Kent, late October 1812
She left with a chime of laughter, sweeping up the skirts of her riding habit and darting down the long corridor before the golden young man could finish his proposal. But when she reached the door at the end, she paused to glance over her shoulder, her expression mischievous.
The Honorable Godfrey Hitchcock smiled, blond and confident in the sunshine that had appeared after days of rain. “We shall talk later, Lady Kiri. And I shall finish what I started to ask you.”
Kiri Lawford gave him the swift smile that always left men breathless, then slipped through the door. Once she was out of his sight, she slowed down, her expression thoughtful. Godfrey was charming, the most appealing suitor she’d had since her family had come to London a year before.
But did she really want to marry him?
She liked that Godfrey had joined her for this late afternoon ride even though they risked being late for dinner. She hadn’t wanted to waste the rare sunshine after being trapped indoors ever since arriving at Grimes Hall for this house party. He was a first-rate rider who’d kept up with her as they galloped headlong over the hills of Kent.
Officially Kiri was only one of a number of guests at the party. But everyone understood that she was there to meet Godfrey’s family while they became better acquainted in a relaxed setting. Kiri’s mother had planned to come, but their household had been full of measles, so she’d remained in London.
Luckily Kiri had been staying at Ashton House with her brother and hadn’t been exposed to illness. That allowed her to travel down to Kent with an older couple who were attending the house party.
The visit was going well. The Hitchcocks looked Kiri over with a thoroughness that suggested they thought she’d soon be part of the family. She found them pleasant enough, in a cool English way.
It would not be a brilliant match, since Godfrey was only the third son of a baron while Kiri was a duke’s daughter. But she liked him very well. In the year since her family arrived from India, she’d found no eligible men she liked better.
Godfrey hadn’t treated her like an exotic foreign slut unworthy of respect. He also kissed very nicely, which was surely a good trait in a husband, and his touch of rebelliousness matched her own. But was that a strong enough basis for marriage?
Kiri’s mother came of royal Hindu blood, and despite her gentleness, she’d defied tradition to twice marry Englishmen. Both had been love matches. Kiri’s father, the sixth Duke of Ashton, had died before she was born, but she had seen the love between Lakshmi and her second husband, John Stillwell. Her stepfather had been a famous general in India, and he was the only father she’d ever known. A good father, too, who treated his stepdaughter exactly the same as his own two children.
Godfrey was amusing and good company, but compared to General Stillwell, he seemed rather short on substance. Of course, most men were. Though her brother Adam measured up to the general rather well. So did most of Adam’s intriguing friends, now that she thought about it. A pity they all treated her like a little sister.
But perhaps she wasn’t being fair to Godfrey. They simply weren’t well enough acquainted for her to know if he had hidden depths. She must accept the offer made by his mother, Lady Norland, who’d suggested Kiri stay on for another week after the formal house party ended.
Wondering if her parents would be able to come down if she stayed longer, Kiri decided to stop by Lady Norland’s morning room. Her hostess would probably be there if she hadn’t gone up to dress for dinner, so Kiri could ask to extend her visit. Surely another week in Godfrey’s company would clarify whether they would suit.
The countess’s morning room was cozy and attractive, and she spent a good deal of her time there with her female friends. Kiri quietly opened the door, then paused, seeing that Lady Norland was chatting with her sister, Lady Shrimpton. Lounging on a sofa with their backs to the door, the sisters didn’t see Kiri.
Kiri could talk to her hostess later. She was on the verge of withdrawing when Lady Shrimpton said, “Is Godfrey really going to marry that Kiri creature?”
Kiri froze at the sneering tone. What on earth . . . ?
“It’s looking likely,” Lady Norland replied. “She seems quite smitten. What girl could resist a man so handsome and charming?”
“I’m surprised you and Norland would allow such a match,” her sister said disapprovingly. “I wouldn’t let one of my boys marry a half-breed foreigner. Such a bold, vulgar creature! I’ve seen the lures she casts out. Why, men sniff around her like hounds. Godfrey won’t know if his children are his own.”
Kiri’s hand pressed to her chest as her heart pounded with shock. Her brother Adam had experienced dangerous disapproval of his mixed blood, but Kiri had been treated with more tolerance because she was a mere female, not an English duke. While some members of society disapproved of her heritage, they were usually discreet about it. She had never heard such malice directed at her.
“The chit is half English and her stepfather is General Stillwell, so she should have some sense of proper conduct.” Lady Norland sounded as if she wasn’t quite sure about that. “What matters is that she’s a duke’s daughter and will have a very generous dowry. Godfrey is expensive, and he won’t find a richer wife than this one. If she foists other men’s brats on him—well, he has two older brothers and they both have sons, so her blood will never taint the title.”
“A good dowry does compensate for much,” Lady Shrimpton said. “But you’ll have to socialize with that dreadful little mother of hers. A heathen, and so dark!”
“Lady Kiri is less dark, and her dowry is golden!” Lady Norland laughed. “I suppose I mustn’t give her mother the cut direct, but believe me, there will be little social intercourse between that family and ours despite the presence of General Stillwell.”
Kiri’s vision darkened as a red, killing rage possessed her. How
they speak that way about her mother, who was the wisest, gentlest, kindest woman Kiri had ever known! She was a true lady by any standard. Kiri wanted to mangle both of those horrible women with her bare hands. She yearned to crush their sneers and bigotry.
She could, too. As a girl, she’d been fascinated by tales of ancient Hindu warrior queens, so she’d insisted on joining her male Hindu cousins to study the traditional Indian art of fighting called Kalarippayattu. Kiri had been one of the best students in the class, and now she burned to use her skills on those evil females.
But it would be very bad form to kill her hostess. Nor should she murder Godfrey, the lying, deceitful fortune hunter. As she turned and headed blindly to her room, she felt ill at the knowledge that she’d considered
the man! She wiped her fist across her mouth as if she could rub off the memory of his kisses.
Almost as infuriating as the slurs against her mother were the horrible claims that Kiri was a slut who cast out lures to men. She had been raised in military camps among men, and she enjoyed their company. From the time she was old enough to walk, General Stillwell’s subordinates had teased and talked and taught her riding, hunting, and shooting. When she grew up, young officers sometimes fell desperately in love with her. Of
she was no shy English miss who was afraid of all men outside her family!
She could not stay in this house for another day, or even another hour. She entered her bedroom with relief. She would borrow a Norland horse and ride cross country to Dover, a busy port where she could easily get a coach back to London.
Hands shaking and buttons popping, she jerked off the expensive new riding habit she’d worn on her daily rides with Godfrey. She had made an effort to be an English lady in all ways, but no longer.
Free of the yards of fabric, she dug into her wardrobe for the well-worn divided riding skirt she’d brought from India. The skirt made it possible to ride astride, and she’d thought she might wear it here.
The buff-colored twill of the divided skirt settled into place with welcome familiarity. As she donned a tailored navy jacket, she glanced at herself in the wardrobe mirror.
Dark hair, vivid green eyes, above average height even for an English girl. Her complexion was darker than the average Briton, but not startlingly so.
This was the true Kiri Lawford—a daughter of the empire, half English and half Hindu and proud of both heritages. In a sari and with a bindi on her brow, she would look almost entirely Indian, just as in a riding habit she looked almost entirely English.
But never fully one or the other. She could not change that about herself. Nor did she want to.
not to please spiteful cats like Lady Norland and her sister.
She could carry little on horseback, so she scanned the room to see if there was anything she must take besides her money. She’d brought some of her finest outfits, but she wouldn’t stay here merely to protect her wardrobe.
She wrapped her jewelry in a change of linen, then an Indian shawl. Tucked in a leather pouch, the bundle would pack unobtrusively behind her saddle.
Much as she wanted to storm out of the house, she had been too well raised to leave without a word. She must write a note to the woman she’d traveled down with, which would be easy. Also a note to Godfrey, which would not be easy, but she couldn’t bring herself to address Lady Norland directly. She sat at the desk, wanting to rage at him. But mere paper could not contain her fury.
She settled for scrawling,
You must find another fortune to hunt. Please send my belongings to Ashton House.
She deliberately specified her brother’s ducal mansion. Though these people might consider her a slut, by God, she was a high-born slut.
Since Kiri’s maid had been trapped in the measles quarantine, she’d been assigned a Norland girl of small skill and less personality. Kiri left a generous vail for the girl’s service, then swept from the room.
Luckily she didn’t see any of the Hitchcocks or other houseguests on her way downstairs and out to the stables. She knew which horse she wanted—Chieftain, a splendid blood bay gelding belonging to Godfrey’s oldest brother, George Hitchcock. George, the pompous heir to the title, married to a bland blonde and with two sturdily English, towheaded sons. He didn’t deserve so fine a horse. She’d been longing to ride it.
The stables were quiet and she guessed that the grooms were eating their supper. No matter, she’d made friends with Chieftain during the past week. She paused over which saddle to use.
Godfrey’s was a good size, but using anything of his would make her skin crawl, so she chose anonymous tack. It took her only a few minutes to saddle Chieftain and walk him out of the stable. She swung onto the horse as easily as any man, turned Chieftain toward Dover, and left Grimes Hall forever.