Authors: Marilyn Clay

Tags: #London Season, #Marilyn Clay, #Regency England, #Chester England, #Regency Romance Novels


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She decided it best to stay close to her own chamber for the remainder of the day, and spent the long hours going over and over all that had transpired between herself and Lord Rathbone since his appearance at the castle. She recalled their trips into Chester, the visit to Pemberton Keep, the many long talks they shared each evening in the sitting room, and the pleasant musical interlude they had enjoyed just last night. And of course, the memory of his kiss in the library burned like a perpetual flame in her mind. It would be a lie to say she did not care deeply for the gentleman, which made the rift that had sprung up between them that much harder to bear.

Still, she knew the breach was for the best. With both his lordship and Lady Rathbone angry with her, they might be more inclined to forgive Alayna her part in the subterfuge. And that, Chelsea told herself sadly, was of far greater import than her own feelings in the matter.

She reached upward to curl her fingers around the golden locket that Ford had presented to her as a token of his love. Caressing the warm metal caused tears of sadness to spill onto her cheeks. That Lord Rathbone had selected the betrothal present especially for her had been a fleeting dream. At the time, it had not mattered to Chelsea that the dream would soon splinter to pieces. For a time, it had been real; for a time, it had been hers.

But, now . . . now that she had come to her senses, she knew she had no right to wear the locket. It did not belong to her. It belonged to Alayna. She reached behind her neck to unclasp it when a sudden rap at the door alarmed her.


Recognizing the deep timbre of Lord Rathbone's voice, Chelsea froze.

"Alayna, open the door."

Springing from the sofa where she sat, the necklace slipped from Chelsea's fingertips and disappeared between the worn velvet cushions of the couch.

Pressing her cheek against the oak paneled door, Chelsea longed to do as Lord Rathbone requested, but if she did, she feared she would not have the strength to keep from hurtling herself into the gentleman's arms and declaring how very much she loved him and that she missed him greatly.

"Alayna," Lord Rathbone said again, his tone growing insistent. "Open the door. I must speak with you."

"I . . . I do not feel well, sir," Chelsea stammered.

A pause followed. When next the gentleman spoke, his tone had altered considerably. "Nor do I. Will you please open the door?"

Chelsea bit back the rush of hot tears that threatened to erupt and betray her feelings. "I . . . cannot, sir." She felt her throat tighten painfully. "Please, leave me to my rest."

"Alayna, I must speak with you. I cannot bear it that we . . . please, darling . . . " his plaintive tone trailed off.

Chelsea's eyes squeezed shut. "I . . . do not wish to see you just now, sir," she lied.

There was another pause. "Very well, Alayna."

The next sound Chelsea heard was the echoing of his receding footfalls on the bare stone floor of the corridor.

Stumbling toward her bed, she slumped onto it. Her dream had indeed come to an end. A sudden stab of longing made her double over in pain, then with horror she realized that if Alayna were to return to the castle this evening, or perhaps early tomorrow, she might
see Lord Rathbone again. That thought filled her with the most horrific anguish she had ever experienced in her life. The feeling was so overwhelming she feared she might perish from it.

* * * *

y six of the clock on the following evening, Alayna had not yet returned to the castle. Chelsea received a short but terse note from Lady Rathbone informing her that she
attend the ball being held that evening in her own honor. More a command than an invitation, Chelsea knew that once again she had no choice but to comply. To not attend would cause both Lord and Lady Rathbone undue embarrassment.

Chelsea had again spent that day alone in her room. From her narrow window overlooking the mews, she had whiled away the long hours watching the endless stream of activity below as guests arrived at the castle for the ball and the wedding. Any moment she had expected to see Alayna's face among those emerging from a coach or landau, but she did not.

At luncheon and again at tea time, Dulcie brought up a tray for her meals. In excited tones she kept Chelsea abreast of all the preparations underway for the upcoming festivities.

Though Chelsea had looked forward to the ball and the fair with longing, wishing more than anything that she might be on hand to share in the fun, that had been before . . . before she and Lord Rathbone had come to daggers drawn. Now her greatest fear was, how to get through this evening in his presence?

After removing the tea tray, Dulcie quickly reappeared in Chelsea's chamber, this time carrying one of Alayna’s beautiful ball gowns draped over her arm. With great care, she gently laid the dress across the foot of Chelsea's bed.

"I took the liberty of gettin' it pressed for you, miss. Didn't know which of you'd be wearin' it . . . " she grinned crookedly, " . . . but, at any rate, the packin' wrinkles is gone."

Chelsea eyed the lovely gown. She did not own anything half so grand, and had never in her life expected to have occasion to wear such a garment.

"You'd best be gettin' ready, miss," Dulcie urged. "Orchestra is already settin' up in the ballroom." She darted across the room to drag forth a copper tub from behind a painted screen. Then, with Chelsea looking on, she reached for the bell rope and gave it a hearty tug.

"Dulcie, you know none of the bell pulls are operable."

Dulcie grinned wisely. "They are now. His lordship put a engineer fellow to work this mornin' afixin' 'em. Wouldn't do for the guests to be shoutin' for a maid or a footman when they's in need of somethin', 'e said."

Chelsea managed a sad smile.

"Footmen should be bringin' up hot water for your bath any minute. You'll see, miss."

Chelsea pulled herself to her feet and headed for the dressing room to remove her clothing.

And, just as Dulcie predicted, a parade of footmen soon appeared in the corridor, each carrying a pitcher full of steaming hot water, which they carefully poured into the small tub in Chelsea's room.

"You'll have a grand time at the ball tonight, miss," Dulcie said as she busied herself laying out fresh undergarments for Chelsea. "Even her ladyship is in high alt. The old ba... I mean, her ladyship even smiled at me once. Can you imagine the like? I mean, after yesterday and all." Dulcie shook her head in wonder as she prattled on.

Chelsea barely heard, so overset was she about what lay before her.

"Kitchen's full of delicious smells," Dulcie said. "There's plum duffs and Charlotte's, and raspberry tarts. And puddin’s for tonight's supper and the weddin' breakfast tomorrow."

At the mention of the wedding, Chelsea groaned aloud. "Oh, Dulcie, what am I to do if Alayna has not returned by tomorrow morning? I cannot possibly stand in for her at the wedding ceremony."

Helping Chelsea into the lovely ball gown, Dulcie laughed gaily. "Don't you worry none, miss. She'll be here. Miss Marchmont won't want to miss wearin' her new weddin' finery."

Chelsea thought of the beautiful new wedding gown hanging in the clothespress. How very like Alayna to insist upon outfitting herself properly even though her bridegroom would be absent from the wedding.

With her own elaborate toilette at last complete, Chelsea anxiously appraised her image in the looking glass.

"You look beautiful, miss!"

Chelsea smiled wryly at her own reflection. She did look pretty. The rose silk gown was a perfect fit, as were all of Alayna's frocks. Turning slowly to one side, she watched the whisper-soft folds float gently about her body. Her golden hair, swept into a cloud of curls, was finished off with a pearl encrusted head-dress and a deeper rose-colored feather. Would Ford think she looked pretty tonight, she wondered? At the thought of seeing him again, her heart began to hammer fitfully in her breast.

"You'd best go now, miss. His lordship will be awaitin' you. 'E said to tell you 'e'd be in the withdrawin' room."

"Thank you, Dulcie."

Moving through the castle, Chelsea was aware of the bustle of activity about her. Servants scurried thither and yon, hardly a one of them noticing her as she lightly trod upon the narrow, red carpet runner that had been especially laid for this evening through the main passageways of the castle, all of which led to the grand ballroom.

Upon reaching her destination, a liveried footman stationed just outside that room sprang forward to fling open the door for her. Chelsea caught sight of Lord Rathbone before he turned from where he stood before the hearth to see her.

Taking in his lean muscular form, smartly attired this evening in an elegant black cut-away coat, black pantaloons and polished black pumps, an almost suffocating sensation threatened to overtake her. But she must remain aloof toward him, she told herself. Exhibiting any warmth toward the gentleman tonight would serve only to destroy the distance inadvertently established between them by yesterday's breach.

She was nearly upon him before he, at last, turned to face her. When he did, Chelsea was stunned by the naked look of hurt and longing in his eyes. But in an instant the look disappeared and his face once again became a mask of cool indifference.

"Good evening, Alayna," he said, a dark gaze raking over her slender form. "You look . . . tolerably well."

A tremulous smile wavered across Chelsea's lips. "I am feeling much better, sir."

"Well, then . . . " A brow lifted cryptically as he extended an elbow. "I expect the ballroom is full of people who are eager to greet the happy couple."

Chelsea bit back the stab of raw grief she feared would destroy the composure she was working so hard to maintain. Despite the anguish they both felt, she knew they had no choice but to see this evening through.

"I am certain we shall manage somehow, Rutherford," she murmured softly. She did not see the look of surprise that flickered across his face.

Moments later, when every eye in the glittering hall was turned on them, Chelsea took strength from the mere presence of the tall gentleman by her side. This being the first real ball she had ever attended in her life, she was not prepared for the additional nervousness she felt for being thrust also into the limelight. Yet somehow it was comforting to know that, despite his cool exterior, Lord Rathbone felt every bit as miserable as she.

At odd moments during the evening, Chelsea considered the possibility that Alayna might return to the castle while the ball was in progress. But she dismissed the notion. Unaware that any festivities had been planned to celebrate her nuptials, Alayna would not think it necessary to arrive at the castle shielded by darkness. More than likely she would simply stroll into the castle the following morning, prepared to change into her wedding gown, repeat her vows and depart again for London within the hour.

Still, as the crush of smiling guests crowded about Chelsea and Lord Rathbone to express their well-wishes and accolades, her anxious gaze darted regularly to one or another of the many entrances leading into the brilliantly lit hall.

At length, Lord and Lady Pemberton stood before them.

"At last, it is our turn to greet you, my darlings!" Lady Pemberton exclaimed, alternately kissing the air beside Chelsea's cheeks. "How very pretty you look! Doesn't Alayna look pretty?" she asked her husband, who was occupied pumping Ford's outstretched hand.

"They both look dashed handsome!"

"I was talking earlier with Millicent," Lady Pemberton told Chelsea. "I cannot think when I have seen her looking so fit. I know she will miss you frightfully when your husband whisks you off to Bombay or . . . " she turned a quizzical gaze on Rutherford.

"Honduras," he supplied firmly. "Alayna and I shall reside in Honduras after we are wed."

Chelsea grimaced and when they were once again alone, turned toward him. "I have not changed face on the subject of accompanying you across the sea, Rutherford."

His jaws ground together and he refused to look at her when he spoke. "We are to become man and wife, Alayna. And, as you so aptly reminded me a moment ago, we shall manage somehow. In spite of the fact that one of us finds the living arrangements distasteful," he added curtly.

At the mention of their being together again, Chelsea's spirits rose the veriest mite, only to be crushed once more when she reminded herself that
was not the young lady who would be living with the gentleman.

With reluctance, she turned her attention to the colorful blur of couples spinning through a contredanse in the center of the room. Though she and Rutherford had been busy greeting the guests during the first set, he now put a hand to her back and guided her to the floor for the second. Though the pressure of his warm hand at her waist caused a fluttering sensation in her stomach, she nonetheless succeeded quite well in maintaining her cool demeanor toward him.

When the dance had concluded, however, she was grateful when Lord Rathbone relinquished her hand to Lord Pemberton, and then to another gentleman who had stepped forward, requesting that she stand up with him.

To her immense delight, this gentleman, whom Ford had addressed as Mr. Brownlea, kept up a running discourse throughout the entire number, his lighthearted comments giving Chelsea occasion to smile and, at times, even to laugh.

Upon returning her to Lord Rathbone's side, Mr. Brownlea remarked, "Your betrothed is a rare flower, your lordship. Perhaps I might be granted a second dance with her following supper. Since she is already spoke for, shouldn't think it would garner notice, what?"

A glare from Lord Rathbone sent Mr. Brownlea packing and a hand at Chelsea's back guided her to the fringe of the crowd. "It appears you had plenty of smiles for Lord Pemberton," he remarked dryly. "And I could not help but notice that the fortunate Mr. Brownlea was the object of what could only be termed a coquettish attitude on your part. To say truth, I did not enjoy watching you with either gentleman."

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