamela sank into the nearest chaise lounge and smoothed the cotton skirts of her walking gown. She felt her heart begin to race, the unacknowledged hurt of the past spring and summer threatening to break through. Why had she never told Lady Detweiler about the duke? She had wanted to tell her, had meant to say something long ago. But to speak the words aloud was to give them substance, to give them a reality that Lady Pamela preferred not to acknowledge.
Much as they had sounded in her mind, for seven months now without ceasing, she had never spoken the words aloud.
"Amanda," she began. "Something ... something happened. Lord Torrance ... at Luton. I should have mentioned it at the time, but..."
Pam paused and looked away, biting her lip. The seconds stretched out. Finally Lady Detweiler rose to her feet, snapping her fan open and shut with a twofold crack.
Pointing the fan at Lady Pamela, Amanda said sternly, "I have never been a patient individual, so kindly tell me everything immediately, or--"
"Ah. Well. 'Twas nothing, really."
"-or I shall be forced to take drastic steps."
"Drastic steps!" echoed Lady Pamela in mock horror, seizing the chance to stall. "What drastic steps, if you please?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said Lady Detweiler, "but don't force me to think of something. Out with it. Now."
Amanda sat down and took a long swallow of brandy. She watched Lady Pamela continue to pace, knowing, as the steps slowed, that her friend was seeking the courage to reveal what should have been revealed months ago.
Something happened. At Luton Court last February, when the Duke of Grentham had been a guest of Lady Pamela's brother, the marquess. Something happened-in the weeks between his arrival in Bedfordshire and his departure only days after the Quentin wedding.
I should have known, thought Lady Detweiler. And finally we shall get to the bottom of this absurd unhappiness, whatever its cause. She had known something was wrong. She had been worried about Lady Pam, in fact, since their last days in Bedfordshire, and Amanda despised worry. A waste of time, she believed. Face your troubles and be done with them.
Lady Detweiler had made more than a guess in mentioning the duke's name just now, and her friend's reaction had spoken volumes. Amanda had suspected that Lady Pamela harbored a tendre for that gentleman, and she had thought the duke strongly attracted as well. Lady Detweiler had schemed to throw them together, at Luton, but it had been a damnably difficult job. Lord Torrance seemed capable of an appalling level of restraint.
Or so she had thought....
But the duke had left Bedfordshire only days after the wedding last February, and Pam had said no more about him. Out of sight, out of mind? Amanda thought not, but Lady Pamela had deflected every question related to Lord Torrance, every not-so-chance comment, with studied indifference.
"The duke? Of Grentham, you mean? Yes, his costume was quite fine, I suppose..."
No doubt Lady Detweiler could have extracted the truth had she wished. But Amanda had hesitated to confront Lady Pam, who had heretofore trusted her with every confidence. The freedom not to confide, in Amanda's experience, was essential to friendship. And after all, what possible troubles could have descended upon the beautiful and much admired Pamela Sinclair? Lady Detweiler had given up thoughts of a direct attack and had waited, biding her time.
So patience is rewarded, thought Amanda. How dreary.
"The night of the wedding ball..." began Lady Pamela, haltingly.
Charles and Helène's wedding ball? Amanda nodded to herself. She had watched Pamela and the duke waltzing at the Luton Court ball, and noticed the tension between them. A lover's spat, she had supposed, knowing both lady and gentleman too well to believe that either had committed a real offense. And 'twas a vile anger, in Amanda's book, that could not be turned to passion.
But Lady Pamela had danced with him only once, had she not? Lady Detweiler frowned. She seemed to recall Pam spending the last half of the evening in the company of several harmless, adoring third cousins, and as for Lord Torrance, Amanda couldn't remember seeing him at all after the first waltz.
"The duke..." said Lady Pamela. Her words were so soft that several moments passed before Amanda realized that her friend had continued speaking.
"The duke?" she prompted, resisting the urge to take Pam by the shoulders and give her a good shake. Yes, yes, the duke. Now, what about him?
"Asked ... Lord Torrance asked me..."
The duke asked Lady Pamela...? Lady Detweiler's mind, never slow, at once rushed forward, making the obvious leap. The Duke of Grentham had asked Lady Pam to become his mistress! All those months ago at Luton ... And after knowing her only a matter of weeks. It was not surprising to think that Pam had attracted notice from such a man; still, Amanda thought she now understood the source of her friend's pain.
Pamela Sinclair had been one man's mistress already. And although Pam had truly rejoiced in Edward Tremayne's marriage to the lovely Claire and did not grieve his loss, her days as a chère amie were over. She had never said as much, not in so many words, but Amanda knew it to be true. And now, for the duke to ask her to--
"...become his wife," continued Pamela, almost in a whisper. She colored deeply, and turned away from Lady Detweiler. Amanda, still enmeshed in her own thoughts, frowned. What had Lady Pamela just said?
"I beg your pardon?"
Pam took a deep breath. "Lord Torrance asked me to marry him. Last winter. At Luton."
Lady Detweiler stared. "But--"
"Amanda, don't say anything. Don't say anything. I know, I should have told you."
"I couldn't even bear to think about it myself, I couldn't think about him. I wanted to tell you."
This was too much for Lady Detweiler. "For pity's sake!" she cried, flinging her arms out and nearly spilling the glass of brandy, "who cares a fig what you should have told me! What did you tell him?"
Lord Benjamin Torrance, the Duke of Grentham, checked the reins sharply and brought Xairephon, his roan gelding, to a prancing halt. The duke's Wiltshire estate boasted little in the way of hills; still, the ground rose slightly to the east, and he was high enough to enjoy a sweeping view of the green fields of sweet hay, and to see his home-Corsham Manor-in the distance. The house was a rambling, many-gabled structure, and the most beautiful dwelling in the world, in its owner's eyes.
Benjamin drank in the cool morning air, appreciative as always of the difference in climate between Wiltshire and central Virginia, where he had resided for most of the past ten years. 'Twas not that he had found the American states unpleasing. Charlottesville, Virginia was a lovely town, nestled in rolling, forested hills, and clean beyond his every memory of English cities. Still, for all the beauty of the new land west of the ocean, Benjamin had never adjusted to the oppressive heat of a Virginia summer, a season which carried well into the current weeks of mid-September.
Pure bliss, to awaken each morning and not find the sheets drenched in sweat. Bliss, too, to work throughout the day without fear of one's skin becoming red and scalded with the sun. Benjamin had spent his years in Charlottesville working in the surrounding countryside, taming a land for farm and dairy that the forest did not wish to surrender. The well-mannered Wiltshire landscape was soothing and mild by comparison.
He did not regret those years abroad. The work had been demanding, but the duke had ever loved a challenge, and the experience of hard, physical labor was something he believed beneficial for any man.
Bent double, his eyes shielded from the sun by a dingy straw hat, cutting hay. The low, rhythmic sound of the scythe...
It might not have been allowed, if he had remained in England as the old duke's heir. Young lords did not work in the fields with their employees. Young lords did nothing much at all, as far as Benjamin could see.
After dark, the sound of cicadas was loud enough to drown conversation. At night a man slept, exhausted, from the work of the day.
The Virginia land was an inheritance from his mother and had even been profitable, albeit in a small way, during his last year or two. Profits were welcome, but they had never been the primary reason for his stay in the former Colonies, and when Benjamin returned to England he gave the acreage over to the long-term care of two of his best workers. The profits, such as they were, would remain in Virginia. The gesture had shocked some of his land-owning neighbors; Lord Torrance liked to think his own parents would have been pleased.
Although his generosity would, no doubt, have infuriated the old duke. Rupert Torrance-Benjamin's uncle and his father's oldest brother-had died only nine months after Benjamin's arrival in Virginia. An unfortunate circumstance of timing, for his own father had already passed away, and it was nearly ten years before Benjamin Torrance-the new Duke of Grentham-again saw the land of his birth.
The duke clucked and lightly spurred Xairephon. The gelding sprang forward. As his mount trotted along, Benjamin mentally reviewed the activities he had planned for that day.
Pulling burdock weed in the northeast pasture, first off. Cook had warned him not to touch a small stand near the house-she used burdock in tisanes and decoctions-but the rest must go.
Then, the stone wall along the same pasture needed repair, and a small channel to divert water from the boggiest spots needed digging. After that, Benjamin would check with his steward, to see what else might need to be done.
The duke spent as little time as possible in reflection. His own thoughts were lately no welcome friends, and he had found comfort only in the most mindless and repetitive labor. Not one to embrace idleness, Benjamin's appetite for work had become unquenchable, and all summer he had thrown himself into the chores of the estate, waking at dawn even in the long days of late June, and not sleeping until well after midnight. Not that there was any question about the health of the Corsham Manor lands. James Pharr was a conscientious employee, and had performed his duties as estate steward with diligence. Indeed, Lord Torrance had needed to make an effort to find problems worthy of attention.
Ah--But now that he thought of it, the stable yard should probably be mucked out. "It dunna need mucking every day," the groom had said, but what did he know? The duke was sure the horses appreciated a clean paddock. The paddock at Luton, for example, there was a fine home for horseflesh. The marquess had taken great care of his Bedfordshire stables. Benjamin remembered them in every detail, remembered Lady Pamela walking through the stables to Duchess, her mare. His mind's eye still saw her elegant, forest-green habit, the smooth lines of wool limning her every curve.
Could Lady Pamela find Wiltshire as much to her liking as Luton Court? he wondered. The landscape was less wooded and lush than Bedfordshire, but perhaps she could learn to admire, as he had, its gentle charm.
Pah. Shaking his head to dislodge these thoughts, Benjamin urged Xairephon to a swifter pace. His estate was the largest in Wiltshire, but the gelding flew, and they were soon traversing the northeast pasture. The duke swung down from his mount, untied a large roll of canvas sheeting, and spread it out on the ground. He pulled on a stout pair of leather gloves and attacked the burdock with passion, ripping great clumps from the earth and tossing them onto the sheeting. Benjamin hoped that he had found this patch in time, before any of the seedheads had ripened. No sense in doing the whole job over again next year.
Thud. Thud. Burdock weed flew through the air, and the canvas sheeting soon held a respectable pile. Benjamin pulled fast and hard, trying to think of nothing but the feel of the stems in his hands, the odd, bitter smell of the crushed leaves, and the soft sounds of Xairephon browsing nearby.
He had brooded long enough about how matters stood at Luton Court, thought the duke. He had tasks at hand this morning on his own lands. Best to concentrate on them.
Thud. Another clump flew wide, missing the canvas by yards, and Benjamin stopped, breathing hard.
"They are Burs, I can tell you, they'll stick where they are thrown."
The line of Shakespeare rose unbidden, unearthed from some schoolboy memory, and he had a vision, with it, of a person.
A person, thrown away.
What nonsense. The duke renewed his attack on the burdock.
An hour later it was near done, and Benjamin stood back panting, wiping sweat from his eyes with now filthy gloves. He had any number of men to pull burdock for him, of course. He had any number of men to do anything that needed doing at Corsham. But without the burdock to pull...
He could have removed to London months ago.
He could have seen her, again, months ago.
One last clump was especially stubborn; Benjamin gave it a vicious yank, and the burdock gave way suddenly, depositing him rump over teakettle on the sward.
"Oof." Chagrined, he stood up and rubbed his backside, grateful that no-one besides Xairephon was nearby. 'Twas clearly time to return to the house, especially as his stomach was angrily complaining that he had once again neglected nuncheon. Hard labor, Benjamin had discovered, needed to be fed. He left the pile of burdock to be collected and burnt, and headed back on the gelding to Corsham Manor.
He and Xairephon were nearly in sight of the house when Lord Torrance saw Josiah Cleghorn approaching, slowly, also on horseback.
So to speak. Even several years in Virginia, a region as horse-mad as England could ever claim, had not been enough to teach a Massachusetts-born sailor to ride. The duke had outfitted him with a child's saddle, and given him Daisy, the slowest and gentlest mare in Wiltshire. Still--
Benjamin grinned, glad that no-one else from the estate was present to hear his valet's latest impertinence. Josiah seemed to delight in devising new appellations for his master, and these were an on-going source of scandal to the rest of the Corsham Manor staff.
Especially to Deavers, Lord Torrance's ever-so-proper butler. Benjamin had been concerned for the man's health on the occasion of Josiah's addressing his employer as "Lord Ben." He could only imagine what the butler's reaction might be to 'Duke-o.'
The valet shouted again, followed by a string of curses. Daisy's parentage and intelligence were being called into question, it seemed. As the mare plodded forward, Benjamin saw that Josiah's left foot had become disengaged from its stirrup. Still cursing, the man began a slow slide down his mount's left flank.
How had he managed it? wondered the duke. Daisy's back was so broad, her gait so steady, that he would have thought it nearly impossible to fall off.
Benjamin had a vision of Josiah's other foot catching in the reins, and the man being dragged toward him, face down in the soft turf, at Daisy's slow but relentless pace. He hurried forward to assist, just as the valet's fall was complete.
Although slow to pick up the niceties of ducal address, Josiah had wasted no time in becoming fluent in the local cant. The valet sat up and glared at Benjamin.
"Horses," he spat, as if that one word expressed it all.
The duke did not argue. "What," he asked Josiah, "has disturbed your peaceful existence indoors?"
"A letter." said the valet. "From London."
London? Benjamin's heart slammed against his ribs, although he knew it couldn't be from her. A letter from a woman he had not seen, not spoken to, nor written to for this past half a year? Absurd.
Josiah extracted a crumpled envelope from his waistband and handed it to the duke. Benjamin saw at once that the fist was that of Charles Waverly, his solicitor. Waverly was a young man, and had newly taken over the firm from his father, the old duke's solicitor, who had been in charge of financial matters for the family during Benjamin's long absence.
He ripped open the envelope, curious. Charles Waverly had written him only twice before during his stay in Wiltshire, and both times had been only to confirm some detail of the duke's inheritance, portions of which had been held in abeyance until his return to England.
"Your grace," began the solicitor, and Benjamin grimaced. 'My lord' he could tolerate, but 'your grace' was something to be said before a meal.
In your continued absence from London, Waverly continued, I've taken it upon myself to make a preliminary inspection of Marchers House. It is uninhabited and, I fear, in far, far worse condition than anticipated...
Lord Torrance's brow furrowed in surprise. Marchers House was the ducal townhome, and he had assumed it would have received the same careful attention as Corsham Manor. Uninhabited? If the old duke had been dead since Benjamin's first year in Virginia-
Good heavens, had the place been left abandoned these past ten years? It must be a near wreck by now, he thought, knowing too much about the dirt of London and the vicissitudes of its weather to hope for much better.
In your continued absence...
The duke felt the implied rebuke in the solicitor's words, and he felt a surge of anger. Why had he not been informed of this earlier? And wasn't it Waverly's job to see that Marchers House was kept in good repair? How dare he suggest-?
His anger quickly evaporated. No. No, it wasn't the solicitor's job. The job belonged to him, Benjamin Torrance, Duke of Grentham, and even if he'd not known the true state of Marcher's House, 'twas no excuse. He had put this journey off long enough.
The duke finished the letter, with its lowering catalogue of broken windows, crumbling brick, and dry rot. He drew a deep breath, and blew it slowly out.
"Well, Josiah," he told his waiting valet. "It seems that we are going to town."