Authors: Marilyn Clay

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


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Because it hardly signified, Chelsea elected to say nothing in defense of her actions.

After a lengthy spell of silence, however, Lord Rathbone asked, "Would you care for a glass of ratafia, or perhaps champagne? I admit I could use a drink."

"As could I," Chelsea murmured.

"Well . . . which?"

"Either will suffice."

With a huff, Lord Rathbone moved from her side to fetch the drinks.

But a split second after he had returned with them, Chelsea was startled to distraction by the shrill sound of a familiar voice to her left.

"Now I recollect! It was in Brighton!" As one, both she and Ford turned toward a plump matron, whose flushed face was now beaming up at them.

Recognizing the woman as a close friend of her former employer, Lady Hennessey, Chelsea's heart fell to her feet.

She had completely forgot that Mrs. Forsythe lived near Chester!

"I am sorry I do not recall your name, madam," Ford was saying.

"But, certainly
remember me, young lady!" The woman gazed expectantly up at Chelsea, who stood nearly a head taller than she.

"Umm . . . I am so sorry, my lady, but I . . . "

The woman's lips pressed into a thin line. "Do not pretend you do not know me, Miss Grant. I was two weeks in Brighton with Lady Hennessey and was actually present in the drawing room the day you were . . . " she paused, the speaking look on her face aptly concluding the sentence, for Chelsea anyway.

Although she winced, she still managed to say, quite evenly, "Apparently you have me confused with Miss Grant, madam. It is true we do favor one another, and in Brighton, were quite often mistaken for one another."

Hearing Miss Grant's name mentioned, Lord Rathbone directed a remark to Chelsea. "I understood Miss Grant was to be in attendance this evening, Alayna. Has she not yet arrived?"

"No," Chelsea said quickly, aware that Mrs. Forsythe was still regarding her curiously, "she has not." She turned a steady gaze on the woman. "When Miss Grant does arrive, I shall bring her to you straightaway."

Mrs. Forsythe's brow furrowed as she reluctantly backed away.

"A bit odd, that," Ford mused, his eyes following the woman's departure.

"Indeed," Chelsea murmured. "But it is quite true, you know. People often mistook C-chelsea for me. We grew quite accustomed to it, actually."

"Hmm. Can't say as I recall you mentioning a marked resemblance to that young lady. I am doubly anxious now to meet her."

Chelsea declined a direct response to that, but a second later she was doubly chagrined when Mrs. Forsythe approached them once more.

"Now that I think on it, Miss Marchmont, you are quite right.
were the pretty one. And as for you, young man, you have made the right choice, indeed. It would never do to align yourself with

Chelsea cringed.

sort?" He directed a puzzled gaze at Chelsea.

One of Mrs. Forsythe's eyebrows lifted knowingly. "I don't mind saying that Lady Hennessey and I were quite shocked to learn of the unfortunate scandal associated with Miss Grant. You were quite right to apprise her of the details, Miss Marchmont. Indeed, we were both immensely grateful. One cannot be too careful these days." She smiled agreeably at the betrothed pair standing mute before her. "I wish you both every happiness."

As the woman strolled away again, Chelsea schooled herself to remain calm. Not wishing to show Alayna in a bad light, she had no intention of explaining anything to Lord Rathbone regarding the incident to which the woman had referred.

It did not surprise her, however, when almost at once, Ford asked, "What on earth was that silly woman alluding to?"

Chelsea affixed a smile to her lips and employed a particularly annoying habit of Alayna's. Changing the subject. "Did you notice the stunning brooch she had pinned to her turban? I declare it was the most lavishly cut emerald I have ever seen. And with a ring and bracelet to match! But the necklace was a bit much, don't you agree?"

Lord Rathbone's gaze fell to Chelsea's neck, which was decidedly bare. "Speaking of jewelry, may I inquire why you are not wearing the locket I gave to you, Alayna? I seem to recall you saying that you would never take it off."

Chelsea flinched. "I-I did not think it flattered my gown," she replied airily. But catching the fleeting look of hurt that darkened Lord Rathbone's eyes, she longed to retract her hastily spoken words. Instead, she said, "You refine too much on it, sir."

She was not prepared for the sudden flash of anger that twisted his mouth. "Confound it, Alayna! I refuse to countenance this nonsense a second longer!" With that, his fingers curled around her upper arm and he fairly dragged her from the ballroom.

Advancing to a dimly lit area on the balcony just beyond a pair of opened French doors, he whirled to face her. "I intend to have it out with you this minute, Alayna."

Chelsea recoiled from the anger blazing in his eyes. "Please, Ford. It is quite chilly out here, I much prefer to remain indo . . . "

"We shall return to the ballroom once we have arrived at an amiable pass! You are behaving precisely as you used to do as a petulant child. You've no idea how disagreeable I found you then!"

"Well, this is a fine time to tell me!" she sputtered. "On the eve of our marriage!"

"I would have said as much earlier, if I had seen signs of it earlier. But I did not. For all intents and purposes, during our last weeks together it appeared to me you had outgrown your insufferable obstinacy. And I don't mind saying I was glad enough for it. Now, once and for all, you will return to Honduras with me and I will tolerate no further rebellion from you on the matter. Do I make myself clear, Alayna?"

Staring evenly at the angry man, Chelsea tried to think of an ugly retort. But she could not. Suddenly all she could think of were the last delightful weeks they had spent together. Gazing up at him, she further realized that
had no genuine fight with the gentleman. It was he and Alayna who had differences to settle.
would gladly go to the ends of the earth with him. And beyond if he so desired.

"Have you nothing to say for yourself, Alayna?"

Watching his jaws grind together and his nostrils flare with fury, Chelsea wondered if even Alayna could continue to be so very cruel to him?

"Very well," he spat out. "I will detain you no longer, nor will I try to repair the damage done to our friendship." He continued to stare at her, then a moment later, in a considerably softened tone, he said, "I . . . regret the rift that has sprung up between us."

Chelsea felt her lower lip begin to tremble. Suddenly the emotion filling her breast felt near to bursting. She worked valiantly to push it down, but it was no use. "I ... too, regret it, sir," she said softly.

Ford registered his surprise at her admission. "Oh, Alayna." He reached for one of her gloved hands and nestled the palm of it against his smooth cheek. "These past weeks with you have been the happiest of my life. I cannot abide the thought of not having you with me in Honduras. Please, my darling, say you will come with me."

Tears swam in Chelsea's eyes. "Dear Ford . . . " she barely whispered, "I would go with you anywhere."

"Oh-h-h, Alayna . . . " He reached to draw her into his arms.

Not resisting him a whit, Chelsea arched her back as he gathered her close, molding her to the length of him.
Dear God, how she loved him!
But . . . it was not to be. It could never be. Suddenly, a rush of painful tears brimmed in her eyes.

Apparently feeling the sob that rose within her breast, Ford drew back. "Why are you weeping, little one?" A gloved finger gently brushed a sparkling droplet of moisture from her lashes. "I love you so very much, Alayna. And though you have never quite repeated the words back to me, I am certain that you love me, as well. What can be troubling you now? You do love me, do you not?"

Through her tears, Chelsea managed a tight nod. "Yes," she mouthed, "I do love you. More than life itself."

He joyously hugged her to him again. "I am the happiest man alive, Alayna."

Hearing 'Alayna's' name on his lips, Chelsea stiffened again in his arms. She should not have said what she did. Alayna did not love him. "Please, Ford . . . " she made a weak effort to pull away. "I-I should never have told you how I feel. Please, sir, forgive me."

A puzzled look on his face, Ford drew back once again to gaze into her eyes. "Why ever should you not tell me how you feel, peagoose?"

Chelsea bit her lower lip. Then, with no resistance whatever, she let Lord Rathbone, Alayna's betrothed, enfold her once again in his strong embrace. When his warm lips found hers, she gave herself up to the delicious shower of sparks that exploded in her brain. Yet when the kiss drew to an end, a wave of profound sadness replaced her immense pleasure. For a long moment, she nestled against him.

If she could not be wed to Lord Rathbone, her life may as well end, for she knew she would never again feel so very safe, so very protected, so very loved by a man.

Chapter Fifteen
“How Dare You Question My Veracity?”

he ain't here, miss!" Dulcie announced the following morning when she brought up Chelsea's breakfast tray.

Chelsea barely heard her. She had awakened especially early this morning and stationed herself by the window, partly to catch a glimpse of the festivities on the castle grounds below, mostly to watch for Alayna. "Oh, Dulcie." She turned toward the little maid, who was busy setting a plate of scones onto a table. "Whatever shall I do?"

Dulcie lifted a worried gaze and shook her head. "I dunno, miss."

"It simply wouldn't do for me to stand in for Alayna at the wedding."

Considering that, Dulcie's face screwed up. "Why not, miss? If 'is lordship was set to 'ave a . . . a . . . "

"Proxy," Chelsea supplied absently, then she cried, "No! No, I couldn't! I simply couldn't! Still . . . if Lord Rathbone were set to have a proxy stand in for him, then perhaps Alayna could have one, as well."

" 'Course she could, miss!"

"But I . . . I would have to divulge the whole truth to everyone before . . . that is . . . " Her throat tightened convulsively as she thought about what Lord Rathbone would expect
the wedding. "I mean, I couldn't let . . . oh, dear!" She hastened again to the window and peered out. "Alayna
arrive soon, she simply

Her eyes anxiously scanned the crowd of merrymakers cavorting on the castle grounds. From her vantage point, she could see several colorful booths, triangular scraps of red and yellow cloth snapping in the breeze from each corner of the wooden stalls. In front of them, criers loudly hawked toys, dolls and Bartholomew babies, the prizes to be awarded should anyone win the toss of the ball. She spotted a pair of jugglers throwing pins between them and a man on stilts, tossing boiled sweets to a group of eager children. What she did not see was Alayna.

"Oh, Dulcie." She turned dejectedly from the window again. "What are we to do?"

"Perhaps you should eat your breakfast, miss."

Suddenly struck with an idea, Chelsea cried, "I should like you to deliver a note to Lord Rathbone first." She hastened to a small writing desk in the corner of the room and withdrew a crisp sheet of linen paper. After scribbling a few words across it, she held it aloft to study it, then staring at it horror-struck, she ripped the page to pieces.

"Wot is it, miss?" Dulcie asked wide-eyed.

"Lord Rathbone has never seen a sample of my handwriting before. He would surely recognize it as not being Alayna's! You must simply tell him for me, Dulcie, that Miss Marchmont is not feeling well, and that . . . that the wedding ceremony must be delayed a bit." She paused. "Yes; yes, that should do nicely," she concluded, a bit out of breath.

Near eleven of the clock that morning, however, a note was delivered to Chelsea from Lady Rathbone. She and the older woman had exchanged only a few words last evening at the ball. But the discourse had been later, much later, after she and Ford had successfully patched up their differences. Earlier in the evening, Chelsea had been painfully aware of Lady Rathbone watching her closely. After supper, however, when Chelsea had eyes for no one save Ford, Lady Rathbone's attitude had undergone a miraculous change as well. No longer did Chelsea feel the woman's sharp gaze upon her, albeit behind thick spectacles, instead she experienced once again the frail old lady's warmth and acceptance.

"You look as pretty as a picture tonight, my dear," Lady Rathbone had said, a smile on her lips as a footman wheeled her chair to where Chelsea and Ford sat, a bit apart from the others as they ate their midnight supper.

"Thank you, Aunt Millicent," Chelsea had murmured, barely able to pull her eyes from Lord Rathbone's handsome face.

"I cannot stay angry with my darling Alayna for long," he had replied, also gazing with love at Chelsea.

The older woman had smiled at them, then she said, "For both your sakes, I hope that is always the case."

Chelsea hadn't thought much about Lady Rathbone's parting comment then, but with a fresh sense of foreboding, it burned into her mind now. Once Lord Rathbone discovered she was
his cousin Alayna Marchmont, she hoped his charitable attitude would extend also to her.

Her eyes quickly scanned the message from Lady Rathbone. In short order it said that a delay in the proceedings this morning would not be tolerated and that the wedding ceremony would begin promptly at noon in the castle chapel.

"Oh-h-h," Chelsea said on a sigh, letting the scrap of paper drift from her fingertips to the bed.
Whatever was she to do?

She glanced toward the clothespress where Alayna's lovely wedding gown hung in plain sight. The white lawn bridal costume was, by far, the most beautiful of all the many gowns Alayna had sent along with Chelsea. The empire-waisted dress was fashioned with long sleeves that ended in points just above the wrists. A pattern of seed pearls and silver threads was stitched onto the low-cut bodice, and the skirt was decorated with a garland of sculptured white roses, their leaf tips outlined in silver. Completing the ensemble was a close-fitting bridal cap with a sheer net veil, and tiny silver slippers, the toes of which were embroidered with white rosebuds.

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