Georgianne Whitley’s beloved father and brothers died in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte. While she is grieving for them, she must deal with her unpredictable mother’s sorrow, and her younger sisters’ situation caused by it.
Georgianne’s problems increase when the arrogant, wealthy but elderly Earl of Pennington, proposes marriage to her for the sole purpose of being provided with an heir. At first she is tempted by his proposal, but something is not quite right about him. She rejects him not suspecting it will lead to unwelcome repercussions.
Once, Georgianne had wanted to marry an army officer. Now, she decides never to marry ‘a military man’ for fear he will be killed on the battlefield. However, Georgianne still dreams of a happy marriage before unexpected violence forces her to relinquish the chance to participate in a London Season sponsored by her aunt.
Shocked and in pain, Georgianne goes to the inn where her cousin Sarah’s step-brother, Major Tarrant, is staying, while waiting for the blacksmith to return to the village and shoe his horse. Recently, she has been reacquainted with Tarrant—whom she knew when in the nursery—at the vicarage where Sarah lives with her husband Reverend Stanton.
The war in the Iberian Peninsula is nearly at an end so, after his older brother’s death, Tarrant, who was wounded, returns to England where his father asks him to marry and produce an heir.
To please his father, Tarrant agrees to marry, but due to a personal tragedy he has decided never to father a child.
When Georgianne, arrives at the inn, quixotic Tarrant sympathises with her unhappy situation. Moreover, he is shocked by the unforgivably brutal treatment she has suffered.
Full of admiration for her beauty and courage Tarrant decides to help Georgianne.
Fourteen-year old, Georgianne Whitley leaned over the banister to watch her aunt’s butler admit a handsome cavalry officer dressed in uniform. One day, her mamma frequently assured her, she would marry such a military man, a member of her dear father’s regiment. Of course, this officer was probably too old to ever be her husband. However, in future, she was sure she would meet someone equally handsome with whom she would fall in love. She giggled. ‘Love is not the main prerequisite for marriage,’ Mamma always claimed. According to her mother, rank, lands, and wealth were more important whereas, according to Papa, love was the only reason to marry.
She turned her head to look at her cousin, Sarah Tarrant. “Who is he?”
“Don’t you recognize him? He is my half brother, Rupert, Lieutenant Tarrant.”
“Of course, but he has changed so much since I last saw him five years ago. He is taller.”
Careless of whether or not he would look up and see her, Georgianne inched forward until, bent almost double, she could still gaze down at him.
Rupert removed his shako, revealing his thick, sun-kissed fair hair.
Sarah put her arms around Georgianne’s waist. “If you are not careful, you will fall.”
Georgianne gripped the rail of the highly polished oak banister while she straightened.
“Look at your gown. It’s crushed. You’re such a…a hoyden.”
She stamped her foot. “No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. My mamma says you are.”
“Well, she is wrong.” In spite of her denial, rueful, she looked down at her crumpled, white muslin gown. What would her aunt say if she knew Papa had taught her to shoot? Once again, she peered over the banister. A ray of June sunshine from the window illuminated the gold braid on Rupert’s scarlet uniform. Yes, one day she really would marry such an officer to please herself, and her parents.
Rupert, Major Tarrant, caught his breath at the sight of seventeen year old Georgianne. Black curls gleamed and rioted over the edges of her bandeau. Georgianne’s heart-shaped face tilted down toward her embroidery frame. Her hands lay idle on her gown. It was lilac, one of the colours of half-mourning. A sympathetic sigh escaped him. She wore the colour out of respect for her father, who lost a hand and leg, during the Battle of Salamanca, and died of gangrene more than a year ago.
There had been so many deaths since he last saw Georgianne. Not only had her brothers died during the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo but his elder brother had drowned six months ago while bathing in the lake on their father’s estate.
He advanced into the room with Adrian, Viscount Langley, at his side. Georgianne looked up and smiled. He caught himself staring into her hyacinth blue eyes, fringed with long black lashes. Colour crept over her high cheekbones. Her arched eyebrows drew together across her smooth forehead. Egad, she had the sweetest countenance he had ever seen; one with the lustrous, milky white sheen of china, and bow shaped rose pink lips to catch at the heart.
He bowed. “My condolences.”
Sarah, clad in full mourning for her older half-brother, stood to make her curtsy to Langley. “I trust you have everything you require, my lord?”
Langley bowed. “Yes, thank you.”
“My lord, allow me to introduce you to my cousin, Miss Whitley.”
Georgianne curtsied as his lordship crossed the parlour to make his bow.
Tarrant inclined his head. “Ladies, please excuse us, we must see to our horses.”
Sarah shook her head at him. “See to your horses? The grooms can do so.”
Georgianne gurgled with laughter. “Ah, Sarah, have you forgotten how cavalrymen fuss over their mounts?”
* * * *
After the gentlemen left, Georgianne glanced at her cousin. She had seen little of her since Sarah yielded to the family’s persuasion to marry Wilfred Stanton, heir to his uncle, the Earl of Pennington.
Despite her reluctance to leave home because of her mamma’s unfortunate habit, and extravagant displays of grief over the loss of her husband and sons, Georgianne agreed to visit her cousin Sarah, who suffered from melancholy after the birth of a son.
Anxious for her mamma and two younger sisters, she reminded herself Whitley Manor—on the southern outskirts of Cousin Stanton’s Hertfordshire parish—lay a mere fifteen minutes away by carriage.
“Are you daydreaming, Cousin?”
Georgianne pretended to be busy untangling another strand of embroidery thread. “No.”
“Did I tell you Papa wants Tarrant to resign from the army now he is Papa’s heir?” Sarah’s needle flashed in and out of her work.
“Yes, several times.” Georgianne shivered, stretched her hands toward the fire, and fought a losing battle with the draughts in the old vicarage.
“Are you not interested in dear Tarrant?”
Georgianne bent her head. Once, she had wanted to marry a military man. However, after the loss of her father and brothers, she changed her mind for fear death might snatch him from her, either on the battlefield or as a result of wounds sustained in combat. She shook her head, remembering the dreams she harboured three years earlier when she last saw Major Tarrant. How her life had altered since then. Most of the time, she lived cloistered at home in reduced—yet not impoverished—circumstances. She spent her life in an endless round of mending and embroidery, both of which she detested. Her only escape from this drab existence consisted of daily walks, rides, or reading her beloved books. A yawn escaped her. Oh, the tedium of her days at home.
“You have not answered my question.”
Georgianne gathered her thoughts. “Yes, Sarah, I am interested in Major Tarrant. After all, we have known each other since we were in the nursery.”
“Good, but what are you thinking about? You are neglecting your sewing.”
Georgianne picked up her needle and thrust it in and out of the chemise, careless of the size of her stitches. Already she loathed the garment and vowed never to wear it.
“Papa wants Tarrant to marry,” Sarah rattled on.
Eyes downcast, Georgianne set aside her sewing and wrapped her arms around her waist for comfort. Before they died, her brothers and father had expressed their admiration for Major Tarrant in their letters. She shrugged. Once upon a time, she had built a castle in the air inhabited by Major Tarrant, a mere lieutenant when she last saw him.
Mamma still insisted on love not being the prime consideration for marriage, but novels and poems contradicted her opinion. Georgianne wanted to fall in love with one of the many eligible young gentlemen available: maybe a titled gentleman like Viscount Langley provided he was not a military man. She shrugged. Certainly her mamma would regard the Viscount favourably. His lordship was wealthy, possessed good manners, and his height and broad shoulders equalled Major Tarrant’s. However, although she found no fault with him, Mamma might not approve of the Viscount’s skin—almost as dark as a gypsy from exposure to the sun while serving abroad—and his hair and eyes, sufficiently dark to rival any Spaniard’s. Her spirits lifted. The rectory would be a happier place with two fine young men in attendance. She was glad to be here, despite her acute concern for her family.
Sarah’s voice ended her musing. “Have you heard Tarrant inherited his godfather’s estate and fortune? Besides his pay, his income is thirty thousand pounds a year.”
Georgianne nodded. “Yes, I know. Major Tarrant is exceptionally fortunate.” Sarah blinked. “Why are you smiling?”
Georgianne stood and crossed the room to look out of the window. “I am happy because, so far, Major Tarrant and Viscount Langley have survived the war, which has taken so many lives and affected everyone in some way or another.”
She must force herself to remain cheerful. Papa had died eighteen months ago. It was time to set grief aside, if she could only find the means.
Thankfully, there was much to look forward to. After her presentation at court, she would be sure to meet many engaging gentlemen, one of whom she might marry. In time, she could help her sisters to escape their miserable existence.
Georgianne drummed her fingers on the windowsill. Her thoughts darted hither and thither. She glanced around the parlour, inhaling the odour of potpourri and lavender-scented beeswax.
Wilfred Stanton entered the room. He stood with his back to the fire, hands clasped over his paunch. “Mrs. Stanton, my uncle, the Earl of Pennington, has arrived unexpectedly, and is resting after the rigours of his journey. Tarrant and his friend are busy with their horses. No, no, do not disturb yourself, my love. No need to bestir yourself on my uncle’s behalf.”
Cousin Stanton’s lips parted in a smile revealing yellowed teeth. “Ah, I know what you ladies are like. Have you been matchmaking? There must be a dozen or more eligible members of the fair sex amongst our neighbours who would be eager to meet Tarrant. If they knew of his visit, I daresay all of them would harbour thoughts of marrying him.”
“Indeed,” Sarah said in a colourless tone of voice.
Accustomed to taking long walks every day, Georgianne fidgeted. She found it difficult to tolerate Sarah’s sedentary habits.
“Sarah, will you not come for a walk? You know the doctor is concerned by your continued lethargy. Do not forget he encourages gentle exercise to improve your health.” She stared out at the dark grey clouds. Suddenly they parted and sunlight bathed her. It heightened the colour of her gown and warmed her. She reached up to smooth her bodice and noticed a movement in the shadowed east wing. Was someone peering at her through the small, diamond-shaped panes? There were no menservants in the household. Could it be Cousin Stanton’s uncle, the earl?
Sarah stepped daintily to her side, and slipped an arm around her waist. “Come, it is time to change our clothes before we dine.”
Georgianne stepped lightly down the stairs shortly after dusk, and entered the well-appointed parlour where everyone would assemble before dinner was announced.
With nervous hands, she smoothed the skirt of her lilac gown. Satisfied, she twitched the grey satin bow into place beneath her bosom. Why was she so anxious for the major to see her as a young lady and not as the little girl he last saw in her aunt and uncle’s house?
Her reflection in the mirror above the fireplace reassured her. The talented village dressmaker had made her stylish gown from a length of material found in the attic. The style flattered her shapely breasts.
She adjusted a knot of ribbon which ornamented one of her puff sleeves.
“Enchanting,” an unfamiliar male voice murmured.
Georgianne stared at a reflected face. He must be Stanton’s uncle.
“Did I startle you, Miss Whitley? If so, I apologise.”
How did he know her name? Of course, Sarah and Cousin Stanton probably told him she was their guest. She turned to make her curtsy to the old gentleman dressed in the height of fashion in a perfectly cut black coat, fawn waistcoat, and black pantaloons. He raised his quizzing glass to his eye and scrutinised her. Although he gave her no cause for alarm, she repressed a shudder when his gaze lingered on her bosom. “Please stand aside, my lord. It is improper for us to be alone.”
“Miss Whitley¬—” The earl spoke in a languid tone. His dark eyes regarded her, seeming to observe every detail of her appearance. “You are charming, quite charming. My sister mentioned you are the eldest daughter of my late, much lamented friend, Colonel Whitley.”
Should she believe him? She frowned. “My father never mentioned the friendship.”
“I daresay there is much a gentleman does not remark upon to his family.”
She inclined her head; her frown deepened. Why should his sister, whom she had never met, take the slightest interest in her?
The earl’s smile did not warm his eyes. “I dare say you wonder why she mentioned your name.”
“I confess to curiosity, my lord.”
“She described several eligible young ladies.”
“I am not eligible because I have not yet entered polite society.”
“It does not mean you are ineligible, Miss Whitley.”
He approached her. Wary of his intentions, Georgianne moved away from the hearth. She mistrusted the feverish glitter in his eyes.
“The daughter of a hero of good family is most definitely eligible. After all, one cannot thank our brave soldiers sufficiently for keeping Napoleon’s brutal army at bay. Besides, I am not seeking a lady from a noble family to be my wife; I am seeking a modest young lady of good birth to marry me. One who will be grateful to me for a title and all else I have to offer.” She eyed him with distrust as he continued. “Doubtless, like me, you are still in mourning. My sons are dead: one died on the hunting field, the other in battle.”
“My condolences, my lord.” She retreated from his steady advance until she stood with her back to the window.
“My nephew tells me your dowry is small. A pity. The daughter of so gallant an officer should be in better circumstances.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Shocking of me to speak so bluntly of pecuniary matters, yet necessary, for I must make the most of this opportunity while I am alone with you.”
His fiery gaze alarmed her. “Please step back, my lord.”
He obeyed, although one hand stretched toward her. For a moment, before he lowered it, she thought he would force his unwelcome touch on her. “I ordered my man of business to make enquiries. Now, why should I not favour someone so pretty who is also part of the family? If you consent to be my wife, I will be a considerate husband who indulges you.”
Be his wife? Could he be serious? Georgianne stood as straight as a ramrod, her head held high. Although he appeared amiable he aroused her suspicions.
“Miss Whitley, I respect you for not falling into maidenly hysterics.”
Although she had left the schoolroom only three months before, she knew it was extraordinary for a peer of the realm to suggest marriage to an insignificant Colonel’s daughter. She frowned. “What do you want of me, my lord?”
“To be blunt, I need an heir of my body.”
“Why? You have an heir.” No sooner did she ask the question than she reprimanded herself. In response to the earl’s indelicacy, she should have ignored his frankness.
The earl coughed gently. “I do not care to speak ill of anyone. I hope you understand I only do so because I want a son to replace my nephew who is my heir.”
Georgianne repressed a shiver, and simultaneously wondered what it would be like to be the adored, pampered wife of an elderly husband. Yet, she knew she must be cautious. “Earlier on, I overheard Cousin Stanton claim your younger son married days before he died. He said your son had a posthumous child. Is it true?”
The earl shrugged. “After a thorough investigation, both at home and abroad, we have come to the conclusion it is no more than a rumour.”
Footsteps sounded in the hall. His lordship ignored them. Instead, he stepped toward her.
One of his bony hands rested on her shoulder. His lined face drew closer to hers. Colour stained his pale cheeks. “Miss Whitley, forgive me for not approaching your guardian to ask for his permission to address you.” Before she could protest, he spoke again. “Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
Over his lordship’s shoulder, Georgianne saw Cousin Stanton enter the room, his hands clasped over his paunch.
“My lord, we are not alone,” she protested.
The earl let her go.
“Jezebel,” Cousin Stanton’s voice thundered. “Eve tempted Adam with fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. You have deliberately tempted my uncle.”
The earl’s eyes mocked her cousin by marriage. “Strive to be original, nephew.”
Georgianne glared at Stanton. “You are abominable. Instead of offering me your protection, you blame me because you fear for your inheritance.”
“Uncle, pay no heed to anything she says,” her cousin-in-law-said. “Only consider the Whore of Babylon ‘in raiment of fine linen, and silk, and, broidered work.’”
Georgianne cringed, insulted by the Biblical reference.
The earl roared with laughter. “Do not make yourself ridiculous, Nephew. One only needs to look at the young lady to know I am at fault. Anyway, my intentions are honourable.”
Stanton’s cheeks purpled. “Stoop to marry a brazen hussy who tempted you?”
Georgianne peered at Stanton. While she felt sorry for him, knowing he was fighting for his inheritance, nevertheless, she opened her mouth to protest. He spoke before she could offer her defence. “You are shameless. I will not permit scandalous behaviour in my household. Words almost fail me at the sight of you standing close to my uncle with one of his hands on your shoulder.”
Her temper rose.
His lordship raised an eyebrow. “I wish words failed you now.”
The reverend gentleman’s cheeks reddened. “Uncle, I will not create a scandal by breathing a word to anyone about you being alone with this jade, so there is no need for you to feel obliged to wed her.”
The earl held up his hand to silence his nephew. “Enough! You are contemptible.”
“Yes, you are contemptible.” Georgianne echoed his words, appreciative of the earl’s swift defence but still wary of his motives.
His lordship chuckled. “We are in agreement about my nephew. Now, say you will marry me.”
Georgianne executed a small curtsy. “I cannot marry a man with whom I am unacquainted,” she replied. Her heart was full of turmoil as her younger sisters’ welfare remained uppermost in her mind. She loved them and had promised her late father she would always look after them if necessary. She knew she must find a way to keep her promise because Mamma…. No, she would not think of it now.
Pennington smiled, revealing stained teeth. “I like you even more for your caution, Miss Whitley. Another young lady might have succumbed to all I could give her.”
She must explain her refusal to marry him. “Papa said I should not marry the first gentleman who proposed to me. He told me I should be certain of my affections, instead of being swayed by society’s determination to see every young lady betrothed by the end of her first season. As you know, I have yet to enjoy the London Season.”
“I hope we will become better acquainted with each other when you come to town.” The earl frowned. “You will do so, will you not?”
She nodded, deep in thought. In spite of his title, and riches, did she want to get to know him better? Could she bring herself to marry an old man for her sisters’ sake? Yet she might enjoy being indulged by him.
Major Tarrant and Viscount Langley entered the drawing room, splendid in their red uniforms ablaze with gold braid and gold buttons. Georgianne saw them glance at each other as though they sensed something disturbing had taken place.
“Lord Pennington.” The major bowed.
“How do you do,” Viscount Langley said. “We met you at the levee when we made our bow to the Prince Regent.”
Pennington inclined his head. “Good day to you.”
Major Tarrant smiled at Georgianne. “What is wrong?” He led her to a sofa on the far side of the room.
Still amazed at the earl’s proposal she sank onto the soft upholstery.
The major smiled and seated himself next to her. “My dear Georgianne—I may call you Georgianne may I not, because although we have not seen each other for a long time, I knew you in the nursery. Allow me to offer you my condolences, this time in person. Your father and brothers were brave, loved by their fellow officers, respected by their men.”
Involuntary tears filled her eyes in response to the memory of the kind letter of condolence Major Tarrant had sent to her as well as the one he sent to her mother. Her eyes swollen with tears, Georgianne had laid it with her other treasures in an oblong, ebony box.
“Thank you. You are so kind. Now, lest sad memories overcome me, please tell me how you are.”
“As fit as any one of the fleas with which I bivouacked on countless occasions.”
Georgianne giggled. “You are droll, major. May I say I know how happy your safe return makes Sarah? The rest of your family must be overjoyed.”
Although he grinned, she noticed a trace of sadness, or was it wariness, in his eyes. She could not decide.
“My wounded leg has healed, but my step-mamma’s solicitude overwhelmed me, so I made up my mind to call on an old and much respected acquaintance, your guardian, Colonel Walton, before leaving the district. Afterward, I decided to visit Sarah before proceeding to London. I am glad I did so, for we have met again.”
“I hope you will not leave the parish without waiting on my mamma.”
“Of course I shall wait on her.”
“Good. Now tell me if you are glad to be back in England?”
“Yes, I am. On our way to stay with Colonel Walton, we stopped at a tavern, where I realised how wonderful it is to be in a country where people are not subjected to the brutalities of marauding soldiers.” The major’s forehead creased. “I am sorry. Forgive me if I offended your delicate sensibilities.” He cleared his throat. “I am not in the habit of sharing my thoughts with anyone other than Langley, least of all a child.”
She straightened her back. “I am not a small girl,” she objected.
“Maybe, but I am still accustomed to thinking of you as a dumpling of a child.”
Annoyed by his response she drew herself up to her full height, and looked at him indignantly. “Do open your eyes wider and look at me properly. I am no longer a dumpling, moreover I assure you, I am most certainly not a little girl. I will be eighteen on the third of February.”
“What did I say to bring tears to your eyes?” Major Tarrant edged closer to her, his face a mask of concern. For a moment, it seemed he would put an arm around her to offer comfort.
“Nothing, at least, and I daresay you will think me foolish. Whenever I remember my birthday, I remember Papa. He always chose my presents with such loving care.” Wiping her tears away with a handkerchief she forced a smile. “Are you going to leave the army? Sarah said your father wants you to.”
“Yes, in my opinion Napoleon Bonaparte is almost beaten. I trust you do not consider me cowardly.”
“Of course not, like my father and brothers I have no doubt you would sacrifice your life to keep the enemy at bay.” She looked up and smiled at him. “I am glad you are safe, and I hope the war will end soon.”
“Thank you, yet despite my father’s wishes, soldiering is in my blood. If Boney presses us back, there will be a need for experienced officers. In such an eventuality, I can purchase another pair of colours.”
Sarah, her severe black bombazine gown only alleviated by the sparkle of jet beads, entered the drawing room. Her husband, who accompanied her, glowered at Georgianne; his eyebrows making lines like furry caterpillars across his forehead.
Sarah beamed at them. “Tarrant, before we dine, allow me to introduce you to Frederick.”
The door opened to admit the nurse and her charge. “Major Tarrant, you are about to have the pleasure of meeting your nephew,” Georgianne said in a low, dry tone.
The nurse approached Sarah with a fretful Frederick in her arms.
“Is he ill?” Cousin Stanton asked with obvious concern.
“No, sir, poor little love’s crying because I woke him.”
Sarah ignored the nurse’s obvious disapproval and looked at Major Tarrant with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “You must hold him.” She gestured for the woman to hand the six-week old baby to the major. “Tarrant, holding him will prepare you for when you have your own child.”
Georgianne looked down, not averse to having a sweet baby like Frederick. She frowned. What would be involved in conceiving a child? Her frown deepened. The earl wanted to marry her so that she would bear him a son. Yet, something predatory about the earl repulsed her despite his gentle smiles.
The infant quietened when the nurse handed him to Major Tarrant. Looking down at the baby, Tarrant smiled. “He is so small. I am afraid of harming him.”
Frederick regurgitated some milk. The major wrinkled his nose.
Sarah dabbed Tarrant’s scarlet coat sleeve with her black linen handkerchief. “Naughty baby,” she cooed.
“No harm done,” said the major in a rueful tone.
Sarah nodded at the nurse. “You may return Frederick to the nursery.”
Cousin Stanton snorted with laughter as he smoothed his black broadcloth coat.
“What are you laughing at?” Georgianne asked.
“At a babe in arms unnerving Tarrant the Hero.”
Georgianne scowled. Could Cousin Stanton be jealous of Major Tarrant’s distinguished military service? She would have spoken in the major’s defence if he had not spoken first.
“You are to be congratulated on your son, Stanton.”
“Thank you.” Her cousin turned to look at his wife. “Sarah, my love, you must not fall into the sin of pride by thinking our son is of interest to anyone other than ourselves.”
Sarah ran a fold of her gown through her fingers. “I wanted Tarrant to see him.”
Cousin Stanton waved a plump hand at Sarah. “Shush, my dear, I am sure your brother has more important things to think of.”
“My lord, ladies, and gentlemen, dinner is served,” a maid announced.
The earl offered his arm to Sarah, and Viscount Langley offered his to Georgianne. They proceeded into the dining room followed closely by Major Tarrant.
While the unappetising soup—made from dried peas and stock from a ham bone—cooled, Georgianne paid little attention to the man of the cloth’s lengthy grace, her mind being more fully conscious of Pennington’s warm regard and somewhat flattered by it.
After dinner she sat next to Tarrant on the window seat in the music room. Deep in thought, she did not pay attention to Sarah playing the harp while Cousin Stanton sang. When the Stantons concluded their recital, Georgianne applauded politely, and then conversed with Tarrant while Viscount Langley sang in an enjoyable baritone. He gazed at her, the expression in his eyes anxious. “You seem troubled, Georgianne.”
She tried to reassure him with a smile, aware of the earl’s scrutiny. “You are mistaken, sir, although I confess to missing my sisters. With Sarah’s leave, I have decided to return home tomorrow.”
She knew in her heart, she did not want to marry the earl. Despite the temptation to solve the problem of Mamma, and improve her own and her sisters’ situation, she would not let him court her.
When Tarrant raised an eyebrow as though he would pose a question, she realised she must learn to guard her expression.
“Georgianne, my step-mamma told me she will present you at court with my younger sister. Are you looking forward to your debut?”
“Yes, I am.”
With the familiarity of one who knew her from infancy, he patted her hand. “Do not look so worried. I am sure you will be the toast of the town.”
Her heart fluttered and she looked away from him. “You are very good to say so.”
He chuckled. “You are too modest. I am sure you are much too beautiful to be overlooked.”
Gratified, she caught her breath. “Truly?”
“I never say anything I do not mean. Besides, dark-haired ladies are all the fashion,” he said, his tone somewhat husky and his eyes gleaming as he looked at her.
“So you are quite out of fashion,” she teased, referring to his fair hair, “although your skin is suntanned enough for you to be a Moor.”
He laughed good naturedly. “Not quite. Anyway, I do not aspire to make a mark on the town.”
Whatever Tarrant claimed, any gentleman who inherited so large a fortune would be sure to do so. She restrained a giggle. How would he react to parents of unmarried daughters trying to capture him as a son-in-law?
Sarah beckoned. “Georgianne, please pour the tea.”
Resentful, Georgianne complied. She would prefer to continue her conversation with Tarrant. Unfortunately, she had no other opportunity to speak privately to him after they drank their tea. Cousin Stanton conducted evening prayers. Eyes open, her mind awhirl, Georgianne omitted to join in The Lord’s Prayer. Her colour rose in response to the Earl of Pennington’s steadfast regard and a hint—of what? Admiration in Tarrant’s eyes?
“Come,” Sarah said as soon as the prayer concluded and shepherded Georgianne upstairs.
* * * *
Tarrant stood in quiet contemplation by the drawing room window framed by faded velvet green curtains.
Adrian Langley stared at him. “What are you looking at?”
“The wind whipping the leaves from the trees. Oh, what does the weather matter? We have campaigned in worse conditions.”
His friend’s smile made him look younger than his twenty-seven years. It transformed the deep lines of his square soldier’s face and softened his dark eyes. “Am I correct in thinking you favour the beautiful Miss Whitley?”
Tarrant shrugged. “I have known Miss Whitley since her infancy, and admit to a certain fondness for her.”
Langley grinned. “Be careful, my friend, before you know it, you will become a tenant for life.”
Tarrant turned away from the window. “I have not considered marriage for a long time, however, my father wants me to tie the knot and, in biblical terms, beget an heir.” As he spoke, his mind crowded with memories of ladies suffering in the hands of French soldiers, compatriots of those who had cheered each time a head rolled during the French Revolution.
At Langley’s mention of the lady to whom Tarrant was previously betrothed, Tarrant’s face contorted.
“I beg your pardon. I should not have mentioned her.” Langley cleared his throat. “You never told me why you broke it off. If you still love her is there no hope of making her your wife?”
“We did not break if off.” His shoulders slumped. “At the time I could not bear to speak of the matter. She was repeatedly raped by French soldiers. She died in childbirth.”
“My God! I did not know, I never guessed!” Langley exclaimed, jerked out of his usual calm.
Every muscle in Tarrant’s body contracted. He was present at the time of Dolores’s death. Even now, her screams, as she struggled to give birth, rang in his ears. He shuddered at the memory of his horror as those piercing cries faded to faint groans when Dolores delivered a stillborn baby. Overcome by grief he had made an impulsive vow never to be responsible for such suffering. He sighed. Since his elder brother’s death, he needed to fulfill his duty to father an heir, yet…
Tarrant clenched his teeth. Despite his avowal of undying love and his assurance that he would marry her after the baby’s birth, he doubted Dolores had wanted to live. Most likely, she had welcomed death.
He crossed the room and stared out of the window into the night. “I must see to my horse,” he said, his voice husky.
On the way to the stable, he paused to look up. Dark, silver-edged clouds raced across the full, lemon-yellow moon. He bent to rub his right leg. Although it had healed, it ached sometimes.
I am feverish, he thought, when he imagined Georgianne and Dolores’s faces merging. Usually, he tried not to think of gentle Dolores, in whose admiration he once basked. He sighed and entered the stable. Corunna, his grey, whickered a welcome. He stroked the horse’s neck, considering past events. After witnessing the consequences of the brutality of Boney’s officers and common soldiers toward the fair sex, like Langley, and many other gentlemen, he believed a nation’s civilisation should be judged by how it treated women. He despised men like Pennington, who thought their rank entitled them to grab anything they wanted without mercy.
Oh, he did not claim or wish to claim the virtues mouthed by men like Wilfred Stanton. Before his betrothal to Dolores, he had always enjoyed the petticoat company whom he treated with respect. At the same time, he had always taken care not to disgrace either his family or his regiment.
Tarrant gave Corunna’s neck a final pat prior to leaving the stable. Outside, the wind had died down sufficiently for him to be able to hear the creak of a window as he neared the vicarage. He looked up. Georgianne, ghostly by moonlight, put her head out of the window.
He bowed from the shoulder. “You should be asleep.” Tarrant looked around to make sure they were not overheard. “I must go.” To be seen or heard talking to her at this time of night would arouse gossip that might harm her, something he would avoid at all cost. “I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. Goodnight, Georgianne. Sweet dreams attend you,” he said with sincere appreciation of her beauty and innocent charm.
“Thank you. Goodnight, Tarrant.”
At the sound of a window closing, he looked around. Had they been overheard?
* * * *
Pennington fastened the latch and pursed his mouth. Some claimed night air was extremely unhealthy for a man of his years. He took little notice of other people’s opinions. He ran his hand over his stomach. He possessed the trim figure of a much younger man. Anyone unacquainted with him might consider him fifty not sixty.
After he allowed his valet to remove his dressing gown, Pennington sank into a fireside chair, a glass of brandy in hand. He glanced at his valet. “Have the fire built up before you leave.”
Thoughts of Miss Whitley filled his mind. Unable to bear the idea of his pretentious nephew succeeding to his title, he had decided Miss Whitley seemed healthy enough to bear his children. It would be a delight to impregnate her. He smiled. There were means to compel her to accept his proposal. After all, he had never failed before to get what he wanted.
Although the Earl of Pennington had defended her from Cousin Stanton’s verbal attack, Georgianne wanted to escape his scrutiny. At noon on the day after the earl proposed to her, she bade Sarah a fond farewell, and departed by carriage.
After a maid answered her knock on the front door of Whitley Manor, she stepped indoors. “Where is my mother?”
The girl averted her eyes. Georgianne guessed she wanted to pass judgement on Mamma but did not dare to do so. “In the morning room, miss.”
Georgianne joined her mother, who reclined on a chaise longue, a compress resting on her forehead.
Her mamma half-opened her eyes, and fluttered a fan. “Georgianne, is it you?”
The smell of brandy wafted across the room. Inebriated again! Georgianne heaved a sigh. Before Papa’s death, Mamma had never imbibed excessively.
“My sweet girl, I congratulate you,” Mamma said, her speech slurred.
Suspicious, Georgianne eyed her mother. “Why are you congratulating me?”
“Come to your mamma, who loves you. Give her a kiss. Do not be coy. The Earl of Pennington waited on me this morning. He asked me if I have any objection to your marrying him. Of course I do not.” Mamma blinked owlishly. “An earl, no less. You are to marry the Earl of Pennington. Clever girl to trap him before you’ve made your debut.”
Dismayed, Georgianne drew the curtains. She half opened the window to clear the stale air. “He committed the faux pas of asking me to marry him before he requested permission from my guardian. Besides, I have yet to decide whether to accept his proposal.”
“Not marry the earl? It is every woman’s duty to her family to marry well. You must marry him,” Mamma shrieked. She shielded her eyes with her hands. “Oh, my poor head. For the love of God, you unnatural creature, close the curtains. Shut the windows.”
“A moment, Mamma,” she said sternly. Disgusted by her mamma’s inebriated state, Georgianne went to the landing to ring a hand bell. A maid answered the summons. “Bring a pot of strong coffee to the morning room.” She returned to her mother and sat opposite her. “Coffee will clear your head,” she said, disgusted by her mother’s condition.
Her mamma again shaded her eyes with her hands. “You must marry him,” she repeated with tears in her eyes. “Your dowry and your sisters’ dowries are negligible. You should thank God for your good fortune. He is rich. Think of how you will be able to ease your sisters’ path into society. I insist you marry him. Consider the marriage settlements. Pennington will be generous, exceedingly generous; his money will provide all of life’s elegancies.”
Since the earl proposed, Georgianne could not stop thinking about it. To be honest, she could not deny the temptation to accept his offer, and escape from her unhappy home. With the earl’s help she could improve her sisters’ situation, as well as fulfilling her promise to her late father. Yet, a doubt lingered. Something about the earl did not seem quite right.
“What are you thinking, Georgianne? I hope you are coming to your senses.”
“Oh, Mamma, you know Major Tarrant’s step-mamma persuaded Tarrant’s papa to fund my London Season. So, instead of being obliged to marry someone like the curate of our parish church—the only gentleman who ever courted me, I—”
“Marry a drippy nosed bag of bones? What nonsense! You have two things money cannot purchase, my girl.”
“What are they?”
“Beauty and charm, both of which have captivated Pennington.”
For a moment, Georgianne stared at her mother in surprise. Her mother chastised more often than she praised. “Mamma, in London, in spite of my small dowry, I might receive another proposal of marriage more to my liking.”
A maid arrived carrying a tray.
“You may go after you put the tray on the table.” Georgianne poured a cup of strong black coffee for her mother, encouraged her to drink it, and then poured her another one.
The bell attached to the wall on one side of the front door rang. Loud knocks followed. Mamma handed the empty cup to Georgianne. “My poor head,” she repeated, “that noise will be the death of me.”
Georgianne peered out of the window. “I can see Tarrant. He is keeping his promise to call on you.”
Unnerved by Tarrant’s arrival because of her mother’s drunken state, she hurried to straighten Mamma’s lace trimmed cap and tie the ribbons in a bow under her chin.
“A headache powder,” Mamma demanded.
Georgianne sighed realising the coffee had not entirely alleviated the effect of the brandy. To mitigate the results of the brandy, Georgianne stirred the powder into another cup off coffee, and handed it to her mother, who gulped the drink.
Allow me to make you more presentable,” Georgianne said, and straightened her mother’s pigeon-grey gown embellished with a half dozen narrow flounces.
The major, a colourful figure in uniform, entered the morning room and bowed. “Good day to you, Aunt Whitley.”
Georgianne curtsied. Mamma stumbled. Mortified, Georgianne watched Tarrant grab her mother and lead her to a chair, the back of which Mamma clutched for support.
“Careful, Aunt Whitley. I hope I find you well.”
“Sit down, Mamma,” Georgianne snapped, embarrassed by her mother’s drunken clumsiness.
“Well, Tarrant, I suppose you find me well enough.”
“I am glad to hear so, Aunt Whitley. I came to make sure Georgianne reached home safely. I also came to tell her I hope to renew my acquaintance with her in town.”
“Some wine?” Georgianne suggested.
“No, thank you. I have to go. My grey needs a new shoe. I am waiting for the blacksmith. In the meantime, Viscount Langley and I are putting up at the village inn where he is waiting for me.”
Although her mamma should have offered to accommodate the gentlemen, she did not. Since her father’s death, her mother’s manners had declined in proportion to the amount of wine and spirits she consumed.
* * * *
Tarrant looked at Georgianne for a moment and then regarded his Aunt Whitley. Georgianne did not resemble her mother, a veritable giantess. Blonde wisps of hair escaped from his aunt’s mobcap. He wondered whether to attribute her disorderly appearance to the loss of her husband and sons. Yet her loss did not account for the unnatural number of broken thread veins in her cheeks, her reddened nose, and the hard expression of her grey eyes.
He glanced at Georgianne. It was difficult to believe his step-mamma’s claim that, once upon a time, her sister had been a beauty. His aunt’s mouth was too wide, and her mauve lips, too full. In his opinion, petite Georgianne, with a mouth which begged for kisses, was far more beautiful.
He smiled at Aunt Whitley, bent his head, and raised her hand to his lips. The smell of strong spirits on her breath assailed him. He narrowed his eyes and whistled low. He knew of ladies who had disgraced their families by their addiction to strong drink, but he had never encountered an inebriated one so early in the day. Shocked, but still in control of his manners, he kissed her hand. “Good day to you, Aunt. There is no need to ring for anyone to show me out.”
In spite of his words, Georgianne stepped forward.
“Stay here, Georgianne, I need a restorative,” Aunt Whitley quavered.
“I will return in a moment or two, Mamma.”
Tarrant bowed and then stepped into the hall, where he inclined his head to a pair of pretty schoolroom misses who must be Georgianne’s sisters. “If I am not mistaken you are Helen and Barbara.”
“No, you are not mistaken,” replied the little one, whose red hair coupled with a cheeky smile, suggested a lively character. “I am Barbara. Everyone calls me Bab.”
The older girl, blessed with smooth, chestnut-brown locks, and an oval face, rested a hand on Bab’s shoulder. “Shush. I am sure Cousin Tarrant is not interested in your nickname.” She smiled at the child, presumably to soften her rebuke.
Tarrant accepted his hat and gloves from a maid. “You are my cousins-in-law so I am interested in both of you.” While pulling on his gloves he looked down to smile at Bab. “How old are you?”
Bab’s eyes, a darker blue than Georgianne’s, regarded him with frank interest. “I am six years old, Cousin.” She turned her attention to her older sister. “Helen is sixteen.”
“I look forward to getting to know you better.” Tarrant nodded his head at the sisters. He was concerned about the effect of their mother’s drinking on them and would raise the matter with his father and step-mother. For now, there was nothing to be done. “Good day to you all. I look forward to furthering our acquaintance.”
* * * *
“Come here, Georgianne,” Mamma’s voice shrilled.
Georgianne sighed as she watched Tarrant stride toward the stables, his back straight, his boots crunching on the gravel.
“Are you deaf?” Mamma shouted from the morning room on the first floor.
When Tarrant disappeared around the corner of the manor house, Georgianne caught her teeth between her lips, hoping it would not be long before she saw Tarrant again.
“Do you like Cousin Tarrant, Georgianne?” Bab asked.
Georgianne smiled at them but made no comment. Instead she led them back upstairs.
“Georgianne, did you refuse the Earl of Pennington’s offer because of the major? Surely you could not prefer a major, however rich he might be, to a peer of the realm,” Mamma snarled.
Georgianne shook her head. “No, I do not prefer Major Tarrant. I have no wish to marry an army officer.”
“Did the earl propose marriage?” Helen asked her. “Is he young and handsome?”
She nodded. “Yes, he proposed. But no, he is neither young nor handsome, he is an old man.”
“What does his age matter?” Mamma interrupted. “He is wealthy. Do not stare at me so stubbornly, Georgianne, it reminds me of your papa. The expression in your eyes reminds me of how obstinate he could be. Your behaviour is unacceptable.” She hiccupped. “You should be an obedient daughter who comforts me in my grief.”
Georgianne squared her shoulders. To say she was an obedient daughter might arouse her mother’s unpredictable temper, and what of her own and her sisters’ grief? Mamma was selfish. No wonder she wanted to leave home with Helen and Bab. Under different circumstances, she would never entertain the possibility of becoming the Countess of Pennington, but—
Mamma glared at her. “Have you nothing to say, Georgianne?”
Her temper rose. “If I am like my father, I am proud of it. He would be ashamed of you if he could see you drink bottle after bottle of wine and brandy. Besides, he would never try to persuade me to marry a man old enough to be my grandfather.”
“What has age to do with it? The earl’s advanced years are fortuitous. He will not live for long. After he dies, we will be able to enjoy the benefits of your being a wealthy widow.”
Ashamed of her mother’s greed, Georgianne bent her head. “You are heartless, Mamma.”
“Do not provoke her,” Helen whispered. “She has veered between good humour and irritability since you went to visit Sarah. One never knows what to expect of her.”
“What am I going to do? I cannot go to town for the London Season because Mamma is not fit to be in charge of you and Bab,” Georgianne whispered back, wondering if circumstances would force her into marriage to the earl.
“Of course you must go, I can manage. After all, you are only a year older than I am.”
“Yes, but I will soon be eighteen.”
Mamma put her hands to her head. “What are you talking about?”
Georgianne shrugged. “Nothing important.”
“Tell me what you said.” Mamma heaved herself to her feet. Hands clenched at her side, she faced Georgianne.
Her mother seemed furious. What should she do? Georgianne trembled. “We were not discussing anything important.”
Thwarted, Mamma raised her arm. Before Georgianne could duck, her mother slapped her across the face. Georgianne staggered. Shocked, she stared at her mother and pressed her hand against her painful cheek.
“Tell me what you were gossiping about.” Mamma snatched Helen’s riding crop from the broad windowsill. “‘Spare the rod, and spoil the child. ‘Your father ruined you by refusing to permit the use of the rod in either the nursery or the schoolroom. He further ruined you by allowing you to participate in mannish sports.”
Horrified by Mamma’s brutality, Georgianne stood still and confronted her mother. “I told Helen I cannot go to London because she and Bab need me.”
Mamma’s face twisted into an angry mask. “Good, I say you shall not go to London unless you wed Pennington, and he takes you there.”
If her mother had not stood between her and the door she would have run out of the room. Mamma’s bulk loomed over her. Her strong fingers bit into her shoulder. Three times the riding crop cut across her back. Georgianne screamed, slipped, and then fell. Her mother kicked her and then raised the riding crop to strike again. In spite of the excruciating pain, Georgianne managed to scramble to her feet. Helen caught hold of Mamma’s arm, forcing her to lower it while Bab tried to grab the riding crop.
Mamma’s cheeks flamed. “How dare you?”
Georgianne grabbed the crop and with Bab’s help, wrenched it out of their mother’s hand.
She sank onto a chair. “I am sorry, Georgianne. I am so sorry for losing my temper. What have I done? My love, I beg your forgiveness. I will never drink strong spirits again. Yet i’faith, before I renounce them, I need a glass of brandy to steady my nerves.”
Bewildered, Georgianne stared at her mother. “You shall have some brandy after you go upstairs with Helen to rest.” She forced herself to smile reassuringly at Helen. “No need to be frightened, she has apologised and seems calm, but do not give her brandy. Lock her in her room. Bring the key to me,” she whispered.
Her face pale, Helen put her hand on the small of Mamma’s back. “Come with me, Mamma, you are not yourself, you need to rest,” she said while urging her out of the morning room.
Bab flung her arms around Georgianne’s waist. “Oh, Georgianne, why did Mamma beat you?” She sobbed into her sister’s skirt.
“Hush, Bab. Find Nurse. Tell her to come to my bedchamber. Do not be frightened. Mamma did not mean to hurt me. She is not herself these days.”
For a moment, Georgianne rested her hand on the child’s head of auburn curls. “If you cry, I shall cry. Wipe your eyes. Now, please send Nurse to me.”
Later, while Georgianne lay face down on her sheets perfumed with lavender, she tried to concentrate on happier sunnier mornings when, with her sisters, she had collected the fragrant flower heads. To hold back groans unworthy of a colonel’s daughter, she bit the edge of a lace-trimmed pillowcase while Nurse eased her out of her clothes, and then bathed the cuts across her shoulders.
Her hands gentle, the nurse tenderly spread ointment over her wounds. “Now, my lamb, go to sleep.”
Georgianne’s back throbbed. She could not sleep. Tears filled her eyes. Papa would never have allowed Mamma to strike her. On the other hand, if Papa had lived, Mamma would never have become inebriated.
What should I do? She answered her own question after contemplating her decision for a moment or two. She must request Tarrant to tell his parents she could not accept their offer to give her a London Season. She rose. Too humiliated to allow a maid to see her wound, she decided to try to dress herself.
Outside, the branches of trees fringing the red brick wall at the end of the garden, swayed in the harsh November wind. The grass lay emerald green beneath a gunmetal grey sky. More than likely there would be a thunderstorm. She shuddered at the idea of being at the mercy of fierce weather while on her way to the village. Nevertheless, she resisted the temptation to return to bed.
Her lower lip caught between her teeth, she slipped a cotton chemise over her head. Should she marry the earl? Could anything be worse than her present predicament? She winced, unable to wear stays without a maid’s help to lace them from behind, instead, she stepped into her petticoat and pulled it up. Mercifully, the small dose of laudanum her nurse had given her, began to dull the pain.
Thoughts whirled in her mind, like storm-tossed leaves. Before Father’s death, Mamma had been a loving mother, but after her husband and sons died, as she drank more and more, it seemed she only cared for spirits and wine. After she explained to Tarrant why she could not have a London Season, she would return home to dedicate her life to her sisters’ care and protection.
What should she wear? Her lilac merino walking gown? Georgianne swallowed her whimpers caused by the pain of every movement.
She buttoned the sleeves at her wrists. Because she could not raise her arms high enough to put up her hair, she tied the curls back at the nape of her neck with a black silk ribbon. She adjusted a wide-brimmed black bonnet on her head and tied the satin ribbons under her chin.
The door opened. Helen entered the room, her eyes filled with tears. “Where are you going?”
“To the village.” Georgianne wrapped herself in a voluminous black cloak.
“Should you? You are in pain. What shall I tell Cousin Tarrant if he returns?”
Georgianne put an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “No need to be in a fidget, I am going to see him at the inn. I shall tell him I cannot go to London for the season. You and Bab need me, so does Mamma.”
“I need you now. Mamma could wake up while you are away.” Helen’s eyes widened. “She might beat me.”
“Did you lock the door?”
“Do not let her out until I return. Besides, I doubt she would hit you. This is the first time she has physically chastised any of us. It is my fault. I disappointed her. She set her heart on my making a grand match. After saying I did not want to marry the earl, I told her I would prefer to go to London. She succumbed to a tantrum because she had drunk too much. I must go. Be brave, I will try to return before Mamma wakes.”
Helen threw her arms around Georgianne’s waist and hugged her. “Thank you for saying you will forgo your London Season. I know how much you looked forward to it.”
“You are more important than London’s frivolities.”