WESTON MANOR SAT SERENELY AND QUIETLY IN THE MIDST of two acres of garden. It was a small house, unpretentious, looking like what it was—an English gentleman’s lodging in 1797. Only the keenest observer would notice that two of the gutters had fallen somewhat or that a corner of one of the chimneys was broken away or even that some of the painted trim was beginning to peel.
Inside, the only room that was fully lit was the dining loom, but here, too, could be seen evidence of neglect. In the shadows, the Georgian chairs’ upholstery was frayed and faded. Tiny bits of the plaster decorations on the tall ceiling had started to chip, and on one wall there was a lighter space where a painting had once hung.
But the young girl sitting on one side of the table was oblivious to any imperfections in the room, for her eyes were glued to the man across from her.
Farrell Batsford curved his wrist in such a manner that the ruffled silk at his cuff would not be stained by the juices from the roast. Taking only a bit of the meat onto his plate, he gave a thin smile to the girl across from him.
“Stop gawking and eat your dinner,” Jonathan Northland commanded his niece, before looking away from her. “Now, Farrell, what were you saying about the shooting at your country place?”
Regan Weston tried to look at her food, even to eat a few bites, but she couldn’t manage to swallow any of it. How anyone expected her to be calm and eat at a time like this, when the man she loved was sitting so near her, she couldn’t begin to understand. She stole another glance at Farrell, looking up at him through her long, dark lashes. He was aristocratic-looking with his long, thin nose and his almond-shaped blue eyes. The velvet coat he wore with the gold brocaded vest perfectly suited his looks and his slim, elegant body. Blond hair was arranged artfully around his narrow head, waving just a bit at the edge of his pure white cravat.
As Regan uttered a deep sigh, her uncle gave her another quelling look. Farrell wiped the corners of his thin lips delicately.
“Perhaps my bride-to-be would like to take a walk in the moonlight?” Farrell asked quietly, pronouncing each word carefully.
Bride! Regan thought. This time next week she would be his wife, and she’d have him all to herself to love and cherish, to hold, to belong only to her. Overwhelmed by emotion, she could not speak; she could only nod in acceptance. As she tossed her napkin on the table, she was aware of her uncle’s disapproval. Once again she wasn’t acting as a lady should. From now on, she reminded herself for the thousandth time, she must remember who she was—and who she was to become: Mrs. Farrell Batsford.
As Farrell held out his arm for her, Regan tried not to clutch it. She wanted to dance with delight, laugh with her happiness, throw her arms around the man she loved. But, instead, she followed him sedately from the dining room into the cool spring garden.
“Perhaps you should have worn a shawl,” Farrell said once they were a short way from the house.
“Oh no,” she said breathlessly, leaning a little closer to him. “I wouldn’t have wanted to take a minute away from our time together.”
Farrell started to say something but seemed to change his mind as he looked away from her. “The wind is off the sea tonight, and it is cooler than last night.”
“Oh Farrell,” she sighed. “Only six more days and we’ll be married. I’m sure I’m the happiest girl alive.”
“Yes, well perhaps,” Farrell said quickly as he disengaged her fingers from his arm. “Sit here, Regan.” The tone of his voice was much like the one her uncle always used with her, one of impatience and exasperation.
“I would rather walk with you.”
“Are you going to start being disobedient before we’re even married?” he demanded, gazing down into her wide-set, trusting eyes. Everything she thought and felt showed in those eyes. She was pretty, in a childish sort of way, in her high-necked muslin dress, but she had about as much appeal to him as a puppy begging for affection.
He took a few steps away from her before beginning to talk. “Is everything ready for the wedding?”
“Uncle Jonathan planned it all.”
“O f course—he would,” Farrell said under his breath. “Then I’ll return next week for the ceremony.” “Next week!” Regan jumped to her feet. “Not before? But Farrell . . . we . . . I. . . .”
He ignored her outburst as he held out his arm for her. ‘ ‘I think we should return to the house now, and perhaps you should reconsider the whole idea of marriage if everything I do displeases you.”
One look from Farrell stopped her protest. She told herself again to remember her manners and be quiet, that she must never give her beloved any reason to find fault with her.
Once they were back inside the dining room, Farrell and her uncle quickly dismissed her to her upstairs bedchamber. She didn’t dare protest; she was too afraid that Farrell would again suggest calling off the wedding.
Inside her bedroom, she could release her pent-up emotions. “Isn’t he wonderful, Matta?” she gushed to her maid. “Did you ever see such brocade as he wore? Only a real gentleman could choose such fabric. And his manners! He does everything correctly, everything perfectly. Oh, how I wish I could be like him, to always be so sure of myself, to know even my slightest movement was correct.”
Matta’s coarse, ugly face frowned. “It seems to me there should be more to a man than just pretty manners,” she said in her West Country accent. “Now stand still and get out of that dress. It’s past time for you to be in bed.”
Regan did as she was told; she always obeyed people. Someday, she thought, she’d be a person of importance. She had money from her father, and she’d have the man she loved for her husband. Together the two of them would keep an elegant house in London where they would give the most fashionable parties, and a house in the country where she could be alone with her perfect husband.
‘Stop your dreamin’,” Matta commanded, “and get into bed. Someday you’re gonna wake up, Regan Weston, and find out the world ain’t made of sugarplums and silk brocade.”
“Oh Matta,” Regan laughed. “I’m not as silly as you think. I had enough sense to get Farrell, didn’t I? What other girl could do that?”
“Maybe any of them with her father’s money,” Matta muttered as she tucked the covers around her charge’s slim body. “Now go to sleep and save your dreamin’ for the nighttime.”
Obediently, Regan closed her eyes until Matta was out of the room. Her father’s money! The words echoed through her mind. Of course Matta was wrong, she reasoned. Farrell loved her for herself, because. . . .
When she couldn’t remember a single reason that Farrell had given for wanting to many her, she sat up in bed. On the moonlit night when he’d proposed, he’d kissed her forehead and talked of his home, which had been in his family for generations.
Tossing the covers aside, Regan went to the mirror, looking at herself in moonlight-silvered image. Her wide-set, blue-green eyes looked like they belonged to a child instead of to a young woman who’d been eighteen for a whole week now, and her slim figure was always hidden under loose, concealing clothes—clothes chosen by her uncle. Even now, her heavy cambric nightgown was long-sleeved and high-necked.
What could Farrell see in her? she wondered. How could he know that she could be sophisticated and graceful when she was always dressed as a child? Trying to smile in a seductive way, she pulled her nightgown off one shoulder. Ah yes, if Farrell were to see her like this, he just might do something besides kiss her forehead in a fatherly way. A very immature giggle escaped her as she thought of Farrell’s reaction to the coquetry of his sedate, gentle bride-to-be.
Quickly, she looked toward where Matta slept in the little adjoining dressing room and thought it just might be worth any consequences from her uncle to see her beloved’s reaction to her in a nightgown. After hastily putting on heelless slippers, she silently eased the door open and tiptoed downstairs.
The door to the drawing room was open, candles blazing. In a golden halo sat Farrell, and Regan could do little more than marvel at him. It was quite a few minutes before she began to listen to what the two men were saying.
“Look at this place!” Jonathan said vehemently. “Yesterday a piece of plaster scrollwork fell on top of my head. There I was, reading my paper, when a damned flower came flying at me/’
Farrell concentrated on the brandy in his glass. “It will all be over soon—for you at least. You’ll get your money and can repair your house or buy a new one if you want, but I have a lifetime of misery ahead of me.”
Snorting, Jonathan refilled his glass. “You make it sound as if you were going to prison. I tell you, you should be grateful for what I’ve done for you.”
“Grateful!” Farrell sneered. “You’ve saddled me with a brainless, uneducated, clumsy chit of a girl.”
“Come now, some men would be happy to have her. She’s pretty, and her simple-mindedness would be liked by a great many men.”
“I am not like any other man,” Farrell said warningly.
Unlike many people, Jonathan did not find Farrell Bats-fond intimidating. “True,” he said evenly. “Not many men would make a bargain such as you have.”
As Jonathan finished his third brandy, he turned back to Farrell. “Come now, let’s not argue. We should be celebrating our good fortune, not going for each other’s throat.” He raised his full glass in salute. “Here’s to my dear sister, with many thanks for marrying her rich young man.”
“And dying and leaving it all within your reach—isn’t that the rest of the toast?” After drinking deeply, Farrell turned serious. “Are you sure about your brother-in-law’s will? I don’t want to marry your niece and then find out it was all a big mistake.”
“I’ve memorized the document!” Jonathan said angrily. “I’ve lived in barristers’ offices for the last six years. The girl cannot touch the money before she’s twenty-three, unless she marries before then, and even at that she couldn’t be married before she was eighteen.”
“If that hadn’t been the case, would you have found someone to marry her when she was twelve perhaps?”
Chuckling, Jonathan set his glass down. “Perhaps. Who knows? As far as I can tell, she hasn’t changed much since she was twelve.”
“If you hadn’t kept her prisoner in this crumbling house, perhaps she wouldn’t be such an immature, uninteresting child. Lord! When I think of the wedding night! No doubt she’ll cry and pout like a two-year-old.”
“Stop complaining!” snarled Jonathan. “You’ll have money enough to repair that great monstrosity of a house of yours, and all I get for years of taking care of her is a measly pittance.”
“Caring for her! Since when have you left your club long enough to even know what she looks like?” Sighing heavily, he continued, “I’ll leave her at my house and then go to London. At least now I’ll have money enough to enjoy myself. Of course, it won’t be pleasant not being able to have my friends to my house. Perhaps I can hire someone to take care of a wife’s duties. I cannot imagine your niece managing an estate the size of mine.” Glancing up, he saw that Jonathan’s face had grown pale; his hands clutching the glass were white-knuckled.
Turning quickly, Farrell saw Regan standing in the light by the doorway. Acting as if nothing had happened, he set his glass down. “Regan,” he said gently, warmly. “You shouldn’t be up so late.”
Her big eyes were magnified by the tears sparkling in them. “Do not touch me,” she whispered, her hands clenched at her side, her back rigid. She looked so small, with her thick dark hair hanging down her back, swathed in a little girl’s nightgown.
“Regan, you are to obey me at once.”
She whirled on him. “Don’t use that tone with me! How dare you think you can tell me what to do after the things you said!” She looked at her uncle. “You will never get any of my money. Do you understand me? Neither of you will ever get a farthing of my money!”
Jonathan was beginning to recover himself. “And how do you expect to get any of it?” he smiled. ” If you don’ t marry Farrell, you won’t be able to touch the money for five years. Until now you’ve been living on my income, but I’ll tell you now that if you refuse to marry him I’ll throw you into the streets, since you’d no longer be of use to me.”
Putting her palms to her forehead, Regan tried to think clearly. “Be sensible, Regan,” Farrell said, his hand on her shoulder.
She backed away from him. “I’m not like you said,” she whispered. “I’m not simple-minded. I can do things. I don’t have to take anyone’s charity.”
“O f course you don’t,” Farrell began patronizingly.
“Leave her alone!” Jonathan snapped. “It’s no use trying to reason with her. She lives in a dream world just like her mother did.” His fingers bit into her skin as he grabbed her arm. “Do you know what it’s been like the past sixteen years since your parents died? I’ve watched you eat my food and wear the clothes I paid for, yet all the while you were sitting on millions, millions, that I would never be able to touch. Even after you were old enough to inherit, what reason did I have to think you’d give me a pound?”
“I would have. You’re my uncle!”
“Ha!” He pushed her back toward the wall. “You would have fallen for some worthless, dressed-up dandy, and he’d have run through everything in five years. I just decided to give you what you wanted and at the same time make sure I got what I wanted.”
“Now see here!” Farrell half choked. “Are you calling me—? Because if you are—.” Ignoring him, Jonathan continued, “What’s it to be? Him, or you walk out right now?”
“You can’t—,” Farrell began.
“I damn well can, and I am going to. You’re crazy if you think I’m going to support her another five years just for the pleasure of it.”
Dazed, Regan looked from one man to the other. Farrell, her heart cried. How could she have been so wrong about him? He didn’t love her but only wanted her money; he’d talked of the horrors of being married to her.
“What’s your answer?” Jonathan demanded.
“I’ll pack,” Regan whispered.
“Not the clothes I paid for,” Jonathan sneered.
In spite of what the two men seemed to believe about her, there was a great deal of pride in Regan Weston. Her mother had run away from her family and married a penniless clerk, yet because she’d worked with him and believed in him they’d made a fortune. Her mother had been forty when Regan was born, and two years later she’d died with her husband in a boating accident. Regan had been left in the care of her only relative, her mother’s brother. Over the years she’d had no reason to show any of the spirit she’d inherited from her mother.
“I’m leaving,” she said quietly.
“Regan, be reasonable,” Farrell said. “Where will you go? You don’t know anyone.”
“Should I perhaps stay here and marry you? Won’t you be embarrassed at having such an ignorant wife?”
“Let her go! She’ll come back,” Jonathan snapped. “Let her get a taste of the world, and she’ll come back.”
Regan’s spirit was leaving her quickly as she saw the hate in her uncle’s eyes and the contempt in Farrell’s. Before she could change her mind, before she fell to her knees before Farrell, she turned and fled the house.
It was dark outside, and the wind from the sea moved the tree branches overhead. As she paused on the doorstep, she lifted her chin high. She would make it; no matter what it took from her, she’d show them that she wasn’t an ineffectual person, as they seemed to believe. The stones were cold under her feet as she walked away from the house, refusing to think about the fact that she was in public—however dark—wearing only her nightgown. Someday, she thought, she’d return to this house wearing a satin gown and tall feathers in her hair, and Farrell would go down on his knees to her, saying that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Of course, by then she’d be renowned for her brilliant house parties, a favorite of the king and queen; she’d be celebrated for her wit and intelligence as well as her beauty.
The cold was becoming so intense that it was overriding her dreams. Stopping by an iron fence, she began to rub her arms. Where was she? She remembered Farrell saying she’d been kept a prisoner, and it was true. Since she was two years old she had rarely ever left Weston Manor. A succession of maids and frightened governesses had been her only companions, the garden her only place of amusement. In spite of being alone, she rarely felt lonely. That feeling didn’t come until she met Farrell.
Leaning against the cold iron, she put her face in her hands. Whom was she trying to fool? What could she do alone in the night wearing only her nightgown?
She lifted her head when she heard footsteps coming toward her. A brilliant smile lit her face; Farrell was coming after her! As she moved away from the fence, her sleeve caught in the iron and tore at the shoulder. Ignoring the tear, she began to run toward the footsteps.
“Here, girly,” said a poorly dressed young man. “So, you came to greet me, all ready for bed.”
Backing away from him, Regan tripped over the edge of her long gown.
‘There’s no need to be afraid of Charlie,” the man said. “I don’t want nothin’ that you don’t want.”
Regan began to run in earnest, her heart pounding wildly, her sleeve tearing a bit more with each movement. She had no idea where she was going, whether she was running toward something or away from it. Even when she fell the first time, she hardly slowed her pace.
It seemed like hours before she slipped into an alleyway and allowed her heart to calm enough to listen for the man’s footsteps. When everything seemed to be quiet, she leaned her head back against the damp brick wall and smelled the salty, fishy odor from the sea. She could hear laughter from somewhere to her right, a door slammed, there was some metal clanking, and she could hear the call of the seagulls.
As she looked down at her nightgown, she saw it was torn and muddy; there was mud in her hair and, she guessed, on her cheek. Trying not to think about how she looked, she wanted only to control her fear. She had to get away from this bad-smelling place and find shelter before morning—a place where she could rest and find safety.
Trying as best she could to smooth her hair, pulling the torn pieces of her gown together, she left the alleyway and started walking toward the place where she’d heard the laughter. Perhaps there she would find the help she needed.
Within minutes, a man tried to grab her arm. As she jerked away from him, two more clutched at her skirt; the fabric tore in three places.
“No,” she whispered, backing away from them. The smell of the fish seemed to be overpowering, and the darkness was as heavy as velvet. Again she started to run, the men following her closely.
As she looked back, she saw that there were several men behind her—just following her, not really hurrying, seeming to tease her with their pursuit.
One moment she was running, and the next she felt as if she’d slammed into a stone wall. She hit the ground, landing on her seat as if she’d been dropped from a window.
“Travis,” a man above her said. “I think you’ve knocked the wind out of her sails.” An enormous shadow bent over Regan, and a rich, deep voice asked, “Are you hurt?”
Before she could think, she was swept from the ground and held in strong, safe-feeling arms. She was too exhausted, too terrified to consider proprieties but hid her face in the deep shoulder of the man who held her.
“I think you got just what you wanted for the night,” another man chuckled. “Shall we see you in the morning?”
“Perhaps,” said the deep voice against Regan’s cheek. “But I may not come out until the ship sails.” The men laughed again before continuing on their way.