White Regency 03 - White Knight (6 page)

BOOK: White Regency 03 - White Knight
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As they had come through the entrance hall
on their way to leave, Grace had spotted Lady Eleanor standing on the opposite
side of the ballroom. At the sight of her, Grace had been filled with a feeling
of regret. Eleanor had been so kind, so encouraging, and Grace felt she owed
her some sort of explanation. But at that moment, she hadn’t known if she would
be able to frame a coherent sentence. Her heart had still been pounding from
the thorough kissing Lord Knighton had given her.

All her life Grace had dreamed of her
first kiss as something tender, soft, infinitely romantic. It would take place
on a flowery river bank or on a ballroom terrace with the moonlight filtering
down through the trees. The man who would deliver her this awe-inspiring
tribute would be kind and handsome and filled with adoration for her. He would
be the man of her dreams.

Lord Knighton was unquestionably handsome,
but any further comparison to her dream after that was lost. When he had kissed
her, her response had only been turbulent and she’d felt giddy, breathless, and
utterly chaotic inside. Nothing about their meeting had been as Nonny had said
it would be. There had been no enchantment, no gaiety, no blissful realization
of having come face to face with her life’s intended mate. There had been only
fire and suddenness and a total clashing of beings, and something else she
didn’t quite understand— something that had shaken her to her very core.

The worst part of it was that she had
utterly humiliated herself in front of the man she was to have called husband.
She would never forget the darkness of his expression, the thinly veiled anger
that had sparked in his eyes when he’d spoken to her, so very contrary to the
light and softness she had always envisioned. He didn’t adore her. He didn’t
even like her. And that was a far from propitious preamble to a marriage.

Grace waited until they had arrived back
at the Cholmeley town house, retiring to the study for a claret, before she
informed her uncle she could not possibly wed Lord Knighton.

Tedric responded with something a little
less than familial understanding.

“The devil you won’t wed him,”
he said as he poured himself a brandy. “I don’t care if you do scream all
the way down the aisle. You are going to wed Lord Knighton.’

“Uncle, please, surely there must be
some other way to—”

“It is too late, Grace. He has
already assumed the debt.”

She stared at him. “What did you
say?”

“The duke has paid my creditors in
full. It was part of the agreement of the marriage. Westover wanted any
outstanding annoyances seen to before news of the wedding came about. Twenty
thousand pounds is a great deal of money, Grace. There will be ramifications if
you refuse to marry Lord Knighton now. Legal ramifications. The Duke of
Westover is not a man to be trifled with. He has already promised to bring a
breach of promise
suit
against us both if you do not go through with the wedding.”

“I did not take his money!”

“True… but you did sign the
marriage contract. It will look as if you agreed to wed Lord Knighton strictly
to get rid of my debts and then broke the agreement. You would have a very
difficult time explaining to a jury that you had a change of heart about
wedding Lord Knighton without having even seen the man.”

But she had seen him, Grace thought to
herself—quite a lot of him, in fact. An image of him standing over her in all
his half-naked glory flashed through her mind before Tedric went on. “The
duke will paint you an extortionist in a very public court proceeding. And he
will win his judgment. In the end, the Cholmeley family will be ruined. Honor
and respect hundreds of years in the making will be lost—the same honor and
respect my mother spent her life trying to preserve.”

And which you have spent your lifetime
doing everything to destroy.

Grace looked to Nonny’s portrait above the
hearth and she knew that her uncle was right, even though he said these things
for his own advantage. Nonny would have fulfilled her duty no matter the cost,
no matter the circumstances—she would have wed Mephisto himself if she’d had
to.

And because she had raised her granddaughter
to follow that same ethic, Grace knew she would have no choice but to do the
same.

Chapter Six

Little Biddlington, Buckinghamshire,
England

 

The vicar was grinning like a contented
fiend—and well he should be. This was likely the most momentous event to have
swept through his village since 1669, when one of Charles II’s many mistresses
had gotten waylaid by an unprecedented blizzard, causing her and her
considerable entourage of servants to bed down with the locals for three days
and three nights.

Little Biddlington was about as sleepy a
hamlet as could be found, made up of Tudor-style timbered houses with
overhanging upper storeys that lay hidden from the main London road by a
steeply sloping vale and a tangled wall of trees. The Duke of Westover couldn’t
have chosen the location for the wedding of his heir with more care. Its
inconspicuous locale had saved the village nearly two centuries earlier when
invading Roundhead troops had been unable to find the place. A decade later,
even the plague had missed it, though it struck every other village around
them. Thus it would serve as the perfect setting for the wedding nobody knew
was about to take place.

The church itself was quite ancient,
various parts of it dating back to before the Norman conquest. Crosses cut into
the stone doorway of the inner porch were said to have been made by the
crusaders blunting their sword points as a dedication to peace on their return
from the Holy Land. This, and the gravesite of Mary Pottinger, who had died
aged one hundred and seven in 1722, had been pointed out by the vicar, Mr.
Weston, upon their arrival; they were, it would seem, the two most distinctive
features of the village.

Within the space of the next few hours,
though, Little Biddlington’s anonymity would be forgotten and Mr. Weston’s tiny
place in history would be secure. He would no longer fall to obscurity—living,
preaching, and then dying in this hidden place, unknown to the rest of the
world. Instead he would be known to history as the man who had secretly wed the
heir to the wealthiest peer in England. Perhaps they would erect a monument to
record the occasion for posterity’s sake, right next to the headstone of
one-hundred-and-seven-year-old Mary Pottinger. At the very least it would give
Mr. Weston and his flock something to gossip about over tea for years to come.

And so the vicar grinned.

Christian, his grandfather the duke, his
mother, and his sister had left London before dawn, traveling in an unmarked
coach rented just for the occasion. If not for Eleanor’s lively chatter about
the various landmarks they passed, there would not have been a word spoken at
all.

Immediately upon their arrival in the
village, the Westover footman had roused the vicar from sleep, presenting him
the special license granted and signed by the archbishop himself. “It
would be an honor to perform this service, Your Grace,” he proclaimed to
the old duke from beneath his slouching night cap. He then performed his
ablutions and donned his vestments with an alacrity that had surprised them all
and stood now at the chancel, still grinning at his good fortune. The young
lady—Christian’s intended wife—was to arrive with her uncle by a separate
route. She had yet to make an appearance.

Christian stood at the end of the church’s
narrow center aisle, awaiting his bride’s arrival. He glanced at the duke, who
sat alone on the first bench with his hand fisted tightly around the ball of
his cane. How triumphant he must feel, Christian thought, at having lived long
enough to see this day, the day he’d waited so patiently for through most of
Christian’s twenty-nine years. If he had ever wondered before why his
grandfather hadn’t sought to claim his due part of their bargain earlier, it
was patently apparent to him now. He need only
look to the emptiness of the seat beside the old duke
and consider the significance of the day. His father had died twenty years
earlier on that same day. Christopher Wycliffe had been twenty-nine. It was
only fitting that at the same age and date the duke had lost his only son, he
should exact his terms of the bargain he’d made with his grandson.
Eye for
an eye… tooth for a tooth… life for a life…

Long-hidden memories of that horrible day
began to come to light despite Christian’s resistance. Even now he could still
see the throngs of mourners who had come all the way from London, huddling
together beneath the dripping branches of the great Westover elms to pay their
last respects. He would never forget the cold that had numbed him to his bones,
the wet dripping from the trees, the thick misty fog that had shrouded the
Wycliffe family cemetery. Nor would he ever escape the memory of the haunting
toll of the church bell that had rung out the traditional nine times and then
another nine-and-twenty for each year of Christopher Wycliffe’s short life.

An ague had taken him, the family had
said, and everyone had believed them. No one could ever have suspected the
truth as they looked at the newly titled nine-year-old marquess standing beside
his grandfather the duke, shivering in the rain.

Christian looked away from his grandfather
to where his mother and his sister sat on the bench across the aisle. Frances,
Lady Knighton, had been the celebrated beauty of her time, inspiring volumes of
poetry and setting a style that had been emulated throughout many a social
season. Once a brilliant sable brown, her hair had since grayed and the pale
skin of her face was not quite as smooth as it had once been. Still she
continued to attract notice whenever she went out as a figure of elegance and
grace and beauty.

Since the death of her husband, though,
most of her time was spent hidden away from society, reading her Bible or
passing her days in silent prayer. The past twenty years had done little to
remove the taint of sadness from her eyes and Christian often thought that that
day had not only seen his father killed, but his mother’s spirit destroyed as
well. For months afterward they’d
worried she might do herself a harm. The only thing
that had kept her from it, Christian knew, had been the child she’d carried
within her—her daughter, his sister, Eleanor.

From the moment she was born, Eleanor was
everything that was gentle and good in the world. Christian had watched her
grow, blossoming from a silly little tomboy with ragged-hemmed skirts and dirt
beneath her fingernails to the refined, accomplished young woman she now was.
He had seen her through scraped shins, quinsy, and a rivalry with the
neighboring earl’s daughter, Lady Amanda Barrington, that had ended with one
unruly tangle in the midst of a trout pond. And he would see her safely wed, he
said to himself, not in an arranged match like his, but with a man she both
loved and respected, one who would love and respect her in kind.

It was for those two women and none other
that Christian would see this day through; he would do anything—even marry a
stranger—to protect them.

Eleanor, ever the optimist, had tried to
ease what she perceived to be Christian’s premarital apprehension at their
arrival in the village early that morning.

“She will be lovely,” she’d
said, straightening his neckcloth and brushing a hand over his coat. “You
will see.”

Christian had simply nodded, but inwardly
he had wondered what it would matter whether his bride was or wasn’t lovely. He
would still have to wed her. He’d signed his name to the contracts. Even now he
couldn’t believe he’d done it, agreeing to wed a woman he had yet to set eyes
upon. But he had seen her name indelibly written on the contracts.
Lady
Grace Ledys.
A relation of some sort of the Marquess of Cholmeley, for he’d
also seen that name listed as the girl’s guardian. A lovely name, yes—but who
was she? And what sort of girl would agree to wed a man she, too, had never
seen?

There came a stirring at the back of the
church then. The time had come for him to face his bride. Christian turned. Now
to be done with it.

A slight figure gowned in pale blue stood
at the end of the aisle on the arm of an older man, no doubt Lord Cholmeley.
The light shone in brightly behind her and Christian wasn’t able to clearly see
her. As she started
walking
toward him he thought for a moment he recognized something familiar about her.
But that was impossible, he told himself. They’d never met.

He watched her approach. Golden hair
shimmered beneath a charming halo of flowers in the morning sunlight that was
beaming down through the ancient church’s stained-glass windows. Christian
didn’t even realize he was holding his breath until she walked out of the light
and he finally saw her. His breath left him in a rush as he took in her
delicate features, pale complexion, and her eyes—the same eyes that had peered
up at him from the floor of his dressing room the night of his sister’s
come-out ball.

Before Christian could wonder what to
think, she was standing beside him and the vicar began the service. While Mr.
Weston spoke, enunciating as if an entire congregation filled the church,
Christian looked again to his bride. Her eyes were fixed on the vicar, and she
was listening attentively to his words. Christian noticed her hands shaking
slightly beneath the posy of flowers she held. She must have sensed Christian
watching her, for she looked at him warily before returning her attention to
the vicar.

What the devil had she been doing that
night, creeping about through the servants’ passages? His initial confusion at
the sight of her began quickly to tighten into distrust. Had she been spying on
him? What else could have been her purpose? He rather doubted she had been
seeking to acquaint herself with the layout of the house.

When the vicar asked if the couple had
come both willingly and without reservation, Christian hesitated only a second
before giving his assent. On through the liturgy he barely heard the vicar’s
words, but managed to respond when prompted. He slid the ring—a Westover
heirloom sapphire surrounded by diamonds that had been both his mother’s and
his grandmother’s before her—onto the lady’s slender finger. In the space of a
moment they were suddenly and permanently joined. It didn’t seem possible that
it could be over so quickly.

After the ceremony closed, the duke stood
from his bench, thanked the vicar, and rewarded him with a
pouch of coins before
turning to leave. His duty was done, his utmost wish fulfilled.

Christian and Grace each quickly signed
their names to the parish register, exchanging thanks and farewells with the
vicar. Christian then looked to his bride, this stranger—his wife—and offered
her his arm. “Madam?”

Outside, beside the gravestone of
one-hundred-and-seven-year-old Mary Pottinger, Eleanor and his mother were
smiling. When Christian and Grace emerged from the church, Eleanor came
forward, embracing her brother with a kiss on his cheek.

“Congratulations, Christian. I am so
happy for you. You see, I told you she would be lovely.”

He scarcely managed a nod before she then
turned to Lady Grace, welcoming her to the family with a kiss and an embrace.
“You are a beautiful bride, Grace. And it is just as I said to you. We are
now sisters.”

Christian stared at Eleanor. She already
knew his wife? Why the devil hadn’t she told him? Was everyone in on this
deception?

Lady Frances came forward and took her
son’s hands. Her voice was soft with emotion. “Thank you, Christian. I
know how difficult this day must be for you. I want you to know you are more
than any mother could ever hope for in her son.”

For a moment, he swore he caught a glimpse
of the woman she had once been before the emptiness came to darken her eyes
once again. “If there is any good to what I am, Mother, it is only due to
you.”

Lady Frances looked quickly away from him
to where Eleanor and Grace stood. “She seems a lovely girl, Christian. I
know it seems impossible, given the circumstances, but I hope you will find
happiness together.”

Christian could only nod before the duke
stepped toward him, shattering the moment between mother and son with a thunk
of his damnable cane.

“Did you think I’d have you wed a
gorgon?” When Christian didn’t respond, he said, “I’ve arranged for a
coach to take you to Westover for the night. The staff has been alerted and is
prepared for your arrival. One night, Christian. That was our agreement. By the
time
you
return to London, the announcements will have been made in the papers.”

Christian simply nodded at the reminder
that he had one more task to perform in order to fulfill his part of their
bargain. And the sooner he saw to it the better. He turned to Grace, who stood
waiting beside him, and offered her his arm. “Shall we depart, my
lady?”

He handed her inside the coach then
climbed in to sit opposite her. They waited while the coachman made his way to
his seat. Christian watched as Grace waved out the window, calling farewells to
her uncle and Eleanor just before they began to pull away. A riot of questions
were galloping through his thoughts. Who was she? Where had his grandfather
found her? Just how much money did she and her family stand to receive from
this alliance?

It wasn’t until the church had disappeared
behind them that Grace turned to face him. She looked uncomfortable, to say the
least, alone now with a man who was both stranger and husband. She said in an
effort to break the awkward silence between them, “I know what you must be
thinking, my lord.”

BOOK: White Regency 03 - White Knight
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