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Диксон Хелен

A Vow For An Heiress

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Chapter One

Having left the ship that had brought them from India, William Barrington, the Earl of Ashurst, escorted the child and his Indian nurse, Mishka, along the busy wharf of the East India Dock. The air heavy with the odour of hemp and pitch, it was a seething mass of noisy humanity. A number of heavily armed Company-owned vessels were at anchor in the deep water. Tall masts and webs of rigging swayed with the motion of the River Thames, the charcoal-grey water lapping at the great hulls. Workshops and warehouses all within a mile of India House stored all kinds of exotic commodities from the east that stirred the imagination. Ropes and barrels were piled high and stevedores carried trunks and crates from the ship.

Dhanu, the five-year-old child, had difficulty keeping up with William’s long strides so he hoisted him up into his arms. Tall, lean and as olive skinned as a native Indian, his hair dark, thick and curling, William was a man who inspired awe in all those he met.

His mind was very much on what he had to do now he was in London. After much deliberation and letters passing to and fro between him and his solicitor, there was only one solution that he could see to satisfy the creditors. He must marry a rich wife, a prospect he little relished after his ill-fated betrothal to Lydia Mannering. Lydia was the only daughter of an Englishman who had made his money in India as countless others had done and continued to do. Lydia was beautiful, witty and fun to be with, he had adored her, believing she would fulfil all his yearnings and dreams and light up his life with love and laughter and children. She was impressed to learn he was the cousin of the Earl of Ashurst and enthralled with the idea of going to London and mixing with the cream of society. Despite his aristocratic connections, William came from the poorer branches of his parents’ respective families. He did not have a private fortune and did not give a damn for titles, when all Lydia’s mercenary heart cared about was wealth and rank.

How utterly stupid and gullible he had been to let himself believe she cared for him. On returning from a long tour of duty he was devastated to discover Lydia had married someone else, an officer whose credentials and wealth far outshone his own.

William was the last in a long line of Barringtons. If he didn’t produce a legitimate heir, the title would become extinct. It troubled him more than anyone realised, and he knew he could not ignore the issue. He would marry with great reluctance, unless he could find a wife who would bear his children and make no demands on him. Hurt and angry by Lydia’s betrayal, with grim determination he had forced himself to come to grips with what she had done, managing to keep his emotions well hidden. Never again would he let his emotions get the better of him, and he vowed that he would not allow himself to be so weakened by a woman’s body and a pair of seductive eyes. His heart was closed to all women.

Apparently his solicitor had a wealthy client, the mother of a man—Jeremiah Ingram—who had made his fortune as a sugar cane planter in the West Indies, and she was looking to marry her two granddaughters to titled gentlemen. He was to be introduced to the eldest of the two before he left the city for Berkshire. William was single-minded and completely unreadable, and at that particular moment he had an uneasy feeling of being watched. His stride was unhurried and, apart from a muscle that ticked in his clenched jaw, there was nothing about him to betray the fact that every nerve and faculty was tense and alert. His sharp, bright blue eyes observed everything that was going on around him, looking closely at individuals and probing the shadows for the dark faces of the two men who had followed him from India on another Company vessel, two men who posed a direct threat to the child.

As he left the docks he was unaware of the two figures that emerged from the shadows. One of the men was Kamal Kapoor. His dark eyes held a steadiness of sinister intent as they followed in William’s wake.

Glancing out of the window of her grandmother’s well-sprung travelling chaise, Rosa Ingram wished the weather wasn’t so depressingly dull and cold, with rain falling heavily. Clouds darkened the sky, obliterating the sun as if it was probably too afraid to show its face.

Rosa felt no attachment to England. With its depressing weather and capital city a confusion of people and noise, it was a world away from the vibrancy and gently waving palms against the splendid vivid blue sky of her plantation home on her beloved island of Antigua, where she and her sister, Clarissa, older than her by two years, had been raised. A lump appeared in her throat when she thought of the circumstances that had brought them to this day, of the anguish that had engulfed them, almost drowning them in a sea of despair when their beloved parents had been laid to rest.

Abiding by their father’s wishes, they had come to England on his demise to live with their paternal grandmother at Fountains Lodge in Berkshire. With just her maid, Dilys, for company, Rosa was travelling to Berkshire after staying with Aunt Clara and Uncle Michael in London.

Their grandmother was resolved to find suitable husbands for both her granddaughters before her death, which, since she suffered ill health, could happen at any time. She was afraid that should it come to pass before she had seen them both settled, as immensely wealthy young women they would be besieged by fortune hunters. It could prove disastrous with no one to guide them. She was assured their beauty and wealth would secure some penniless nobleman.

But how Rosa wished she could put her share of their father’s wealth to better use. Shoring up some penniless nobleman’s estate seemed a dreadful waste of money when so many people were in want. Deeply concerned with the sorry plight of London’s destitute children, Aunt Clara was involved in charity work. It was the kind of work that appealed to Rosa, something she could apply herself to that would be both worthwhile and rewarding. When she had broached the subject with her aunt, much as she would welcome the funds that would benefit her charities, she had refused, telling Rosa that she was far too young to become involved with such things. Besides, Rosa’s father had made his mother, Amelia Ingram, her guardian. It was up to her to decide what she should do.

And so Rosa had set off for Berkshire. Clarissa had protested tearfully against marrying the Earl of Ashurst, openly declaring her love for Andrew Nicholson, a young man she had met on Antigua. He had been visiting friends on the island and had travelled to England to visit relatives on the same ship. His family home was on the island of Barbados, where his father, like their own, also had a sugar cane plantation. The Nicholson family were wealthy and well connected and held considerable influence on the island. Clarissa had appealed to her grandmother to let them wed before he had to return to Barbados, but she had dismissed Clarissa’s entreaties, stubbornly refusing to discuss the matter further.

She believed she had found the perfect match for her elder granddaughter in William Barrington, the Earl of Ashurst. Having distinguished himself as a soldier in the East India Company, he had recently returned to England to fill the role of the next Earl of Ashurst, heir to the vast Barrington estate in the county of Berkshire. Unfortunately it was almost bankrupt. To avoid closing the house and selling land and the Barrington town house in Grosvenor Square, an enormous amount of money must be acquired—and quickly. With no means of his own, William Barrington had agreed to his lawyers’ suggestion that he found himself a wealthy wife.

The Ingram family’s small land portion bordered the Ashurst estate. Miss Clarissa and Miss Rosa Ingram’s widowed grandmother had been in London for the sole purpose of calling on the Earl’s lawyers to propose a match between the Earl and her eldest granddaughter. Matters had been approved but nothing signed, and following a brief meeting between the Earl and Clarissa, their grandmother had returned to Berkshire with Clarissa. Unfortunately, Aunt Clara had taken to her bed with a severe cold. Concerned for her aunt, Rosa had remained behind until she was well enough for her to leave.

The travelling chaise pulled into the yard of a busy inn, where coaches going to and from London stopped for their passengers to partake of refreshment. Rosa uttered a sigh of relief. The journey was proving to be long and tedious, made worse by her maid’s sniffles and coughing. The poor girl did look most unwell. The sooner they reached their destination and the girl was in bed the better.

‘Come along inside, Dilys,’ Rosa urged as they climbed down from the coach, pulling the hood of her cloak over her head to protect herself from the relentless rain while stepping round the deep puddles that had formed in the yard. ‘Something to eat and a hot drink will probably make you feel better.’

The inn was thronged with a rumpled assortment of noisy travellers, trying to get close to the warmth of the crackling fire as they waited to resume their journeys. Seeing her dismay on finding the inn so crowded, the driver sought out the landlord. After speaking to him they were shown into a less crowded room.

Rosa found a quiet corner for herself and Dilys while the driver left them to take care of the horses. After removing her fur-trimmed cloak and bonnet and ordering their meal, she glanced at the other occupants. Her gaze came to rest on a foreign woman and child seated across the room. She was conspicuous in the silk tunic of an Indian lady and she was trying to coax the child of the same race to eat. She was perhaps nearing thirty. A purple silk scarf was wrapped around her head, framing and half-covering her face. She appeared to be ill at ease, her eyes darting around the room and constantly looking towards the door.

Rosa’s observations were interrupted when food was brought to them, but she did notice the gentleman who came into the room and went to sit at the same table as the foreign woman. His eyes flicked around the room. They met Rosa’s briefly and without undue interest, then moved on.

Distracted, Rosa found herself staring at him. She judged him to be about thirty years of age, and he was tall and impressive—over six foot and lean of body—in the athletic sense. His skin was a golden olive shade—almost as dark as those people of mixed race on her island home. His hair was near black and thick, but it was his eyes that held her attention. They were piercing and ice blue, darkly fringed with lashes beneath fiercely swooping brows.

Unlike her sister and most of her friends Rosa was not a romantic at heart, but she thought him to be the most handsome man she had ever seen. He had an unmistakable aura of authority about him, of forcefulness and power. He also had an air of unease and the deep frown that furrowed his brow told her he didn’t appear to be in the best of moods. Her attention was diverted when Dilys was suddenly overcome with a fit of sneezing. The man shot a glance of irritation in their direction before concentrating his attention on the boy.

Having eaten and eager to be on her way, Rosa left the inn. Dilys excused herself and disappeared into the ladies’ retiring room. The yard was busy with carriages and people alighting and some setting off. Holding her skirts free of the puddles, she pushed her way through the people mingling about.

The woman and child she had seen inside the inn were among them. Rosa heard the sound of hoofbeats and could feel them pounding the ground. She saw the crowd break up and part and then she saw a coach and four careering madly towards them.

Out of the corner of her eye she caught a movement next to her and two hands seemed to leap out of the crowd beside her. The next thing she saw was the little boy suddenly propelled into the path of the horses. Without conscious thought she leapt forward and grasped the child, pulling him back before the horses galloped past and came to a halt. The child began to cry and the woman, who had been distracted and was looking the other way, turned back and took his hand.

‘What are you doing? You must be more careful.’

The woman spoke crossly in a voice whose faintly sing-song intonation alone betrayed the fact that it was not an Englishwoman who spoke.

The dark, frightened eyes of the child overflowed with tears. ‘I—I was pushed,’ he cried. ‘Someone pushed me.’

The woman focused her attention on Rosa. On seeing the flush on her face and her closeness to the child, she immediately assumed Rosa to be the guilty party, having no idea that she had just saved the child from being trampled to death. She was unable to truly comprehend what had just happened but the look she cast Rosa was cold and accusing.

The small, silent boy, who now had tears streaming down his cheeks, stared up at her, clasping the Indian woman’s hand. He was a strikingly attractive child, his Indian ancestry evident in his features and his jet-black hair. What entrapped Rosa more than anything was the compelling blackness of his eyes. They were large and widely spaced and fringed by glossy lashes. The woman began to drag him away, but not before Rosa had heard the child say in a small, quivering voice, ‘I was so frightened.’

Then the man she had seen inside the inn stepped between them and gently brushed away the child’s tears while bending his head to hear what the woman had to say. They spoke together in a language Rosa did not understand. After a moment he stood up straight and looked at Rosa, anger blazing in his eyes.

Some deep-rooted feminine instinct made Rosa’s breath catch in her throat at being confronted by a man of such powerful physical presence. He had an expression of strength and marked intelligence. His eyes drew another’s like a magnet to a pin. They were so full of life, so charged with the expression of their owner’s awareness. Unexpectedly, she found herself the victim of an acute attack of awkwardness and momentarily at a loss for words, for in such close proximity, his overwhelming masculinity seemed more pronounced. When her eyes locked on his she was quite unprepared for the effect he had on her—her pulse seemed to leap. With his piercing blue eyes and his rich dark hair, he was an extremely attractive man.

‘The child is unhurt—’

She was brusquely interrupted. ‘No thanks to you.’

His words had an aggressive ring to them. Bright colour flamed in her face and her slender figure stiffened and drew itself erect. She stared at him. ‘I beg your pardon?’

He looked at her full in the eyes, fixing her with a gaze of angry accusation. ‘I realise that your carelessness may have been accidental and if that is the case then I advise you to be more careful in the future.’

His condemnation was unnecessarily severe. She thought his anger had been brought about out of concern for the child, but she would not excuse his rudeness. ‘I would be obliged, sir, if you would voice your unjust accusation in a more temperate manner and apologise.’

The young woman’s anger and animosity might at any other time have amused William and, looking into a pair of eyes the colour of green moss in which gold and brown flecks shone and seemed to dance about, he might have taken time to admire her slender form and the flawless beauty of her face beneath the high-brimmed silk bonnet, but now, his major concern being for the child, he did not smile. His temper was not improved by her bold attack, which caused his lean features to darken and his lip to curl scornfully across even white teeth.

‘And I would be obliged if you would see fit to mind your own business.’

‘That is exactly what I was doing and from what I have witnessed, sir, I would advise you to mind yours. It may have escaped your notice, but the inn yard with horses and carriages coming and going is a dangerous place to be for a young child.’

William’s jaw hardened and his eyes snapped fiercely as he fixed her with a savage look. There was a murderous expression on his face and it was with a great deal of effort that he restrained himself. ‘You are an extremely outspoken young lady—too outspoken for your own good.’

For a long moment he stared at her hard, then turned away, but Rosa could feel his contained anger as he stepped aside. The look he had given, cold and dismissive, had sent chills up her spine.

‘Not usually,’ she replied, refusing to be so rudely dismissed. When he turned and looked at her once more she met his eyes with a cool hauteur that belied the anger mounting inside her to match his own. ‘Only when I find myself in the presence of someone as insufferable as yourself. Your accusation that I pushed the child—accidental or otherwise—into the path of the horses was harsh indeed. I did neither.’

‘Her nurse tells me otherwise.’

‘Then she was mistaken. She had taken her eyes off the child and someone from the crowd pushed him. I witnessed what happened with my own eyes and reached out just in time to save him from being trampled to death. So you see, sir, you might have made certain of the facts before accusing me. Your time would be best spent seeking out the real culprit.’

For a moment he appeared to freeze as he absorbed her words. ‘Someone else pushed him? You saw who it was?’

‘No, I did not. My whole attention was on the child. I do not know you, sir, but someone must have a very deep grievance against you to want to hurt the child.’

‘That may be so, but I will decide that. You are a stranger. Do not take it upon yourself to assume. Is that understood?’

Rosa stared at him. How dare this man speak to her in this condescending manner? She was so taken aback by his rudeness she could hardly speak, but when she did so it was with a fine, cultured accent like frosted glass. ‘You, sir, are the most insufferable, rudest man I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Is it your habit to attack those who have done you a kindness?’

William’s face paled significantly beneath his dark countenance, although he was furious with himself more than with her for he seldom betrayed his feelings in this manner. He had misjudged her, he could see that now, but before he could reply to her cutting remark she had turned on her heel. He caught her arm, halting her, his eyes doing a quick search of those around him.

‘Not usually. I urge you to think back. It is most important that you do. Did you by any chance manage to see who it was?’

‘No, I did not. I cannot help you.’ Her chin lifted haughtily. ‘Now please let go of my arm.’

Immediately he dropped his hand. ‘In that case there is nothing more to be said.’

Realising that she was being dismissed, Rosa stepped back. ‘You are right. There isn’t. I expect it is beneath you to offer an apology.’

William gave her an uneasy glance, well aware that she, too, might have been hurt had she not stepped in to pull the child out of the way of the horses and that she was probably scared out of her wits by her show of bravado. ‘If I have offended you, then I beg your pardon. Are you harmed at all?’

‘I am perfectly all right—not that it is any of your affair,’ she remarked, still too angry to be mollified by his apology. ‘Good day, sir.’

Turning on her heel, she hurried towards the waiting coach, relieved to see Dilys already inside. She had no idea who the man was and handsome though he was, that was the only thing to his credit. He was exceedingly rude. She did not suppose she would see him again and she thanked God for it. But, rude though he might be, one thing was certain—she was hardly likely to forget him in a hurry.

Before climbing inside Rosa looked back at the foreign woman, feeling that her show of ill temper might be a refuge from fear. But fear of what? she wondered curiously. Turning away, she saw a man backing away into the crowd. He, too, was foreign, of Indian origin, she thought as she noted his brown face and long tunic-like coat and European trousers, both in black. She felt his stare. There was a stillness about him, a silence, that was entirely menacing. She felt the hairs stand up at the back of her neck. She was taken aback by the ugliness of his expression—a scowl of such concentrated venom that made her draw back.

William’s unease about what had just happened failed to lose its grip. His face betrayed very little of the emotions swirling through his body and his eyes remained impassive as he made a silent observation of the scene around him. But rage flooded through his veins as he thought of the danger that had presented itself to the child. His jaw hardened. The complexity of his emotions exasperated him. At a time when he should be focusing on his new role in life and trying to keep the Ashurst estate from being sold off, he was finding his time taken up protecting Dhanu. He was seeing danger in every shadow. That he had been followed from India he was certain, but he had thought he’d thrown them off the trail in London. However, if what the young lady had told him was true, then it would appear he was mistaken.

Suddenly he felt as if everything was spinning out of control. He had promised he would keep Dhanu safe, yet he felt as if he had just stepped into his worst nightmare. Slowly, carefully, he took a deep breath. He must not allow this to prevent him from thinking straight. His intelligence, his clever mind, which he had developed during all his years as a soldier, was his greatest asset. If he was to outwit this threat and keep Dhanu safe, then he must use his mind to do it. But, he thought, glancing around at the jostling crowd, how did one arm oneself against a foe that had no face?

Guilt overwhelmed him when he considered his ill-mannered treatment of the young woman. Her skin was golden. That surprised him, for most of the female population in England prided themselves on their milky-white complexion and took precautions to protect it from the sun. He had failed to do the decent thing and apologise properly to her. Beginning to feel a sense of shame for his unforgivable conduct and wanting to right the wrong he had done her, he turned to walk to her carriage, only to find it disappearing out of the inn yard.

Tense and irritable, Rosa suffered what remained of the journey in silence. The encounter with the stranger and the intended harm to the child had affected her more than she realised. Who was he, she wondered, and what was his association to the Indian woman? He spoke her language, which suggested that he had spent some time in India. She told herself that it did not concern her and tried putting it from her mind, instead concentrating on her arrival at Fountains Lodge. She managed to put it to the back of her mind, but she could not disassociate her personal feelings altogether.

Her thoughts turned to Clarissa and her distress at being forced to wed the Earl of Ashurst. Rosa knew what she was going through. She could empathise with her, for had she not lost her own love, Simon Garfield? His death had been final. It need not be like that for Clarissa. Andrew was not dead. Rosa closed her eyes, close to tears. Angry and emotional, everything inside her wanted to reach out to her dear sister, knowing how traumatised she would be if she was forced to go through with this marriage. Rosa felt she needed to help her defenceless sister, but to do that she would have to stand up to their grandmother. Amelia Ingram was a formidable lady, but she also suffered ill health and Rosa had been deeply concerned about her when she had seen her in London. She was worried that her grandmother wouldn’t be strong enough to take on the task of arranging marriages for Clarissa and herself.

On a sigh she leaned her head against the cushioned upholstery and closed her eyes, letting her mind drift back to Antigua and Simon. What they’d had had been sweet and gentle, their relationship happy and fun loving. His sunny smile and dark brown eyes were imprinted on her soul. His death on a fishing trip had been a blow she had believed she would never recover from. She had successfully repressed her feelings for him, but at times like this, they rose to the surface. It was impossible to stop loving someone just because they had died. The pain of her lost love was still there and she knew it would be a long time before she was truly able to say it didn’t hurt so much.

The coach made good speed, the horses moving briskly through winding, narrow roads overhung with branches as they neared Fountains Lodge. With Clarissa, she had been to England only once in her life, when she had come to Berkshire for an extended visit. The surprising thing when they neared the house was how familiar everything seemed, from the unfolding landscape and the villages they passed through, to the impressive Ashurst Park in the dip of a valley, the sprawling ancestral home of the Earl of Ashurst. They passed the gilded, tall wrought-iron gates which carried the Earl’s crest. The house could not be seen from the road, but on her rides she had looked down on it from the surrounding wooded hills.

Soon Fountains Lodge, a fine seventeenth-century manor house, came into view. Set back from the village of Ashurst, it was a spacious house, east of which were outbuildings and stables arranged around a sizeable courtyard. The Ingram family had built it and remained in possession since. Apart from Amelia Ingram’s maid and housekeeper, who had their own rooms, the staff needed to run the house lived in the village.

On reaching Fountains Lodge, Rosa strode into the hall with a winning smile for the hovering servants while removing her bonnet and shaking out her bright chestnut mop of curls, which rioted in a wild explosion about her head.

‘Hello, Grandmother,’ she said when the elderly lady entered the hall, her cane tapping the tiles as she walked stiffly forward to welcome her granddaughter. Elegant with a regal bearing, at seventy-five she was a small fragile woman. Arthritis and the years had worn away the muscles of her youth, leaving behind a shell of a woman. Her aloof, unshakeable confidence and bearing came from living a thoroughly privileged life. Being a small frail lady, it was difficult to believe she could be so formidably assertive.

‘You’re here at last and about time, too.’

‘It’s good to be here. How are you, Grandmother?’

‘Better now I am home.’

Amelia cast her eye over her younger granddaughter, knowing she would have her work cut out if she was to see her married in the near future. Rosa’s manners were unrefined and, unlike Clarissa, she knew nothing about genteel behaviour. She was a wild child, as wild as could be. She was intelligent and sharp-witted. She remembered her as being a problematical child—a constant headache. She was also proud and wilful and followed her own rules, but Amelia would not concede defeat.

‘We expected you some three days ago. I trust Clara was feeling better when you left London?’

‘She was much improved and sends her love to you both. But I’m here now and it’s lovely to see you again.’

Sweetly Rosa kissed her grandmother’s cheek before going to Clarissa, who followed in her grandmother’s wake. There was an almost translucent quality about Clarissa. As sisters they were not unalike, apart from the colour of Clarissa’s eyes, which were blue, and her hair, which was a light shade of brown. But where Clarissa was of a gentle, placid nature, Rosa was more spirited and inclined towards downright rebellion when crossed, with a wilful determination to have her own way. She was two years younger than Clarissa, but she always felt the eldest. As a result, without any parental control, Rosa had a strong sense of responsibility towards her sister. The sisters hugged one another, uttering little cries of welcome and pleasure. At last they drew apart.

‘I’ve looked forward to your coming, Rosa. I imagine Aunt Clara was reluctant to let you leave.’

‘She was, but she hopes to see us soon when she comes here for your wedding.’ Clarissa’s smile faded, making Rosa wish she had never mentioned it.

Amelia tapped her cane on the floor. ‘We have much to do if Clarissa is to marry our neighbour, the Earl of Ashurst.’

‘I shall do all I can to help with the arrangements. I like to be kept busy.’

‘I intend to see that you are—with matters concerning your future role in life. I haven’t forgotten that a husband must be found for you when Clarissa is settled—although I realise how difficult and unyielding is your nature.’

‘Father would doubtless have agreed with you. He ever despaired of me—but the same could not be said of Clarissa,’ she said, reaching out and squeezing her sister’s hand affectionately. She was worried about her sister, who seemed to have lost all her usual vitality. ‘In his eyes you could do no wrong. But where I am concerned, Grandmother, I am in no hurry to wed. I am not like my father. I am a realist. I can see things for what they are and I know I will never be accepted into the upper echelons of the aristocratic society my father aspired to. He could never see that.’

Their father had been known on the island of Antigua as a hard, authoritative man who worked long hours on his plantation and fully expected everyone else to do the same. Unfortunately, the authority he showed in his working life did not produce the same results in his younger daughter, who was known for her lack of discipline and her inclination to defy his direction, which did not apply to his elder daughter, who was a credit to him.

‘You are right, Rosa,’ her grandmother remarked, ‘but nevertheless he was your father and you must respect what he wanted for you and Clarissa.’ There was a hoarseness in her voice that told Rosa of her grandmother’s inner grief over the death of her only son. ‘He may be dead, but you have a duty to abide by his wishes,’ she reminded Rosa, as she did every time Rosa broached the matter. ‘It was his wish that you come to England, where you will be taught the finer points of being a lady—and I shall see that you do if I expire in the attempt. And despite what you have just said, a title will open many doors that will otherwise remain closed while ever you remain plain Miss Ingram. God willing, I will see you both suitably settled before I die.’

Rosa swallowed down the lump in her throat. How difficult life had suddenly become and how difficult the transition had been for her to leave her beloved Antigua and come to England. ‘I will try not to be a disappointment to you, Grandmother. I will try not to let you down.’

She spoke truthfully, for she really didn’t want to disappoint her grandmother or upset her in any way, but she was determined to have some say over her future.

Rosa, always intuitive to her sister’s moods, looked at her, her brow creased with concern. Not until they were in Rosa’s bedchamber and Clarissa had closed the door did they have the chance to talk.

‘What is to be done, Rosa?’ Clarissa said, thankful that she had her sister to confide in at last.

‘I think you speak of this marriage to the Earl of Ashurst. What can be done, Clarissa? Grandmother is adamant that the two of you will wed.’

‘But I don’t want to marry him,’ Clarissa cried tearfully. ‘He is a stranger to me.’

‘You will soon get to know him.’

‘But I don’t want to get to know him—not now. Not ever. I cannot go through with it. I love Andrew. I love him so much it hurts. I have never known such love—such sweetness...’

Rosa listened as her sister seemed to shine, her eyes brightly lit with adoration as she continued to speak of her love, her passion for Andrew. ‘Then, feeling as you do, you must speak to Grandmother.’

‘I’ve tried, but she refuses to listen. I cannot think of a life without Andrew. I cannot live without him,’ she murmured despairingly.

Rosa sighed. Never had she seen Clarissa in such a state. Alarmed by this, she sat on the bed. Feeling a great need to protect her, she took her hand and drew her down beside her. ‘Listen to me, Clarissa. She cannot force you to marry the Earl. You are twenty-one. You have a perfect right to decide who you will and will not marry. You must make her understand that you are your own mistress now. How does Andrew feel about all this?’

‘He loves me as I love him. B-but he will not marry me without Grandmother’s blessing.’

Rosa did not need convincing. Andrew’s adoration and the gallantry he showed towards Clarissa when they were together were plain for all to see, but because his family were planters in a small way, Grandmother had refused to encourage the relationship and had departed London as soon as a meeting had taken place between the Earl of Ashurst and Clarissa.

‘What is he like—the Earl?’

‘To be quite honest we were together no more than a few minutes. He had another engagement and his mind seemed to be elsewhere. Oh, he is handsome and quite charming—in fact, I am certain there is not a woman in the whole of England who would not welcome a rendezvous with him. His lineage is impeccable and he has distinguished himself in India...’


‘He is not for me.’ Clarissa looked at her sister imploringly. ‘In truth, he is so—so excessively male and formidable. He radiates a force and vitality that scares me to death. I cannot possibly marry such a man.’ Sighing deeply, she looked down at her hands in her lap. ‘How foolish you must think me. You, who have never been afraid of anything or anyone in your entire life.’

Rosa sighed, for Clarissa spoke the truth. Clarissa was quiet and self-effacing, while she was too outspoken and never afraid to voice her own opinions, of which she had many—from any subject that was topical at the time to slavery, which had been a constant irritant to her father since the smooth running of the plantation depended on slave labour. He was forever chastising her, telling her to stop going on about matters which did not concern her and of which she knew nothing.

Should Clarissa marry the Earl of Ashurst, not only would he have sweet and gentle Clarissa to run his home, grace his table and warm his bed, but he would be in possession of a large portion of her father’s considerable assets to repair his fractured estate. Their grandmother was right in one respect. With such an inheritance they would become prey to every fortune hunter in London. Better they were settled in good marriages.

‘I wish I could think of something comforting to say that would alleviate your fears, Clarissa, but do not be too downhearted,’ she said gently. ‘Who knows what the future holds? Why, if the love between yourself and Andrew is as deeply committed as you say it is, then when Grandmother realises this and sees that you will be happy with no other, then maybe she will relent. When Father gave Grandmother control over us he was only doing what he considered best. I’m sure he wouldn’t want you to be unhappy. She wants to make quite sure we are settled and everything taken care of before—before she...’

Something in Rosa’s faltering tone caused Clarissa to look at her sharply. ‘Do you think she is very ill, Rosa?’

Rosa nodded. ‘There is no denying that there is a frailty about her and I noted when we were in London that there are times when she appears to suffer breathlessness and a great deal of discomfort.’

‘She does tire easily.’

‘But you must not let that stop you from telling her how you feel—that you cannot marry the Earl of Ashurst.’

‘I know I should feel honoured—and I am—but I would give all my prospects to anyone who would take them from me...simply to marry Andrew without the kind of wealth we have.’

‘The Earl does not have our wealth, but marriage to you would change all that,’ Rosa retorted coldly, feeling some resentment towards the Earl of Ashurst. What manner of man was it that would take a wife merely to pay off debts incurred by his cousin and to repair the neglect to his estate? She could feel nothing but contempt for a man who would marry a woman for the size of her dowry rather than for the woman herself. And who was to know that he wouldn’t do the same as his erstwhile cousin and squander his newfound fortune?

Lying in her bed and thinking about Clarissa, Rosa was deeply unsettled by her concern for her sister. What was to be done? If only she could find a way to circumvent her grandmother. There must be some way to stop Clarissa marrying a man not of her choosing. The more she thought about it a plan began forming in her mind, a plan so shocking she feared to enlarge on it. It caused her heart to pound so hard she could scarcely breathe, for it was a plan no gently bred young woman would dare think of, let alone consider.

Yet the more she thought about it the more she fixed her mind on the plan and, with a cold logic, let it grow until she could think of nothing else. At one stroke she had presented herself with an answer to Clarissa’s problem.

She would marry the Earl of Ashurst instead of Clarissa.

To contemplate marrying a man she had never even met surprised her—indeed, it sent a chill down her spine, but it did not shock her. If there was a way of helping Clarissa, then she would do everything in her power to do so. Clarissa said the Earl was handsome—at least he wasn’t in his dotage so she would have that to be thankful for. However, the biggest obstacle was her grandmother, but she need know nothing about what she was planning until she had been to Ashurst Park. She would take a closer look at the Earl of Ashurst’s noble pile to give her an insight into the house and its owner, to see what awaited her if she went ahead with her plan.

After breakfast two days later, relieved that her grandmother was still in bed—she never left her bed before mid-morning—without a word to Clarissa of what she was to do, she left the house. She was dressed in her best riding habit. The colour was dark blue, the jacket cut tight in at the waist, to slope away at the sides, the ensemble set off by a jaunty feather-trimmed hat. There was no sign that she had spent a sleepless night wrestling with the wild plan she had conceived. But her delicate jaw was set with determination.

Feeling deeply sad for Clarissa, she was prepared to sacrifice herself. So what did it matter that the Earl of Ashurst was a stranger to her? Whoever she married would not possess the qualities Simon had. She would never forget what had happened to Simon, but she must put it behind her if she was to forge a new life for herself here in England. It was important to her that she rediscover something within herself, something she had lost the day he had drowned. She would love to fulfil her desire to do something more worthwhile with her life, for she would dearly like to become involved with Aunt Clara’s charities and help underprivileged children, but since that was to be denied her then she was pretty confident that she would be able to persuade the Earl of Ashurst to marry her and he would be well rewarded for it.

The Berkshire countryside was lush and green, with the sleepiness of late summer. Pausing on a rise, she looked down into a gently sweeping basin, where the gracious Ashurst Park was situated in what she thought was a pastoral paradise. It took her breath away, for it was the most beautiful house her eyes had ever beheld. Facing due south, it sat like a gracious queen in the centre of her domain. It had been built in the sixteenth century in the classical style of Brittany in France, which had been a fashionable form of architecture at the time. It stood among tall beech trees and oaks, guarding the brooding house like sentinels. Lawns adorned with flowerbeds and statues added to its beauty and further afield a rolling deer park stretched to the horizon.

A shiver crept along her spine. It was the same as she remembered, every detail. It was hard to believe that if Clarissa did marry the Earl of Ashurst, this beautiful house would be her home. Rosa’s heart warmed to it. She would not mind being mistress of such a beautiful, noble house and, as the Countess of Ashurst, whether she was accepted or not, she would be in the forefront of society.

Since Simon’s death, followed so soon by her father’s, and coming to England, she had existed in some kind of daze. Halting her horse and looking at Ashurst Park, she felt all that was about to change. Determined not to think of the impropriety of an unaccompanied lady visiting a bachelor’s residence, urging her horse on, she had not felt this energised for a long time. In some way she was back to being the old Rosa, headstrong and tempestuous and accustomed to having her own way.

But suppose the Earl wouldn’t marry her? Suppose, despite all the money that would come his way, he still insisted on marrying Clarissa? Then what would she do? As she clenched her jaw, her eyes took on a determined gleam. She wasn’t fool enough to think it would be easy, but she would make him want to marry her, she vowed.


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