June 2, 1754
The slender hand on the tower’s white-faced clock showed near eleven, and despite the cool shade provided by a green-leafed oak, Katherine’s body radiated uncomfortable heat. She eased herself down on a familiar bench and removed a small looking glass from the deepest pocket hidden within her skirt. Her reflection proved the rose on her cheeks remained intact. Afraid she might perspire, she fanned herself as she put the glass away and prayed her face paint would last the morning.
Each shallow breath she dared inhale strained her laces. Dora, her maid, had helped Katherine dress but muttered at the result. The clever little wench, on the understanding this appointment would take place before noon, had tucked a flimsy silk kerchief into the low neckline of the gown.
This effort to disguise the newly plump breasts about to pop over the ribbon trim of her finest day-gown gave Katherine the sense of a leading rein around her neck rather like that on a prize heifer. She glanced down and tweaked the fine fabric. Despite Dora’s best handiwork, Katherine couldn’t quell the fear that her pert pippins now appeared more like new baked baps wrapped for a workman’s dinner. All in all, they made an offering far too lavish in the harsh light of the morning for her to make any claims of being a fresh young lady, newly up from the country. She stifled a tiny belch.
Another week or two and she’d not be able to hide her condition from a cursory glance, let alone the prying eyes of a bevy of society beauties eager to obliterate competition for attention from the gentlemen. The choice to brazen out her situation left a sour taste in her mouth. She’d not the heart to ignore the malicious spite and gossip, even with the support of friends. As she’d no current partner to offer her protection, she would have to retire from society, at least for a few months. A sigh escaped. How could she have believed herself immune from such a fate?
She curled her fingers around some of the soft strands of moss growing over the side of the bench. This day bore no relation to others when she’d idled here, waiting. Then it had been an easy matter, for she’d known herself beautiful. The members of the order assigned to meet her always spoke eloquently of their gratitude and happiness for her acquaintance and any favors she might grant.
The fearsome edge of desperation turned her stomach. She popped a violet-scented pastille in her mouth and sucked hard, but still her tongue dried. She’d not been this apprehensive on her very first visit here. Best not think back. Fortune had brought her this far. If the gods were with her, they would take her onward.
A pair of shadows splayed on the green of the bowling lawn.
She swallowed and stood.
Sir Francis Dashwood, his signature scarlet waistcoat, bright and rounded as a robin’s breast, flashed in the morning sun as he came into sight. Beside him, the prospective bridegroom strode with determined steps. The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled. A tremble ran through her knees, and she clutched her fan tight,
determined to keep her composure. For sure he’d no need of a padded stocking to muscle his leg, and he wore no carmine on his cheek; there’d not be any mistaking him for a coxcomb fop.
The swift assessing glances he took, the way his jaw formed a solid hard line, and his glowering expression all crystallized the lump in her throat. The sharp contrast of his fine white wig with such dark brows and the cut of his coat displaying the breadth of his shoulders to eye-catching advantage announced him a man with a wide knowledge of anything life in Town could offer. From his grave expression, he might have been out to duel, but as his dark glance drank her in, it showed this morning his business to be with her.
“My dear, Kitty, there you are,” Sir Francis called and waved as they came closer. His broad, boyish smile calmed her a little. The stranger’s dark glance made a slow inspection, moving in no haste from her gilt-buckled shoes to her lace-trimmed summer hat, and her heartbeat skipped.
“How are you?” Sir Francis bowed, lifted her hand, and kissed it.
“Good morning, Sir Francis. I’m quite well, thank you.” The lie tripped off her tongue, for in truth she longed to turn and retch into the leafy shrubs.
“Good, my dear.” He patted her hand with a wink. “Here is the gentleman I told you of. He is most desirous to know you. Mr. Charles Leverret. Charles, may I present the loveliest flower in my garden this morning, Miss Katherine Bescell.”
Silence seemed to go on and on. What was wrong? Finally, he bent and lifted her hand. She looked up into brown eyes with amber depths.
“Your servant, Miss Bescell. I’m honored to make your acquaintance.” He bowed over her hand, and the smoothness of his lips touched her skin. A shiver shot through her.
She dropped a curtsy. “How do you do, Mr. Leverret?”
Sir Francis’ pudgy hand topped hers and pressed it to Leverret’s. “I’ll leave you two to walk and talk. Remember, Charles, here there is no pretense. You’re free to speak your mind to this lovely lady and expect truth in return. I’ll be over by the orangery, Kitty.”
The baronet walked away, pausing to tweak a flower from one of the bushes. She lifted her hand from Mr. Leverret’s.
“Would you care to walk with me, Miss Bescell?” He offered his arm.
She glanced about in sudden turmoil, for whichever path they took would eventually lead them to the maze of love tokens and erotic statues. In the past the garden ornaments had always entertained her, but not this day. Suddenly afraid to guide this man into the secret depths of the gardens, she bit her lip.
“Perhaps this way?” he suggested.
She grabbed his arm to steer him onto the opposite path. For this morning, she could no more look on the luscious rear of the carved Venus the other led to than step steady. The joke created by the saucy figure bending to take a thorn from her foot and presenting rosy alabaster buttocks to all comers had often amused her but would do nothing to lighten her present mood. She glanced up at his strong profile and doubted even the lovely Venus could raise his smile. “No, not that way. It leads to the lake and will be too muddy,” she said. “This other is better.”
“Of course, if you wish.”
They headed off into the dappled shadows in the direction she’d chosen. The long
stride she’d seen politely slowed and became a match of her smaller steps.
He looked about as they strolled along the sweet-scented, lavender-lined path. “Sir Francis has informed you of why I particularly wished to meet you?”
She nodded, though he gazed into the distance now and wouldn’t see. “He said you seek a bride, sir, a chatelaine for your country estate.”
“Indeed and most swiftly. I do not have the time for any form of delicate courtship. A curious circumstance forces my haste. I need to return to Cranly in Gloucestershire before the end of the month, married. Sir Francis intimated you might be willing to agree to such an undertaking, Miss Bescell. A marriage of convenience to be performed in haste before next week is done. Is that so?”
“A marriage of convenience, in name only?” She nibbled at her lip as she led him from the path to the grassy slope leading to benches where they could sit in shade.
He paused in his steps and turned to face her. “I agreed with Sir Francis’ suggestion. I too thought such an offer would suit a young lady best.”
Her pulse thundered through her veins. The scent of his cologne, the tilt of his head as he studied her, those eyes that seemed to see through any sham, all signaled she’d plunged herself into the most desperate disaster. Her hope the man so in need of a wife would be malleable, aged, wealthy, and willing to care for her in return for her company and occasional favors lay crushed like the daisies below his gilt-buckled black shoe.
Why did he have to be so damned attractive?
“Mr. Leverret,” she murmured.
“Please, call me Charles.”
From this intimate view, he had the most wonderful lips, not over-full but sculptured like an Italian statue. A thrill of sensation snapped through her. “Charles, the rest of the world will see us as truly wed, no matter what we agree between us here.”
“Indeed.” He angled his head to peer into the shade of her wide-brimmed hat. His brown gaze searched hers until she nipped at her lip, and he arched an eyebrow, encouraging her to go on.
She tried to gauge from his features the level of understanding he might possess. Some time had passed since she and Chloe had joined the order. She sought to recall her first impressions of a new religion, of the level of political influence the nameless members of the order had in government. All the things so familiar to her would seem unworldly to him, and there were things she couldn’t speak of to one uninitiated. Would this man understand the worship of the old gods? Possibly not. If not, he’d find it hard to accept physical intimacy as part of worship. How to announce, “I am Venus or Aphrodite at my chosen partner’s whim, and I believe the gods are happy in my worship of them.” She’d not break her vow, but he had to know something of the truth of her situation.
“Sir, I am bound to follow Medmenham custom as Sir Francis said. Our way in the order is to speak only truth here in the gardens. I am with child.”
His dark, arched eyebrows lifted, and he gave a low whistle. “From all I’ve heard of the Knights of St Francis, the chosen gentlemen of Medmenham have nothing but the best at their disposal. Even with such a caveat, I’d not expected to find they enjoyed something as fine as you, madam.”
Katherine opened her painted fan and plied it fast as unbidden heat scalded her face. She closed her eyes and shut him out for a moment as she dragged up her pride and her most polite and courteous tones of dismissal. Let the dog think what he would; she’d not suffer his condemnation. “Of course, if you find the prospect of an agreement between us unsavory, sir, you need only say and we will not meet again. Though please understand I will expect your sworn oath of secrecy regarding my condition.” She twisted away and blinked. What a silly fool she’d been to contemplate such a union, no matter how useful it might be or how favorably Sir Francis spoke about Leverret’s reported fortune.
“I didn’t say no, Miss Bescell,” he said.
Dazzled by the sun defeating the shade of her sloping, brimmed straw bonnet, she squinted into his expression.
“Pardon my amazement, madam, but Sir Francis had not enlightened me on the circumstance. I’d assumed you an acquaintance of his, not one of his temple minions. I’d not thought to be both a husband and parent in one fell swoop. Will the natural father pay no mind to my taking on his offspring?”
“That is a question I cannot answer in truth. The workings of the order are known only to those who accept initiation into the monastery.”
The evil bastard! Did he think to find me an innocent? If he wants a virgin bride, he’d best overcome his need for haste and court one.
His disdain drove her steps toward the oak grove, all thoughts of what it contained lost. Careless of its delicate charm, she snapped the painted fan shut. Her steps faltered. Despite her firmest resolve, the sting of tears forced her to blink.
She ignored him as he approached. He could hardly insult her further.
“I did not refuse you, but you must understand my surprise.” He caught her wrist, his grip a gentle one she’d no hope to dislodge. “Tell me, who is the man who has left you in such straights?”
“I can’t tell you. I am oath sworn not to speak of the secrets of the order to outsiders. It’s not the way here.”
He shook his head and grimaced as he let her wrist go. “It’s also not the way for a man of honor to act when he’s spent his seed and fathered a child.”
Hell, he must simply think her a trollop, and he’d want no more of her. Why hadn’t she done as Chloe had warned and, despite Medmenham tradition, kept her tongue still on this when it mattered most?
Still he observed her closely, and she gave a sigh. “Here, Mr. Leverret, those of us who worship in the temple do so freely, unchained of all constraints. If we desire, we love. If we love, we bear any consequences the gods might send us. Our ways are not those of others.”
“Freely? Unconstrained?” His expression grew quizzical. “A fine notion, but it leaves you in a poor state.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’m well-cared for by the monastery.”
“’Tis but another name for the group of gentlemen who come here,” she tried to explain. “I truly can’t say more, for you’re not in the order.”
“I’m not making myself clear.” She twined her fingers, suddenly conscious of how an outsider might see the situation, and each word she spoke made things worse.
“No, you misunderstand. Nothing like that.”
He glanced back toward the path they’d strolled, his lips pursed. “Are you poxed?”
Her free hand swept up before she could stop herself, and her open palm connected hard with his cheek.
He caught her wrist on the downswing and stilled her from twisting away. A ruddy print flushed on his skin. “Lady, lovely as you are, if I’m to wed you, even if only in name, I wish to know.”
She should never have agreed to meet him here, where memories of happier assignations had urged her hopes and left her so defenseless. Blinded by sudden tears, she yanked away and dashed farther into the stand of trees.
Gods only knew what drove her, but she skittered on until she found herself beneath the ancient oak. This tree’s wide, sheltering arms offered soothing shade on the hottest of days. She ran her fingers over words of love carved deep into the thick, gnarled trunk.
A sob welled up from her chest.
Tension tightened her back as he approached.
She spun on her heel and glared, swiping at tear-filled eyes with the damp scrap of her kerchief. Her carefully constructed face paint must be in patches.
“Katherine, I’d no desire to make you weep.”
“But like many gentlemen outside Medmenham, ’tis a skill you can’t resist using. I think we’ve spoken enough, Mr. Leverret. A marriage, even of convenience, would be impossible. Our ways and worlds are far too different.”
“I disagree. I’ll marry you, madam, as was my intent. The world will know you as my bride. I’ll provide amply for your confinement and offer you the education of your child as recompense for your time.”
The proposition was generous up to a point. She swallowed hard, and in an effort to gain time to think, she fumbled in her pocket for her scented vinaigrette. “And for myself, Mr. Leverret?”
His expression hardened, his dark eyebrows drew together, and his eyes narrowed like his lips. “I’ll give you two percent of my fortune in coin.”
If she agreed at once, he’d think her weak. And, though, in truth, the changes in her body from the child within had made her tearful and unlike herself for days, she had to prove she’d be able to manage him if she needed to, for if she couldn’t, her life might become a misery. She shook her head. “If I agree to wed you, I must give up my life in Town, which means a great deal to me. I’ll do so for twenty percent and no less.”
His eyes narrowed farther, dark lashes entwined. “Five percent, no more.”
She turned from him and snapped open her fan. “Mr. Leverret, I think you’ve been toying with me this morning. Though, in truth, some need of a woman such as I must drive you to haggle so. I will have twenty percent of your inheritance in return for the price of my name in Town.”
“Do you have any fame in Town, Miss Bescell?”
“Should you care to seek, sir, you will discover I am a virtuous lady with an unblemished reputation. My activities here are known to the most select few. Every member of the monastery is sworn to a secrecy they would never give up. Therefore, if I become your wife in the eyes of the world, I expect to be paid. Where else today, this week, this month or next, will you find such a suitable candidate for your country estate? Twenty percent.” She plied her fan relentlessly, but her toes curled in her shoes.
His mouth firmed into a straight line, and a chilling coolness stole into his gaze. “My last offer, ten percent and not a farthing more.”
She swallowed, clenching the hand she dug in her pocket until the nails scoured her palm. “I agree, Mr. Leverret. I will marry you as soon as you wish.” Her laces creaked with her deep breath. Black dots danced before her eyes, and she stumbled back.
He grasped her firmly about the waist to stop her fall. With a nonchalant ease, he lifted her and strode to a nearby bench, where he placed her. “There, Miss Bescell, you may now fortuitously recover your wits.”
The sunlight dizzied her further, so flowers, tall grasses, and his form shimmered and blurred together. Gods help her, she’d sealed her fate.
“I’ll go and see Sir Francis and get him to send a woman to you. I’ll give him details of the arrangements for our wedding.” He bent toward her and touched under her chin, forcing her to gaze up into brilliant noon sunshine. “And, madam, I’ll see you at church next Friday morn.”