The man stood, his black cape whipping around him in the cold, blustering wind, and stared at the grave of the only woman he had ever loved. The monument held a winged angel looking down solemnly at him, as if feeling the very pain that squeezed his heart. He stared at the words BELOVED WIFE and his stomach clenched; bile threatened to flood his throat. Behind him sat a stone manor house, empty and as cold as the North Sea that stretched endlessly before him.
He bent, and with a long elegant finger, traced her name, the carved granite icy to the touch. It had been years since her death, years of suffering her loss, of wondering why she’d left him when he’d loved her so. He would never forget the terror, the madness of searching for her, running from room to room in his massive manor house, only to finally realize she was gone.
God, how he had loved her. And yet . . . she’d left him alone, without a word, without a single sign she had loved him in return. He’d told her more than once it didn’t matter that he had a wife and children; it mattered only that they loved one another. But she left in the middle of the night as if the hounds of hell were chasing her, left him to suffer silently, as his heart hardened. Christina. Beautiful, lovely Christina, who had told him she’d hated him. But he knew better.
It took him years to find her, and when he did, it was only to discover she’d married another. Spread her legs, allowed another to touch her, to plant a seed inside her. The thought that she’d pushed out another man’s child nearly drove him past the edge of sanity. He pictured that madman, rutting between her legs, grunting like the pig he was.
Years and years ago she’d died, been buried in this cold ground, but he’d been unable to come until now. Beside her tomb was a freshly dug grave with a simple marker where her husband had been laid not five months ago. The usurper was dead, and now the house and the land where his love was buried could be his.
Even if he could only have her cold bones, the home she’d lived in, the walls she’d touched, the floors she’d tread upon, it would be enough. It was all he had, after all.
Behind him, the agent cleared his throat.
“Are you ready, Your Grace? I do believe you’ll be pleased with the home. It’s quite authentic, you know, though it will require some improvement, I daresay. The views of Bamburgh Castle are quite stunning. Yes, indeed.”
He raised his eyes from the gravestone and stared blindly ahead, feeling a rage grow, which he quickly tempered to mere irritation. He loathed dealing with lower beings. It made his skin crawl. He was willing to deal with this man only because the agent was the only way to obtain what he so desired.
“Of course, we cannot see the east wing today because of the daughter,” the agent continued. “She is quite terrifyingly fierce about her privacy. I’ve never actually seen her myself, but . . .”
The man jerked his head and stared at the agent, who stopped abruptly, his mouth open, frozen mid-syllable. “She had a child with him? Their daughter is still here?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. Her relatives have been contacted, but they’ve yet to arrive to remove her. Apparently, she’s refused to leave.”
A slow smile spread across the man’s face, and the agent gave him an uncertain smile in return. A daughter. A living, breathing piece of Christina just a few dozen yards from where he stood. He looked toward the manor as if he might see her, peeking through the curtains, a shy little girl just like her mother. Sweet.
Did she have Christina’s wispy blond hair? Her blue eyes? Or did she have the drab, dull brown of her father?
Did she smile like Christina? Did she have the same intoxicating scent? Would she sigh when kissed or struggle? . . .
He realized with sudden and joyful insight that he did not only want the house and the land.
He wanted the daughter.
Bamburgh, England, 1862
Melissa looked out her first-story window and glared as a coach pulled up bearing the man who would take her from the only home she’d ever known. Her breath fogged the glass, and she wiped it away impatiently. She wished at that moment she had special powers and could make the coach burst into flames, forcing the man to run from her home in terror, never to return.
“I hate him,” she said, trying to shut out the efficient bustling of her maid behind her.
“Go and tell that man that I’ll not be coming down.”
“Yes, miss.” But the maid kept packing, ignoring her mistress even as she agreed with her.
Mary, who was nothing like what a young girl should have as a personal maid—she was quite old and not at all attractive—paused just long enough to give Melissa a chastising look, before placing another stack of books into an oversized chest. Mary had been with Melissa as long as she could remember and was far more friend than maid, which probably explained why the woman continued to ignore her orders.
“I’m not leaving. Chain me to the wall if you must,” Melissa said dramatically, picturing herself as a secular Joan of Arc.
Mary raised one eyebrow, then slammed another stack down into the chest.
“Really, Mary, you can’t care for me at all if you’ll allow
to take me away. Papa never would have allowed it. He wanted me protected. He wanted . . .” She paused, because the thought of her father was simply too painful. He’d been dead just six months now, leaving her bereft and completely alone, but for Mary. She wondered if there was another soul in England who was as alone as she. She had no mother, no father, no siblings, and now, no home. She swallowed down the lump that instantly formed in her throat.
“Your father wanted you to be a normal young lady. He just didn’t have the courage to let you go,” Mary said, her tone holding the barest hint of disapproval. Whether it was disapproval of her father or of her childish behavior, Melissa didn’t know.
“He was protecting me,” she said for the hundredth time. She’d said those same words so many times since her father’s death, they’d lost their meaning and even she had come to doubt them.
In all the time she’d been kept safe, she’d never once thought of herself as a prisoner. She’d been completely content to live her life, knowing she was protected and loved, and knowing her safety made her father happy. No, the doubts about her life had set in after her father’s death when she’d overheard some well-loved servants characterize her as “the poor little lass, kept prisoner all these years.” And then another servant had mysteriously added, “It’s those eyes.” Actually, the comment had been whispered, as if the maid had been afraid she might be overheard.
Melissa’s first reaction to those overheard words had been rage. How dare they criticize her father for keeping her safe, for allowing her to live without threat of death or danger?
But the words she’d overheard wouldn’t let go of her. Did the servants truly pity her? Did they think her secure existence more of a sentence? Had her father stolen from her, stolen her childhood, her freedom, her very life? She’d asked Mary, and the older woman had shaken her head in disgust. “Just silly words that you should pay no mind, miss,” she’d said.
But as the weeks passed, and Melissa began to learn just how desperate her situation was, she couldn’t help wondering if her father had not done all he could to protect her. She didn’t like the idea that her father had feared for her, or had been afraid of something himself. As soon as those thoughts entered her mind, she pushed them away. Her father had loved her, wanted only the best for her. Surely he’d known better than the servants who worked for him.
Melissa paced in front of the window, stopping every so often to check whether anyone was departing from the coach. Ah, there he was, jamming his ugly hat upon his head. The devil himself who thought he could rip her from her home, bring her to God knew where, make her enter society with all its dangers.
Marry her off.
She still had the letter from the fiend, his evil words cloaked in a veneer of concern. Bah! The only thing that man was concerned about was getting rid of her. How artfully he’d written it. The letter had fairly dripped with sympathy and understanding, while hidden in those kind words was her sentence. She would leave her refuge. She would marry. She would never see her beloved home again. Not that she could actually ever remember seeing it from the outside.
That thought made her frown. She hated thinking ill of her father. Yet those words:
Poor little lass, kept prisoner all these years.
Over and over she could hear them, hear the real sympathy in that voice, picture another maid sadly shaking her head.
Poor little lass and her mad father.
She watched as the man held his hand out and helped a woman step down, as footmen stood guard beside the coach in their drab, dark green uniforms. Hmmm. She hadn’t known there’d be a woman. The way he was treating her, the way she was dressed, it was evident she was not a servant. When he looked up, she instinctively backed away a pace and gasped.
Mary was beside her, and not being nearly so cautious as she, pressed her forehead against the cool windowpane. “Oh, I see,” she said, looking at her charge warily.
“I hate him,” Melissa said, but with far less venom than before. The man looked strikingly like her father, and so it was nearly impossible to truly hate him, after all. Mary went to pat her shoulder, but withdrew before making contact. Her weary brown eyes looked as if she might dissolve into a fit of tears.
“I don’t want to go,” Melissa said, her own voice tight from unshed tears as she stared blindly out the window.
“I know, miss, I know.” Mary stood beside her, wringing her hands together as she often did when upset about something. She’d made that same gesture the morning she’d come to tell Melissa that her father had passed away overnight.
“I’m frightened.” Melissa finally whispered what she’d felt in her heart for so long. Stark fear.
“It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
“But what if I die? What if my father was right?”
Mary let out a soft chuckle and peered at Melissa’s stricken countenance. “We all must die sometime. But I’m fairly certain that day isn’t going to come for you for quite some time. Your uncle will protect you now, and then your husband. Really and truly, miss, you don’t need protecting at all.”
“Then why . . .” She’d never questioned her father out loud. Never. Her life had been her life. She’d never thought it strange, never realized there was anything different. Until now.
“Because he loved you so,” Mary said, instantly understanding her confusion. “He’d lost everything and would have done anything to protect you. I don’t think he ever considered what would happen to you when he died, how unprepared you would be.”
It had been eighteen years since she’d walked through the threshold of her suite of rooms. Her father had made certain her life was filled with books, learning, and entertainment—all provided by himself and the rare tutor he’d allowed in. She knew how to comport herself in a drawing room, even though she’d never been in one. She could waltz and do the polka and perform intricate country dances, even though she’d never been in a ballroom. She could play the pianoforte, though she’d never heard a master play. She was perhaps one of the best-educated young women in England, but had no one with whom to share her vast knowledge.
She’d never questioned why she needed to learn all these things, knowing only that she was pleasing her father.
The first person she’d seen in years, other than the servants and her father, had been a solicitor, informing her that the estate was being sold to settle her father’s debts, that there would be nothing left for her but a small inheritance. Enough, the lawyer had told her, for a dowry and to fund a single season in London, during which she could find a husband. After that, she would be at the mercy of relatives she’d never seen.
The second person she’d seen, though only from a distance, had been the man who would buy her home. He had explored the property at his leisure, while Melissa had paced in front of the window like some angry specter. She had raged at him through a closed door and had banged on it furiously when the Realtor had returned to inform her that she needed to remove herself from the house in one month.
“The house is sold, miss,” Mary had told her. “You’ve no choice now.”
“It can’t be sold. It’s mine.”
“No, miss. Not anymore.”
Now the time had come to leave, and Melissa was truly terrified. There were so many things to fear she couldn’t name the one that left her most paralyzed. Her breath became short gasps, and Mary clapped her hands in front of Melissa’s face, recognizing the coming panic.
“You’ll be fine, miss. Fine.”
If only Mary were coming with her, but she was going to Nottingham, so far away, and she knew Mary couldn’t leave her family behind, not even for her. Mary’s daughter was about to have a baby, her first, and Melissa couldn’t ask her companion to leave.
Melissa nodded, more to please the older woman than to acknowledge her words.
“So. When they come, you’ll go?”
At that moment, a knock sounded on the door. Melissa took a deep breath and pulled out a handkerchief to dab at her tears. “I’m ready,” she said with a jerky nod. It was, perhaps, the biggest lie she’d ever told.
Diane Stanhope stepped down from the coach and breathed in the sharp, fresh air, relieved beyond measure to no longer be confined in the coach with George Atwell, Earl of Braddock.
The man made her exceedingly uncomfortable. Saying he was not a conversationalist would have been a vast understatement. He’d offered but four sentences to her since they’d departed from Nottingham just days earlier. They were: The train is departing. I’ll go arrange your room. We’ll stop here to change horses. We’ve arrived.
Everything else, those one-word answers and grunts, had been responses to her inquiries. He’d stared out the window at the landscape passing by, dragging his gray eyes away from the view reluctantly when she’d ask him a question. This was her penance for being an old maid of independent means. She was deemed an appropriate companion for those young girls who needed a chaperone and were unfortunate enough to have no living female relatives who could perform the duty.
Lord Braddock had approached her at a ball, and she’d been foolish enough to believe he’d been only asking her to dance. What he’d actually wanted was to see if she was available to chaperone his niece, the daughter of a reclusive brother who’d recently died. She should have known better, but for that one moment she’d actually thought this man whom she’d been watching for ten years had finally noticed her.
But also, educating. She was thirty-two years old, had never had an offer of marriage, had never actually been officially courted. She’d spent the last few years watching over her own niece and doing a very bad job of it, if one were to be completely honest. Elizabeth had managed to fall in love with—and lose her innocence to—an artist’s assistant. It was only luck that the man had turned out to be eminently marriageable. Indeed, Diane had been so blinded by her own jealousy of her niece’s good fortune, she hadn’t seen the signs that Elizabeth was in the throes of a love affair until it was far too late.
Now, Diane was to guide another girl toward marriage. How on earth should she be expected to do so when she’d failed so dismally? The truth stared back at her every time she looked in the mirror. Even her great fortune had been unable to overcome her plain looks.
And yet . . . when Braddock had asked her to dance, she’d felt pretty, she’d felt flattered, she’d felt that cruel stirring of hope she’d thought was long dead. Lord Braddock was such a handsome man, not to mention fabulously wealthy. She’d thought his quiet nature held a thoughtful soul. But she was beginning to think that he was quiet because there was nothing going on inside. How could a man stare silently out a window for two days? Had his now-dead wife left him from sheer boredom?
Or was it that he resented her company? She knew that feeling: to be stuck in a corner of a room listening to the prattle of some old woman who felt the need to relate every event of her life no matter how tedious. Was that how he felt about her? Was he thinking: Good God, how long is this trip going to take?
Was she that objectionable?
At least for the journey home she could get to know her new charge. Braddock knew nothing of his niece but that she had led an even more reclusive life than that of her father. In fact, Lord Braddock believed that the girl hadn’t actually left her home in years. It was incomprehensible. Was there something wrong with the girl? Was she damaged in some way? She knew of a few aristocratic families who kept their ill-formed children hidden from view for years. No doubt there were children born who were never acknowledged, never seen in public. Perhaps this girl was one. She certainly wouldn’t know, as Lord Braddock had said nothing of his niece, and it was possible even he did not know the poor girl’s circumstances.