White Regency 03 - White Knight (7 page)

BOOK: White Regency 03 - White Knight
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“Do you?”

“The other night at the ball. It
isn’t at all what it seems—”

“No? And just what was your purpose
in coming to my dressing room, madam? Did you wish to view the goods before
exchanging the vows?”

“As I told you that night, I was
trying to find my uncle.”

Christian smirked. “And naturally one
would think to look first in another man’s dressing room. I promise you, my
lady, I’m not in the habit of entertaining gentlemen in my private
chambers.”

“It wasn’t supposed to happen as it
did. We were just supposed to share a dance. That’s all. My uncle had arranged
it with your sister. You wouldn’t even have known who I was. But I had second
thoughts, so when Eleanor went to look for you, I tried to find my uncle so we
could leave before you came back with her. Only I got confused in the crowd and
somehow ended up in the servants’ passage, which wouldn’t have been any
trouble, except that
someone locked the door behind me.”

Christian didn’t want to believe her, even
though her explanation sounded plausible. Either that or she had worked very
hard at making it up. “You said you had wanted a dance. Pray, why?”

Grace didn’t immediately answer. Instead
she looked out the window a moment or two, her brow drawn close in thought
beneath the rim of her straw bonnet.

“I had been forbidden to meet
you,” she said softly. “I thought that perhaps by at least dancing
with you, even if you didn’t know who I was, I would somehow be able to
reassure myself that I was doing the right thing in becoming your wife. It
sounds silly now I know in the face of it all, but at the time, it was all I
had.”

Her eyes shone only with a vulnerable
sincerity. She was telling the truth.

Christian had anticipated so many things
in the woman his grandfather would choose for his wife. He had expected she
would be inspired to wed him for his title and the Westover wealth, those two
qualifications that had made him such a coveted prize on the marriage market.
He had even been prepared for someone as ruthless and devious as the duke. But
Grace seemed to have none of these qualities. Her honesty and absolute candor
startled him. They were things to which he was wholly unaccustomed. They were
things the Dukes of Westover had been taught since time immemorial to suspect.

He looked at her, hiding his thoughts.
“You said you changed your mind. About having a dance with me.”

She nodded.

“Why?”

Her reluctance kept her from answering a
moment. When she finally did speak, her voice was barely above a whisper.
“It was the way they all kept looking at me, like I didn’t belong
there.”

Surely this vulnerability, this innocence
could not be real, especially in one hand-picked by his grandfather. How long
ago had the duke decided upon her as the chosen bride for the Westover heir?
Long enough for her to rehearse every word she would say, every gesture
she would make? Perhaps
somehow the duke had realized Christian’s own secret plan, one that would foil
his grandfather’s final triumph in their lifelong battle of wills. It was a
battle Christian could never allow himself to lose; the risk was too great.
Even as he found himself intrigued by her, he knew he must never lower his
guard, no matter how lovely, no matter how exceptional his new wife might prove
to be.

Chapter Seven

“We have arrived at Westover,
madam.”

Grace slowly opened her eyes onto a
darkened coach interior and the shadowed silhouette of Lord Knighton sitting
across from her. She glanced out the side window. The sky outside was dark,
starless, the moon a hazy gleam of light behind a thickening fog. Goodness, it
was night. How long had she been sleeping?

“Two hours,” the marquess said
as if clearly reading her thoughts. “Since Wexburgh.” He then opened
the coach door and alighted, offering his hand to assist Grace down.

She was confronted on the outside by an
immense structure that was part castle, part manor house, even part dungeon,
issuing from the twilight shadows like the eerie backdrop of the gothic tales
she so enjoyed reading. It was surely the most imposing domicile she’d ever
seen—twice the size, if not more, of Ledysthorpe. However, its vastness did not
in any way signify comfort. At Ledysthorpe, from the moment they arrived,
visitors were embraced by a feeling of unmistakable welcome from the servants
who came at once to wave in greeting or the numerous dogs yapping excitedly at
their heels. Cast in the gray and mist of dusk, this place only gave an impression
of cold, austere foreboding. It seemed almost to warn the visitor away rather
than draw them in.

They stood in a courtyard surrounded on
four sides by somber stone walls that frowned sternly down upon them. Two of
the walls were cornered by tall ivy-covered towers and, except for the gated
archway their coach had entered through, there appeared no other way out.
After speaking briefly
to the coachman, Lord Knighton started across the graveled drive toward wide
front steps set beneath an imposing door surely three times the height of him.
Grace followed. As they reached the top of the stairs, the door crept open to
reveal a grim-faced, elderly butler.

“Good evening, my lord.”

Lord Knighton barely acknowledged the
man’s greeting except to say a curt “Ambrose” as he walked past on
his way into the main entrance hall.

He noticed that Grace hadn’t followed. He
turned. “My lady?”

“You aren’t going to carry me across
the threshold?”

He stared at her a moment. “I beg
your pardon?”

“I thought it was a rule that all
grooms carried their brides across the threshold.”

“A rule?”

Grace nodded. “To neglect to do so
could bring dire consequences to the marriage.” Well, that is,
consequences more dire than the fact that the bride and groom were utter
strangers.

“I suppose that would be an issue for
one who believes in that sort of nonsense.”

Grace merely looked at him. She didn’t
move from the other side of the threshold. “I would hate to be responsible
for tempting ill fortune.”

Christian stared at her. Ambrose, she noticed,
stood watching the entire exchange.

“My lady, unless you think to sleep
in the doorway, I suggest you walk yourself through that door.’

“But I—”

“Oh, good God, woman, all
right!”

Grace took a startled breath as Christian
suddenly swept her up and into his arms. It was the closest she had gotten to
him all day and she could smell the clean, male scent of him, sandalwood and
something else— something spicier. The sudden sense of being held by him, the
warmth of her body against his, was new and oddly comforting and when he
brought her inside and set her on her feet, she instantly missed it.

He, however, seemed wholly unaffected by
it.

“I hope that will set fortune at
ease,” Christian said and turned to walk further inside.

The outside of the building had
intimidated her; the inside, however, was utterly overwhelming. Marble Roman
statuary were set around the circular chamber in alcoves cut into the granite
walls. Rather than being set where they might be better viewed and appreciated,
they had been placed at such a height as to give anyone entering the sense of
being stared down upon by a crowd of overlords. Thick alabaster columns
measured off the perimeter of the room and the Westover ducal coat of arms,
carved in stone, was emblazoned above the arched central corridor. As they
walked, their footsteps echoed on the marble floor and carried upward to the
lofty heights of the ceiling, a ceiling that was buttressed with oaken beams
the size of ship’s masts.

A figure emerged from the shadows at the
far end of the hall holding a branch of flickering candles, a housekeeper in
dark skirts and a white linen mobcap who surprisingly attempted a small smile
as she curtsied. She came to a standstill beside Ambrose’s rigid posture.

“Good evening, Mrs. Stone,”
Christian said.

The housekeeper bobbed. “Lord
Knighton, ‘tis good to see you again.”

“Allow me to introduce my wife, Lady
Knighton, to you both.”

The butler bowed his head dutifully,
murmuring “Madam” while the housekeeper dipped quickly into another
curtsey. “Welcome to Westover, my lady.”

“You will show Lady Knighton to our
chambers and assist her with her things. We’ve had a long journey and we will
be leaving first thing on the morrow. Anything her ladyship desires, please see
to it.”

The two answered in unison, “Yes, my
lord.”

Grace looked at Christian. “You
aren’t coming?”

“I have some business to attend to.
Ambrose and Mrs. Stone are quite capable of directing you, unless there is some
other rule that requires bridegrooms to carry their wives over every threshold
in the house.”

Grace shook her head, uncertain as to
whether he was mocking her. Instead she wondered at his sudden neglect. Did he
mean to leave her alone in this vast cavern
of a house for the night—on her wedding night? “I
just thought that—”

But Christian wasn’t listening to her.
Instead he turned and began issuing orders to the butler. “Please instruct
the cook to have our dinner served in the dining hall. A footman can show Lady
Knighton there when she has finished upstairs.”

Grace stared at Christian, wondering if he
would ever shed the mantle of cold, armored indifference he seemed to wear. He
had been polite all during their journey, and though not overly interested in
conversation, she had figured him tired and had thought they would get further
acquainted once they reached their destination.

Apparently that was not to be.

But before Grace could voice any agreement
or disagreement to these plans, Christian turned and strode toward a side door,
the sober echoing of his bootsteps the only sound in the hall. Grace merely
stood and watched him go as he closed the door firmly behind him.

“My lady?” Mrs. Stone said
finally.

Grace looked at her.

“If you would be so kind as to follow
me, I will show you to your chambers.”

She gave one last look at the door where
Christian had disappeared before she simply nodded and followed in the wake of
the light from the woman’s flickering candelabrum.

Mrs. Stone led Grace up a cheerless flight
of stairs to an upper corridor, paneled in dark walnut and lined with portraits
of Westover ancestors bearing expressions as austere and menacing as the house
they inhabited. They glowered at her from their shadowed and gilded perches and
once she even imagined she had seen the eyes of one of them, a most
severe-looking Tudor fellow in jerkin, hose, and cartwheel ruff, move to follow
her progress down the hall.

She put it off as a play of the
candlelight on the walls, but as they continued, Grace found herself glancing
at the binding of the novel she’d carried in with her from the carriage to make
certain its title still read
The Mysteries of Udolpho
and not suddenly
The
Mysteries of Westover Hall.
This night certainly had all the trappings
of a tale worthy of Mrs.
Radcliffe. Complete with the ancient castle and the somber butler who looked as
if he himself might be of the netherworld.

Once they were a fair distance from the
entrance hall, Mrs. Stone’s demeanor seemed to ease a bit. Soon she even began
to chat. “We hope you will enjoy your stay here at Westover, my lady, even
if ‘tis to be for the one night. ‘Twill be your home one day when Lord Knighton
becomes the new duke. If there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to
ask.”

The thought of making her home in this
solemn place was most unsettling to her and brought her to remembering
something Nonny had once said to her.
A lady makes her husband’s home her
own.
Grace wondered if her grandmother could have foreseen the gloom of
this chilling place.

“Thank you.” Grace thought for a
moment, then said, “I wonder if you might answer something for me, Mrs.
Stone?”

The housekeeper stopped before a massive
oaken door, took up the vast ring of keys that hung at her waist, and fitted
one inside the lock. “Of course, my lady. Anything.”

“Have you been in service here at
Westover very long?”

Mrs. Stone turned the handle and pushed
the door wide, stepping back to face Grace on her answer. “Oh, quite some
thirty years or more.” She entered the room and began lighting the
numerous sconces and candle stands that were set about the room, continuing as
she did. “My mother was in service here before me and married my father,
who worked in the stables, so I grew up here at Westover. I started as a
scullery maid, then became an upper chamber maid, a nursery maid, and worked my
way through the ranks to housekeeper these past ten years or more. My own
daughter and nieces are maids here now, too.”

Grace nodded. “Then you have known
the Wycliffe family very long?”

“Oh, indeed, my lady, very long. I
was a nursery maid to Lord Knighton when he was a child.”

Grace tried to imagine Lord Knighton as a
boy, playing along these same halls, his laughter echoing throughout the lofty
ceilings, but an image just wouldn’t present itself. She returned her attention
to the housekeeper. “Since you have been here so long, perhaps you can
tell me if this house and this family have always been so filled with the
misery they are now.”

Mrs. Stone stopped immediately and turned
to face Grace. Her mouth was fixed, her eyes suddenly clouded.

“I’m sorry,” Grace said.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It is all right. You’ve every right
to know.” The housekeeper glanced to the door, her voice quieting.
“No, my lady. It has not always been thus. Westover used to be a happy
place filled with much laughter.”

“What is it, then, that has brought
such sadness to this family?”

Again Mrs. Stone glanced to the door.
“It is only since the death of the previous marquess—your husband’s
father—some twenty years ago. Lord Christopher’s passing brought such a
terrible sorrow to them all, one that has lingered even now. ‘Twas his
lordship’s passing that brought along the rift between the old duke and his
lordship, your husband. A terrible rift it is, too, one that has never been
breached. And poor Lady Frances. Such a ray of happiness she once was. She has
never gotten past losing her husband. It was as if when his lordship died, so
did life for everyone else in the family.” She said then, her voice
lightening, “But not every Wycliffe has been so touched by it. You’ve met
Lady Eleanor?”

Grace smiled. “Oh, yes, and I like
her very much.”

“Ah, such a sweet child she is, Lady
Eleanor, so very different in temperament from the others. She is a true
blessing and so dear to your husband the marquess. Without her, I should think
his lordship would have—”

“That will do, Mrs. Stone.”

The housekeeper turned wide eyes across
the room, staring with obvious dismay at the doorway where Ambrose had suddenly
appeared. The butler’s face was fixed most unhappily.

“His lordship has asked me to inform
Lady Knighton that dinner is ready to be served in the dining hall.” He
looked to Grace. “Mrs. Stone can see to the further unpacking of your
things, my lady.”

His manner was insolent, yet polite enough
to avoid any suggestion of insubordination. From Mrs. Stone’s expression,
though, it was easy to see she was terrified of the man, a terror that was
obviously rooted in years of experience.

“Thank you, Ambrose,” Grace
said. “You may tell his lordship I will be down shortly.”

The butler remained at the door. “I
am to show you to the dining hall
now,
my lady.” His eyes settled
on her. “His lordship requests it.”

While she would have preferred having Mrs.
Stone direct her belowstairs, Grace didn’t wish to be the cause of any unneeded
trouble for the housekeeper. Thus she decided to go with the stoic Ambrose,
although she wasn’t much pleased about it. She didn’t like him, not at all, and
she sensed he didn’t much care for her either.

“Very well. Mrs. Stone, if it
wouldn’t be too much trouble, I should like to have a bath before going to bed
to wash away the dust from our journey.”

“Indeed, my lady, I will have the
bath ready for you when you finish.” Mrs. Stone dipped into a curtsey,
smiling despite Ambrose’s sullen frown.

BOOK: White Regency 03 - White Knight
2.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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