Derbyshire, December 1818
The hired gig which had conveyed them on the final leg of their long and arduous journey from Yorkshire trundled noisily over the stone hump-backed bridge which spanned the Blairmore River. Pushing back the hood of her red wool cloak, pulling its comforting folds more tightly around her, for the cold was bitter, Regan Stuart peered anxiously ahead, eager for her first sight of Blairmore Hall in more than a dozen years.
“We used to climb these trees, Gabriel and I,” she informed the three children sharing the carriage with her, as they passed through a wooded copse, the bare branches silhouetted starkly against the watery winter sky.
Her two young half-brothers looked sceptical, but Regan’s ten year old half-sister Portia gazed up at the mighty oaks in awe. “They’re huge,” she said, “weren’t you scared?”
Regan laughed. “A little, but I knew Gabriel wouldn’t let me come to any harm.” Though the real reason, she acknowledged to herself, she habitually rose to whatever challenge he dared her into taking on was because she feared losing his respect more than she feared any potential danger. How she had idolised him in those distant childhood days.
“Can we climb the trees, Regan, can we?” Jack, her youngest sibling, piped up.
“We must ask his grace’s permission first,” she replied, wondering for the hundredth time why, quite out of the blue, the Duke of Blairmore had invited them to stay here at the hall over Christmas. Not that it wasn’t a most welcome and generous offer, she thought, smiling at the three shining, excited young faces craning their necks to get a view of the huge manor house she had told them so much about.
The curved drive along which they were travelling was longer than she recalled. The ornamental pond with its extravagant Poseidon fountain, although drained for the winter, seemed much larger too. As the gig turned the final sharp corner in the long drive and the Hall came into view, all three children gasped. “Well, what do you think of it?” she asked. “Is it as I described?”
“It’s a castle,” Jack said.
“A fairytale palace,” Portia exclaimed.
“It’s absolutely enormous,” Land declared.
They were all in the right of it. Blairmore Hall was built around two central courtyards with a turret at each corner linked by battlements. A huge portico complete with portcullis led to the banqueting hall which formed the central nave. Though its origins were, like the gardens, Elizabethan, each successive duke had demolished, rebuilt, altered and enhanced, so that the resultant stately pile contained not only a warren of rooms but a hotchpotch of styles. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it possessed a unique charm, framed as it was by the rolling hills and cragged tors of the nearby Derbyshire Peaks.
“Will you show me the beautiful old clothes, like you promised?” Portia asked eagerly.
Regan smiled at the memory of the little shuttered room in the east tower where she had spent many happy hours dressing up in the finery of by-gone days, ornate gowns and wide-brimmed hats trimmed with ostrich feathers, stored there in stout wooden trunks. She ruffled Portia’s hair affectionately.
“Perhaps, if they are still there. It was a long time ago.” Though surely no-one would throw out such exquisite antique garments.
As they bowled under the gatehouse into the lower courtyard, butterflies began to flutter in Regan’s stomach. Before his death, her father had served as steward here for twenty years. Though she knew the Hall and its environs intimately, she had never before been accorded the status of guest.
Circumstances had ensured she was a very different person from the gauche child who, with her recently widowed mother, had left Blairmore Hall to face an uncertain future. She wondered what else had changed in the intervening years.
A footman in the familiar claret-coloured livery held open the heavily-studded door to the Hall while another helped them from the gig, and another supervised the removal of their meagre luggage. Entering the Hall through the flag-stoned reception area in the wake of yet another servant, who relieved them of their outerwear, even the normally voluble boys were stunned into silence by the sheer magnificence of the long gallery, which was, true to its name, over a hundred feet in length.
“His grace asks that the young people remain here while he receives you alone,” the footman informed Regan.
Quickly reminding Land, Jack and Portia that they were to be on their very best behaviour, Regan, now so nervous that she had to clasp her hands together to stop them shaking, followed the servant along a wide, portrait-lined corridor, to the rear of the Hall and the most modern of the apartments. The running, skipping footsteps of the ghost of her childhood self rang out along the labyrinth of corridors. The dark oak-panelled walls echoed with her and Gabriel’s laughter. The whole place was redolent with bittersweet memories. How carefree she had been. How very young. Twelve years! It was a lifetime ago.
The footman opened the door to the so-called small salon, and Regan stepped over the threshold. With its gold damask hangings, soft cream walls and straw-coloured sofas, it had been re-furbished since last she saw it, though it still had space enough for ten couples to perform a set dance.
“Miss Stuart, your grace.”
The door closed softly behind her, and the Duke of Blairmore, who had been staring out of the mullioned windows at the view of the Peaks, turned around. “Regan.”
“Hello, Gabriel.” Regan swallowed hard. The man facing her across the room was the epitome of elegance in a tightly-fitting cutaway coat of dark blue superfine with a high collar over a buff-coloured waistcoat. His equally tightly-fitting knitted pantaloons showed off a pair of long, shapely legs. His hessian boots shone with a mirror-like polish. His snowy-white neckcloth was tied into a most intricate-looking knots. He was much taller than she remembered. And broader. And infinitely more attractive.
The fluttering in Regan’s stomach spread to her pulses as he covered the distance between them. Blue-black hair swept back from a high forehead. A strong nose, a cleft chin, and a mouth that was frankly sensual. She knew she was staring, but she couldn’t help it. It wasn’t just a struggle to equate this devastating man with the youth she had known, it was impossible. She sank into a belated curtsey, horribly conscious of her grey wool travelling gown which no amount of new trimming could make anything less than careworn.
Gabriel helped her to her feet. “Little Regan, is it really you?”
His voice was attractively deep. His eyes, which looked at her with detached amusement, were the same grey-blue colour she remembered. The touch of his hand sent a surprising little tingle up her fingers. She could feel a blush creeping over her pale cheeks. “It’s me, I assure you,” Regan said with a faint smile, “though I barely recognised you.”
“It has been a long time,” Gabriel said, eyeing his visitor with some surprise. He held her at arm’s length. “Let me look at you properly.” Who would have thought that the wild little hoyden who had doggedly followed him like a shadow would turn into such a striking woman? The red hair which had, predictably, earned her the nickname Carrot Top, had darkened to luxurious auburn. The gangly child with all the awkwardness of a foal was now willowy slim. Though her high brow, and rather long face were more intelligent-looking than beautiful, there was something about Regan Stuart that would make any man look twice. Was it her mouth, with that sensuous curve, such a contrast to her serious expression? Or those big hazel eyes? He remembered them gazing up at him imploringly, begging to be allowed to accompany him on his latest childhood escapade.
A curious silence prevailed as each took stock of the other, trying to reconcile their twelve-year-old memories with the very different reality confronting them. An extremely adult awareness thickened the air between them. Flustered, Regan pulled herself free just as Gabriel let her go.
“You really are quite transformed,” he said.
“As indeed, are you.”
“Come, I don’t know what we’re doing standing here in the middle of the room,” Gabriel said briskly,
“Please make yourself comfortable by the fire. I had them bring tea.”
Gratefully focusing on the ritual, carefully measuring out the leaves from the ornate silver caddy, pouring water into the pot from the little spirit boiler, setting out the delicate china cups embossed with scarlet and gold dragons, Regan managed to regain a little of her usual poise, though not all. She was acutely aware of Gabriel lounging opposite her, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He had very shapely legs. It was as well he did, for those pantaloons fitted him like a second skin. She wondered if he fenced. Or boxed, perhaps. She dragged her eyes away. “Cream or lemon?”
“Cream. Lemon. I don’t care. I hate tea.”
“Well I must say, I’m thankful for it.” Regan passed him a cup, careful not to allow her fingers to touch his. “I was so sorry to hear the news of your father’s death. I sent my condolences to your mother.”
“Did you?” Gabriel frowned. “I don’t remember her mentioning it.”
“I don’t expect she would. Your mother never did approve of your friendship with a mere steward’s daughter.”
“I’m sorry,” Gabriel said automatically.
Regan shrugged. “What for? I never made the mistake of equating her opinions with yours. In fact, you were disposed to take up a contrary position to her on almost any subject. Your father too, if memory serves, but his death must have been a shock all the same.”
“As you rightly say, my relationship with my parents could never be described as close,” Gabriel said dryly, “but yes, it was a shock nonetheless. Or more accurately, a shock to the system.”
“A strange way to put it.”
It was Gabriel’s turn to shrug. “It was five years ago. Water under the bridge.”
She felt rebuffed, though she knew she had no right to. Her notion that they would pick up where they had left off was not only naïve but frankly foolish. The man opposite her was not Gabriel, friend of her childhood, but the Sixth Duke of Blairmore, a man of the world, assured, hugely attractive, and essentially a stranger. A rather intimidating stranger. Her teaspoon tinkled against the delicate china, and she realised she was stirring an empty cup. The silence between them was almost palpable. Regan put her cup back onto the table. “So, how does it feel to hold one of the most prestigious and respected titles in England?” she asked brightly.
“Onerous. Oppressive. I could go on, but I won’t bore you.”
“You never did have time for the trappings of authority, did you?”
“I no longer have the option.” Gabriel’s expression tightened. “Authority and its trappings come with the territory along with other, equally unwelcome responsibilities. My priorities are different now.”
Regan’s smile faded. “I only meant that when you were younger…”
“That was a long time ago, Regan.” Gabriel put down his untouched cup of tea and forced a smile. “Did you notice, the unicorn’s horn has grown back,” he said, referring to the elaborate topiary creature which stood guard at the portcullis.
“The one and only time, I think, that I refused to accept one of your challenges” Regan poured herself another cup of tea. “What a fuss there was. And though all I did was stand guard while you lopped it off, Papa read me such a lecture.”
“You must miss him.”
She nodded. Gabriel had been away at school when Papa died. He had not written, and by the time he came home for the summer, she and her mother were gone from Blairmore, and she had never heard from Gabriel again. The pain of his silence had taken a long time to fade.
She waited for him to comment on it, but either Gabriel did not recall his omission, or guilt kept him silent. Or perhaps he simply did not care. “Your mother did not wear her weeds for long,” he said.
Regan stiffened. “When Papa died, my paternal grandfather, Lord Dallilongart, wanted nothing to do with us, Papa being but a fourth son and I, his only child, a mere female. One cannot blame Mama for choosing to marry again. She was very fond of my step father. They had seven happy years together.”
“It was a fever, I believe, which took them?”
“Yes, it swept the village. We nearly lost little Jack too.” Once again she waited, but Gabriel obviously deemed the five years which had elapsed since that dreadful time was suffice to preclude commiserations. Regan put her teacup carefully back down on the table. “Jack is my youngest brother.”
“And there are two other half-siblings also in your care, I understand?”
“Yes.” Gabriel’s expression gave nothing away. He was making her nervous. Was he just making conversation or was he actually interested? “Portia is ten, Land is eight, and Jack is six,” Regan explained.
Gabriel frowned. “Land?”
“Orlando. And Jack is actually Ajax.”
To her relief, Gabriel finally smiled. “Mama’s passion for the bard went a little overboard when it came to naming her children,” she said with a little laugh.
“You should be grateful you are not called Goneril,” Gabriel said, finding himself rather distracted by Regan’s smile. Her mouth tilted up at the corners delightfully. She had an attractive laugh, soft and seductive, like satin brushing over skin. Regan, who was not at all the Regan he had expected. Had he made a mistake, asking her here? He had been so intent on making good his carefully-constructed plan, he had not thought to question her likely reaction to it.
Almost as if she read his mind, Regan turned the conversation resolutely to the question which had been uppermost in her mind since she received his invitation. “I have to tell you Gabriel, your letter came as a complete surprise. A very pleasant one, of course, I am very much aware of the honour you do us in inviting us to the Hall, especially at this time of year. What prompted you to get in touch after all this time?”
“As to that…” Gabriel hesitated. He had, he realised, simply assumed that Regan would agree to his proposal without question, just as she always had. But the Regan seated opposite him was clearly no longer the biddable waif he recalled – was in fact, a very assured, surprisingly attractive woman whom, he suspected, had developed a mind very much her own. He got to his feet and took out his snuff box, turning it over and over in his hand. “The thing is, I need to get married,” he said abruptly.
Of all the reasons Regan had imagined, this one had never crossed her horizon. She was vastly relieved she had not the teacup in her hand or it would currently be smashed to a thousand pieces. There was a pounding in her ears, like the sea. “You need to – you want to….” Her voice seemed to be coming from far away.
“I am nine-and-twenty, it is well past time I set up my nursery,” Gabriel said, still apparently fascinated by his snuff box. “These last five years since I inherited have been – well, there have been other pressing issues, but they are dealt with now. Producing an heir is my last obligation to the title. The time has come, I cannot forestall any longer.”
“Forestall? You make it sound like – you are talking as if you don’t want to marry at all.”
Putting his snuff box away unopened, Gabriel finally looked over at her. “Frankly I don’t, but nor do I have any option. If I must marry I may as well make a decent fist of it, which is why I’ve drawn up a list of qualities.”
“A list of qualities?” Mindless repetition seemed all she was capable of as Regan struggled to make sense of this bizarre turn in the conversation.
“Qualities I consider essential in a wife,” Gabriel replied, as if it were perfectly obvious.
“Good God.” Regan swallowed a hysterical desire to laugh. Was he serious? He looked serious. He could not be serious. “What – may I ask what these qualities are?” she said faintly.
“Well, all the usual ones, obviously. Impeccable lineage – and it must come without any encumbrances too, I don’t want to have to support a troop of sisters, nor have to tow any dissolute brothers out of the River Tick. A spotless reputation goes without saying. As to accomplishments,” Gabriel continued, counting off each quality on his fingers, “I confess, I don’t much care whether she can paint a watercolour or play upon the pianoforte as long as she possesses some artistic talent befitting a duchess. She must also be presentable and biddable. I want a wife who will share my opinions, not contradict them. Which is the very reason I invited you here to the Hall.”
Regan felt as if the ground was tilting beneath her. Was he really implying what he seemed to be implying? She gripped the gilt arm of the sofa in an effort to anchor herself. “I’m afraid I still don’t quite understand.”
“The qualities I’ve mentioned are vital,” Gabriel said, “but there is another which I consider to be of paramount importance in any wife of mine. One which is extremely difficult to evaluate.” He smiled encouragingly at her. “You and the children are the perfect answer to my dilemma.”
Now she felt as if she were looking down a precipice from a great height. Dizzy. Completely disoriented. She took a deep breath. “Gabriel, would you please tell me, in simple language, what it is you’re asking of me?”
“Come Regan, it’s obvious. You of all people should recall what a lonely, miserable upbringing I had as the product of an advantageous match first arranged when my father was in short coats and my mother in swaddling. My father’s interest in me began and ended with my arrival as the direct heir to the line. As to my mother’s feelings for me – I doubt they ever existed.” Gabriel took his snuff box back out of his pocket, looked at it blankly, and put it back. “I have no desire to subject any child of mine to such a fate,” he said tersely,” which is why I need you to help me choose. You and Portia and Jack and er Land.”
“Choose?” Realisation was finally beginning to dawn on Regan. Thank the Lord she had not betrayed her utterly foolish assumption!
“Between Lady Olivia Fortescue, Lady Sarah NiLaighin, and Lady Lucinda Fairbright. They will be joining us tomorrow for Christmas. They are each of them eminently suitable in every other way, and having the children here will give me the opportunity to assess first hand their maternal qualities.”
“You mean that you have actually drawn up a short list of potential brides, a list of runners and riders, so to speak?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it like that precisely.”
“Then how would you put it?” Having been buffeted from one extreme of emotion to another in the space of the conversation, Regan was having difficulty in deciding which to give rein to. Anger, mortification, hurt, disappointment, disbelief?
Gabriel sighed. “It’s quite simple. I need an heir, therefore I must marry. With such vivid first-hand experience of the abject misery an arranged marriage can inflict on all involved, especially the children, I will take every precaution to avoid a similar outcome. I wish my children to be raised by a woman who is not, like my own mother, completely lacking any maternal instincts. What I want is a compatible woman with an aptitude for motherhood, a fondness for children, and in order to establish that, I need a ready-made family. Your family.”
He looked expectantly at her, obviously feeling that he had now explained unequivocally how two and two made four, though to Regan what he was saying might as well as made one, or five hundred. She felt as if he had rounded up every single one of her hopes and expectations for this visit and cold-bloodedly destroyed them. “So your invitation,” she said, swallowing hard, “it was nothing to do with wanting to give us a lovely Christmas?”
“Well, of course I want the children to have a lovely time, and they will,” Gabriel said. He had been leaning against the mantel, now he joined her on the sofa. “All I ask in return is that they do so in the company of my other guests. I thought it best I claim them for distant relatives and you their governess…”
“Governess!” It was the absolute last and final straw. “You want me to pretend to be a governess to my own siblings?”
“If I claim you as a relative, it would engender far too many questions. As a governess you will provoke no curiosity. Besides, if the ladies know you are related they will behave quite differently towards the children – what have I said to upset you? ”
“I’m not upset,” Regan said through gritted teeth.
“You are, I can tell. I always could tell. You have a little pulse that gives you away.”
“I do not. Where?”
Gabriel touched the fluttering just behind her ear lobe. “It’s right here. Can’t you feel it?”
The shock of his fingers on her bare skin made them both freeze. Regan felt the give-away pulse beating faster. Gabriel smelled of clean linen and lemon soap. Though he had shaved this morning, she could see a hint of bluish stubble on his jaw against the snowy white of his starched collar. Blue-grey eyes met hazel. His knee was pressing against her leg. For a moment, she thought, as he leaned towards her – she thought – she didn’t know what she thought! Then he moved away, dropped his hand, and she blinked, wondering if she had imagined it. Whatever it was.
“So you got us here under false pretences, and you expect us to lie for you.” Her voice sounded shaky. She clasped her hands together in her lap, struggling to maintain her usual equanimity.
“Not lie, pretend,” Gabriel said impatiently, confused by her hostile reaction to his proposal. “The children will most likely have the time of their lives, acting as little lords and ladies.”
He was probably right, but Regan was not about to admit that. “You’ve put me in an intolerable position,” she said.
“When it comes to being placed in an intolerable position I brook no competition,” Gabriel said with misguided attempt at humour. They stared at each other across this impasse. “So you refuse to help me?”
Regan shook her head. “Would that it were so simple. As I said, you’ve put me in an intolerable position. I must either agree to take part in your charade, which on principle I find objectionable, or deny the children the perfect Christmas I have promised them, which would be a monstrous thing to do.”
“I wish to make a marriage based on shared aspiration and mutual respect in order to secure the best upbringing for my children. I fail to see how that can offend your principles,” Gabriel snapped, for he was quite unused to having his judgement questioned and had not at all expected to have his motives interrogated, most especially not by Regan Stuart. “You must not think I am entering into this charade lightly.”
“Which makes you sincere, but misguided. I cannot believe the Gabriel I once knew would allow doing his duty to hold such sway over him.”
“I’m not the Gabriel you once knew.”
“On that, if nothing else, we can agree.” Regan bit her lip. “And I am not the Regan you clearly thought you knew. I ought not even to be considering taking part in such a subterfuge, to say nothing of embroiling the children. I ought to be turning on my heel and returning home this instant.”
“Ought? Which means you are considering it?”
“You give me no option.” Regan got to her feet and shook out the skirts of her travelling dress. “I warn you, in return I shall expect you to ensure that the children have the most memorable Christmas possible.”
“If I have to import snow from the Arctic, I will do so. Then we have a bargain?”
“Yes, Gabriel,” Regan said, taking his outstretched hand, “I suppose we have a bargain.”
His fingers tightened around hers as their eyes met, and a little frisson shivered up her arm at the contact. She saw the surprise of it reflected in the lift of his eyebrows. He lifted her hand to his lips, still holding her gaze. His mouth was warm on her skin. His lips lingered longer than they should, a second, two, five. She found herself taking a step closer to him. His kiss trailed along the length of her middle finger. A surge of heat flooded her, then the sound of approaching footsteps in the corridor make her jerk her hand away. The door opened to reveal a huddle of downcast children trailing in the regal wake of the formidable Dowager Duchess herself
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