Authors: Catherine Coulter
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Electronic edition: May, 2002
To Jennifer McCord,
a friend indeed who has great ideas:
The Star Trilogy
Let’s always go for it!
“ . . .
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
. . .”
Fresh clods of damp earth hit the coffin with dull, monotonous thuds. A single red rose glittered among the raw brown earth. At least he is with Mama now.
“ . . .
The Lord Jesus Christ hath ordained that all of mankind must one day join him in everlasting peace
. . .”
“We are so sorry, Elizabeth.”
“If there is anything we can do, Elizabeth . . .”
“ . . .
We beseech our Savior to take unto him the soul of our departed friend Sir Alec Jameson FitzHugh
. . .”
“Your father was a gentle, loving man . . .”
“Such a tragedy, Elizabeth, such a pity.”
She shook her head, clearing her mind of the
vicar’s soft droning words, clearing away the condolences of all her father’s friends. She blinked as she looked up at Mr. Paul Montgomery, her father’s longtime friend and solicitor. He cleared his throat, sending a reproachful look toward her Aunt Augusta, but Augusta Penworthy said more loudly, her voice imperious, “Elizabeth, you must attend! Mr. Montgomery has more important things to do than sit watching you daydream! And, may I add, so do your uncle and I!”
“Forgive me, Uncle Paul,” Elizabeth said, ignoring her aunt. She knew her Aunt Augusta had to be here today for the reading of her dead brother’s will, for she was his only living relative, other than his daughter. She glanced toward her Uncle Alfred, sweating profusely even in the chill afternoon of early April. Her father had despised Alfred Penworthy, calling him a miserable little weasel who couldn’t drink a glass of port without Gussie’s permission.
“Chauncey,” Paul Montgomery said gently, using her nickname for the first time, “to be quite clear about all of this”—he waved at the stack of papers before him on her father’s desk—“there is very little left. Jameson Hall will have to be sold, I fear, to pay the creditors.”
Aunt Augusta’s screech brought Paul Montgomery to a startled halt. He frowned at the woman, bending his head so he could stare at her over his thick spectacles. “Madam,” he said sternly, “it is to Miss FitzHugh that I am speaking.”
“Alec died without a farthing? Is that what
you said, sir? It is impossible! He could not be so feckless!”
“Sir Alec left bequests, small ones, for the servants, madam.” Mr. Montgomery shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Elizabeth,” he continued, his expression so commiserating that Chauncey felt tears swim in her eyes, “I fear that your dear father made some rather . . . questionable investments in the past couple of years. I tried to warn him, to hold him back, but it was no use. Also, I fear that he did not amend his will. That is another reason why your aunt and uncle are here today.”
Chauncey stared at him, knowing what was to come, but asking nonetheless, “What do you mean, Uncle Paul?”
Mr. Montgomery carefully removed his glasses and began to polish the small circles on his shirt cuff. “I mean that he did not foresee that you would need a . . . specified guardian until your twenty-first birthday. He assumed, of course, that you would be wed to Sir Guy Danforth long before he . . . died. Since Alec did not so specify, your aunt and uncle, as your only living relatives, are your guardians.”
“So,” Augusta said in a disgusted voice, “I am to take the chit, feed her and clothe her, all without a sou from Alec’s estate!”
“Now, my dear, poor Elizabeth has nothing to do with her father’s lack of—” Uncle Alfred began, only to be cut off by poor Elizabeth.
“But I shall be twenty-one in a mere six months, Uncle Paul! I have no need of a guardian! What is there to guard, after all?”
And if there were something to guard, do you believe I would want my greedy aunt to have control?
“It is the law, my dear,” Paul Montgomery said slowly. “But of course, there is another alternative for you, is there not?”
Chauncey lowered her head, seeing Guy Danforth in her mind’s eye. He needed money badly, the dowry her father had promised him. Now there was nothing. “No, Uncle Paul,” she said slowly, her voice growing stronger, “there isn’t another alternative.” She rose to her feet and shook out her heavy black wool skirt. “If there is nothing else, Uncle Paul, I will go and see to your comfort. Aunt Augusta, you and Uncle Alfred will be staying for the night?”
Aunt Augusta merely nodded, saying nothing more, and Chauncey walked quickly toward the library door, wondering if her aunt was at last thinking of her brother and regretted her unkind words. She closed it softly behind her, hearing as she did so Aunt Augusta’s furious voice. “It is ridiculous that we should take the girl! Why, she’s nearly a spinster! Certainly no gentleman will want to marry her now! What, I ask you, Mr. Montgomery, are we to do with her?”
Chauncey didn’t wait to hear Uncle Paul’s reply. So much for Aunt Augusta’s brief bout of restraint.
“Yes, Convers?” She turned to face the FitzHugh butler, swallowing the hated tears and schooling her features to an impassive expression. “An excess of emotion in a woman is considered acceptable, I suppose,” she could hear her father say. She saw him shrug, giving her his
dear lopsided grin. “But it does allow others to know what is in her mind. And that is not always so very acceptable, is it?”
“Sir Guy is here, miss, asking to see you.” At his mistress’s hesitation, he asked softly, “Would you like me to tell Sir Guy that you are not receiving today?”
“No, Convers, I will see him. Is he in the Blue Salon?”
“Yes, miss. Are you all right, Miss Chauncey?”
“Of course. Please bring refreshments. No, wait, Convers. No refreshments will be necessary.” Chauncey paused a moment before the silver-edged mirror beside the Blue Salon. The pale face that looked back at her little resembled the laughing, carefree Chauncey Jameson FitzHugh. Behind her was the great hall, its huge double oak doors open onto the marble entryway. She stared into the mirrored reflection at its magnificent high ceiling etched with geometric designs and baronial heraldry, at its stone floor covered with brightly patterned Turkey carpets. Heavy mahogany furniture, darkened from deep red to brown over the years, was set in austere groupings. Medieval arms, lances and longbows and helmets, graced the walls, never a patch of dust on them, for the FitzHugh servants were a conscientious lot. She closed her eyes a moment, remembering a little girl jousting with the highly polished suit of armor that stood proudly in the far corner of the hall. Jameson Hall, the home of three generations of FitzHughs, now to pass into the hands of strangers. No more jousts with the long-dead unknown knight, no more hoydenish swims in the placid River Wey that wound its
way to the east of Jameson Hall. No more cozy talks with her father in front of the massive fireplace, her skirts tucked up as she sat on the floor beside his chair. She rarely sat in the smaller chair that stood beside his. It had been her mother’s, beautiful, gentle Isobel, and she had always known that it remained Isobel’s in her father’s heart.
Chauncey felt a quivering shudder go through her body. “Thank God, Father,” she whispered at her image in the mirror, “that you have been spared this.” She tucked an errant strand of hair back into its prim coil at the back of her neck, squared her shoulders, and entered the salon.
She suppressed a frown. Guy could never bring himself to call her Chauncey. It smacked of a lack of breeding, she supposed, remembering when she had told him that her Irish nurse had dubbed her with the name when she was a little girl. It lacked a sense of self-worth.
But Father loved my nickname. He always said it softly, a kind of caress.
“Chauncey, my love,” he’d tease her in a thick Irish brogue, “what the divil do ye think ye’re doin, movin’ the king’s knight to that demned square? Be ye an angel, lettin’ me win so easylike?”
“Hello, Guy,” she said, walking into the room. “It is kind of you to come.” Chauncey allowed Sir Guy Danworth to take her hands in his and gently squeeze them.
“Of course I would come, my dear,” he said gently. How pale she looks, he thought, staring a moment at the mauve shadows beneath her expressive eyes. The black gown didn’t become her,
making her face look thin and pinched. He didn’t relish the months ahead, but of course he would do his duty with patience and tolerance.
Chauncey removed her hands from his grasp and walked to the far side of the salon to stand beside the white Italian marble fireplace, her dead grandmother’s pride. She eyed him from beneath her lashes, wondering suddenly why she had consented to marry him. Certainly he was handsome, in an understated, ascetic sort of way. His thin, narrow face had once appealed to her, for she thought it mirrored his complexity, his sincerity. But no, she thought, her lips twisting briefly, seeing him with new eyes. He was a prig. Even at twenty-eight, he was unerringly pompous and rigid in his beliefs and behavior. And of course there was his incredibly narrow-minded mother.
Why did I not see him so clearly before? Was I so selfish and blind that I saw no one as he really was? Why didn’t my father see him? Surely he couldn’t have been so blind as I.
“Elizabeth, please accept my condolences on this sad occasion. My mother also sends her regrets, of course.”
“Of course,” Chauncey murmured. “Thank you, Guy.”
“My mother is concerned about you, my dear. She realizes, of course, that we cannot wed until your year of mourning is passed, and wonders what you will do. I mentioned to her that you would likely remain here at Jameson Hall, but she could not allow that to be proper. Not without a chaperon, at any rate. She has suggested that you stay with your aunt and uncle in London.”
“Yes,” Chauncey said, “I must stay with them, it seems.”
“It will, of course, my dear Elizabeth, be my responsibility to work out an arrangement with your father’s solicitor and look after Jameson Hall in the meanwhile.”
“That won’t be necessary, Guy.” She looked at him straightly, seeing that he was, in fact, quite relieved that her father was dead, that he would now have everything. Must he even now eye the elegant furnishings of the Blue Salon with such a proprietary, almost greedy air? She wanted to laugh, but instead she said slowly and very clearly, “Jameson Hall will be sold shortly.”
“I . . . I do not understand, Elizabeth,” Sir Guy said, his dark brows drawing together. Lord, he hoped she hadn’t lost her wits after the past two days she’d spent in mute shock. But, he supposed, female hysterics would be worse. But no, she would never embarrass him with an emotional scene. “You are doubtless overwrought, my dear,” he said with gentle condescension. “You may leave such discussions with the solicitor to me.”
“Guy,” she said, drawing off the engagement ring from her finger, “there is no money. My father left me nothing. Jameson Hall must be sold to cover his debts, as will everything else of any value. As I said, I have no choice but to . . . live with my aunt and uncle until I am twenty-one.”
“No money,” he repeated blankly. “But that is impossible!”
She wanted to smile, for he sounded just like
her Aunt Augusta, shock, disgust, and condemnation clear in his voice.
He could not be so feckless!
“That is correct, Guy. Here is your ring. I have no intention of holding you to our engagement.” Oddly enough, the removal of the delicate emerald ring was like lifting a great weight from her shoulders. I must have been mad, she thought, somewhat dazed with the insight, to have agreed to marry him.
I would never have been Chauncey again.
He took it, of course. She had never once expected that he would argue with her, plead with her, claim that he loved her, only her. She saw the shock fade from his face, watched his eyes narrow as he struggled to find some gentlemanly words to say.
“Elizabeth, this is unbelievable,” he began. He felt a brief moment of absolute fury at the incredible shift in his fortunes. Damn Sir Alec! “You know that I care for you, but—”
“I know, Guy,” she said, cutting him off. “Please give my thanks to your mother for her sympathy. I have many things to see to now. I must go. Good-bye, Guy. Convers will see you out.”
She left him without a backward glance.