The carriage rocked as it travelled along the cliff road. Charity Barlow grabbed the window frame with one hand, and the edge of her seat with the other, to hold herself steady. Following her parents’ deaths in a carriage accident some months before, she was a little nervous at the best of times.
The coachman’s curse was followed by a crack of the whip.
This rugged coastline was foreign to her and different from anything she had ever known. Through the mist, she glimpsed the white-tipped waves of the ocean pounding the black rocks below. The colors reminded her of death, and the rhythmic boom, boom, boom filled her with the same dread she experienced when a tolling church bell signalled a village disaster.
Tamping down the fear of tumbling to her death, Charity pulled her cloak closer, and directed her thoughts to what might await her in the castle on the cliff overlooking the sea.
Unfortunately, this produced anxieties of a different sort.
Charity had not seen her godfather, the Marquess of St. Malin, since she was fifteen. Now, at two and twenty years of age, she found herself entirely alone and at his mercy. She remembered him as tall and somewhat haughty. Her father had saved his life when he fell overboard during a boat race on the river at Cambridge, and after that, they became firm friends.
Now her fate lay in the marquess’ hands, for he had said as much to her father years ago. She was grateful for his kindness, of course, but would have much preferred to remain with her old governess who was one of the family, snug amid the green fields of Oxfordshire. This was now impossible, for her father had left very little money after making bad investments on the ’Change.
Her childhood home had been sold to pay off debts and Nanny sent to live with her sister in Kent.
The carriage reached a bend in the road and the solid stone walls of the castle loomed ahead, the outline of its battlements imposing against the darkening sky. At the sight of the massive structure, a prickling sensation rose up her spine. She half expected to see knights in armor riding towards her. Lights from the braziers along the walls danced on the waters of the moat. The coach rattled across a drawbridge and entered the arched gatehouse in a towering stone wall. They came to a stop in a courtyard. Moments later, the groom put down the steps and opened the door. The sense of relief at finding herself on solid ground was short-lived as she stepped down onto mossy cobbles and stood, disorientated, in the swirling sea mist.
A door was flung open, spilling candlelight into the gloom like a welcoming hand. She hurried towards it and entered a lofty, stone-paved hall. Heavy Tudor beams and ornate timber panelling spoke of its origins.
A liveried footman stood waiting. “I’ll take ye to the master. He’s in the library.”
Her heart beat unnaturally fast as Charity followed the servant up a stone stairway and along a corridor. Candles flickered in their sconces along the walls, lighting huge tapestries depicting bloody battles. She tried to rake up some clear memories of the marquess, but he’d seemed of little interest to her back then, beyond his eccentric manner. He had smiled with warmth upon her father, she remembered. But that wasn’t surprising; a cultured man who quoted Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, Father had enormous charm. Now she was in this man’s debt. Would he be kind to her?
The footman knocked on a solid oak door.
She stepped with trepidation into the room to be embraced by warmth. A fire blazed in the baronial fireplace where a liver spotted spaniel lifted its head to study her. After a thump of a tail, its head sank to its paws again, lulled back to sleep by the heat. Above the fireplace, the painting of a hunting scene featured several dogs. Two tall china spaniels flanked the fireplace mantel. The heavy oak beams across the ceiling, and walls covered floor to ceiling in shelves of tomes made the room seem snug. Charity rushed over and crouched on the Oriental rug beside the animal, giving it a pat. The dog’s tail thumped harder. “You’re a nice fellow, aren’t you?” Her stiff cold muscles loosened, and the icy pit at the base of her stomach began to thaw. Maybe she could be happy here. She loved dogs.
“Welcome to Castle St. Malin.”
A man rose from behind a massive mahogany desk strewn with papers in the corner of the room. He crossed the room to greet her. He was not her godfather. She caught her breath. He was tall, his dark hair drawn back in a queue, and there was something of the marquess’ haughty demeanour about his handsome face, but she doubted he’d yet reached thirty.
“Thank you.” Charity could only stare at his attire, her gaze locked on his gold silk waistcoat as he bowed before her. He was in mourning, for black crepe graced the sleeve of his emerald green coat. With a sense of foreboding, she curtseyed on wobbly knees. “Where is the marquess, if you please?” She looked around hoping her godfather might pop out of somewhere, but the room was otherwise empty.
“I am the Marquess of St. Malin. My uncle passed away a short time ago.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry.” What she feared was true. Charity had an overwhelming desire to sit and glanced at the damask sofa.
He reacted immediately, taking her arm and escorting her to the sofa. “Sit by the fire. You look cold and exhausted.” He turned to the footman. “Bring a hot toddy for Miss Barlow.”
Charity sank down gratefully, her modest panniers settling around her.
“I find the staff here poorly trained,” he said. “I don’t know what my uncle was about.”
“Why did you send a carriage for me?” she asked, leaning back against the sofa cushions. “I wouldn’t have come had I known.”
“I thought it best to sort the matter out here and now.” He rested an elbow on a corner of the mantel and stirred the dog with a foot. “Shame on you, Felix. You might accord Miss Barlow a warm welcome.” He looked at her. “My uncle’s dog; he’s mourning his master.” He raised his brows. “Notice of my uncle’s passing appeared in The Daily Universal Register.”
“We don’t get that newspaper in my village.”
“You don’t? I wasn’t aware of you until the reading of the will. Then I learned of your parents’ death from my solicitor. I’m very sorry.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry, too, about your uncle.”
“My uncle fell ill only a few months ago. He rallied and then …” The new marquess’ voice faded. He sighed and stared into the fire.
“You must have been very fond of him,” Charity said into the quiet pause that followed. Though, if she were honest, she felt surprise that the cool man she remembered could have provoked that level of affection.
He raised his eyes to meet hers and gave a bleak smile. “Yes, I was fond of him. He always had my interest at heart, you see.”
He sat in the oxblood leather chair opposite and rested his hands on his knees. “I am his acknowledged heir, and the legalities have been processed. I’ve inherited the title and the entailed properties. The rest of his fortune will pass to another family member should I fail to conform to the edicts of his will.”
“His will?” Charity gripped her sweaty hands together, she couldn’t concentrate on anything the man said. Her mind whirled, filled with desperate thoughts. With her godfather dead, where would she go from here? Her heart raced as she envisioned riding off along the dark cliffs to join a theatre troupe, or become a tavern wench.
“This must be difficult for you to take in, and I regret having to tell you tonight before you have rested. But I’m compelled to move quickly as you have no chaperone and have travelled here alone …”
She raised her chin. “There was no one to accompany me.” She would not allow him to make her feel like a poor relation, even though she was quite definitely poor. And alone. She hated that more than anything. What had her godfather left her? She hoped it would allow her some measure of independence and wasn’t just a vase or the family portrait.
The footman entered, carrying a tray with a cup of steaming liquid. Charity took the drink and sipped it gratefully. It was warming and tasted of a spicy spirit. She found it hard to concentrate on his words, as her mind retreated into a fog and her eyes wandered around the room. She finished the drink, which had heated her insides, and allowed her head to loll back against the cushions. Her gaze rested on her host, thinking he would be handsome if he smiled. She was so tired, and the warmth of the fire made her drowsy. What was he saying?
“It’s the best thing for both of us, don’t you agree?”
She shook her head to try and clear it. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
He frowned. “The will states we must marry. Straightaway, I’m afraid.”
“I … What? I’m to m-marry you?” Placing her cup down carefully on the table she struggled to her feet, fighting fatigue and the effects of whatever it was she’d just drunk. Smoothing her gown, she glanced at the door through which she intended to depart at any moment. “I have no intention …”
His lips pressed together in a thin line. “I know it’s perplexing. I didn’t intend to wed for some years. I certainly would have preferred to choose whom I married, as no doubt would you.”
Her jaw dropped. What kind of man was this? She had been raised to believe that marriage was a sacred institution. He made it sound so … inconsequential. She stared at him. “The will states I must marry you?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what it states.” He rose abruptly with a rustle of silk taffeta and moved closer to the fire. She wondered if he might be as nervous as she. “Unless I’m prepared to allow my uncle’s unentailed fortune go to a distant relative. Which I am not. As I have said.” His careful tone suggested he thought her a simpleton. Under his unsympathetic gaze, she sank back down onto the sofa. “You are perfectly within your rights to refuse, but I see very few options open to you. As my wife, you will live in
comfort. You may go to London to enjoy the Season. I shall give you a generous allowance for gowns and hats, and things a lady must have.” His gaze wandered over her cream muslin gown, and she placed a hand on the lace that disguised the small patch near her knee. “What do you say?”
She tilted her head. “I shall receive an allowance? For gowns, and hats, and things a lady must have.”
“Exactly,” he said with a smile, obviously quite pleased with himself. “I see we understand each other perfectly. So … do you agree?”
What was wrong with this man? Slowly, Charity released a heavy sigh. She could barely contemplate such a thing as this, and yet he acted as though he’d solved all the problems of the world with fashion accessories. She had hoped for a small stipend, but marriage! And to a complete stranger. She couldn’t!
Not for all the gowns and hats on earth. She straightened up in her chair and lifted her chin. Her words were clipped and precise, and she hoped beyond hope he would accept her decision gracefully. “I say no, Lord St. Malin.”
“How disappointing,” he said quietly.
She gulped as his heavy-lidded eyes continued to study her from head to foot. She was uncomfortably aware that the mist had sent her hair into a riot of untidy curls, and she smoothed it away from her face with both hands as she glanced around the room. She tucked a muddy shoe out of sight beneath her gown and then forced herself to meet his gaze. Might he like
anything of what he saw? Her father loved that she had inherited her mother’s tiny waist, and she thought her hands pretty. His lordship’s gaze strayed to her breasts and remained there rather long. She sucked in a breath as her heart beat faster. When their eyes met did she detect a gleam of approval? It only made her more nervous.
There was another pause during which the grandfather clock struck the hour. Eight of the clock. Charity’s stomach gave a loud, protesting growl.
The embarrassing noise seemed to galvanize him into action.
His restless energy made her even wearier. “How can you make such a decision on an empty stomach? We will dine. And then you shall retire. Tomorrow, I’ll have your decision. Come, Felix. Are you too lazy to eat your dinner?” The dog seemed to understand his words, and jumped up, wagging its tail. He sounded so confident he would get his way.
Frustration and something close to anger threaded through her, but when the footman arrived to escort them to the dining room, she rose quickly, her mind already on the meal. It had been a long day, and her nervous stomach only allowed her to eat a little breakfast.
Over sole in cream sauce followed by roast venison, which proved tender and delicious, the marquess explained his plan further. “If you decide to marry me, I shall leave you in peace.”
She pursed her lips. “I have already said no.”
“Then I shall convince you to change your mind.”
She grunted. “I highly doubt that. I can be very stubborn.”
His gaze drifted from her eyes to her mouth then dipped to the bodice of her dress. “I can be very persuasive.”
She felt heat blaze across her cheeks. “That I don’t doubt,” she murmured.
He laughed and tossed a piece of meat, and the dog caught it in his jaws. Swallowing the morsel with barely a chew, Felix danced on his back legs and begged for more. The marquess seized a knife and cut off another piece, and it went the way of the first. “That’s enough, Felix, off to the kitchen with you.” The dog dutifully trotted through a door opened by a footman. The marquess turned his attention back to her. “We need not always cohabit. I have property in London, Hertfordshire and Italy.”
“Italy?” Charity paused, a fork of artichoke halfway to her mouth. She had longed to visit Italy since reading her father’s copy of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.
His long fingers toyed with the stem of the crystal wineglass.
“In fact, we need hardly meet.” His heavy-eyed gaze focused on her mouth, making her shift in her seat. “Although I do require an heir at some point, you understand.”
“Of course.” A shiver passed through her. “An heir.” She bit her lip, aware she sounded like the simpleton he must think her.
“Yes.” He tossed back the ruby wine in his glass. “And, by accounts, my uncle felt that, together, we should produce a fine one. He said as much in the will.” His speculative glance made her cheeks burn hotter.
“He did?” Her voice wobbled. She swallowed, and said determinedly, “I shall need time to give this er — proposal — a considerable amount of thought.”
His eyes twinkled with amusement. “I thought you said you were quite stubborn.”
“Do you want me to consider it or not?”
His mouth twitched as he tried to stifle a laugh. “I do indeed wish you to consider it.”
“Then I shall,” she said dropping her gaze. Had she sounded composed? A woman not to be trifled with? If she didn’t look at him it helped.
“I plan to continue to live as I have up to this point.” He must be quite sure of her, for he sounded more than confident. He held up his glass for the footman to refill, then waved him from the room. After the door closed, he said, “And once you have provided me with an heir, you can even take a lover if you wish. But be careful, for I don’t intend to house any bastards.” His brows snapped together in a dark scowl as if she planned to take a lover at any moment. As if he’d care if she chose to do so.
“I beg your pardon, my lord?” Charity spluttered.
He rubbed a finger over his forehead. “Forgive me. That was uncalled for, and I’m not sure where it came from.” He shook his head as though clearing bad thoughts. “I’ve never negotiated the terms of a marriage before.” He ran his hand through his hair, and she knew then he was as unsettled about the prospect of marriage as she was. It somehow made her feel a little better.
“This has been a shock for me,” he added, confirming her thoughts.
She turned her attention back to her meal. Her godfather was dead, and she found she couldn’t mourn him, for she’d hardly known him. Her mind refused to form a coherent plan, but all her senses seemed to have come alive. The taste of the superb vintage on her tongue, the tang of beeswax candle smoke, the crystal and the silver gleaming on the white linen cloth. The dark hairs on his wrist below his cuff. Surprised, she batted that thought away. She’d been thrust into another world — a beautiful world, filled with elegant things she’d never dream she could call her own and a man who, at one time, might have fulfilled her every fantasy. He was inviting her to remain in it, but not with him, at least not often with him. She put down her wine as her head swam. The man sitting across the table from her was crushingly handsome with a strong lithe body. He was wealthy and titled, and yet he needed something from her.
Without her consent, he would lose a fortune.
She suspected he was far too used to getting his own way.
Aristocrats were spoilt from birth. Hadn’t her father always said so? Why the marquess had wished this union she couldn’t fathom. Surely he would have wanted someone titled for his nephew? She couldn’t think of it now. The long exhausting trip, the shock of his words, plus the wine had all taken their toll; she simply had to sleep. Her eyelids drooped, and she had trouble focusing on his face.
She put down her napkin and rose from the table. “If you’ll excuse me, my lord—”
“Robert,” she said hesitatingly. It felt odd to say it. “I believe I’ll retire.”
“The footman will show you to your bedchamber.” He seized the bell and rang it with the same energy he applied to everything he did. It made her think of him as a prospective lover, and her eyes widened.
“Good night, Charity.” He made an elegant bow.
Charity gathered up her skirts and curtseyed, hoping she appeared as graceful as he, but doubting it. She was too short for imposing gestures. Resigned, she followed the footman from the room, up the winding staircase and down a long corridor hung with tapestries and impressive works of art to a heavy oak door.
Her chamber, filled with solid mahogany furniture, echoed with the ocean’s loud roar that filtered through the arched leaded windows. A young maid waited in attendance. A pile of Charity’s faded gowns lay over a chair. Charity was gripped again with embarrassment and consternation. Her father had been an academic, far better at verse than investments.
“You’ve unpacked my trunk. What is your name?”
“Rebecca, Miss Barlow.” The sturdy, fresh-faced maid bobbed, her brown curls bouncing against creamy-skinned cheeks.
“Thank you, Rebecca.”
Charity went to the fire to warm her hands, cold again after negotiating the chilly corridors. The carved mahogany tester bed festooned with royal blue velvet hangings beckoned enticingly.
Rebecca closed the windows and pulled the thick velvet drapery, and the sounds of the sea muffled to a dull roar. She assisted Charity out of her gown and unlaced her stays. Then she withdrew after saying a quiet goodnight.
Discarding her shift and panniers, Charity washed herself from head to toe at a basin of lukewarm water with sweet-smelling soap. Shivering, she toweled herself dry and donned her nightgown. She plaited her hair and climbed into bed to discover a warm brick at her feet. She settled back against the headboard with a moan of delight.
Her thoughts turned to the marquess — Robert. She needed to remind herself to call him by his name. Not only would it put them on equal footing, apparently, but if all went according to his well-laid out plan, he was to be her husband. Her heart raced with the idea and she had no idea why. Was it fear? Excitement?
He certainly was a handsome man, and she knew she could do far worse. What other course of action was open to her? A governess perhaps? She felt sorry for governesses. She’d often seen them lurking in corners at social gatherings like poor relations. Well, she was rather like a poor relation herself. If she refused Robert, he would lose a substantial part of his fortune.
Could she be responsible for such a thing? It would be foolish for them both to lose out, when they might gain something valuable by it.
“My husband, Robert,” she said to the empty room.
The sound of her voice was followed not by the warm emotion that should come with the thoughts of a husband, but a quiver of alarm. Her tired mind failed to supply answers to any of her questions. His visage kept getting in the way. Were his eyes more blue than green? What sort of man was he? His broad shoulders and chiseled jaw made him look strong and determined. But there was something about him that worried her. As if he’d donned a metaphorical knight’s armour for protection. He seemed so stiff and formal, and that was not at all the kind of man she’d planned to marry. She had had quite a clear vision of what her future husband would be like. Someone kind, and quite desperately in love with her. Someone brave who would fight her battles for her like a chivalrous knight.
She sighed heavily, disturbed by the thought of becoming a marchioness. She had not been prepared for that role, particularly to a man she didn’t know and was not entirely sure she liked. She’d expected to toss and turn all night, but sleep claimed her as soon as snuggled down farther into the comfortable bed and nestled her head on the feather pillow.
Robert returned to the library and splashed a liberal portion of brandy into a tumbler. He sat down at the desk again, and Felix settled at his feet. He’d never owned a dog, because his parents didn’t like them, but he found that he did. He wasn’t fond of this place though. The castle was too isolated and far too drafty, but the old man had loved it here. The climate was superior, but good society was scarce and it was dull. It could offer nothing to equal life in London. His uncle had given him love and support when others had failed him. Robert fully intended to honour his memory and make him proud, but if his uncle had believed this would improve his character, intending it as some kind of a test, he was asking a great deal of him.
He leant down and absently patted the dog. The thought that his uncle might not have been in sound mind when he made his will was quickly banished as disloyal. He shook his head, bemused. He should be outraged that such a trick had been played on him, but he couldn’t find it in himself because he knew his uncle had loved him. It might have been driven by his uncle’s disapproval of Millicent, the only thing he’d shared with Robert’s parents.
Robert shrugged and went to add wood to the fire. He stood close to the burgeoning heat as if it might melt the tense knot in his chest. It mattered not whom he took to wife. Society beauty, Millicent Burrowdale, who set the ton on its ear, had rejected him for a Nabob’s son. Her choice of husband was neither titled nor distinguished, but was heir to one of the richest men in England.
And at that time, Robert had little to offer her. It seemed that all women were calculating, and that small, sweet-faced young woman asleep upstairs would most likely prove to be the same when put to the test. It would be a shame to see that happen, for her eyes gazed into his with honesty and a frankness he liked.
He liked too, that her pretty, greenish-hazel eyes tilted up at the corners in a most intriguing way below straight brows.
He returned to his desk and picked up his pen. The mountain of paper had barely grown smaller. His uncle had vast interests in several businesses. There was an iron works in Birmingham and a pottery factory on the lands of his Great Aunt’s estate in Vauxhall. Not to mention the two estates with tenant farmers. His uncle, while liking the idea of business, did not embrace the more practical side of things. The actually running of them he left to others. Consequently, Robert had inherited a fine mess to sort out, and would have to visit each one to make sure the staff, most particularly the stewards and estate managers were up to the mark. Robert had been gratified to see that St. Malin Castle at least, was well run. Although his uncle had discussed business with him and attempted to prepare him for the responsibilities which lay ahead, Robert felt the absence of him sorely and the weight rested uncomfortably on his shoulders. He felt as if his life had been thrown into total chaos. Despite obtaining a First in mathematics at Oxford, he felt totally unprepared for what lay ahead of him. And now a marriage to a stranger to contend with.
He threw down the pen and took a liberal pinch of snuff, admiring the large ruby on the quaint silver box engraved with a stout pig which had belonged to his uncle. It was so like his uncle to have such a thing made. The pig was a delightful jest at what he perceived as the shallow habits of the ton, although he enjoyed his own special mixture of tobacco. Robert flicked snuff from his coat, preferring to mull over his bride-to-be, than what lay on the desk before him.
There was nothing for it, but to accept what lay ahead with as much grace as he could muster. Charity’s appearance and bearing would improve considerably with a more fashionable and costlier wardrobe.
He had not been blind to her charms beneath the shabby, old-fashioned clothes, although no matter how she dressed, she would never equal Millicent’s tall, graceful beauty. He had studied Charity over the dinner table. Her unpowdered honey-coloured locks, tied up with a green ribbon, had curled around shell-like ears. When startled, those large hazel eyes appeared greener. She was every inch an innocent country girl, completely unaware that the way she bit her full provocative bottom lip stirred his loins. It had annoyed him at the time, until he realized it would serve to make the act of producing an heir far more pleasant. Yes, he was more than willing to bed her, but he would have to go gently. She might become too dependent on him too quickly. Even though she’d refused him, as was the fashion, he felt confident that she would agree to the marriage, and would be easily managed. Her family was unimpeachable, although poor as church mice. He smiled. His eccentric uncle didn’t care for the rest of his own kind; he’d thought most aristocrats too lazy and dependent on others to care for them, and at times too inbred. Indeed it was unusual but his uncle had admired all forms of endeavor, from poets to inventors. He had talked at length of the James Watt’s invention of a steam-engine to work a mine-pump and had often said he wished he’d lived a more productive life.
Could it be this reason he’d chosen Charity? Did he feel a more satisfactory life could be had with someone like her? His uncle might have asked him. Robert would have been happy to set him straight. A man could go about his business without needing a wife at his side, surely, although an heir and a spare was necessary, of course.
He added more brandy to his glass. A wedding as soon as possible would be wise, and hopefully an heir would quickly follow. Perhaps she was the perfect choice. This unsophisticated young woman would never have the wherewithal to get under his skin or have the power to hurt him as Millicent had done.
Once married and his heir secured, the estates and businesses in perfect order, he could return to the caresses of his accomplished mistress and the life he enjoyed in London.