Paris, August 1815
The doctor closed the bedchamber door gently behind him and turned to the young woman waiting anxiously in the hallway. He noted with sadness that she was showing clear signs of strain following the trauma of the past few days. Her delicate beauty, while still intact, seemed fragile, as if frayed. The sparkle had gone from her cornflower blue eyes, her creamy complexion was dull and ghostly pale, her blonde hair unkempt, confined carelessly under a bandeau. Despite his stern countenance and insistence on the timely settlement of bills, the doctor was a compassionate man at heart. He sighed deeply. At times like this he cursed his vocation.
The grave expression and resigned shake of his head told Serena all she needed to know. She fought to quell the tidal wave of despair which threatened to overwhelm her.
“You must keep him comfortable, Mademoiselle Cachet, that is all you can do for him now. I will return in the morning but…” The doctor’s shrug was all too eloquent. It was obvious he didn’t expect Papa to survive the night.
Valiantly suppressing a sob – for what purpose would tears serve now? – Serena wearily forced herself upright from the support of the door frame she’d been leaning against. She tried to absorb the doctor’s instructions, but his clear, calm words barely penetrated the fog enveloping her shocked mind. His voice seemed faint, as if it were coming from a far distant shore. Clean dressings and sleeping draughts would ease Papa’s suffering, but not even a magic potion could save him now.
The doctor departed with an admonition to send for him if necessary, giving Serena a final comforting pat on the shoulder. As he opened the strong oak door at the foot of the stairwell which separated their living quarters from the gaming rooms, a sharp burst of drunken laughter pierced the air. With a steady supply of men returning from Waterloo the tables were always busy, but for once Serena cared naught. What use was a full purse without Papa to share its bounty?
Nothing mattered now save making the most of these last precious hours. Papa must see his daughter calm and loving, not tearful and dishevelled. Resolutely tucking a stray golden curl back under her bandeau, carefully straightening the neckline of her dress and taking a deep calming breath, Serena re-entered her father’s bedchamber with a heavy heart.
Velvet hangings pulled shut over the leaded windows contained the stifling heat of the room and muffled all noise from the busy street below. A huge mirror above the marble fireplace reflected the rich rugs, the polished wood, the bright gilt and glowing silver fittings of the opulent furnishings. Reflected too, the snowy white pile of linen torn for bandages and the collection of vials and bottles atop the bedside table on which a decanter usually sat. On the floor a mound of bloodied dressings paid testament to Serena’s hours of tender nursing. The scent of lavender water and laudanum lay heavy in the air.
Philip Cachet lay on a large tester bed, dwarfed by the mountains of pillows which had been arranged around his tall frame in an attempt to ease the flow of blood from his wound. Why had he not simply handed over his purse? For the hundredth time since Papa had staggered through the door clutching his chest, Serena cursed the cowardly footpad who had taken his valuables and now, it seemed, his life too. She was shocked to see how diminished he looked, his shaven head bare and vulnerable without the wig he still insisted on wearing, despite it being out of fashion. His breath came in irregular, rasping sighs, and in the short time it had taken to confer with the doctor, his skin had assumed a waxen pallor.
Papa had been warned not to move lest the bleeding started again. His eyes, the same vivid blue as her own, brightened as he saw her. As she closed the door softly, he raised his hand just a little from the silk counterpane in a frail gesture of welcome.
“Ma belle, at last. I have something of great import to tell you, and it can wait no longer – I fear my time is almost come.” Ignoring her protestations, he gestured for Serena to come closer. “No point in denial, chérie, I’ve lost too much blood. I need you to pay attention – you must listen.” A cough racked him. A small droplet of blood appeared at the side of his mouth. He wiped it away impatiently with a trembling hand.
Even now, Serena could see faint traces of the handsome man her father had been in his prime. The strong, regular features, the familiar charming smile which had extricated him from many a tricky situation. He was a gambler, and good enough to win – for the most part. For nigh on thirty years, Philip had supported first himself, then she and Maman too, by his sharp wits and his skill with the cards. Skills he had practiced in countless gaming houses, in countless towns and cities across Europe.
Pulling a chair closer to the bedside, Serena sat down with a rustle of her silk skirts, gently stroking the delicate white hand lying unresponsive on the counterpane. His life was draining away in front of her eyes, yet she must be strong. “I’m here Papa,” she whispered.
“Mignonne, I never meant to leave you like this. Your life was to have been very different. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We’ve had our share of fun, haven’t we?” She smiled lovingly at him, the spark of humour in her eyes drawing the shadow of a response from his.
“Yes, but as you know only too well, at the end of any game there is always a reckoning.”
Serena muffled a sob with her handkerchief.
His fingers trembled in her own. “Ma fille, you must be brave. Listen now, and don’t interrupt, it’s vitally important. Please don’t judge me too harshly, for what I am about to tell you will shock you. It will also change your life forever. Ecoute petite, I must go back to the beginning, thirty years ago…”
England, April 1816
Serena paused to catch her breath and admire the beautiful facade of the house. It was much grander and more imposing than she had expected, a classic Elizabethan country manor, the main body of the mellow brick building flanked by two elegant wings which lent it a graceful symmetry. She had entered the grounds by a side gate, having decided, since it was such a pleasant morning, to walk the short distance from the village rather than take a carriage. It was very clement for the time of year and the spring bulbs were at their best. The grass by the side of the well-kept path was strewn with narcissi, banks of primroses and artfully placed clumps of iris just coming into to bloom. The perfume of camellias and forsythia mingled with the fresh, damp smell of new-mown grass.
You must go to England, to Knightswood Hall, the home of my dear friend Nick Lytton. Papa’s dying words to her, and amazingly, here she was, in the country of his birth, standing in the very grounds of his friend’s home. It had been a wretched few months since his death, making ready for the move from Paris, but at least the sheer volume of things which needed to be done were a welcome distraction from the aching pain of his loss. Closing down the gaming salons had realised a surprising amount of money, more than enough to cover the expenses of the next few months and to establish her in comfort if things did not turn out as her father planned.
Serena had never been one to plan for the future, having been too much in the habit, of necessity, of living in the present. Of course what she wanted was her own home and her own family, but she wished for this in the vague way of one who had had, until now, little control over her own destiny. She had not met – nor been allowed to meet – any man who came close to inhabiting her dreams. And as to a home! She had spent most of the last two years in Paris, and that was the longest she had ever been in one place.
Papa’s revelations offered her wealth and position which, he vowed, would change her life completely. Change, she was ready to embrace, but the nature of it – in truth, she was not completely convinced that Papa’s vision for her future was her own. One step at a time, she reminded herself. No point in jumping too far ahead. Today was just the beginning.
As she turned her mind to the interview which lay ahead, a cloud of butterflies seemed to take up residence in her stomach. The imposing bulk of the house only served to increase her apprehension. Nick Lytton was obviously a man of some standing. She countered the urge to turn tail and return to her lodgings by making a final check on her appearance. Her dress of lavender calico was cut in the French fashion, high in the waist and belling out towards her feet with rows of tiny ruffles edging the hem and the long sleeves. The shape became her tall figure, as did the three-quarter pelisse with its high collar. Her gold hair was dressed simply on top of her head, also in the latest French style, with small tendrils allowed to frame her cheekbones, the rest confined under a straw bonnet tied with a large lavender ribbon under her chin. The kid half-boots she wore were perhaps more suited to a stroll round a city square than the rough terrain of the countryside, but they had survived the walk without becoming too muddied, as had the deep frill on her fine lawn petticoat. She would do.
The path she had taken ran round the side of the house and disappeared towards some outbuildings, presumably the stables. She was about to follow the fork to the right leading to the imposing main entrance of the Hall, when a roar of voices diverted her. Another roar and a gust of laughter followed, too intriguing to be ignored. Lifting her petticoat clear of a small puddle, Serena moved cautiously towards the source of the commotion.
As she had surmised, the path took her to the stable yard, a square of earth surrounded on three sides by horse boxes and outhouses. The arched entrance way in which she stood formed the fourth side of the square. In front of her were not horses however, but an animated circle of people, men and boys mostly, with a scattering of women standing apart in the shelter of a doorway which presumably led to the kitchens.
In the centre of the circle two men, stripped to the waist, were boxing. The crowd roared encouragement and advice, many people excitedly betting on the outcome. The scent of horse and hay was overlaid by a fresher, richer aroma, of wet wool, sweat and mud. Over the noise of the crowd, Serena could hear the panting breath of the two fighters, the dull thwack of fist on flesh, the soft thud of stocking-clad feet on the hard earth. Though she had witnessed the occasional drink-fuelled scuffle before, she had never seen a mill. Drawn in by a mixture of curiosity and an unfamiliar frisson of excitement, she edged cautiously closer.
Both men wore buckskins and woollen stockings, their torsos stripped naked. The larger of the two was a fine specimen of manhood, with a bull-like neck, huge shoulders and hands as large as shovels, but even Serena’s novice eye quickly saw that his weight and height hindered him. He was slow, his footwork stolid, and from the look of his left eye, which was closed and weeping, his opponent had already taken advantage of these shortcomings. He looked like a blacksmith, and in fact that is exactly what he was, his bulging biceps the product of long hours at the anvil.
It was the other combatant who captured Serena’s attention. Compared to the giant he looked slighter, built along sleeker, finer lines, although he was still a tall man and muscular too, without the brawn of the smithy. Most likely he was a coachman, for he exuded a certain air of superiority. His were muscles honed by exercise, not labour. It was, she thought, eying his body with unexpected relish, like watching a race horse matched with a shire.
The man held himself well, showing little sign of fatigue. His body, although glistening with sweat, was virtually unmarked. His buckskin-clad legs were long, and as he teased his opponent, dancing forward and back, landing light punches then dodging neatly aside, Serena watched entranced. The muscles on his back, his shoulders, his arms, clenched and rippled, tautened and relaxed. Her pulses quickened. She felt the stirring deep within her of a strange, unsettlingly raw emotion.
The sweat which glistened on the man’s body accented his honed physique in the dappled sunlight. The control, the energy so economically expended, made her think of a coiled spring. A tiger ready to pounce, assured of dispatching his prey but content to tease. The lumbering giant in front of him didn’t have a prayer.
Around her, the murmuring crowd seemed to agree. “Looks like Samuel’s done for again.” “Land ‘im one for us Sam, come on boy!” But the encouragement was in vain. The blacksmith stumbled back as a punch landed square and hard on his left shoulder. The crowd prevented him falling, pushing him back into the ring, but he was blown. He made a lunge for the coachman, a wild punch which caught only fresh air and threw him off balance into the bargain. He staggered forward cursing, righting himself at the last minute.
The other man smiled, a sardonic smile which lit up his dark grey eyes, making Serena catch her breath. He was devilishly handsome, with his glossy black hair in disarray, those wicked grey eyes framed by heavy black brows, his perfectly sculpted mouth curled up in amusement.
The two combatants stood to for one last joust. They circled each other slowly then Samuel lunged, taking his opponent by surprise for the first time and landing a powerful blow on his chest. The other man reeled, countering with a flurry of punches to Samuel’s stomach, the blood from his bare knuckles smearing itself onto the blacksmith’s skin, mingling with his sweat. Samuel bellowed in pain and turned to the side to shield himself, trying at the same time to use his hip to push the coachman away. It was a fatal mistake for he mistimed it, leaving his face exposed. A swift hard punch sent his head flying back, and a second under his jaw had him on the ground. It was over.
The crowd roared in approbation. Money changed hands. Samuel staggered to his feet. The victor stood, a triumphant smile adorning his face. His chest, covered in a fine matting of black hair which arrowed down to the top of his buckskin breeches, heaved as he regained his breath. He shook hands with Samuel, and when presented with the winner’s purse, to Serena’s surprise and the crowd’s evident approval, handed it to his opponent.
“You deserve this more than I Samuel, for you never know when you’re beaten.” Laughter greeted this sally – they were obviously old rivals. Now Samuel was saying that in that case the victor deserved a prize too, and the crowd cheered. The coachman stood surveying the scene around him, shaking his head, denying the need for reward as he pulled a cambric shirt over his cooling body. That was when he spotted Serena.
She tried to turn away but could find no passage through the circle of the crowd. A strong arm caught hers in an iron grip. “Well, well, what have we here?” His voice was low, surprisingly cultured. His tone was teasing.
Serena coloured deeply but remained where she was, transfixed by the look in those compelling grey eyes, restrained by his firm grip on her arm. The crowd waited silently, casting speculative looks towards her blushing countenance.
“A kiss from the prettiest woman here will be my prize,” the coachman announced.
He was standing directly in front of her. She could smell him. Fresh sweat, laundered linen, something else deeply masculine she couldn’t put a name to. He was tall, she had to look up to meet his eyes. Reluctantly Serena forced herself to hold his gaze, to counter his teasing smile with a haughty look of her own.
His eyebrow quirked. “Definitely the prettiest woman here. A kiss will be worth all the money in the winner’s purse and more.” The words were for her only, whispered in her ear as he pushed back her bonnet, tilting her chin with a firm but gentle finger. As if in a trance Serena complied, her breathing shallow. He hesitated for a tantalising moment, then with a slight shrug pulled her closer, confining the contact to his lips alone.
It was a teasing kiss, like his teasing smile, which lasted no more than a few seconds. His breath was warm and sweet. His lips were soft against her own. The reserve of power she had sensed in the boxing ring, that was there too in his kiss, daring her to respond.
The crowd cheered lustily, bringing Serena to her senses, reminding her of the reason for her visit. “Get off me you ruffian!” she said angrily, pushing him away. What had she been thinking?
The coachman who had taken such a liberty in kissing her eyed her quizzically. “Ruffian or not, you enjoyed that as much as me, I’ll wager.” he said, quite unflustered by her temper. “What are you doing here anyway? This is a private estate, have you lost your way?”
“Are you employed here,” Serena asked curtly.
“You could say I have the honour of serving the estate, yes.”
“Then I’m here to call on your master, Mr Lytton.”
“Well you’re not likely to find him round here, fraternising with tradesmen and servants and ruffians like me, now are you,” he answered with a grin.
Serena gritted her teeth. He was insufferable.
“If you care to call at the front door and present your card, I’m sure he’ll be delighted to receive you.” Without a backward glance, the coachman turned on his heel and strode off.
Struggling to regain her rattled composure, Serena found her way back through the yard to the path which led to the main entrance. As she listened to the clang of the doorbell she put the episode firmly to the back of her mind, took a few calming breaths and tried to remember everything Papa had told her. Her heart fluttering with anticipation, she gave her name to the butler, following in his stately wake as he led her through what must have served as the great hall when the house was first built. It was an immense panelled space with a huge stone fireplace on one wall, the staircase leading to the upper floors at the far end. She was given no time to admire it however, being ushered through a door in the panelling and deposited in a small sunny parlour which faced onto the gardens at the front of the house. A fire crackled in the grate. A large arrangement of fresh spring flowers scented the room.
“Mr Lytton will join you shortly, madam.” The butler bowed and departed.
Serena pressed her tightly gloved hands together in an effort to stop them from shaking and took stock. It was a cosy room, stylish but comfortable and obviously well used. The warm colours of the soft furnishings, russet and gold patterned rugs and deep red upholstery, contrasted with the dark wood panelling which covered the walls, all the way from the wainscoting to a decorative rail just above head height.
How would the owner of this enchanting house receive her? It was bound to be an awkward meeting. Though there had apparently been some letters in the early days, her father and Nick Lytton had not met for nigh on thirty years. Serena was not looking forward to breaking the news that Papa had passed away.
Serena nervously paced the room, noticing the detailing on the wooden panelling for the first time. A frieze of roses was worked into the wood, connected by leaves, briars and little carved animals. The last rose of summer left blooming alone. The secret code which Papa had confided in her on that dreadful night when he died of his wounds. The words he had her repeat over and over so that Nick Lytton could be sure of her identity. The phrase had seemed strange, but now she could see it was apt.
What would he be like, this man who held the key to her future? Papa’s age obviously, and, it was clear from her surroundings, a man of wealth and status. A country squire run to fat, as men of that age were wont to do. Like as not he suffered also from the gout.
“Nicholas Lytton at your service, madam.”
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