Authors: Julia Jeffries
THE CHADWICK RING
It was no secret that Ginevra had a rival for her husband.
All of London knew that Richard Glover, the Marquess of Chadwick, kept Amalie de Villeneuve as his mistress—and every rake in town smiled at the idea of a chit of a girl like Ginevra competing with the red-haired love goddess of the demi-monde.
But Chadwick also had a rival. Bysshe, his own grown son, was head over heels in love with Ginevra—and passionately determined to free a stepmother young enough to be Bysshe’s mate from a husband old enough to be not only his father but hers.
When Amalie and Bysshe formed an alliance to smash once and for all the crumbling Chadwick marriage, the feuding couple had to decide if they should stop fighting each other—and start fighting for their lives together...
Look, how this ring encompasseth thy finger,
Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart.
When Ginevra Bryant glanced up from her book and spotted the dark figure cantering along the drive to her father’s house, she caught her breath and quickly retreated behind the sheltering branches of the beech tree. With her hand at her throat she peeked through the curtain of old limbs now thick with spring-green new leaves, and she wondered if she had been seen. The tall, lean man who handled his spirited stallion with such easy power showed no sign of noticing the girl cowering under the tree beside the garden wall. Still wary, Ginevra relaxed enough to admire the grace with which the rider swung down from the saddle and tossed the reins to the young groom who was racing across the drive to him, bare feet kicking up gravel as he skidded to a halt. A stone struck the horse in its sleek fetlock, and it shied, jerking the ribbons out of the boy’s hands. Ginevra watched in amazement as the man barked out a single word and quieted the skittish animal. He caught the reins and handed them again to the groom, speaking to him in low, stern tones. Chastised, the boy bobbed his head respectfully and led the now-sedate horse toward the stables. The tall man peered after them until he was satisfied the boy could handle the stallion; then he turned and strode arrogantly up the steps to Bryant House, oblivious of the watching girl. Ginevra sank back against the trunk of the tree, limp with relief, heedless of the bark snagging the soft fabric of her grey muslin day dress. Her thudding heart resumed a more normal beat He had not seen her. She was safe. She reached again for her book, and then she paused, her small fingers poised in midair. Why did she say she was “safe,” as if he somehow threatened her? He had never been discourteous to her, had never shown her anything other than a correct, if faintly disdainful, deference. But the simple fact remained: Ginevra had always been afraid of the Marquess of Chadwick.
He had always been there, as far back as she could recall, a dark blot on the otherwise perfect surface of the golden summer days she knew as a child at Dowerwood, the small but beautiful estate in Surrey where she and her mother spent the hot months while her father remained at Bryant House, near Reading, to supervise the harvest. Ginevra could still remember the first time Richard Glover, Lord Chadwick, paid a formal call on her mother, and she herself was summoned to the drawing room, a slight, dainty figure in a short pink dress with ruffled pantalettes peeking out beneath. She had curtsied to her mother before turning to the visitor, and when she saw him she gasped. She had never seen, a man so tall before. Her own father was short and comfortably round, about the same height as his wife, and to Ginevra this towering stranger seemed almost supernatural. She forgot everything her mother had carefully taught her about the proper deportment before adults as she stared up, up at him, up the whipcord-lean body clad all in black except for his snowy ruffled shirt, up to the dark, craggy face with hooded eyes and wild raven curls. Ginevra had recently attended an Evangelical Sunday school in the company of one of the housemaids, and she vividly remembered an illustration from a lurid tract she was given there, a picture of a swarthy figure in black who lured the unsuspecting to lives of “unparalleled vice and infidelity,” whatever that meant. Furtively she glanced at her mother, who watched the confrontation with tawny eyes full of anxiety, and ignoring the iron precept that a child must never speak to an adult unless spoken to first, Ginevra blurted to the man, “Are you the devil?”
She still remembered how it felt, standing before him trembling, her hands clenched into tight fists as she awaited the explosion that never came. Her mother collapsed back on the settee, mewling with mortification, but the marquess said nothing. He dropped to a squatting position in front of Ginevra and caught her chin with long fingers that swallowed up her face. For an endless moment he studied her defiant features, the quivering mouth, the wet eyes the same dark gold as her long plaits, and she in turn saw now that his eyes were not black like the rest of him, but were, astonishingly, a clear, piercing blue. When at last he spoke, his voice was deep and silky. “Well, Ginevra, do you think I am the devil?”
She blinked. “I do not know, my lord. You might be. You look like a picture I saw at Sunday school. That is why I asked.”
He raised one eyebrow as he observed, “At this Sunday school you attended, did they not tell you that the devil is the Prince of Liars? If I say I am not he, how can you believe me?”
She considered this and at last shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. Are you a liar?”
Behind her she heard another agonized squeak from her mother, but the marquess ignored the woman as he slowly shook his head. “No, little Ginnie,” he said softly but firmly, “I am many things, but I am not a liar. I promise I will never speak anything but the absolute truth to you.” He stood erect again, lithe and powerful, and his eyes were hooded once more. With a dry chuckle he addressed Ginevra’s mother. “Compose yourself, Lady Bryant. I assure you the chit has not offended me. I find your daughter delightful. I think”—he glanced down at Ginevra—“no, I am certain that she will serve us very well.” And with that enigmatic note he bowed elegantly and took his leave.
Ginevra did not see the marquess again that summer, but she did meet his two sons: Tom, who was just slightly older than Ginevra and with his black curls and blue eyes already a junior edition of his father, and Bysshe, the younger by three years, a frail youngster with lackluster brown hair and eyes, who was sulky and retiring except for those rare occasions when he burst into paroxysms of reckless activity. Ginevra was unimpressed that Tom was a viscount, heir to the adjoining Chadwick estates and the gloomy Tudor mansion called Queenshaven, or that even his sullen little brother was by courtesy the Lord Bysshe Glover. If anything she felt sorry for the boys. They seemed to be growing up lonely and neglected, raised by servants, for their mother had died when Bysshe was an infant, and their awesome father was absent months at a time. In a childish effort to make up for all they lacked, Ginevra gathered the pair of them to her small heart, and during the summer months the three of them were inseparable, climbing trees, riding their ponies among the grazing sheep, lost in the happy days of innocence.
But when Ginevra was twelve, her childhood ended.
As she lounged on the moss under the old beech tree, her book forgotten in her hand, she remembered the day six years before when she had waited with her parents in the “best” parlor at Dowerwood, her hands folded primly in her lap as she sat rigid in a cherrywood armchair, immobile except for her curious, darting eyes. Contrary to custom, her father had left Bryant House in the care of a steward and had accompanied her and her mother to Surrey that summer. Now he shuffled restlessly in front of the fireplace and fidgeted with the embroidered silk screen. He glanced repeatedly at the pendulum clock on the mantel, comparing it to the watch he kept in the pocket of his long striped waistcoat, and sometimes he stared wistfully at the duelling foils mounted on the wall behind the clock, gazing at them as if he wished he were an undergraduate again with nothing more serious to worry about than developing a strong sword arm. Lady Bryant reclined languidly on the settee, wrapped in shawls despite the afternoon heat. Her greying hair, once the same burnished gold as Ginevra’s, was tucked into a lace cap, and her dim eyes gazed unseeing at the papered wall hung with engravings framed in black brazilwood.
Suddenly Harrison, the butler, announced in stentorian tones, “The Marquess of Chadwick and Viscount Glover.” Lord Chadwick strode into the room, imposing, intimidating, and radiating nervous energy. Ginevra gaped when Tom lagged along behind his father. The boy was impressive but clearly ill-at-ease in gleaming tasselled Hessian boots and an intricately folded white stock, which seemed about to choke him. Still in short skirts herself, and unaware of her burgeoning womanhood, Ginevra was thunderstruck at the change that had come over her friend. Her bewilderment increased when, after civilities were exchanged by the adults, Tom rose at a signal from his father and cleared his throat ominously. “Ginnie,” he began in an unnaturally deep rumble, “uh ... I mean ... Ginevra, I ... I...” His voice suddenly shot up to a tremulous squeak. Ginevra watched sympathetically as Tom tried in vain to regain control of his voice, but he could not, and at last he lapsed into uncomfortable silence, flushed and quaking with humiliation. Ginevra lifted her hand to comfort him, but when she saw his father’s cold blue eyes narrowed with disdain, her hand dropped back helplessly to her side.
Then the marquess spoke. “Miss Bryant,” he said, and the form of address shook her almost as much as the obvious irritation in his deep voice, for until that moment no one had ever called her anything but Ginevra, “Miss Bryant, what my bird-witted son is trying so inadequately to do is ask if you will honor him by consenting to become his wife and future marchioness.”
Ginevra stared up at him, mute with the fear he always inspired in her. In exasperation he repeated the question. “You mean ... you mean ...
!” Ginevra choked. When the man nodded, she turned in confusion to Tom, but the boy was still struggling with his composure. Desperately she fled to the divan where her mother lay wan and colorless in her classical draperies, a recumbent caryatid. “Mama!” she pleaded.
Lady Bryant gently stroked her daughter’s pale cheek. “It won’t be for years yet, Ginnie darling,” she reassured softly. “Although by law you and Tom could wed as soon as he turns fourteen, we all think it could be best if you wait until you are ... oh, eighteen or thereabouts. By then you’ll be better prepared for the high position you will aspire to as Tom’s wife.”
Ginevra tried to read the expression in her mother’s tawny eyes. She could sense there were things being left unsaid. Finally she asked, “Is this what you want, Mama?”
Lady Bryant’s lips turned up in a pale imitation of her once lovely smile. “It will be a brilliant match, Ginnie,” she said. Her eyes sought out her husband standing gravely by the fireplace. She sighed, “At least this way I shall get to see my little one betrothed.”
Ginevra turned to Tom again, Tom, her friend, her playmate, so suddenly and inexplicably changed. She demanded, “Can you really want to marry me?” Stiffly Tom inclined his dark head as far as his heavily starched neckcloth would permit Ginevra bit her lip. It was some kind of joke the adults were playing, it had to be—but they all seemed so deadly serious. Finally she said, “Very well, I will marry you, Tom,” and she thought she heard a sigh of relief from her father. She watched Tom’s blue eyes flicker in the direction of Lord Chadwick, and at his signal the boy took the girl’s hand in his own and with simple and affecting dignity bent to brush his lips against her bloodless cheek.
Thus Tom and Ginevra were pledged, and it was several years before she realized that the scene in the parlor had been a charade, a dumb show performed to console her dying mother. The marquess wanted Dowerwood annexed to the Chadwick lands, and Sir Charles ensured an outstanding match for his daughter by making the estate her marriage portion. That the two children whose lives were being planned knew and liked each other was totally irrelevant.
In the autumn Tom and his brother Bysshe were packed off to school at Harrow, and Ginevra returned with her parents to Bryant House, unaware that she had spent her last summer at Dowerwood. By Michaelmas her mother was confined to her bed, and she died quietly in her husband’s arms on Christmas Eve. Ginevra’s grief was profound, but, jerked abruptly into womanhood, she had little time for tears.
During the next few years Ginevra worked hard, not only assuming her mother’s duties as housekeeper and hostess but also overseeing the welfare of the Bryant tenants and their families. She began sewing her trousseau. In her spare time she continued her education by reading the books in her father’s library.
When she was fourteen her father entertained a party of landowners, and although the task of seeing to their comfort fell heavily on her small shoulders, for once her father did not expect her to play hostess as well. While the men communed noisily in the main salon, Ginevra ate her meal from a tray in the library while she puzzled over the poems in a dusty volume she had found on one of the upper shelves, fallen behind the copy of Dr. Buchan’s
Domestic Medicine or Family Physician
she had been seeking. She munched thoughtfully as she read, greatly admiring the skill of the poet yet confused by the disturbing images the words conjured up. Some of it was clear enough—“Naked she lay, claspt in my loving Arms”—but other lines were meaningless to her. Her smooth brow was furrowed when a deep voice inquired from just beside her, “Well, Miss Bryant, what are you looking so pensive about?”
With a stifled cry she jumped, gasping, “Oh, my lord, you startled me!”
“Forgive me,” he said smoothly. “I did not mean to distress you. I only wanted to compliment you on the excellence of the dinner. I understand from your father that you prepared part of the meal yourself?”
Ginevra nodded. “Yes, thank you. I help Cook whenever I can. It’s good practice for when ... for when...” Her voice trailed off, and she blushed faintly.
“For when you and Tom are wed,” he finished. “Tell me, my dear, do you look forward to your marriage?”
She glanced up, then, to see if he were teasing her, but his blue eyes seemed grave, and she tried to answer him seriously. She toyed nervously with one of her honey-colored curls as she sighed, “I don’t really have time to think much about being married. The idea seems unreal. But I have years yet to learn to accept it.”
“Yes, years,” he murmured. “And in the meantime you will continue to sharpen your domestic skills. Your diligence is praiseworthy, although perhaps I should point out that as Viscountess Glover it is unlikely that you will be expected to do your own cooking.” His winning smile softened the ironic bite of his last words, and he continued with an air of polite curiosity, “What is that book you read so studiously—the latest Minerva novel?”
Ginevra shook her head. “No, my lord, it’s poetry, something I found this afternoon. I like verse, but there’s not much available locally, and Papa never thinks to bring me anything but romances back from his excursions to London.”
“Indeed. Why don’t you read some of this absorbing poetry to me? I should be interested to know what sort of thing you enjoy.”
Ginevra grinned sheepishly. “I am not proficient at reading aloud, I fear. I expect my droning would only make you drowsy. However, perhaps you could be so kind as to explain this piece to me? Some of it simply does not make sense. This, for example ...” Her voice took on a singsong note as she stumbled over the unfamiliar words: