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Authors: Mira Stables

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BOOK: The Byram Succession
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Friday morning was warm and sunny. Damon suggested that they should have their island picnic that very day. Such weather was unlikely to last. Alethea was quite content, James and Marianne enthusiastic. “We’ll use the skiffs,” their host elaborated. “Means rowing out to the island, but with decent luck we’ll get a breeze to sail home. Wind often gets up, late afternoon. Something to do with the hills, I’m told. Handle a skiff under sail?” This was directed provocatively at James who retorted that he was willing to back himself to be first home. Alethea couldn’t imagine why the gentlemen found this amusing. Probably it had something to do with the differences between marines and sailors, which appeared to be a constant subject for laughing argument between them.

He was certainly the stronger oarsman. Having, by patient coaxing and much firmness, avoided Bellamy’s attempts to join the party (“For she would certainly decide on swimming the last stretch—she always did—and your muslin would be soaked.”), they were first to reach the island and had tied up at the tiny landing stage and carried the picnic hampers ashore before the second skiff came in. James rested on his oars and called across to them. “Marianne wants to show me the water gardens. Don’t eat all the lunch before we come back.”

Alethea tensed nervously. She could scarcely suggest that she, too, would like to see the water gardens, since she had visited them twice already, though to be left alone with Damon was not at all to her taste, being precisely the situation she had taken care to avoid this week past. However he was unconcernedly busying himself with stowing the hampers in the shade of an overhanging bank and putting two slim-necked bottles to cool in the tiny stream that debouched into the lake at this point. That done to his satisfaction he turned to her in easy cheerfulness and enquired, “Now. What would you like to do, Man Friday? Laze in the sunshine, or explore the island?”

Exploration sounded safer, and was, in any case, more to Alethea’s mind. It was a very miniature island, but it was easy to see what a paradise it had been for two small boys. They came at last to the log cabin which had been built close beside the spring that fed the tiny stream. Alethea looked at it with a feeling of sick dismay. In the whole of the vast Byram estate, this was the only corner that had been permitted to fall into disrepair. And in contrast with the beautiful maintenance elsewhere, the sad decay of this crude, childish playhouse was heart-breaking.

There was a lump in Alethea’s throat that had to be swallowed before she could say, hesitantly, “Couldn’t we do something about putting it to rights? There are four of us.”

Damon smiled at her, and flicked the crisp ruffle of muslin at her wrist with a careless finger. “In
that
dress? No, my dear, I think not.” But his mind was working furiously.
This
he had not planned. Would it serve?

He said, quite pleasantly, “In any case it will not be used again.
I
shall not marry,
now.
And I believe you were privileged to hear Aunt Emily’s prediction of what would become of Byram when my cousin Barnard inherited.”

The latter part of this speech was lost on Alethea. Worn down by the strain of the past weeks, the thought that her painful sacrifice should be in vain was just too much. “But you
must
marry,” she told him furiously. “Why else do you think I refused you?”

Through the long years ahead they were to laugh over and again at the memory of that speech. Damon was to hold it up as a perfect pattern of feminine logic. At the moment both were too vulnerable, too intent, to see its humour.

He said slowly, “I want only one woman in the world for my wife. If she will not have me, I will have none. And
she
refused me.”

Still she was not sure. There had been that old affair that Tina had spoken of—some jade who had jilted him. But since then—She said breathlessly, “My lord—when you—when you did me the honour of—of—was there not some other lady whom you had in mind as your chosen bride? If the circumstances had not compelled you to offer for me?”

“Some other lady?” he said, as one wholly puzzled. “From the day of our first visit to Hampton Court my mind was increasingly set upon you. My mind—but not, I confess, my heart. I remember telling Marianne that at last I had chosen a bride. Arrogant, presumptuous oaf that I was! It was not until my chosen lady had utterly rejected me that she lifted me out of the depths with a kiss. A kiss that I will remember to my last breath. I learned in that moment how much I loved her.”

There could be no more room for doubt. “Me?” said Alethea childishly.

His answer was to pull her into his arms. “You,” he said against her mouth, and kissed her fiercely, a long hunger to assuage.

She responded as naturally as one who, after long wandering, has come home. It was Damon who at last put her from him and said on a shaken note, “How soon will you marry me?”

“Oh! Soon—very soon.” And then, tentatively, “In the spring, do you think?”

“The spring! You call that 'very soon’! Come—in a month’s time?” he suggested coaxingly. And then, seeing her startled face, relented. “Forgive me, love. It shall be just when you choose. You will naturally want time to buy your bride-clothes. I had not thought.”

Before she could explain that it was nothing of the kind, he went on slowly, “These two years past so many things have gone awry. First there was Edward.
You
will understand something of my feelings—our ships lying idle in New York while my brother was penned in Yorktown with Cornwallis’s army. In the event we sailed the very day that the army surrendered, though Edward had, in fact, been killed several days earlier. Then there was the tragic business of my nephew. Once again I was too late to be of any use. Do you wonder that now, with happiness beckoning, I am greedy to lay fast hold of it before it vanishes from my grasp? I did not mean to spoil your pleasure in your preparations. I know girls set great store by such things.”

Six months was quite a usual time between betrothal and marriage. Alethea had suggested the spring without thinking beyond the usual conventions. But here was a trouble that must be mended without delay. She slipped a hand into his. “I will marry you as soon as my parents will permit it,” she said steadily.

He did not immediately answer, his brow furrowed in thought. She offered shyly, “I am not of age, you know, and may not marry without their consent.”

The frown vanished. He turned and caught her up in his arms, kissing her so comprehensively that she was rosy and breathless when he put her down again, still keeping one possessive arm about her waist while his free hand tilted her face to his.

“A month it is, love,” he told her eagerly. “It can just be done. We’ll persuade your father to prolong his stay, so that he can marry us—
you’ll
want that, of course. He can read our banns for the first time on Sunday. Then I shall have to leave you in his keeping because
I
must post off to bring your Mama—and Susan, of course. Your mother informs me that she is so much improved in health that she is sure she can safely undertake the journey if we do it in slow easy stages.
My
mother will be in the seventh heaven helping you with your frills and fripperies. She always yearned for a daughter. There! How will that fit?”

The girl in his arms had choked on a gasp of indignation. Now she said with dangerous sweetness, “So everyone but me knows all about it. Why! It’s nothing but conspiracy! How well I read your character at our first meeting, Sir Arrogance.”

He had the grace to flush, but he only gathered her closer. “It
was
a conspiracy,” he admitted. “But your parents only promised their support if I could win your free consent. And I did, didn’t I? Or don’t you
want
to marry me?”

It was no good. She could never harden her heart against that engaging small boy appeal. And if one was going to yield, one might as well do it with a good grace. “I want it every bit as much as you do,” she began, “but”—and the rest was lost in his kiss.

Presently they bestirred themselves to unpack the picnic lunch. “I do wish James and Marianne would hurry up,” said Alethea, looking with interest at the appetising array. “I’m quite shockingly hungry.”

“I’m afraid they’re not coming, my love,” returned Damon politely. “They asked me to present their apologies. A prior engagement, you know.”

She cried out at that, but he only chuckled. “Didn’t you hear James offering odds that he’d be first home?” he demanded. “I had to get you to myself for a while if we were ever to sort out our affairs, and this seemed the only way.”


More
conspiracy,” she said, but her tone was suggestive of amusement rather than scolding. “In fact, to all intents and purposes, you’ve abducted me.”

“Well I had to make sure of you somehow,” he pointed out, as one who has just accomplished a difficult task and expects praise for his virtue. “I’d already compromised you and
that
had no effect, so what else could I do? And you shouldn’t really be surprised. Your father has been studying our family tree and he informs me that I’m descended from a long line of bad border barons. Men who were accustomed to take what they wanted and hold it fast.”

And then, suddenly serious, “As I shall do, my darling. As I shall do.”

BOOK: The Byram Succession
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