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August 20, 1808
"Promise me, Damon!" demanded Peter Braxton for the third time.
"Speaking of death attracts bad luck," insisted his lifelong friend. "Would you force me to take that chance?"
Graceful despite his agitation, Peter strode rapidly away. He appeared slender to the point of fragility, as though he might vanish at any moment. But the impression was false. Beneath that surface he was as strong and determined as Damon himself. Damon often wondered how two men who looked so different could be so alike. Peter was six inches taller, Damon two days older. Peter was dark, Damon fair. Peter's restless energy and excessive sensibility contrasted with Damon's leonine power and sober sense. But their minds were nearly interchangeable, so attuned that they rarely had to question each other. If only Peter had not done so now!
"The French are bound to attack soon," Peter reminded him, having circled back before passing the edge of their camp. "That first skirmish was nothing. They cannot allow us a toehold in Portugal. When the battle starts, I will need all my wits, but I can't concentrate if my mind is distracted, Damon. You know I cannot."
Damon nodded on a long sigh. It had ever been thus.
Peter continued. "So you must promise that if anything happens to me, you will look after Catherine. I need the words, Damon! I know Papa will do his best, but he understands her no better than he understands me."
"Very well. I promise."
The discussion was pointless, for he would have watched over her whatever Peter's wishes. Their families were so close that he had long thought of Cat as the sister his own parents hadnever produced. Her face shimmered against the night sky as it had appeared the day he left home, her violet eyes brimming with unshed tears. Though she had known that buying colors was something Peter had to do, her acceptance did not mitigate her fear. But she trusted Damon to keep Peter safe.
A cannon roared in the distance as Damon struggled to escape black despair. Peter was dead. He still could not take it in. They had been closer than brothers, closer than twins for two-and-twenty years. His anguish grew until he wanted to scream and scream and scream, but a gentleman could never do something so crass, especially an officer newly returned from the battlefield.
He sucked in a deep breath, fighting for control. How can I go on without you, Peter?
What a tragic penalty for youthful idealism! And how naÃ¯ve they had been--buying colors so they could push Napoleon out of Portugal and Spain through their own strength of will.
His hand shook as he opened his writing case. Twice the pen slipped from his fingers, ruining a page with inkblots. Gritting his teeth, he tried again. How was he to break the news to Lord and Lady Braxton? They were as dear to him as his own parents. And how could he hurt Catherine so badly? He had failed her.
Oh God, Peter! Why? His vision blurred as the tears he could no longer repress gushed down his face.
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Braxton awoke from the drugged haze she had hidden behind for the last week, determined to get herself under control. Peter would expect more than this craven escape from the world. She must see after the household until he returned. Had the news reached him yet?
Stifling another round of tears, she resolutely summoned her maid. She had wallowed in grief long enough. She was a Braxton, daughter of a proud lineage of barons and granddaughter to an equally proud line of earls through her mother. Never again would tragedy overset her.
Memory threatened her resolve, but she was finally numb enough to examine the facts dispassionately. The twenty-third of August had been a delightful day--warm and sunny, with only the mildest breeze. There was no hint of change when Lord and Lady Braxton agreed to go sailing with their dearest friends and neighbors, Lord and Lady Devlin. At the last minute Catherine had stayed behind to comfort an injured tenant until the surgeon arrived to set the girl's broken leg.
She never saw any of them again. A sudden squall had capsized Lord Devlin's yacht, killing everyone aboard. Despite all logic, she felt guilty for remaining alive.
Had Peter heard the news yet? Had Damon? Everyone had feared for their lives since the day they had bought colors. Who would have thought that it would be those who stayed behind who would perish?
Someone scratched on the door, thankfully distracting her thoughts.
But instead of her maid, Uncle Henry Braxton strode into the room, noting her red-rimmed eyes with his usual disapproving grimace. Yet his underlying expression more closely resembled suppressed excitement.
"Troubles never arrive alone," he announced ponderously, making none of the usual greetings and allowing her no time for her own. "Your irresponsible brother got himself killed. The barony is now mine."
Catherine's screams echoed all the way to the kitchens, bringing the servants on the run. Her shrieks stopped only when she fainted.
Hortense Braxton stormed into the breakfast room and glared at her cousin Catherine. "Lazy ingrate! Why Papa allows you to cadge off of us, I do not know."
"Is there a problem?"
"Of course there's a problem! I must wear my pink muslin tonight, but you haven't fixed that torn flounce. Why? It's been a week since that clumsy oaf ripped it!"
It was the first time Horty had mentioned a tear, but Catherine was too wise to point that out. "I will look at it after breakfast," she agreed quietly. "But are you sure you wish to wear that gown? It is becoming a trifle worn."
"What choice do I have?" snapped Hortense. "Papa refuses to buy me a decent wardrobe. He is making me a laughingstock. Even young girls titter behind their fans when I appear. It is unconscionable that my beauty should be so tarnished!"
"Perhaps your new shawl will dress it up," suggested Catherine. "Or cherry ribbons. Which would you prefer?"
"Both!" Horty's expression changed from petulance to calculation. "And change the sleeves. Those puffs make me look a veritable child. Jones can try something new with my hair. It is time to show those cats that they can never hope to outshine me."
"You and your delusions!" Drucilla Braxton scoffed, giving Catherine no chance to reply. "You make a cake of yourself by trying to be a diamond. That old gown is beyond repair. Besides, Cat won't have the time. She must fix the neckline on my new lutestring. I cannot understand how the dressmaker cut it so badly. I'll not look a dowd at Sir Mortimer's dinner. He has houseguests from London!"
"Better a dowd than a courtesan." Hortense sneered. "If you lower that neckline even half an inch, you will fall out the first time you breathe. Your antics embarrass us all."
"Embarrassment? Ha! It is rampant jealousy. You are so flat you could rip your bodice off and no one would notice."
"What shocking vulgarity! Mama will leave you in the schoolroom, where you can review fashion. Slenderness is all the crack." She stared her sister up and down. "Perhaps you should try Byron's regimen of boiled potatoes and vinegar. Gentlemen do not like fat."
"Fat! Listen to the self-appointed expert!" Dru's cup slammed onto the table, sloshing coffee across its surface. "I've heard you described many ways, Hortense Braxton, but fashionable was never one of them. Why only yesterday Jeremy Tuggens complimented my maidenly curves, disparaging your imitation of a fence post. And gentlemen have a penchant for blondes. You lose on that count too!"
"So you accept advances from a farmer's son!" Hortense snorted. "Have you no concept of your position? But this discussion is pointless. Your scandalous neckline will have to wait. As the elder, I have first claim on Catherine's services."
"It is just as well," agreed Drucilla. "If you wear the pink--which makes you look sallow and scrawny--even that rag I wear for gardening will attract Sir Mortimer's guests."
"How dare you?" demanded Hortense. Her fork hit the tabletop hard enough to dent the wood as she cast a malicious eye over her sister. "But of course! You are upset because no gentleman will look twice at you unless you throw your naked body into his arms."
"Such language!" countered a seething Drucilla.
"What is the meaning of this contretemps?" demanded Lady Braxton from the breakfast room doorway.
"I wish Catherine to mend a small tear on my pink muslin so I can wear it tonight," stated Hortense firmly. "But Dru is being difficult. Can you imagine? She wants to appear at Sir Mortimer's dressed as a lady of the evening!"
"Fustian!" replied Drucilla. "I merely need Catherine to make a slight adjustment on my new gown, which does not fit as perfectly as it should."
"Hortense, you will wear your white crepe," ordered her ladyship. "You will not appear in colors before you are officially out. I have already spoken to Jones about your hair. She must take particular care with it, for I hope to arrange a match with one of Sir Mortimer's guests. Both are of marriageable age and cannot help but look fondly on such a fine girl."
Calculation appeared in Hortense's eyes.
Lady Braxton nodded and turned her attention to her younger daughter. "Drucilla, there is nothing wrong with your gown. I checked it myself before we left the dressmaker's. You had best spend the day reviewing deportment. You are young yet, and unknown, so any mistake can prove fatal. Use the evening to hone your social skills."
Without giving Drucilla a chance to respond, she addressed her niece. "Catherine, you will plan a picnic for next week. And perhaps a dinner. We must take advantage of this opportunity. It isn't often that we get such distinguished visitors to Somerset. If only we could go to town this Season!"
"Yes, Aunt Eugenia," agreed Catherine.
"And speak to Cook about her blancmange. It was nearly inedible last night."
"Mary was unacceptably pert this morning. If you cannot keep the girl under control, I will have to turn her off without a character."
"I will take care of it," promised Catherine, motioning Wiggins to remove her plate. This would not be a day she could linger over meals. Mary was a continuing problem. Though she was an outstanding worker, her high spirits left her unable to endure Lady Braxton's abuse in silence. But losing this position would hurt her family.
"I thought I told you to remove that obscene tapestry in the ballroom," complained Lady Braxton.
"Uncle Henry forbade it," Catherine reminded her aunt, shuddering at the desecration Eugenia had suggested the last time the subject arose. The tapestry was not the least obscene, but Lady Braxton hated the Elizabethan decor and was determined to introduce a vivid Egyptian theme. "There is no other hanging that will fit, and he refuses to panel that wall. It is nought but rough stone beneath."
"Papa is a pinchpenny," grumbled Hortense. "An Egyptian ballroom would be the talk of the neighborhood."
"But not from envy," countered Drucilla. "Chinese is more fashionable these days."
Hortense objected, and they were off.
Catherine ignored the argument. Squabbling between her cousins was so normal that it hardly registered. In the early days, she had cringed at every contretemps, bursting into tears when their tantrums destroyed items that her family had prized. Not until she realized that the girls enjoyed hurting her did she learn to hide her pain, but it had been too late to salvage her mother's treasures. The collection of china figurines was long gone. Horty had smashed the oriental vases after Sir Mortimer's son called her a jade. Dru had tossed an entire folio of watercolors into the fire the day Mr. Dawkins rebuffed her. Though physically different, the sisters had identical characters. Both were terrified of spinsterhood, so they threw themselves at every available man. Catherine could do nothing to stop them or even to guide them, for she only lived here on sufferance.
She had endured many changes in the last eight years. The first was the cancellation of her Season. Her father had squandered much of his wealth--including her dowry--leaving the barony on the verge of destitution and herself unmarriageable. Uncle Henry had offered her a home, but it was long before Catherine fully accepted the situation.
At least Uncle Henry understood her aversion to charity and had helped her retain some self-respect. "I have a favor to ask of you," he had said a week after they had received word of Peter's death. It was the first time she had ventured downstairs since the accident.
"Yes?" Catherine looked straight at her uncle, avoiding the empty library wall where her father's picture had always hung. It had already been removed to the portrait gallery.
"You must stay busy if you wish to recover from your grief," he pointed out after explaining the financial difficulties they all faced. "Eugenia has never run a house this size, and I must cut the staff, which will make the job even more difficult. Can you assist her?"
"Of course," she agreed readily, eager to do anything to pay for her upkeep. The new arrangement also earned the gratitude of the staff, many of whom had resented Lady Braxton's arrogance and petty complaints. Within the month, Catherine had taken sole charge of the manor, allowing the housekeeper to retire. Two servants who had protested using a baron's daughter as an unpaid menial were dismissed. The rest silently conformed to the new regime.
Catherine had been satisfied with the arrangement. Accepting charity from an uncle who was already suffering financial problems would have bedeviled her conscience. She might not like her change in fortune, but work kept her mind off grief and regret.
The next adjustment had occurred near the end of deep mourning. She had looked forward to visiting neighbors again, but her fantasies had exploded during another chat with Uncle Henry.
"I truly hate to ask so much of you, my dear," he apologized, pacing restlessly about the library. "But I have a serious problem. Eugenia lacks your training in society manners, for she was not born to this position. Thus her confidence is easily shaken. She has the odd notion that any invitations she receives are really meant for you and include her only from politeness. Perhaps you could remain behind until she discovers that the neighbors accept her for herself. Once she learns the truth, you are welcome to join her. It should not take long, for she has it backwards, as you well know. You are included only out of pity for the poor orphan or to show that they do not hold your father's irresponsibility against you."
"They know?" She had not believed that Uncle Henry would make his affairs public.
"Of course. It is impossible to keep secrets from servants, and they freely discuss their masters with others. You must not pay heed to the talk. Few openly condemn you, for you were not to blame."
Yet she could not forget the shame her father had visited on the family. The last thing she wanted was pity from her former friends. She had readily agreed to remain behind so that Aunt Eugenia could establish herself as the new baroness. As time passed, she found that facing the neighbors was too humiliating. Peter would have called her craven, but she preferred to avoid a world in which she no longer had a place. Instead, she concentrated on running the house and helping the tenants, who had done nothing to deserve their change of fortune. As the family finances worsened, she took on more responsibilities. By age twenty, she did the household mending and was making her own clothes. By two-and-twenty, she was handling much of her uncle's correspondence so that he no longer needed a secretary. It was the least she could do to repay the rising cost of supporting her.
Uncle Henry often thanked her for her assistance. Aunt Eugenia's constitution had weakened until it required all of her energy to participate in neighborhood society, so she appreciated Catherine's efforts. Hortense and Drucilla ignored her unless they wanted help. Sidney, her uncle's heir, was rarely at Ridgway House, having been away at school when his father acceded to the title. More recently, he spent much of his time in town, and she was glad. The grievances he had nursed since childhood made him gloat over her new status as a poor relation. He did everything in his power to demean her.
Thrusting memory aside, Catherine followed her aunt to the morning room.
"We will hold the picnic on Wednesday," announced Lady Braxton once she was settled on a couch. "Cook must surpass herself if we are to make an impression. Oh, how I wish we could afford a decent chef! How are we to attract the gentlemen's notice with nought but Mrs. Willowby? Sir Mortimer's cook is so much better."
"Mrs. Willowby does quite well," Catherine reminded her, refusing to mention that Sir Mortimer's cook had worked at Ridgway until Lady Braxton's insults drove her away. It was useless to repine over what could not be changed.
"I hope so," said her aunt with a sigh. "How are we to find husbands for the girls when we must start with such handicaps? Imagine! Only five hundred pounds each for dowries. What lord will overlook that? And they must find lords. It would never do to marry down. As daughters of a baron, it is their right."
"What do you know of these gentlemen?" asked Catherine to divert her from an oft-repeated tirade.
"Everything important. Lord Grey is a baron, his title reaching back hundreds of years. He has two estates and a considerable fortune. Sir Timothy is but a baronet, but he will do to keep Drucilla occupied while we fix Hortense's interests with Lord Grey. She is already nineteen and must wed before she turns twenty or she will be considered on the shelf. That gives us six months."
They turned to planning the picnic, hoping for a warm day though it was still early spring. Catherine accepted all her aunt's suggestions, her mind on other things. This would be another pointless exercise. Neither Horty nor Dru could bring Lord Grey up to scratch. Her aunt might live on dreams of a wealthy, powerful alliance, but her cousins were not the girls to achieve one.
Damon Alexander Fairbourne, ninth Earl of Devlin, glared at the missive in his hand. Triple disasters had struck his estate, requiring his immediate personal attention.
He shivered. Though he had sold out eight months earlier, he had not yet visited Somerset, preferring to address other business first--like assuring the succession; he had pushed his luck far enough. Thus he had accepted invitations to several winter house parties and was now immersed in the London Season. It allowed him to forget his other reason for avoiding Devlin Court. Too many ghosts lived there, for everyone he had loved was gone.
Peter's image floated before his eyes as it had done so often since Vimeiro, blotting out the sight of his study. How could he live without so basic a part of himself? After all this time it was still an unanswered question.
But the letter would not disappear.
"Tell Tucker we will leave immediately," he ordered the butler, who had been silently awaiting instructions near the door.
"Yes, my lord."
He scrawled a note to the Marquess of Tardale, postponing the meeting they had arranged for the following morning and crying off his plans to escort Lady Hermione to the theater. Two days to Devlin, three to address its problems--he should return in a sennight. Hermione would understand.
Lady Hermione Smythe.
His face softened as he thought of the beauty he had chosen to be his bride. Tall and slender, with blonde hair and green eyes, she sent chills tumbling down his spine whenever she entered a room. Hermione would drive away the ghosts. The prospect of a week apart was daunting, confirming the wisdom of his plans. She would preside over Devlin Court with the same graciousness his mother and grandmother had showed. His tenants would welcome a mistress who could share their concerns. She would fit perfectly into his life, offering conversation or loving silence according to his mood, her sweet temper guaranteed to make his home the sanctuary it had been in his youth.
But it would do no good to dwell on their upcoming separation. He reread the letter from his steward. Troubles never came singly or even simply. One of the cottages had burned to the ground, injuring the tenant and killing his eldest son. Already the family was behind with the spring planting. To make matters worse, a mysterious illness was sweeping the county's dairy herds, promising bad times for the cheesemakers. Both problems would impact his rents. And the unrest that had plagued England for some years--most recently in the form of the corn riots--had now broken out in the village, as grumbling over dwindling incomes and rising prices turned to violence.
Damon sighed. He should have gone home earlier. Hastings was an excellent steward, but he had been left in sole charge of the estate since the previous earl's death. It was too big a burden.
Damon considered settling his betrothal immediately so he need not rush back to town, but reluctantly abandoned the idea. Managing the trip with only one overnight stop was already questionable. If he delayed any longer, he would require two. And it might take hours to track her down. She was probably making calls or shopping. It was what ladies were expected to do when in town, and Hermione always conformed to expectations.
"I will leave immediately," he informed Tucker as his batman-turned-valet adjusted his jacket. "Pack enough for a week, then follow in the carriage."
"Of course, my lord," replied Tucker with a grin. "Don't you fret none. 'T'won't be the first time we up and left in a hurry."
Damon's eyes narrowed as he pushed memory past the years to which Tucker referred, past the disillusionment of war and the devastation of death, to another departure. That had been his last visit home.
Home. His mouth tasted metallic, and he swallowed convulsively. He and Peter had bought colors in the spring of 1808, determined to counter Napoleon's move into Portugal. It had been Peter's idea, of course. He had been army-mad since escaping leading strings. That was all that had saved Damon's sanity after Vimeiro. If he had led his closest friend to death, he could not have lived with himself.
Their fathers had protested, but the boys were fired with idealism and an age-old drive to test their mettle on the field of combat. Next to that, the argument that heirs should not endanger their lives did not sway them. After all, a good friend had died while hunting. When the boys remained adamant, Damon's father had accepted defeat, mouthing all the appropriate words, though his disapproving expression belied most of them. Lord Braxton had eschewed pretense, condemning them both for willful disobedience, and even threatening to disinherit Peter if he persisted in this folly--an empty threat, as they all knew, for the estate was entailed to the eldest son. Peter hadn't enjoyed the rift, but he understood his parent, having inherited his own passionate nature from his sire. He listened and agreed with many of Lord Braxton's points, but the remonstrations changed nothing. The boys had been of age.
Lord Braxton's diatribe had hurt Damon nearly as much as Peter. The baron was his godfather and was as beloved as his father. That had made Peter's death even harder to bear. Damon had always been the steady, rational one of the pair, expected to protect Peter and prevent rash behavior.
"Master Peter would chastise you for avoiding home for so long," observed Tucker, their long acquaintance under the most trying of circumstances allowing him to speak as a friend and advisor rather than a servant.
"There is no one there to care," responded Damon sadly. "My parents are gone, as are his. His sister married some years ago. I don't even know where she lives now. Under the circumstances, Peter would understand my reluctance."
"Maybe so, but you still have to live with yourself. If nothing else, you can decide what changes must be made before you marry."
Damon's brows shot up. He had never considered the question, but Tucker had a point. The house had been untenanted for years. Was it ready to receive the new countess?