Authors: Candace Camp
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #General
Myles chuckled. “I didn’t mind. Clearly I do not require the level of sophistication Ian does. When one grows up with five sisters, one becomes accustomed to attending such affairs. It helps make it more bearable, I suppose, that a
is not as coveted a marriage prospect as a
“Do you ever think about marrying?” Gabriel asked thoughtfully.
“As little as possible.” Myles grinned. “Why? Don’t tell me some girl’s caught your fancy?”
“No. Not at all. I suppose I shall one day, but …” Gabriel shrugged. “It doesn’t seem a very alluring prospect.”
“Not if you look at Ian’s marriage.”
Gabriel glanced over at his friend. “Do you think Ian is terribly unhappy? He doesn’t say anything, but …”
“But it’s almost Christmas, and he is here with us instead of at the Park with his wife,” Myles finished. “That must mean something. I’ve never asked him. I don’t suppose he seems particularly
“But neither does he seem particularly happy.”
“Everyone knows they weren’t a love match.”
“I’m not sure that makes any difference.” Gabriel’s voice had a bitter tone, and his friend shot him a quick sideways glance. But before Myles could speak, Gabriel went on, “I doubt Ian ever expected a love match … or cared to have one, really.”
“He’s not a romantic.”
“But there could have been a better match, someone more suited to him, if his father had not been so intent on gambling away Ian’s future.”
“Fenstone thinks of no one but himself.” Myles sighed and drained his drink. “Always has. But it’s done now. At least marrying Emily took care of his father’s debt.”
Gabriel snorted. “For the time being. Naturally the Earl’s gone back to trying to run the estate into the ground.”
“Do you mean Fenstone’s run off his legs ag—” Myles stopped and sat up straight, staring at Gabriel. “Is
why you bought this place? So Ian’s father would have enough cash to pay off his latest debts?”
Gabriel shrugged. “I wanted a house in the country besides the family seat.”
“Of course you did.” Myles gave him a knowing look. “Well, I hope you’ve managed to hold off the Earl’s creditors for a while. Bad for Ian if his father landed in the River Tick.”
They broke off at the sound of footsteps in the hallway outside. A moment later, Ian appeared in the doorway, a bottle cradled in each arm.
“What did you find?” Gabriel asked.
“A lot of spiderwebs and dust,” Alan responded, brushing at the sleeves of his jacket as he came up behind Ian.
“And a cask of excellent Armagnac,” Ian added. “Too big to bring up; you’ll have to get the footmen to haul it up tomorrow. I did, however, find some bottles of passable cognac to tide us over.”
“Very good.” Gabriel stood and shrugged out of his jacket as Ian and Alan went to the table on the other side of the room. “Get out the cards, Myles. Cigars?” Gabriel picked up a box from the sideboard and passed it around as Ian opened the first of the bottles.
The men settled down around the table, and Myles began to shuffle the cards. Gabriel raised his glass. “Gentlemen! Here’s to a short memory and a far merrier evening ahead.”
n the days after the
Squire’s party, Thea was caught up in the whirl of activities that always preceded Christmas. Not only did she pitch in to help their housekeeper clean and cook for the upcoming festivities, but she also had the usual parish business to attend to. For years before her father’s death, Thea had acted as his secretary, not only copying out his sermons in neat, legible ink, but also totting up his books and acting as a sounding board for his views on various parish matters. The parishioners had become accustomed to taking their problems to Thea first, to be relayed by her to the vicar, and when the living had been given to Daniel after Latimer’s death, the church members had continued to go to Thea. Unlike Latimer, Daniel had little interest in hearing the matters Thea brought to him, so that she had grown used to simply handling them herself.
She did her best not to think about Lord Morecombe, but her mind stubbornly continued to return to that moment when he had looked at her with such a bored lack of recognition. It did not help that almost everyone who came to call on her for the next few days wanted to talk about little except the Christmas ball and their exotic new neighbor.
Mrs. Cliffe dropped by two days later, ostensibly to discuss the Ladies Auxiliary, but in reality to relive her social triumph. Thea, who had been working on Daniel’s sermon for Christmas Day, did her best to hold her tongue as the Squire’s wife and her sister, Mrs. Dinmont, extolled the many virtues of Lord Morecombe.
“Such a fine gentleman, don’t you agree, Althea dear?” Mrs. Cliffe rarely needed an answer, so she did not notice Thea’s lack of assent. “Even the Squire’s mother admitted that he is a fine figure of a man.”
“So handsome,” Mrs. Dinmont added, playing her usual role in the conversation.
“Such an air of address! And a more finely turned leg I have never seen. Not, of course, that a high-minded young lady such as yourself would have noticed.”
“Oh my, Maribel!” Mrs. Dinmont tittered into her hand. “The things you do say! Not, of course,” she added after a look from Mrs. Cliffe, “but what you are absolutely correct. I am sure none of the gentlemen looked nearly so elegant on the dance floor.”
“His friends were all very well, too, of course,” the Squire’s wife went on magnanimously. “Sir Myles is most charming. But he cannot compare to Lord Morecombe.”
“No, indeed.” Mrs. Dinmont bobbed her head. “No comparison at all.”
“I vow, I was so pleased when he stood up with my own Daisy.”
“Only after he had taken you out onto the floor,” her sister pointed out archly.
“Now, Adele …” Mrs. Cliffe playfully slapped at her arm, laughing. “He was only doing what was polite.”
“But, still, you moved quite smartly through the cotillion with him.”
Mrs. Cliffe smiled and gave a little toss of her head. “I haven’t yet forgotten how to dance a few steps. But it was clearly Daisy in whom his lordship was interested. He danced with all four of the girls, even little Estella, who was over the moon about that, I can tell you. But I know it was Daisy who caught his eye. I would not be at all surprised if we see Lord Morecombe at the manor again, you mark my words.” Mrs. Cliffe nodded in a knowing way.
Thea deemed it unlikely that the supremely bored and arrogant Lord Morecombe had any interest in Daisy—unless he was drawn to giggling, combined with a lack of wit. If he had been attracted to anyone at the party, she felt sure it would have been Damaris, who was both beautiful and capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation. An inner devil tempted Thea to point out that the rakish lord whose misdeeds Mrs. Cliffe had been gossiping about for almost three weeks now would scarcely be a fit suitor for an innocent young maiden such as Daisy, but Thea refused to give in to her baser nature, merely smiling and nodding until Mrs. Cliffe and her companion finally left.
But if Thea had hoped to escape further tales of Lord Morecombe, she was doomed to disappointment, for the following day at the bakery she was treated to an account of the lord and one of his friends racing their curricles on the main road and nearly oversetting Colonel Parkson in his gig. That afternoon, paying a call on one of the sick of the parish, the old woman’s daughter spent much of the afternoon regaling Thea with a description of the young lords at the Priory having a number of casks hauled up from the cellars, just so they could sample some old brandy.
It was a relief to finally escape the house and return to her own home. There, at least, she knew she would be safe from any discussion of Lord Morecombe, for Daniel had no interest in the occupants of the Priory. She could spend a nice quiet evening reading in front of the fire, the silence broken only by Daniel’s occasionally reciting aloud to her a passage he found particularly interesting about the Roman ruins at Cirencester.
Thea let out a little sigh. Well, perhaps it was not an especially exciting prospect, but at least it was familiar and would not irk her as all conversations about Lord Morecombe seemed to. It was silly to let herself grow so irritated about the man, who was, of course, nothing to her. His attitude had stung a little, but it meant nothing. She would forget all about it as soon as Gabriel Morecombe and his friends went back to London.
And, she reminded herself, she had a great deal to look forward to. The Christmas celebration was her favorite time of the year. Tomorrow she would go out early and cut down evergreen and holly branches to decorate the house and church, an activity she always enjoyed. And in only a day or two her sister would arrive with her niece and nephews, and the house would then be filled with all the noise and activity she could wish for.
The sun was not yet
peeking over the eastern horizon when she left the vicarage the next morning in search of greenery. Dragging a small wagon behind her, Thea headed across the bridge and past the church. There she cut across a field toward the woods beyond, where she knew she would find plenty of red-berried holly and fragrant fir trees. As she crested a small rise, Thea spotted a man riding up the road toward her. Even at this distance, she recognized the tall frame and the tousled dark hair. It was Gabriel Morecombe, heading from the village toward his house. She came to a dead stop.
Quickly Thea stepped back so that she was hidden in the shadows of the trees. The horizon had started to lighten, and she was able to make out the details of the horse and rider. He wore a fashionable greatcoat with multiple capes at the shoulders, opened carelessly down the front to reveal an unbuttoned jacket and a neckcloth hanging untied around his neck. He was bareheaded, his hair uncombed, and his jaw was shadowed with dark stubble. As he rode, he yawned widely and rubbed a hand down his face.
This was no man out on an early-morning canter. Clearly he was returning to his house after spending the night in the village. Thea could imagine what sort of place he’d spent the evening. The tavern for a while, no doubt, and after it closed … She drew herself even straighter, her jaw setting and her mouth thinning into a straight line. It did not matter to her, but if she had needed any proof that Lord Morecombe was exactly the sort of drunken, licentious …
that people said he was, here it was, right in her face.
The rider did not glance in her direction as he rode past. Thea waited, scarcely daring to breathe, until he was out of sight. Then she blew out a pent-up breath and hurried forward, the wagon bumping along behind her. Indignation fueled her steps, so that she strode faster and faster. The man was so bold! So brazen! Obviously, he cared little who saw him riding home at such an hour. He practically flaunted his wicked behavior in front of everyone. He had not even bothered to slip out under the cover of darkness. Not that it would make his activities any less reprehensible, but one would think the man could exhibit some shame, at least. She should have known what sort of man he was from the very beginning; he would not have kissed her that night so long ago if he was any sort of true gentleman. She had simply been too naïve to realize that he was a roué—well, perhaps not a roué, for she thought of them as being old, but certainly he was a rake. A rake and a libertine and a cad, too, no doubt.
It was fortunate that she was much older and wiser now. Not that he was likely to make any sort of advance to her—indeed, she could not imagine why he ever had. But, still, it was reassuring to know that now she would be able to withstand his charm, to see him for what he was. She would not allow herself to be maneuvered into such a situation nowadays, and certainly she would not simply stand there, stunned into silence, if he tried to kiss her. No, she would … well, she wasn’t sure what she would do. Slap his face, she supposed; that seemed appropriate.
Occupied by such thoughts, Thea hacked away at the evergreen branches with the small hatchet she had brought, quickly loading the garden wagon. When the wagon was nearly full, she added several branches of holly loaded with red berries among their waxy green leaves. She could not find any low-hanging mistletoe, so, after a quick glance around to make sure no one was around to see her, she kilted up her skirt and tucked the end into the sash, then climbed up into the oak tree and knocked down several pieces. Satisfied with her haul, she turned and headed for home. Her stomach was rumbling with hunger, and she wished that she had eaten more than just the single slice of bread she had taken from the kitchen. However, even if Daniel had finished eating, Mrs. Brewster would have set aside a plate for her.
In fact, when Thea parked
the wagon behind the vicarage and went inside to wash up, she found that her brother was still at the breakfast table, drinking his tea and perusing a letter. He looked up at her and smiled when she entered the dining room. “Hallo, Thea. Mrs. Brewster wasn’t sure where you had gotten to.”
“I went out early to gather evergreen boughs for the church.”
“Ah. Excellent. It always makes the old girl look quite festive.”
“Yes. I think I’ll go over later and decorate.”
“Mm.” Daniel turned his attention back to the letter.
“Have you gotten the mail already?” Thea nodded toward the paper in his hands as she loaded her plate and began to eat.
“Yes. I took a little stroll before breakfast, so I picked it up. There’s a note from Veronica.”
“Oh, really?” Thea glanced up at him. “Did she say when she would be arriving?”
“That’s the thing. Apparently she’s not.”
“What?” Disappointment formed in Thea’s stomach like a rock, and she set down her fork. “What do you mean? She’s supposed to be here any day now.”
Her brother shrugged. “She wrote to say she won’t be able to make it after all. Her husband came home unexpectedly. Apparently his ship had to return for repairs or some such thing.” He continued to read the rest of the letter. “She says the Commander is well, as are the rest of them, and, of course, they are delighted to have him home. Then there is something about a dress she’s going to wear to a Twelfth Night ball. She sounds quite excited about it.”
“The dress or Commander Stanton coming home?”
“I’m not entirely certain.” Daniel handed the letter across the table to Thea. “I have to say, I am disappointed not to see Veronica. Although it will certainly be more peaceful without the children here.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” Thea skimmed through the note and handed it back to her brother. The days ahead seemed suddenly much emptier.
“Well …” Daniel took a final drink from his cup and rose to his feet. “I should go work on my sermon.”
Thea nodded. “I made some notes about your topic, if you’d like to see them.” It was their polite fiction regarding the sermons she wrote for him.
“Of course, of course. I’ll be in my study.” Daniel nodded pleasantly and walked off.
Thea pushed away her plate, no longer hungry. The silence that her brother would treasure this holiday seemed to her an echoing emptiness. With a sigh, she left the room and started up the stairs. A cold loneliness was centered in her chest. She retrieved the sermon she had written from the small oak secretary in her bedroom and laid it on Daniel’s desk. Work, she knew, was the best cure for unhappiness, so she put on her cloak and gloves and went out to the laden wagon she had left behind the house. Picking up its handle, she started toward the church.
St. Margaret’s was an old building, built of the same native stone as much of the town. It was plain and squat, yet had a beauty in its simplicity. It did not strive to be anything it was not. Centuries ago, in the heyday of the wool trade, there had been talk of tearing it down and building a grander edifice, but the citizens of Chesley, ever a practical lot, had decided not to do so.
The church building had once been the chapel of Astwold Abbey, a convent established by Eleanor of Aquitaine. During the Dissolution, the abbey had been given to an ancestor of Lord Fenstone’s. Most of the buildings had been torn down, leaving only two complete structures standing: the chapel and the priory. The priory, which stood at the opposite end of the abbey premises from the church, had been restored and added onto, becoming a residence for the earls of Fenstone. The chapel had been given to the village to use as its church almost three hundred years ago. The ruins of the rest of the abbey lay between the two buildings. If Thea looked in that direction, she could see the fallen stones and half walls that remained.
She did not spare a glance for the familiar sight today, however, as she pulled the wagon to the church door and carried a load of evergreen branches into the nave of the church. Walking down the main aisle past the intersecting arms that formed the cross of the church, she laid the branches on the steps leading up to the altar. She turned and skirted the raised sanctuary to open the door at the back of the church, which led into a short corridor containing the sacristy and a couple of storerooms.
Thea picked up a small oil lamp and carried it down to the farthest storeroom. There she made her way through the collection of churchly odds and ends that had wound up in there. In the back, she found the manger she intended to use for the living Nativity scene on Christmas Eve and hauled it out. It was a simple feed box that stood on X-shaped legs, and though it had not been used in a few years, it seemed to still be in good condition. Grabbing a few tools, she blew out the lamp and set it back in the sacristy, before carrying the rest of the things to the outer vestibule of the church, near the front doors. Later, when she was finished decorating the church, she would take the manger outside and clean it.