England was certainly cooler than South Carolina, but that was about all that Cathy could say for it. It was raining as they drove through the streets, that dreary, never-ending drizzle so common to London in late September. Cathy, seated in a hired hack with Cray on her lap and Martha occupying the seat opposite, shivered as she huddled into the soft fur trimming of her cranberry wool pelisse. The steady clop-clop of the horse's hooves on the cobbled streets, the splash of the carriage wheels as they rolled through countless puddles, seemed to her to be the loneliest sound in the world. Does the whole country smell of worms? Cathy wondered dismally. Taking some comfort from the child's drowsy weight against her, she cuddled Cray closer. With every fiber of her being she longed for Jon.
He had had to stay behind at Woodham, of course. With the cotton so near to harvest it would have been pure folly for him to leave. Cathy knew that, had even pointed it out to Jon himself when he had suggested accompanying her. But the real sticking point, the incontrovertible fact that had caused Cathy to almost implore him to stay at home, was this: in England, Jon was an escaped felon, convicted of piracy and murder. If caught, he would be summarily hanged.
"We've stopped, Miss Cathy." Martha spoke for almost the first time since they had set out from the docks nearly an hour before. The sound of her voice jerked Cathy back to the present. She leaned forward to peer out the near side window, using her bare hand to wipe a little circle of glass clear of condensation. From the outside, her Aunt Elizabeth's, Lady Stanhope's, fashionable Grosvenor Square townhouse lookedexactly the same as it had two years before. Three stories tall, made of red brick with a delicately wrought, black-painted iron fence separating it from the street, it was as imposing as the lady herself. And as Cathy remembered only too well from her one previous visit, the house was as strictly correct inside as out. Formality was the unbending rule in manners as well as furnishings. Cathy had stayed there for nearly three months while she was pregnant with Cray and had thought herself deserted by her husband. That visit had been distinguished only by its sheer misery.
"You gettin' out, lady?" The truculent tone of the cabbie as he stood holding open the carriage door, rain dripping from the brim of his hat, pulled Cathy from her reverie. She passed Cray, who had finally fallen asleep, to Martha and stood up. Martha was visibly bristling at the man's rudeness. Cathy, who didn't think that she could bear any additional unpleasantness, quelled her with a stern look.
"Cover your head, lovey, it's raining," Martha advised as Cathy prepared to descend, contenting herself with fixing the cabbie with one long, contemptuous stare. Cathy did as she was told, pulling the hood of her pelisse over her head as she stepped lightly from the carriage. Martha followed, a thick silk shawl draped over herself and Cray. The cabbie, having insisted on being paid in advance, barely took time to throw their baggage into the street before remounting his seat and driving away. Cathy looked with some dismay at the piles of luggage left standing on the curb, slowly becoming drenched. Then, with a resigned shrug, she turned her back on the depressing sight and marched firmly up to the door.
"Good afternoon, my lady," said Sims the butler, as he opened the door to her brief knock. He didn't sound at all surprised to see her. Cathy supposed that her aunt must have assumed she would come, and so informed her servants. There had been no time to reply to that fateful letter before setting out.
"Good afternoon, Sims." Cathy's reply was equally matter-of-fact. As the butler held the door wide she walked past him into the marble-floored foyer, closely followed by Martha with Cray. Martha exchanged cold glances with Sims as she passed him. They had been at war throughout the one previous time Cathy had stayed in this house.
"Lady Stanhope is in the small drawing room, my lady," Sims informed her in his funereal voice.
"And my father?" Cathy questioned softly.
"He is upstairs, in the green bedroom, my lady. I am sorry to tell you that his condition is not much improved. May I say how sorry we all are that such a thing should happen to Sir Thomas, my lady."
"Thank you, Sims. I will go up to him at once. Please show Martha where we are to sleep, and have someone bring in our things. I fear they are getting sadly wet."
"Very good, my lady." Not by so much as the flicker of an eyelash did Sims betray his surprise at Cathy's lack of manners. The correct thing would have been for her to greet her aunt, who was, after all, her hostess, and perhaps drink a cup of tea before going upstairs. Cathy was perfectly aware of her breach of etiquette, but truthfully she did not feel up to facing her aunt at the moment. She had not seen Lady Stanhope since Jon had stolen her away from this house in the middle of one snowy January night nearly two years ago, and she did not imagine that her aunt was overly eager to welcome her. Left obviously pregnant after her notorious abduction by pirates, Cathy's first appearance in London society had caused quite a scandal. The story that her father and aunt had circulated about her being a grieving widow already carrying her late husband's posthumous child at the time of the kidnapping had been patently disbelieved. And then to have her disappear just when the talk was beginning to die down. . . ! Cathy's lips quivered with sudden humor. How on earth had Lady Stanhope managed to explain that?
"My dear!" Cathy's intention of going directly upstairs without seeing her aunt came to naught as the lady herself sailed into the foyer. Before Cathy knew quite what was happening, she was enfolded in a perfumed embrace. She returned it rather bemusedly. Whatever reception she had expected had certainly been nothing like this!
"Hello, Aunt Elizabeth," Cathy murmured politely when she was at last released, bestowing a gingerly peck on the rouged cheek that was presented for that purpose. "It's good to see you."
"Oh, my dear!" Lady Stanhope's voice was filled with emotion. Cathy blinked. Her aunt had always been reserved to the point of hauteur, a cold, majestic lady who cared for only two things: her son, Harold, who had acceded to the title of Lord Stanhope upon the death of his hapless father, and her position in society. Maybe she had been fonder of her only brother than Cathy had ever realized. Certainly that was the only thing Cathy could think of that might account for this bewildering volte-face.
"I see you brought the child." Lady Stanhope's expression was odd as she seemed to see for the first time Martha holding the still sleeping Cray. Cathy's chin went up at her tone. To Lady Stanhope and her son, Cray would always be nothing more or less than a disgrace. The thought made Cathy's blood boil.
"Certainly I brought my son! If it is not convenient, then we would be more than happy to put up at an inn." The words were icy. Lady Stanhope looked taken aback. This self-assured creature bore no resemblance to the meek young girl who had stayed beneath her roof once before!
"No, no, I wouldn't hear of it! You are very welcome! Besides, you must want to be near poor Thomas!"
Cathy considered for a moment, then inclined her head. Lady Stanhope's slight emphasis on "you" when she said they were welcome had not escaped her. But for the time being her father's well-being must outweigh her pride.
"Thank you, aunt. Now, if you don't mind, I should like to see my father. And if you would direct Sims to show Martha to a bedroom, I would be grateful. My son, as you can see, is already asleep."
"Oh, yes, my dear, of course," Lady Stanhope agreed hastily. Then she seemed to hesitate. "There is a matter of some urgency that I must discuss with you, Cathy. Perhaps we can talk first, and then you can visit Thomas. After all, it is not as if there is anything you can do for him."
"I would rather see my father first, if you don't mind, aunt. Whatever it is can surely wait until after that."
"Yes, yes, I suppose it can," Lady Stanhope murmured without much conviction. "But, Cathy, there is something that should be made known to you . . ."
"Later, aunt, if you please," Cathy said firmly, turning away and starting up the stairs. Martha followed with Cray, and Sims, after a questioning glance at his mistress, brought up the rear. Lady Stanhope was left to frown thoughtfully after them.
"Miss Cathy! Oh, Miss Cathy, you came!" Mason, her father's valet for many, many years, opened the door to the green bedroom in response to her summons. The dapper little man was beaming, his eyes suspiciously moist as he greeted the girl he had known from her cradle. "Sir Thomas will be so pleased, Miss Cathy!"
Cathy, knowing that Mason was genuinely devoted to Sir Thomas and more than fond of herself, felt an answering dampness in her own eyes as she returned his smile.
"Did you think I wouldn't come, Mason?" she inquired gently as he stood aside to let her enter.
"I knew you would, Miss Cathy. It was Lord Stanhope who thought you might not."
"Well, Lord Stanhope was wrong, as he is more often than not." Cathy's voice was slightly tart. She had never liked Harold, and she knew the feeling was mutual. "How is my father?"
"Not very well, Miss Cathy, I'm sorry to say," Mason told her sadly, his voice dropping to a whisper as he trailed after her to stand beside the huge four-poster bed. "He had been feeling rather low for some time--missing you, he said--and then he came up to London for the races. He--he had the attack almost at once. In this very room. His whole right side is paralyzed, Miss Cathy, and he is rarely conscious for more than a quarter-hour at a time. It's pitiful, truly it is."
Cathy merely nodded in reply, the lump in her throat grown so huge that she didn't think she could speak. Gazing down at the frail outline, barely visible beneath the piled quilts, of what had once been her handsome, robust father, she felt her heart constrict. The hair that had been as golden as her own when she had last seen him was now flecked with gray, and the face turned into the pillow was pinched and white. He looked terribly old, Cathy thought, and for the first time she admitted to herself the possibility that he might die. All the way across the Atlantic she had refused to consider it, comforting herself with the notion that all Sir Thomas needed was the careful, loving nursing of his daughter to set him to rights again. Now she saw that the case was far more desperate than she had let herself believe.
"Oh, papa!" she choked, dropping to her knees beside the bed and groping for her father's emaciated hand. "Papa, it's Cathy. I'm here, papa."
The closed eyelids flickered open for a moment, and the faded blue eyes seemed to see her. His breath escaped in a rasping sigh. Cathy held his hand tightly, tears spilling from her eyes.
"Cathy." Her name was just a husky whisper, barely audible although she strained to hear. The hand she was holding squeezed hers for an instant, and then went limp. His eyes closed once more.
"Papa!" Cathy pressed a kiss to the paper-thin flesh of his hand, tears streaming down her cheeks. That her father could be dying seemed unbelievable, but she was very much afraid it was true. Sorrow formed a hard knot of agony inside her.
"Dr. Bowen said that sleep is the best thing for him, Miss Cathy." Mason moved to place a gentle hand on her shoulders. She looked around blindly to see that his cheeks were as wet as her own.
"Yes." Cathy gulped back her tears, and, with Mason's assistance, rose shakily to her feet. "Do you--do you have any idea what brought on the attack, Mason?"
Mason looked at her oddly. "Lady Stanhope has not yet spoken to you, Miss Cathy?"
"She wanted to, but I wanted to see my father. Why, Mason?"
"I hardly know how to tell you, Miss Cathy," he said unhappily.
"Tell me what, Mason?" Cathy's voice was sharp. A nameless dread was beginning to gnaw at her. Something was very wrong, that much was clear.
"Sir Thomas was writing a letter when he was stricken, Miss Cathy," Mason began slowly. "I--I think you'd better read it."
Mason crossed to the escritoire that stood beneath the damask-curtained windows, opened a drawer, and withdrew a piece of paper. He shut the drawer and came back to stand in front of her, his movements deliberate. Cathy took the paper from his outstretched hand without a word, saw that it was addressed to her at Woodham, and unfolded it with shaking fingers. Her mouth was dry as she started to read.
"Daughter," the letter began. "It grieves me very much to be the bearer of tidings I can only describe as ill, but I have just come into some information that I feel should be passed on to you without delay. It is my hope that you can rectify what has happened without too much harm to your spirits or station in life, or that of your son or husband.
"Cathy, my dear, when I arranged for your marriage to be performed by Captain Winslow on the Lady Chester, I naturally assumed that he was, as such officers are, duly authorized to perform a legal ceremony. I am certain that he assumed the same, so no blame lies at his door. But the unwelcome fact, of which I have just been apprised, is that Captain Winslow had been removed from his post by the Crown prior to solemnizing your vows. The ceremony, therefore, was not legal, and your marriage to Jonathan Hale has never, in actuality, existed."
The letter continued briefly, advising Cathy and Jon to marry again without delay in order to legitimatize Cray's birth. Cathy was so stunned by what she had read that she could barely take any of it in. Finally the writing trailed off into a long squiggle, and Cathy vaguely registered that it must have been there that her father had the attack.
"Jon and I are not married! Cray is--God forgive me--a bastard!" The words ran over and over again through her shocked brain. When finally she lifted her eyes from the paper to look at Mason, their expression was dazed.
"Mason. . . ." Her voice sounded strangled. "Mason, are you aware of what this says?"
"Yes, Miss Cathy," he answered compassionately as he met Cathy's ravaged gaze. "We found the letter after Sir Thomas had the attack. It must have been as great a shock to him as it is to you."
"Yes, of course." Cathy saw what must have happened with great clarity. Her father, made aware of this information, must have been horrified beyond expression to realize that his only daughter, instead of being happily married as he had thought, was in fact living with a man as his mistress, however unwittingly. And Cray--Sir Thomas adored his grandson. He would have been devastated to realize that the child was illegitimate. As Cathy considered the ramifications, she blanched. If this news ever became public, she would be regarded as a fallen woman, no longer welcome in the homes of her friends and acquaintances. It would put her beyond the pal