- Allison Lane is a winner of Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Best First Regency
- Allison Lane is the beloved author of The Prodigal Daughter, The Earl's Revenge, The Impoverished Viscount, and The Rake's Rainbow
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December 24, 1812
Andrew Villiers, Sixth Marquess of Broadbanks, slumped deeper into his wingback chair, staring at the glass of port in his right hand. Firelight flashed through the wine like rubies, recalling the necklace he had once dreamed of placing around his wife's creamy throat. His fingers tightened.
She had been gone six months, five days, two hours, and--he squinted at the clock--seven minutes. The exact time of death was engraved on his heart. He had held her most of that last day, tears streaming unheeded down his face as her life slipped away, her final words sighing his name. If not for the duty he owed his title, he would have joined her.
He glanced across the drawing room to where his marchioness stitched one of her hideous seat covers. Not that he cared what they looked like. Even loathing no longer moved him--for the covers, for his wife, for himself and the insanity that had brought him to this pass. But hatred wouldn't come. Fog had finally deadened the last of his feelings.
Draining his glass, he poured another.
The year had brought little but death--of family and friends, of honor and virtue, of heart, soul, and mind. His brother Randolph, gone at four-and-twenty; his father, whom he sorely missed despite their frequent disagreements; and sweet Emily, tragically dead at eighteen, a victim of his own dishonor. If only he had wed her out of hand! She would still live, and he could have avoided this travesty of a marriage.
He drank deeply, searching for the relief that only wine could bring.
An unexpected flicker of emotion stabbed through the mind-numbing haze. Abhorrence.
She was evil incarnate,a pox on the face of humanity, Eden's snake, Satan's handmaiden. But he would soon be rid of her. If the child was a boy, very soon. The image of Fay lying dead had often tempted him. He was already doomed to hell, so murdering his wife would make no difference. Not that he would actually kill her. Death was too quick, too clean. Her crimes could only be avenged by a lingering, pain-wracked demise--which showed how far he had drifted from honor.
He owned an ancient keep in the Scottish highlands. Enough of it was habitable to house her and the servants who would guard her. Recent repairs had made the walls secure enough to prevent any escape. Banishment would be far more satisfying than mere death. He shivered as a forgotten remnant of conscience surfaced. Who would have thought that he could grow so harsh? But no one who really knew Fay would condemn him.
The decision lightened his heart. Perhaps he was emerging from the shock of the past year. Or perhaps wresting this small control of his life raised a flicker of hope for the future. Please let the child be a boy!
He poured more wine, noting that his hand remained steady. And just as well. He must attend services in another hour. It was the only reason he remained in the drawing room. How different this marriage was from the one he had envisioned. If only...
Again he stared at his glass. The coals shifted, freeing a burst of flame. Emily's beloved face hovered before his damp eyes. She had been too young to die. Too sweet. Too innocent. Too incredibly lovely. How could a righteous God have called her away? Why did either of them deserve such punishment? Not even Randolph ... ?
But he refused to recall that.
Hardwick paused in the doorway, his eyes scanning the drawing room. Lord Broadbanks stared into the fire, even more morose than usual. Her ladyship looked up and frowned.
"Surely the coachman did not mistake the time," she snapped, with a scathing look at the clock.
He ignored her. "Mr. Stevens requests a word, my lord," he reported, naming the estate steward. "He is in the study."
Broadbanks gave no sign that he had heard.
"Send him in here," ordered Lady Broadbanks.
Her husband didn't move.
"At once, my lady," the butler agreed helplessly, suppressing a sigh. Lady Broadbanks had taken advantage of his lordship's growing distraction to meddle in estate affairs, a situation none of the servants approved. But they had no power to remedy it. She had already turned off several who had dared criticize her. After summoning the steward, he remained near the open doorway, hoping there was something he could do to help, though he knew there was not.
Mr. Stevens halted just inside the room, his shoulders imperceptibly sagging as his eyes took in the scene.
"What is it, Stevens?" asked Lady Broadbanks.
"Jeremy Fallon just returned from Dover, my lord," he reported, addressing his employer despite the man's distraction. "A woman and child are sheltering in one of the caves on Chalk Down. It's no place for man or beast, my lord. We'll have snow by morning if my knee is any prophet. She'll freeze out there. As will the babe."
"What class of woman are we discussing?" demanded the marchioness.
Stevens sighed. "A gypsy lass," he admitted reluctantly. "With an infant."
Lady Broadbanks drew herself up in furious hauteur. "A thieving gypsy! And unwed, I'll be bound. Intolerable! Evict her at once. And make sure she knows never to trespass again. I'll not have such trash on my land."
"She needs shelter," said Stevens, a plea obvious in his voice and in the look he threw at Broadbanks.
"Then send her to the workhouse," she snapped. "We want no lawless vagabonds here."
In the hall, Hardwick cringed. Stevens was risking his position by questioning her ladyship's orders. Appealing to his lordship never worked. Broadbanks was firmly under the thumb of his shrewish wife, and there was little the servants could do about it.
Broadbanks lifted his head and frowned. Even the dullest observer could see that he had heard nothing of the exchange.
"How dare he insult me by ignoring a direct order?" hissed Lady Broadbanks before he could question Stevens's business.
"Do it," said Broadbanks wearily.
The clock chimed one as the Marquess of Broadbanks stumbled across the hall. January the first. A new year. It had to be better than the old one.
A series of raps exploded through the air. He barely identified them before Hardwick appeared, still pulling on his coat. Someone was demanding admittance, but who would be calling at this hour? The roads were impassable.
"Murderers!" screeched a voice the moment Hardwick pulled open the door. Several rocks bounced into the hall. Others lay on the porch. "Heartless monsters!"
Broadbanks squinted to bring the scene into focus. A gypsy stood on the drive, her face swathed in a scarf, colored skirts and shawls billowing as she hurled another rock. This one smashed against the balustrade.
"You killed my husband! You killed my son!" she hissed, shaking the bundle of rags clutched to her bosom. "Murderers!" The word ended in a wracking cough. "Arrogant beasts! How can you call yourselves models of propriety, yet callously destroy everything I have?"
The charges reverberated through his head, though he had to strain to hear as her voice grew weaker, her breathing more labored.
"But you will pay, Gorgio. I am Rom, gifted with the sight." She drew herself taller, her voice now filled with power. "Cursed you are and cursed you will be, you and all who bear the name of Broadbanks. Your women will prove barren, as will your shortened days. Wealth will drain from your fingers like water through sand. You will be as nothing." Spitting at her feet, she collapsed.
"My God!" gasped Hardwick, abandoning his butler's demeanor as he raced to her side.
Broadbanks followed more slowly. While Hardwick tended the gypsy, he hesitantly unwrapped her bundle. Inside was the frozen body of a malnourished boy.
Hardwick pulled the scarf from the gypsy's face and gasped. "She's little more than a child."
Pity filled Broadbank's heart. "Poor thing. Get her inside and summon Dr. Harvey."
"It's too late. She's dead."
Leaning closer, Broadbanks stared into a face still twisted with hatred. Her curse rang in his ears. He shivered.
The snow was thickening. "See that they are buried," he ordered dully. "Quietly."
"At once, my lord."
But as he turned back to the house, Broadbanks knew that any attempt to suppress the story would fail. A footman and saucer-eyed maid stared from the front door. Two grooms watched from the drive. He sighed. Another death to usher in the new year. Not a propitious omen.
Two days later, Lady Broadbanks birthed a stillborn son.
June 12, 1998
She was the Marchioness of Broadbanks.
Or was she? Cherlynn Cardington stared at the telephone. Surely Mr. Carstairs would call back to admit that it was a joke, or someone would jump out of the closet to announce that she was on a hidden camera show. It couldn't be real. Bidding on lot 4753 had been a lark, for God's sake, a way to thumb her nose at the haughty, blue-blooded Cardingtons whose horror of anything unconventional was surpassed only by their pride at tracing their lineage back to an eighteenth-century baron. But she had never been serious.
Shakily pulling a half-bottle of wine from the hotel's refrigerator, she gulped the contents. It doubtless cost a fortune, but she needed to relax and think. Would a title make any real difference in her life?
A quick circuit of her tiny hotel room convinced her that it wouldn't--except to attract the attention that might get her manuscripts out of publishers' slush piles faster. But that would only speed up her rejection letters.
She shrugged, dropping the empty bottle in the trash. What was done was done. She might as well get used to being the Marchioness of Broadbanks, no matter how odd it sounded. And a benefit might turn up one day. In the meantime, there was no harm in it. But it was weird.
Bidding had been the last thing on her mind when she'd gone to Christie's. Her only goal had been to soak up some atmosphere that she could use in a book. Not until she was leaving did she spot the list of titles to be auctioned the following week. Advance bids were welcome. The Cardingtons' scorn of her breeding had always annoyed her, their snobbery triggering more than one fight with Willard. In an inexplicable fit of pique, she had placed a junk bid on a marquessate, knowing that she stood no chance of winning. The cheapest title ever sold had gone for seven thousand dollars. But at least she could fantasize for a week about outranking Willard Cardington III.
She shivered. Where had the urge come from? It had swept over her with the force of an obsession. Yet such pointless mockery was so unlike her that she'd forgotten all about the bid by the time she returned to her hotel.
Now it had won. Once she paid her ten pounds, she would be, by courtesy only, of course, the Marchioness of Broadbanks. Insanity. How low had the aristocracy sunk if a marquess could not even raise cash by selling his title?
Shrugging aside the question, she returned to her laptop, adding to her notes on the Victoria and Albert Museum. Though she had a near-photographic memory, she always kept records, fearing that she would forget the one fact she might someday need. The curator had let her examine several Regency gowns that were not on formal display. They had been fascinating, yet she couldn't keep her mind on business. Not until filling an entire screen did she realize that her hands had slipped up the keyboard, producing twelve lines of gibberish. Deleting the paragraph, she tried again. Five minutes later, she noted that a detailed description of an 1811 court gown now rested in her file on men's clothing. Obviously, she wasn't going to accomplish anything useful until she had exhausted the subject of the auction.
She snapped her computer shut.
Why had the Marquess of Broadbanks sold his title? If he needed money, he would hardly have accepted ten pounds for it. She must have been the only bidder--which itself made no sense. An earl's minor barony had recently sold for over a hundred thousand dollars.
Icy fingers played dirges on her spine.
She tried pacing again, but the room was too cramped. If only there was someone who could answer her questions! But London contained not a single acquaintance. Whatever friends she had once possessed would have written her off after two years of silence. Willard was the closest she could claim to family, but he was the last person she could call.
The realization hurt. Usually she ignored her loneliness, but at the moment that was impossible. She had no family, no friends, no husband. She had failed at work, at marriage, at living. She wasn't even a decent writer. Placing second in one obscure contest hardly constituted a career. She would have been better off using her divorce settlement to start over instead of blowing thousands of dollars on a research trip for a book she would never see in print. And now she had purchased a title that was of no possible use.
Willard was right. She was an incompetent idiot who withdrew into a fantasy world to escape facing reality.
The shock of the phone call was nothing compared to Cherlynn's visit to Christie's the next morning. A sleepless night set the stage for a surreal day. By noon, turmoil had swept away her earlier numbness and left her reeling.
She had arrived at the auction house the moment its doors opened. Mr. Carstairs was waiting. He accepted her credit card, then whisked her to Buckingham Palace, explaining his purpose as they drove. Even getting caught behind a traffic accident gave him time for only the basics.
Because her bid had not been serious, she hadn't read the catalog description. Lot 4753 included more than just the marquessate. Broadbanks had dumped every honor he possessed. Not only was she a marchioness, she was also Countess of Thurston, Viscountess Harrisford, Viscountess Montescu, Lady Ashburn, Lady Wexford, Lady Rainfield, and Lady Cameron. All were real and included full honors. She was now a British citizen with a seat in the House of Lords.
"But--" she choked on this last piece of news.
"I know that it has never been done before," interrupted Mr. Carstairs. "But those were the terms agreed to by Her Majesty, the Prime Minister, and Parliament."
"Surely you are not reneging on your bid." Ice dripped from every word.
"Of course not, but--"
The car drew to a halt. A Coldstream Guard opened the door, his face expressionless beneath the bearskin hat, his scarlet coat blazing in the morning sun. Two others opened the palace doors.
"Curtsy, if you can," ordered Carstairs as they followed a secretary along miles of corridors. "She knows you are from America, but try to remember protocol. Speak only in response to a question. Do not sit without an invitation. You cannot turn your back on royalty, so when she dismisses you, back out. Once she confirms your rank, you will be a British peer, but you will still be several degrees below Her Majesty."
Cherlynn nearly laughed--from hysteria rather than humor. She wanted to assure him that she understood the hierarchy of British titles and honors, but she could not recall a single one. Her brain had gone into hibernation within minutes of reaching Christie's and threatened to die altogether now that she was approaching the Queen. Black dots danced before her eyes as a uniformed footman opened another ornate door.
The meeting with Queen Elizabeth passed in a fog, leaving little behind in memory. It was far worse than her first encounter with Willard's family, for terror left her as tongue-tied as the most humble of awestruck supplicants. Mortification would come later. She looked like a bag lady in a cotton T-shirt, peasant skirt, and running shoes--the first clothes her hand had touched once she had given up on sleep. A blast of wind outside Christie's had turned her frizzy brown hair into a flyaway rat's nest. Even her makeup was smeared.
But she curtsied and mumbled an inane reply to the Queen's question about her visit to London. Her Majesty seemed warmer in person than on the news, actually beaming at her newest subject. Not until Cherlynn had been turned over to a secretary and escorted to an antechamber did she begin to register her surroundings. The room was little different than the office she had once shared on Capitol Hill, though its furnishings were of wood rather than steel.
"Tell me about yourself, Miss Cardington," the secretary began, pulling papers and a pen from a drawer.
"Mrs.," she automatically corrected, then grimaced. "I suppose I should drop the Cardington. I refuse to presume any connection to that family. Miss Edwards will do."
"You are a widow?"
"Divorced. As of two weeks ago."
He made a note. "Why are you visiting London?"
"Research. I am writing a book."
"Ah. You are an author. Do you write under your own name?"
"Probably, but I need to find a publisher first."
He frowned, tapping the pen fretfully on the desktop. "Have you another job in the meantime?"
"Not yet. My most recent was a stint at McDonald's while the divorce was in progress. Before my marriage I worked as an aide for a Congressional committee."
"Ahh." He perked up. "Government service." The pen scratched busily. "Which committee?"
"The House Committee on the Environment. I was one of the lowest aides." And given only the shit jobs no one else had wanted. Even when she had uncovered the information that convinced Congress to narrowly defeat a bill that would have destroyed priceless wetlands, she had received none of the credit. It would have been better if she had. Willard's father had been intensely interested in that bill, though he had remained in the shadows as a silent partner of the development company that had wanted to turn the marsh into a resort and condominium complex. If Willard had known of her involvement, they never would have wed, to the benefit of both.
"It matters not," said the secretary, breaking into her memories. He pulled out another sheaf of forms and began filling in blanks.
"What are you doing?" She had tried to understand what was happening, but everyone she met today left her with new questions. She hadn't dared ask anything of the Queen, and Carstairs seemed to have disappeared, but perhaps this secretary, whose name she hadn't caught, would help.
He glanced up, sympathy softening his eyes. "Her Majesty requires just cause for bestowing a hereditary title. Even though this is a transfer of existing honors, protocol must be observed. But rewarding government service has long been done."
"Even if the government is not Britain's?" she had to ask.
"America is an ally. It is not entirely without precedent."
"I don't understand." She sighed in frustration. "I thought title sales raised money but conferred no legal status on the buyer."
"That is generally the case," he agreed, "but both Harold Villiers and Her Majesty preferred to divest him of everything--honors, privileges, and duties. Parliament concurred."
She wanted to ask why, but his words raised a more pressing question. "Duties?"
"You must take your seat in Parliament, my lady. And you must revise your will, designating an heir until such time as you produce one--or do you already have children?"
"No," she said weakly, blinking away tears as the full tragedy of the last year swept over her.
"How about siblings, cousins, or other relatives?"
"None," she confirmed, again swept by loneliness.
"Unfortunate, but time will rectify that," he murmured. For some reason, his words sounded false, though he couldn't know that the doctors put her chances of conceiving again at practically zero. "The title is hereditary, entailed to your oldest child. Parliament modified the articles of patent to include daughters in the succession and to permit a deed of transfer to a designated heir should you fail to produce one naturally."
He continued to outline the duties of a peer of England, but Cherlynn was no longer listening. All this talk of heirs was unsettling. Those icy fingers were again parading down her spine. It sounded like she needed a lawyer. At this rate, her ten-pound purchase was likely to eat up her entire divorce settlement.
"Who will you name as your heir?" he finally asked.
"I must think," she said with a sigh. "I know no one here. Unless I designate Her Majesty."
Horror flashed across his face. "That is the one thing you cannot do," he said firmly. "The letters of patent require that you formally designate an heir, but that heir cannot be a member of the royal family."
"How about you?"
"I must respectfully decline. Surely there is someone you can name. He or she need not be a British citizen. The patent confers full citizenship on any title holder."
"Very well." His voice was fading in and out. She should have eaten breakfast, but a sleepless night spent mulling unanswerable questions had destroyed her appetite. Now her empty stomach churned and low blood sugar left her lightheaded. "Will you need a copy of the will once it is complete?"
"You misunderstand, my lady. You will be signing your will before you leave this room. You may, of course, modify it in the future." He pressed a buzzer. A sober gentleman of vast age entered. "May I present Sir Anthony Wiggins? He is a noted solicitor who will assist you in every way possible." Before she could respond, he had slipped out.
Five hours later, Cherlynn fled to the safety of her hotel room and shuddered. What had she gotten herself into? Sir Anthony had answered no questions and volunteered no information. He listed her assets--the principal one being her new array of titles--and demanded she name an heir. He didn't care who, as long as she could provide enough identification to allow contact if necessary. She finally named an aide to the Committee on the Environment, and stipulated that everything but the titles go to her alma mater. The exercise was morbid in the extreme, but even that could not explain her growing uneasiness.
Fishy odors emanated from every aspect of this case. Her Majesty had seemed almost jovial, welcoming an insignificant American into the British peerage with the enthusiasm a new saint would receive at the Pearly Gates. And not just any American, but a female who had failed at everything she had attempted in twenty-six years. Why? Even at the close of the twentieth century, when high taxes had reduced most lords to genteel poverty, when ancestral homes had been turned over to the National Trust, and when political power rested solely in the House of Commons, the peerage remained aristocratic to the bone, clinging to the arrogance and protocol of past centuries and disdaining their social inferiors. Yet the Queen and a marquess had conspired to elevate a foreign nobody to those exalted ranks, apparently with the full connivance of the British government.
For God's sake, why?
Word of her new rank had spread like wildfire. Sir Anthony had spirited her out of the palace via a rear entrance, but reporters accosted the car as it left the grounds. More waited at her hotel. Feeling like a combination rock star and celebrity criminal, she ran the gauntlet as quickly as possible, shielding her face and responding to none of their shouted questions. Upon reaching her room, she snapped several orders into the phone, then collapsed.
What now? Reporters never gave up. If anything, her evasions would encourage them to new heights. Any hope of sightseeing or research was out of the question. Even returning to the States would change nothing. Perhaps she could invert her itinerary and tour the countryside, but even that would require a bodyguard to keep reporters at bay. Granting interviews to the press was impossible. She could not explain why she had purchased the title. She had not the slightest idea what she would do next. And she had no wish to see her face blazing from millions of television screens where Willard could see how ridiculous she was.
"Damn!" Her brows snapped together. He was still influencing her behavior. If not for him, she wouldn't be in this fix.
"Room service," a voice murmured from the hall, accompanied by a discreet knock.
She hesitated. She had ordered dinner and several newspapers, but had not expected such speedy delivery. Leaving the chain in position, she peered outside. The white-jacketed man appeared to be genuine.
"Dinner, my lady," he intoned when she opened the door. His deference stood in sharp contrast to the slow and sullen service she had received for the past week. Rank still commanded privilege, she decided as he bowed himself out, leaving a three-course meal and eleven newspapers on the table.
Shock riveted her eyes to the lead story.
(London) A daring young American today tempted fate in a magnanimous bid to save the monarchy from extinction. Miss Cherlynn Cardington of Cambridge, Massachusetts agreed to take on the curse that for two centuries has exterminated branch after branch of the once-powerful Villiers family. Seventy-eight-year-old Harold Villiers, last survivor of the clan, expressed appreciation for the selfless act that will prevent the title from reverting to the crown when he passes on.
"Oh, my God!" Cherlynn scrabbled through her briefcase for the packet of letters she had purchased three days earlier. No wonder they had seemed familiar. She had forgotten her silly bid long before she found them, but all fifteen mentioned the Marquess of Broadbanks. Each was addressed to Lady Debenham and signed by Lady Travis. Cherlynn had recognized the recipient's name. Lady Debenham had been an influential society hostess for much of the early nineteenth century--and a well-informed gossip.
She carefully unfolded the last one, dated March 1818, and scrutinized the faded writing on the recrossed page.
It is with Great Sadness that I must report the Death of the seventh Marquess of Broadbanks, who slipped unobserved from the cliffs near Broadbanks Hall at sunset yesterday evening, coming to Grief on the rocks below. His parting revives the old Scandals, as must be expected. To die in one's Prime always causes Talk. And more. Each new Tragedy adds Credence to tales of the Gypsy's Curse which have circulated these six years past. It would seem quite Potent, having already carried off Four Victims--miscarriage by the sixth marchioness only two days after she called the Curse onto the House; death by Suicide of the sixth marquess; miscarriage by the seventh marchioness two days later, despite having earlier produced a healthy boy and two girls; and now the death of the seventh marquess. Young Franklin is but four years old, an Endearing Boy already quite solemn over his new duties. Will he live to secure the Succession? One must hope that the sixth marchioness suffers Greatly in her Banishment, for she has brought Unmeasured Grief to a Noble House.
Her skin crawling, Cherlynn returned to the newspaper. It was a tabloid, which cast doubt on its wilder conjectures, but even the bare facts were chilling enough. Since 1812, no Marquess of Broadbanks had sired a child. The five marchionesses who were increasing when their husbands acceded to the title had all miscarried. No marquess had died of natural causes. None had lived more than three years after achieving the title, though many were young when it passed into their hands. In 186 years, 71 men had held the title. Harold Villiers, 76th Marquess of Broadbanks, was the last Villiers, his branch having split from the family tree over four hundred years earlier. Few in Britain scoffed at the Broadbanks Curse. No aristocrat claimed disbelief. Until this morning, Broadbanks's death would have transferred the title to the crown. With the monarchy already on shaky ground, the Queen didn't want it.
And so they had found a pigeon willing to bid without doing a moment of research, a pigeon who was now the seventy-seventh Broadbanks.
"Damn!" She had just bought herself a death sentence. Hurling the paper across the room, she succumbed to icy tremors. But she had only herself to blame. Christie's catalog had mentioned all eight titles as well as the startling information that the purchase would include full privileges and citizenship. Yet she had not read it--undoubtedly the only potential bidder in the entire world who had not. Why else had she won?
There had to be a way out. Pacing intensified her restlessness, so she sprawled across the bed, burrowing under a quilt to counteract her continued shivering. She would have to draft a new will, of course. Foisting a curse onto Beth was unfair. Willard would make a better heir.
But that was no solution. She wouldn't be around to see him suffer, and nothing would induce her to meekly accept an early demise. Thus she must find a way to break the curse.
Morning brought more rational thinking--along with a new stack of newspapers that were not tabloids. Allowing yesterday's sensationalists to stampede her was ridiculous. The Times did not mention any curse, though its story referred to the many tragedies that had beset the Villiers family. Surely she was intelligent enough to accept death without needing a villain to shoulder the blame. She had been taught to believe only in what she could see. Paranormal manifestations were fine in books and movies, but they did not exist in the real world. Nor did curses. Accidents and disease had claimed many people in earlier centuries. Losing entire families was not unusual. But the credulous could easily terrify themselves into believing some supernatural phenomena was at work.
She studied the summary of the Marquesses of Broadbanks that had accompanied one of the stories. The family was patriotic, but unlucky. Four lords had died childless only because their sons had earlier perished at Waterloo. A later marquess lost both sons in the Crimea. Other heirs had died in China, South Africa, India, Ireland, both world wars, the Falklands, and the Persian Gulf. In fact, the only military man in two hundred years who had returned alive was the sixth marquess, who shot himself a week later.
She removed the military from her list of potential employers, then chided herself for foolishness.
There was no pattern to the accidents, though she suspected that many of them proved fatal only because of the deplorable state of medicine in earlier times. She had nearly convinced herself that the curse was no more than media hysteria when she noticed the dates.
Seventy-one dead marquesses, five miscarriages, plus the death by accident or in war of twenty-nine heirs. Every fatality took place on March 15, June 15, September 15, or December 28.
Cherlynn slipped through a staff entrance, escaping into the early dawn. She had spent the rest of yesterday and last night formulating plans. Somehow she had to neutralize the curse. Given the current publicity, selling the title was out of the question, and she suspected that giving it away would do no good unless the recipient was willing to take it on. Fat chance! CNN had carried the story, so virtually everyone on the planet would have heard the details by now. She had no idea how to proceed, but learning about the family seemed an obvious first step. Thus she purchased a railroad ticket to Dover where she joined an afternoon bus tour to Broadbanks Hall, former seat of the Marquesses of Broadbanks.
An enterprising reporter had caught her on videotape as she exited Buckingham Palace, but the image had featured her ratty flyaway hair. Today she'd pulled it into a neat coil. Sunglasses, baggy jeans, and her assumed name of Heddy Anderson allowed her to pass unrecognized.
Little remained of the estate that had once stretched along several miles of the English Channel and included some of the richest grazing and agricultural land in the county. Even the park had shrunk until the four follies that used to offer grand vistas of lake, wood, and shore, now marked the corners of the property. All were in ruins. All were surrounded by overgrown thickets, for the National Trust only maintained the house and formal gardens. But the Regency wing and grounds were renowned, which had placed Broadbanks high on her itinerary when she had planned this trip. Little had changed since the sixth marquess commissioned Repton to redesign the park in 1812. That marquess had also redecorated the house, scandalizing the neighbors, according to Lady Travis, by refusing to allow his wife any say in the results--which suggested good judgment on his part; another letter had condemned the marchioness for her utter lack of style. Cherlynn would soon decide for herself. The only redecorating since the sixth marquess had been the addition of plumbing and electricity.
She stayed at the back of the tour group when they entered Broadbanks Hall, so she could absorb as much as possible without drawing attention to herself. Yet room after room offered no insight into the people who had lived there. Not that Broadbanks was dull. It had grown from an Elizabethan core, one wall of which had belonged to an earlier fortified manor. By the time the last addition was built in the late eighteenth century, the Hall sprawled across twenty acres, boasting two hundred rooms in a dozen wings. Courtyards, sheltered gardens, and terraces filled odd corners. Only the Regency wing and the Elizabethan core--which held the great hall and state apartments--were open for the tour.
At first, Broadbanks Hall seemed much like other English great houses. The elaborate railings on the main staircase took her breath away, as did the ornate stuccoed ceilings and intricate marble fireplace surrounds. Faded fabrics graced furniture and windows. Painted paneling glowed in the study and library. Threadbare carpets and patched wallcoverings tried to remain unobtrusive.
But the gallery triggered uneasiness. Forty-eight portraits lined its walls. The last had been completed barely a month before the forty-ninth marquess relinquished the estate to the National Trust in 1916. The marquesses represented every manner of man--thin to stocky, short to tall, light to dark, homely to handsome. The guide explained that every picture had been commissioned the day its subject acquired the title. The first four men looked stern. Number five was arrogant. The suicidal sixth was missing. But beginning with the seventh marquess, who acceded in 1815, every subject observed the gallery through haunted eyes.
"Your first visit, dearie?" asked an elderly lady.
Cherlynn jumped. "Yes. And you?"
"Oh, no. I come here often. Broadbanks is fascinating. You should try one of the October tours. They focus on the ghosts instead of babbling about the curse like Mrs. Tibbins is doing today," she said, naming the guide. "Inevitable, of course, with poor Lord Broadbanks selling the title and all."
"Don't you believe in the curse?"
"Go on with ye!" cackled the woman. "It's real enough. An' powerful strong. My great-grandmama had the tale from her grandmama who married one of the Broadbanks grooms. He heard the gypsy utter the fateful words himself. But no one knows if it truly attaches to the title or to the head of the Villiers family."
"You mean selling the title may make no difference?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. But curses are dull things. Ghosts are more interesting. Broadbanks is the most haunted manor in England--all those horrid deaths, you know. The best-known ghost is the sixth marquess, who haunts the library where he shot himself. Any number of people have seen him. He first appeared the day his wife died in Scotland, leading many to conclude he had previously been haunting her. A more enigmatic ghost occasionally appears on the cliff path, but he has never been positively identified. At least nine family members perished out there, and we can't see him clearly enough to identify his clothing. The most elusive one lives in the great hall. It is probably female, but even that is uncertain. All anyone's ever seen is a flash of blue. Theories range from a servant to the fifth marchioness, who was said to fancy blue. Of course the most frightening ghost is the gypsy, but only the marquesses see her. She is not confined to the estate, and her appearance always presages a death. None has survived the sight by more than forty-eight hours. At least one--the sixtieth, I believe--died on the spot."
"Mabel Hardesty, if you're cackling on about ghosts again, why don't you come up here so everyone can hear you," chided the guide, but it was clear she had a soft spot for the old lady. Mabel happily complied.
Mrs. Tibbins paused in the doorway to the great hall, waiting patiently while the last of her charges trickled through. Mabel was expanding her tale of ghostly wonders. "I hope she wasn't annoying you, my lady," she whispered. "It's been eighty years since a Broadbanks last set foot in this house. I want the occasion to be a positive one."
"You know?" She cringed.
"How not? Stay after the others leave and I'll show you the rest of the place. Don't worry about reporters. I doubt those outside recognized you. They are hoping to see the stars."
Cherlynn raised a brow.
"We're turning the Hall over to a film crew at five o'clock, so they can shoot Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. This will be your last chance to see the place until autumn."
"Thank you." The words lent a different twist to the urgency that had propelled her to Broadbanks this day. What had she hoped to find? It had not been used by the family since World War I. Had she thought the sixth marquess might materialize to explain how to break the curse? If any clues existed, surely one of the many previous marquesses would have found them. Her incentive was no stronger than theirs. They had all faced early death.
Unless it was the gypsy herself who had impelled this visit. Perhaps she needed Broadbanks Hall to connect with someone outside the Villiers bloodlines.
"Oh, my God!" she muttered under her breath. It was June 15.
Perspiration instantly soaked her shirt, bringing on clammy chills from the cool air. She fought down her fear. This was a perfectly ordinary English great house full of perfectly ordinary tourists. No one was going to leap out and strike her down. Besides, she had seen no one resembling a gypsy--which showed how superstitious she had suddenly become.
Biting her lip to control incipient hysteria, she concentrated on Mrs. Tibbins's lecture, turning obediently to examine the portrait above the mantel.
It was the missing sixth marquess. His expression was grim, his eyes revealing fathomless grief and stoic determination. Neither was suited to his face. The drawing room had held a painting of five children, commissioned when this man was fourteen. In the group he had been happy, radiating life and laughter with a face designed for smiling. What had happened in the intervening years to turn him into this dour shell? It couldn't have been the curse, for this portrait had been completed before it was cast, if Lady Travis's letters were accurate.
She drifted closer until she stood directly below him, mesmerized by his haunted countenance. Despite pain and desolation, his mouth remained sensuous. With melting warmth added to the chocolate brown eyes and a light breeze ruffling his short brown curls, he would be a lady killer. Those muscular shoulders bespoke athleticism. She could see him laughing as he effortlessly controlled a team of fractious horses.
Where had that image come from?
Stiffening, she tried to back away, but her feet were rooted in place. New shivers attacked. A writer needed a healthy imagination, but nothing in this portrait pegged him as a sensuous Corinthian. Deep furrows plowed his forehead above eyes nearly black with despair. Lines dragged his mouth into bitterness. The weight of the world bore down on his shoulders, bending his back into a permanent stoop.
She wanted to pull him into her arms and comfort him, to remove his burdens and free him from care. Her hand stretched upward, straining to reach those sagging shoulders. Empathy flowed from her fingertips. His countenance matched her own reflection during those last weeks of her marriage, reviving her pain, her helplessness, and that overwhelming certainty that she had no future. He had been right about his own prospects, and unless she could do something, hers were no better.
Mrs. Tibbins was gathering her flock to lead them into the gift shop. Ruthlessly suppressing her thoughts, Cherlynn turned to follow.
Unseen hands grabbed her shoulders and pushed. Hard. As she fell, she caught a glimpse of blue out of the corner of her eye. Then her head hit the stone hearth, and blackness engulfed her.