Authors: Parris Afton Bonds
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
Parris Afton Bonds
Copyright 2012 by
Parris Afton, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
Cover artwork by
Telltale Book Covers
This is a work of fiction and a product of the author’s imagination. No part of this novel may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This e-book may not be resold or given away. Any resemblance to characters living or dead is purely coincidental.
he old Hindu, his cadaverous body wrapped in the loose white
, sat with his legs entwined before him, his back against the cart’s high, wooden wheel. He held the chipped and cracked porcelain cup between brown, gnarled hands. Beneath the hazy light of England’s August sun, his hooded eyes studied with detachment the mystical arrangement of tea leaves, the dregs that were left in Lady Jane Lennox’s cup.
Captain Terence MacKenzie of Her Majesty’s Royal Dragoons watched the uncommonly tall young woman arch a skeptical brow—a raven’s wing, as black as her high- piled cluster of curls. Her beauty was more subtle than breathtaking and she was the personification of unbending pride. Quite different, he thought, from the awkward little girl who at one time had run to hide her ungainly height from visitors. Now Jane carried her regal frame with a magnif
icent sense of the old noblesse.
God damn them to hell.
Terence shook his tawny head at her, counseling patience, and her too-wide mouth formed a piquant moue of feigned long-suffering.
The swami at last spoke, almost reluctantly it seemed. His Tamil dialect was but strange mutterings to Lady Jane. The officer, however, was quite familiar with it. Not yet thirty-two, he had absorbed the Hindustani language during three years of distinguished military service in India for His Majesty King George III.
The boisterous jetsam of humanity that crowded Wychwood’s green for St. Bartholomew’s Fair made listening difficult. At the nearby puppet show Punch and Judy clobbered each other with shrill yells, and at the wagon’s far side two men sparred in a boxing match, championed by shouts of encouragement from the spectators. The officer propped an immaculately shined Hessian boot on the colorful cart’s tailgate and leaned closer to hear the old Hindu.
Puphiyawar, nwengel santhikkavendum oru adayala man-itharai,
” the swami murmured in what seemed a resigned tone.
When he paused between breaths, Terence translated. “The stranger you are to meet is a marked man.”
Lady Jane rapped the epaulettes of the officer’s scarlet coat with her ivory fan. “Faith, Terence, that diddle the gypsies can do better.”
“But not as authentically.” The East had taught him well the existence of that supernatural outer realm. Yet he did not fear that realm as others did. Perhaps that was why the wagon, off from the welter of gaily decorated booths, had drawn him. He nodded at the Hindu. “Go on, old man.”
Once again the swami spoke, and the lean, sun-browned officer translated. “He says, Jane, that like the stranger, you, too, shall be marked.”
The young woman, the salon set’s favorite, laughed, a delightful trill that for the past three years the courtiers of the Queen’s Buckingham House had enjoyed—though not as much as they had suffered under her sharp tongue. “And, pray, Terence, what of you?”
He was a little above average height; still, his deep-set, long-lashed eyes were on a level with those of the young woman he had known since she was six and he sixteen. After his twenty-first year, he had served duty in England’s various foreign colonies; but those five years he had had with Jane, before the thin, hulking girl matured into the magnetic young woman before him—yes, those years had wrought his dreams. He saw in her blue-violet eyes that she was irrevocably in love with him.
He returned his gaze to the swami and fired off a rapid sentence in Tamil, then translated the answer. “The old man says that I, my dear Jane, wait for you at the end of a long road.”
“You’re making that up!” she accused, laughing again. Her mouth lost that little-girl vulnerability to form a delightfully appealing curve at the comers of her lips. The lips were asymmetrical, with the top too narrow and the bottom much fuller and wider. But no one ever noticed, for it was her exceptionally beautiful eyes in the fair face that enchanted.
He flipped the swami a shilling and guided her back into the stream of revelers heading for the bowling green. “I’m not making it up at all. I don’t have to, for it is indeed the truth. I shall yet have you.”
With a flick of her wrist, Jane splayed the fan’s ribs and waved it against the English countryside’s muggy heat and stench of unwashed people. “Do you seriously think you will?” she challenged.
Her face was animated with a lively intelligence that, apart from her eyes’ extraordinary color, had been her only redeeming quality as a homely, love-starved child; for her hair had been a dull, lifeless black without the glorious luster its cascade of ringlets now possessed.
“Do not doubt me, Jane.”
The breathless excitement eased from her lips, and she looked away, her eyes as bleak as a channel fog. “My father will never consent to marriage with a—a natural son.”
Terence’s smile was frank—and relentless. “And the fact that I am Lady MacKenzie’s bastard, will that stop
She halted in the midst of the jostling villagers, unaware of the sudden awkward curtseys and doffing hats made by the few who recognized Lord Wychwood’s daughter, and faced him. “No less than it shall stop you, Terence.”
He drew his fingertips in a line along both sides of her jaw and kissed her, there before everyone—including lackeys and hirelings who would carry the story back to her father. He felt her hungry response, restrained only by the curious eyes. “With your love,” he murmured into her mouth, “nothing shall stop me, Jane. Nothing.”
ady Jane Lennox felt as if she were in the Haymarket or Drury Lane Theatre, watching—but not a part of the revelry that went on about her. It was one of those private dinners where the cabinet ministers met hastily after the meal to discuss the kingdom’s problems.
This time the problem was twofold: budgeting the troops for the protection of the American colonies without further taxation, and controlling the few rabble-rousers stirring up trouble, mostly in Massachusetts and Virginia, the latter being the oldest, largest, and wealthiest of Great Britain’s colonies. The empire that ranged from the dusty plains of India to the green islands of the
Caribbean to the ramparts of Quebec had long since outgrown the British Isles.
This time the private din
ner was at the crenellated, Tudor-style Bedford House with its forty-two indoor and outdoor servants. These did not include the page boys and blackamoors who hovered discreetly in the shadows of the marbled pilasters where the prismed candlelight of four giant crystal chandeliers did not quite reach. Chamber music drifted down from the gallery to provide entertaining sonatas for the guests.
In her honorary position as part of Queen Charlotte’s retinue, Lady Jane Lennox stood in attendance beside the royal couple, towering over both of them. George III, a young man with straight, thick lips and vapid blue eyes, wore his jeweled crown of state with a notable lack of regal bearing, unlike the French and Spanish Bourbon kings.
Few apart from Jane and the queen, the king’s valet, and the royal doctors ever suspected from George Ill’s robust appearance that the stuffy monarch was periodically bled, cupped, and fed asses’ milk. For a recurring mental aberration, so the word went. Whatever the problem, it did not hinder his determination to keep the reins of government from his ministers. More than once Jane had overheard that George III was buying up boroughs to stack the House of Commons in his favor.
At his side Queen Charlotte was gowned in white satin edged with royal purple ermine. The king and his thin German queen, whose dark-skinned features gave her a pleasant appearance, watched with staid countenances the procession of peacocks.
Gallants, known as macaronis for their grand tours of Italy, pranced by in red heels, gold brocade coats, lavishly curled perukes, hose-padded calves, and flagrant cod¬pieces to enhance that certain private part of their anatomies.
The women were no less flamboyant. Mouse-skin strips covered shaven eyebrows and often slipped with the heat; enormous paniered skirts distorted the body’s natural shape; multitiered wigs of
artificial and natural hair, pomade, and powder towered a yard high. One dame’s coif actually resembled a frigate under full sail.
Jane was accustomed to these extravagant displays at soirees, fetes, banquets, and grand balls. She was also utterly bored. Here amo
ng the fops, she longed for Terence—for the sight of his superb soldier’s physique, for his directness that blunted the mincing conversation of the dandies at court, for his shrewd mind that challenged hers. He had held a fascination for her beginning with that first rose he had plucked from her mother’s garden and handed her.
At first, as the lonely, sole child of Wychwood Estates, she desperately wished and pretended he was her brother; then gradually during those many splendid hours he had spent with her and her mother—or the best times, with only herself—she became glad he was not.
She knew Terence, as a bastard, would not be invited to such a distinguished gathering of MP’s, barristers, baronets, and earls; nor would he be invited to the Lennox country estate at Wychwood. Her father would never countenance that. As a Member of Parliament, he was most assuredly aware that Terence’s regiment had recently been called back from India for a more pressing assignment. Yet she doubted whether her father knew that the week before she had spent St. Bartholomew’s Day with Terence. Her father was too busy, had always been too busy with politics and position to think of his daughter.
Perhaps if her mother had not taken her life that year Jane was seven . . . But
then she would not have had Terence all to herself to enjoy those next five years. She had waited for him all this time. There would be no other for her.
Her gaze sought out her
father’s exceptionally tall figure. He was deep in conversation with the fiftyish, Roman¬nosed Lord Sandwich. As the scandalous First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich was a member of the Hell’s Fire Club, a secret society whose members, so gossiped the wags, held orgies in the abandoned Medmenham Abbey with young women dressed as nuns. With the two men was the new Secretary for the Colonies, the supercilious Lord George Germain, said by London’s Fleet Street to be a homosexual.
The exchange between her father and his coterie of peers was interrupted by the arrival of the London agent for the Massachusetts Assembly, a balding, bespectacled man whose droll wit was quite the delight of London society, Benjamin Franklin. Jane saw her opportunity to speak with her father and, begging her leave of the royal couple, made her way through the press of noblemen and titled ladies.
Here and there came fragments of conversation—the king’s review of the fleet off Portsmouth ... the recent duel at Hyde Park . . . American violence and smuggling. And a peripheral area of her mind responded, as it often did, with indignation. The Boston Massacre, as the American colonists termed that tragic fracas, had been provoked by themselves.
Lord Wychwood eyed his daughter’s approach with his usual austere countenance. His only child had inherited his extraordinary height, quick mind, and, some thought, his haughty pride.
“I would talk with you, Father,” she said when he removed himself from the growing number of people crowding about the provincial agent for the Massachusetts colony.
He ignored the pleading in the eyes that were neither violet nor blue. “We will discuss it tomorrow, Jane.”
She held the sandalwood fan tightly between her palms. “You know, don’t you? You know about Terence.”
“Do you seriously think you two could romp through Wychwood Green and no report filter back to me?” he muttered through clenched teeth.
“We did not—romp. We were scarcely together three hours.”
“And that shall be
the last three hours Lady MacKenzie’s bastard shall spend with you.”
“Why—why do you hate him so? You took Manor House from his mother—”
“And I shall keep you from him.”
“Do you think to stop me?” she asked in a voice that betrayed none of the old fear she felt before her father’s cold wrath. A few of the guests near Jane and her father paused in the midst of trivial conversation, drawn by the almost tangible friction that issued between the two. But she continued. “I am past the age of consent. I no longer need your consent nor approval to marry Terence.”
For the first time her father smiled, displaying the Briton’s poor teeth, a trait his daughter had not inherited. Instead her French Huguenot mother had bequeathed to her shell-like, albeit slightly uneven teeth. “This week I was closeted at Whitehall for more than an hour with Barrington. The Secretary of War assured me that your MacKenzie would find duty in the Canadian provinces, enough to occupy an ambitious man of his likes.”