Authors: Allison Lane
Tags: #Regency Romance
THE SECOND LADY EMILY
Greater love hath no man than this,
that he lay down his life for his friends.
December 24, 1812
Andrew Villiers, Sixth Marquess of Broadbanks, slumped deeper into his wingback chair, staring at the glass of port in his right hand. Firelight flashed through the wine like rubies, recalling the necklace he had once dreamed of placing around his wife’s creamy throat. His fingers tightened.
She had been gone six months, five days, two hours, and – he squinted at the clock – seven minutes. The exact time of death was engraved on his heart. He had held her most of that last day, tears streaming unheeded down his face as her life slipped away, her final words sighing his name. If not for the duty he owed his title, he would have joined her.
He glanced across the drawing room to where his marchioness stitched one of her hideous seat covers. Not that he cared what they looked like. Even loathing no longer moved him – for the covers, for his wife, for himself and the insanity that had brought him to this pass. But hatred wouldn’t come. Fog had finally deadened the last of his feelings.
Draining his glass, he poured another.
The year had brought little but death – of family and friends, of honor and virtue, of heart, soul, and mind. His brother Randolph, gone at four-and-twenty; his father, whom he sorely missed despite their frequent disagreements; and sweet Emily, tragically dead at eighteen, a victim of his own dishonor. If only he had wed her out of hand! She would still live, and he could have avoided this travesty of a marriage.
He drank deeply, searching for the relief that only wine could bring.
An unexpected flicker of emotion stabbed through the mind-numbing haze. Abhorrence.
She was evil incarnate, a pox on the face of humanity, Eden’s snake, Satan’s handmaiden. But he would soon be rid of her. If the child was a boy, very soon. The image of Fay lying dead had often tempted him. He was already doomed to hell, so murdering his wife would make no difference. Not that he would actually kill her. Death was too quick, too clean. Her crimes could only be avenged by a lingering, pain-wracked demise – which showed how far he had drifted from honor.
He owned an ancient keep in the Scottish highlands. Enough of it was habitable to house her and the servants who would guard her. Recent repairs had made the walls secure enough to prevent any escape. Banishment would be far more satisfying than mere death. He shivered as a forgotten remnant of conscience surfaced. Who would have thought that he could grow so harsh? But no one who really knew Fay would condemn him.
The decision lightened his heart. Perhaps he was emerging from the shock of the past year. Or perhaps wresting this small control of his life raised a flicker of hope for the future.
Please let the child be a boy!
He poured more wine, noting that his hand remained steady. And just as well. He must attend services in another hour. It was the only reason he remained in the drawing room. How different this marriage was from the one he had envisioned. If only . . .
Again he stared at his glass. The coals shifted, freeing a burst of flame. Emily’s beloved face hovered before his damp eyes. She had been too young to die. Too sweet. Too innocent. Too incredibly lovely. How could a righteous God have called her away? Why did either of them deserve such punishment? Not even Randolph . . .
But he refused to recall that.
* * * *
Hardwick paused in the doorway, his eyes scanning the drawing room. Lord Broadbanks stared into the fire, even more morose than usual. Her ladyship looked up and frowned.
“Surely the coachman did not mistake the time,” she snapped, with a scathing look at the clock.
He ignored her. “Mr. Stevens requests a word, my lord,” he reported, naming the estate steward. “He is in the study.”
Broadbanks gave no sign that he had heard.
“Send him in here,” ordered Lady Broadbanks.
Her husband didn’t move.
“At once, my lady,” the butler agreed helplessly, suppressing a sigh. Lady Broadbanks had taken advantage of his lordship’s growing distraction to meddle in estate affairs, a situation none of the servants approved. But they had no power to remedy it. She had already turned off several who had dared criticize her. After summoning the steward, he remained near the open doorway, hoping there was something he could do to help, though he knew there was not.
Mr. Stevens halted just inside the room, his shoulders imperceptibly sagging as his eyes took in the scene.
“What is it, Stevens?” asked Lady Broadbanks.
“Jeremy Fallon just returned from Dover, my lord,” he reported, addressing his employer despite the man’s distraction. “A woman and child are sheltering in one of the caves on Chalk Down. It’s no place for man or beast, my lord. We’ll have snow by morning if my knee is any prophet. She’ll freeze out there. As will the babe.”
“What class of woman are we discussing?” demanded the marchioness.
Stevens sighed. “A gypsy lass,” he admitted reluctantly. “With an infant.”
Lady Broadbanks drew herself up in furious hauteur. “A thieving gypsy! And unwed, I’ll be bound. Intolerable! Evict her at once. And make sure she knows never to trespass again. I’ll not have such trash on my land.”
“She needs shelter,” said Stevens, a plea obvious in his voice and in the look he threw at Broadbanks.
“Then send her to the workhouse,” she snapped. “We want no lawless vagabonds here.”
In the hall, Hardwick cringed. Stevens was risking his position by questioning her ladyship’s orders. Appealing to his lordship never worked. Broadbanks was firmly under the thumb of his shrewish wife, and there was little the servants could do about it.
Broadbanks lifted his head and frowned. Even the dullest observer could see that he had heard nothing of the exchange.
“How dare he insult me by ignoring a direct order?” hissed Lady Broadbanks before he could question Stevens’s business.
“Do it,” said Broadbanks wearily.
* * * *
The clock chimed one as the Marquess of Broadbanks stumbled across the hall. January the first. A new year. It had to be better than the old one.
A series of raps exploded through the air. He barely identified them before Hardwick appeared, still pulling on his coat. Someone was demanding admittance, but who would be calling at this hour? The roads were impassable.
“Murderers!” screeched a voice the moment Hardwick pulled open the door. Several rocks bounced into the hall. Others lay on the porch. “Heartless monsters!”
Broadbanks squinted to bring the scene into focus. A gypsy stood on the drive, her face swathed in a scarf, colored skirts and shawls billowing as she hurled another rock. This one smashed against the balustrade.
“You killed my husband! You killed my son!” she hissed, shaking the bundle of rags clutched to her bosom. “Murderers!” The word ended in a wracking cough. “Arrogant beasts! How can you call yourselves models of propriety, yet callously destroy everything I have?”
The charges reverberated through his head, though he had to strain to hear as her voice grew weaker, her breathing more labored.
“But you will pay,
. I am Rom, gifted with the sight.” She drew herself taller, her voice now filled with power. “Cursed you are and cursed you will be, you and all who bear the name of Broadbanks. Your women will prove barren, as will your shortened days. Wealth will drain from your fingers like water through sand. You will be as nothing.” Spitting at her feet, she collapsed.
“My God!” gasped Hardwick, abandoning his butler’s demeanor as he raced to her side.
Broadbanks followed more slowly. While Hardwick tended the gypsy, he hesitantly unwrapped her bundle. Inside was the frozen body of a malnourished boy.
Hardwick pulled the scarf from the gypsy’s face and gasped. “She’s little more than a child.”
Pity filled Broadbank’s heart. “Poor thing. Get her inside and summon Dr. Harvey.”
“It’s too late. She’s dead.”
Leaning closer, Broadbanks stared into a face still twisted with hatred. Her curse rang in his ears. He shivered.
The snow was thickening. “See that they are buried,” he ordered dully. “Quietly.”
“At once, my lord.”
But as he turned back to the house, Broadbanks knew that any attempt to suppress the story would fail. A footman and saucer-eyed maid stared from the front door. Two grooms watched from the drive. He sighed. Another death to usher in the new year. Not a propitious omen.
Two days later, Lady Broadbanks birthed a stillborn son.
June 12, 1998
She was the Marchioness of Broadbanks.
Or was she? Cherlynn Cardington stared at the telephone. Surely Mr. Carstairs would call back to admit that it was a joke, or someone would jump out of the closet to announce that she was on a hidden camera show. It couldn’t be real. Bidding on lot 4753 had been a lark, for God’s sake, a way to thumb her nose at the haughty, blue-blooded Cardingtons whose horror of anything unconventional was surpassed only by their pride at tracing their lineage back to an eighteenth-century baron. But she had never been serious.
Shakily pulling a half-bottle of wine from the hotel’s refrigerator, she gulped the contents. It doubtless cost a fortune, but she needed to relax and think. Would a title make any real difference in her life?
A quick circuit of her tiny hotel room convinced her that it wouldn’t – except to attract the attention that might get her manuscripts out of publishers’ slush piles faster. But that would only speed up her rejection letters.
She shrugged, dropping the empty bottle in the trash. What was done was done. She might as well get used to being the Marchioness of Broadbanks, no matter how odd it sounded. And a benefit might turn up one day. In the meantime, there was no harm in it. But it was weird.
Bidding had been the last thing on her mind when she’d gone to Christie’s. Her only goal had been to soak up some atmosphere that she could use in a book. Not until she was leaving did she spot the list of titles to be auctioned the following week. Advance bids were welcome. The Cardingtons’ scorn of her breeding had always annoyed her, their snobbery triggering more than one fight with Willard. In an inexplicable fit of pique, she had placed a junk bid on a marquessate, knowing that she stood no chance of winning. The cheapest title ever sold had gone for seven thousand dollars. But at least she could fantasize for a week about outranking Willard Cardington III.
She shivered. Where had the urge come from? It had swept over her with the force of an obsession. Yet such pointless mockery was so unlike her that she’d forgotten all about the bid by the time she returned to her hotel.
Now it had won. Once she paid her ten pounds, she would be, by courtesy only, of course, the Marchioness of Broadbanks. Insanity. How low had the aristocracy sunk if a marquess could not even raise cash by selling his title?
Shrugging aside the question, she returned to her laptop, adding to her notes on the Victoria and Albert Museum. Though she had a near-photographic memory, she always kept records, fearing that she would forget the one fact she might someday need. The curator had let her examine several Regency gowns that were not on formal display. They had been fascinating, yet she couldn’t keep her mind on business. Not until filling an entire screen did she realize that her hands had slipped up the keyboard, producing twelve lines of gibberish. Deleting the paragraph, she tried again. Five minutes later, she noted that a detailed description of an 1811 court gown now rested in her file on men’s clothing. Obviously, she wasn’t going to accomplish anything useful until she had exhausted the subject of the auction.
She snapped her computer shut.
Why had the Marquess of Broadbanks sold his title? If he needed money, he would hardly have accepted ten pounds for it. She must have been the only bidder – which itself made no sense. An earl’s minor barony had recently sold for over a hundred thousand dollars.
Icy fingers played dirges on her spine.
She tried pacing again, but the room was too cramped. If only there was someone who could answer her questions! But London contained not a single acquaintance. Whatever friends she had once possessed would have written her off after two years of silence. Willard was the closest she could claim to family, but he was the last person she could call.
The realization hurt. Usually she ignored her loneliness, but at the moment that was impossible. She had no family, no friends, no husband. She had failed at work, at marriage, at living. She wasn’t even a decent writer. Placing second in one obscure contest hardly constituted a career. She would have been better off using her divorce settlement to start over instead of blowing thousands of dollars on a research trip for a book she would never see in print. And now she had purchased a title that was of no possible use.