A Scandalous Secret
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by Beth Andrews
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: When Elizabeth meets her sister's new neighbor, Dominic Markham, she's truly in the suds! Bitter and vengeful, Dominic seems intent on exposing her carefully guarded secret, which could mean social ruin for herself and her young son. Elizabeth easily fends off the unwanted attentions of the unctuous Oswald Gulbridge, but her heart may yet be broken by the one man she has ever loved. Regency Romance by Beth Andrews; originally published by Robert Hale [UK]
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: December 2011
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [266 KB]
Reading time: 163-229 min.
Someone had taken up residence in Lammerton Hall. As the carriage rolled swiftly by, Elizabeth tilted her head to look at the old house set up on a slight rise, just visible from the high road. The hedges had been trimmed, the windows and walls repaired, and fresh gravel laid on the drive. Altogether the place showed unmistakable signs of habitation. She must ask Dorinda who the new owner might be.
'Are we almost there yet, Mama?' Her son's impatient words reclaimed her attention and put aside further speculation as to who might have purchased the derelict estate.
'It will not be many minutes now, Nicky.' She answered his question with a smile. He was bouncing up and down on the carriage seat with all the natural impatience of a seven-year-old who had been forced to endure a lengthy drive in a confined space. His eyes were bright with scarcely suppressed energy, and his chestnut curls, always difficult to manage, definitely needed combing.
Looking at him now, Elizabeth reflected for at least the hundredth time on how he was growing more and more like his father with every passing day. The realization made her distinctly uneasy. If only she could forget....
'Will Aunt Dorrie have any new kittens or puppies, do you think?' Nicky asked, hanging precariously out of the open window.
'For Heaven's sake, Nicky, be careful!' she admonished. He was certainly a handful. What he needed, she supposed, was a father. Elizabeth feared that she did not possess an authoritative nature and was unsuited to provide the necessary discipline for a strong-willed boy. She should have let her maidservant come with them, instead of sending her on ahead.
Nicholas was neither ill-mannered nor contrary by nature. But there were things which none but a man could teach a boy. The only males whom Nicky could emulate at present were the stable-hands at the castle, who were hardly suitable models of conduct for the young Earl of Dansmere. Of course, most of the titled gentlemen of her acquaintance who had sired heirs paid no more heed to their offspring than they did to their hounds. Indeed, not as much, for at least their dogs provided them with a certain degree of amusement.
With a shake of her head, she pushed aside these thoughts and prepared to reassure her son that there were always new animals of some kind at his aunt's house. Nicky, however, had already been diverted from his original question.
'Look, Mama!' he cried, his violet eyes dancing. He pointed excitedly at a field which bordered the rough country road. 'Two cows! Can you see them?'
'Oh, yes.' She followed the direction of his finger. 'Are they not funny-looking creatures?' They were indeed an oddly humorous couple -one brown and rather bored-looking, and the other a jaunty dame in mottled black and white, who bore a striking resemblance to Mrs. Plattridge, the wife of the local vicar. Elizabeth bit her lip at this unbidden - and most unchristian - thought. She determined to restrain her imagination in future.
'How do cows make milk, Mama?' Nicky asked.
This and many other unanswerable questions followed as their journey continued, for Nicky noticed everything. Once he even waved a cheery greeting to a little bare-headed farm boy seated atop a weather-beaten stile.
His incessant chatter was enough to weary the patience of even the most doting of mothers. Fortunately, they had not much farther to go. Just as Elizabeth felt certain that she must run out of answers - real or fabricated - to his comments and queries, she was rescued at last.
'There it is!' Nicky sang out gaily.
Elizabeth perceived before them the tall stone posts on either side of the entrance to Merrywood. They swept through the open gates to her sister's home. In a very few minutes they were within sight of the house, which Nicky announced by heralding, 'I see it! I see it!'
'Very well, young man,' she said, trying vainly to quiet his exuberant outburst. 'Do be still, Nicky, and let me at least attempt to make you look presentable for your aunt.'
He consented reluctantly to having his unruly locks brushed into a more subdued style. He was obviously in high gig. As she buttoned his jacket and adjusted his collar, Elizabeth realized that she was almost as excited herself. Why this should be so, she did not know. Perhaps Nicky's own pleasure had somehow communicated itself to her as well. She was happy, naturally, at the prospect of seeing her sister once again. But it was just an ordinary visit, after all - an annual event which was no different this year from any other. There was certainly no cause for this curious prickling of - of what? Anticipation? Apprehension? She was not sure. But there seemed to be something in the air on this bright and cheery English summer day. Or was it merely a foolish fancy?
The carriage had not quite come to a halt when Nicky flung open the door and sprang out to meet his beloved Aunt Dorrie, who stood smiling at the foot of the shallow flight of steps.
'Nicky! Take care!' Elizabeth's warning went unheard. Her son was already being enveloped in a hearty embrace. Stepping gingerly down through the open carriage door, aided by a waiting manservant, Elizabeth proceeded to greet her sister in a more decorous, but not less heartfelt, manner.
'My dear Lizzy!' Lady Barrowe cried as they hugged and kissed each other's cheeks. 'How good it is to have you back with us.'
'It is good to be here again,' Elizabeth said sincerely. 'A little quiet rustication is just what I need.' Dorinda, she thought, was looking very well in a pale-green gown, her brown hair curling riotously - and quite naturally - about her heart-shaped face. But she fancied she could detect a faint shadow in those brown eyes of hers. 'How is Alastair?' she enquired artlessly. 'And little Selina, of course.'
'Where is my cousin, Aunt Dorrie?' Nicky asked. He had been standing by somewhat impatiently during their greeting, and apparently could not hold himself in check any longer.
'I am afraid,' Dorinda answered, 'that Selina is fast asleep, or you may be sure she would have been beside me to meet you. She has not been feeling very well.' She gave a quick sidelong glance at Elizabeth. 'I fear she may be coming down with a cold.'
Nicky was obviously downcast at this news. 'Then I expect,' he said, 'that she will not wish to play any games this evening.'
The two women exchanged smiles at his tone. 'I do not think it is anything serious, Nicky,' Dorinda assured him. 'She will soon be feeling much more the thing, I do not doubt, and will very likely be up and about by tomorrow.'
'Is there anything which her aged aunt may do for her?' Elizabeth enquired.
'You are here for pleasure, not work.' Dorinda was clearly grateful, but was firm in refusing this offer. 'And, as for being aged, Lizzy, you are but five years my elder.'
'And you scarcely out of the nursery!'
This quizzing provoked a pinch on the arm from her sister.
'Let us say, rather, that it is not so many years since I escaped from the schoolroom.'
'But what of Alastair?' They turned to enter the house, and she noticed that Dorinda hesitated slightly before replying.
'Alastair was called away to London quite unexpectedly.' It seemed to Elizabeth that her sister was choosing her words a trifle too carefully. 'He left yesterday, and sends his regrets that he could not be here to welcome you himself.'
Elizabeth was really startled by this curious information, but managed - she hoped - to conceal it. Alastair was the most sedate of men, and had never been known to do anything unexpectedly. A typical country gentleman, he preferred the pleasures of his estate, an occasional fox-hunt or a game of billiards, to the feckless fashions of town life.
There was no time to dwell upon this unprecedented occurrence, however, as Dorinda had already led her down the hall and was continuing somewhat breathlessly: 'But we are not quite deprived of male company, Lizzy. I would not have you think that. I have another guest, whom I am persuaded you will be as much pleased as surprised to see.'
This pronouncement was certainly intriguing. Elizabeth had not expected to find anyone else visiting at Merrywood. Dorinda generally informed her if there were to be any other guests. Who could this mysterious personage be?
Dorinda ushered them into the large, sunny drawing-room and Elizabeth was confronted by a figure that was very familiar indeed. A tall gentleman rose to greet her - a man with an imposing physique, raven-dark hair and eyes, finely chiselled features, and a rakish air, which was considered by many to be fatally attractive to the fair sex. Before her stood Lord Oswald Gulbridge, Viscount Maples. Good God!
'My dear Lady Dansmere,' the viscount said, coming towards her with his most beguiling smile, 'it is a pleasure almost too exquisite to meet you once again.'
Elizabeth reluctantly held out her gloved hand. He carried it - with undue ceremony, she thought - to his lips.
'I certainly had not expected to see you here, sir,' she replied, quickly withdrawing her hand. 'I thought you still in London.'
Actually, she wished him in London - or, better yet, in Timbuktu - but was constrained by good manners from saying so. Adieu to her peaceful interlude in the country. She might as well resign herself to martyrdom at once.
'I arrived here only an hour ago myself,' the gentleman admitted ingenuously. 'When I received your sister's kind invitation to spend a month here, I could hardly refuse - particularly with the prospect of sharing such congenial company.'
'Was it not an inspired notion of mine?' Dorinda's face was flushed with triumph.
'A stroke of genius,' Elizabeth agreed. So, that was it: Dorinda was matchmaking again. Really, it was high time her sister abandoned these schemes of hers. It must be obvious to any nickninny alive that these tactics would not serve. Elizabeth had lost count of the eligible men her sister had pushed forward for her delectation. It was some time since Dorinda's last unsuccessful campaign, though, and Elizabeth had been convinced that she had learned her lesson and yielded to reason. It seemed that this was not the case. But of all men to choose--!
'I quite thought,' Dorinda said to the viscount, 'that we had settled on your staying for six weeks.'
'Pray, do not importune your guest.' Elizabeth had never protested anything more earnestly. 'We would not want Oswald to think that we are so careless of his other friends that we would deprive them of his company for our own selfish pleasure.'
'I have no other engagements,' the gentleman informed them. 'Nor do I need any inducements to remain for as long as I am welcome.'
Elizabeth suppressed the urge to add, 'Or even longer.'
'You see, Lizzy?' Dorinda was as full of pride as a plum pudding is full of plums. 'Oswald's wishes and mine are in complete accord.'
'You are quite a pair,' Elizabeth agreed.
'And how is the young earl?' the viscount said next, apparently noticing Nicholas for the first time.
'Very well, sir. And yourself?' The young man replied for himself. He spoke with a kind of unchildlike formality which Elizabeth noted that he reserved for anyone he particularly detested.
'You look a little thin and pale, lad!' Lord Maples said too heartily. 'I believe you are inclined to cosset him, Lady Dansmere. But it is always so when a woman has no male about to supply a firmer hand.'
Nicky's face darkened at this sally. 'I have Uncle Alastair for that,' he declared stoutly.
Oswald laughed, though he looked a trifle taken aback at such a forthright response. 'I am sure your uncle is a fine example for you. But he is not always at hand, is he?'
Elizabeth thought it best to intervene at this point, before her son could become more annoyed - and possibly more impertinent as well.
'But I do not see our old friend Achilles about,' she said, turning the subject. 'Where is he?'
'Oh, yes!' Nicky cried at once. 'I'm longing to see him.'
Dorinda bent over her nephew. She ruffled his hair with one slim hand, undoing all his mother's handiwork.
'I believe you will find Achilles in the kitchen. It is his favourite retreat,' she said. 'The poor animal mopes about the house like a lost soul whenever Alastair is away. I know he will be happy to see you again, Nicky.'
'Why do you not run along and find him,' Elizabeth urged her son. 'And remember to pay your respects to Mrs Madgewick and Sally. I am sure they will have a nice treat put by for you.'
'May I go now?' he asked, his eyes alight at the prospect.
'Of course you may,' his aunt answered indulgently. 'I wonder I did not think of it before. Be off with you! You know the way.' But he was already at the door and in another moment had disappeared from view.
'Forgive me,' Lord Maples said with charming contrition as the boy departed, 'I hope I did not seem officious. I sometimes express my opinion a little too freely.'
'Nonsense,' Dorinda declared. 'I have told Elizabeth the same I know not how many times. The boy needs a father. And you,' she continued, directing a stern look at the object of her censure, 'need a husband, whatever you may pretend to the contrary.'
Elizabeth controlled herself with an effort. 'I have already been married once,' she said, seating herself with great ceremony on a nearby chair. 'Surely one husband is enough for any woman? Let those who never attempted the matrimonial state have their chance. I would not wish to be thought greedy, after all!'
Dorinda shook her head. 'You see how she is, Lord Maples? She will not be serious.'
'Perhaps,' he said, rubbing his chin reflectively, 'it is merely that the lady has not been approached by the right gentleman.'
Elizabeth returned his knowing smile with a very cold one of her own. 'Whenever I am fortunate enough to meet such a man,' she said, 'be sure that I will not hesitate to accept him. Until then, I am perfectly content.'
'And Nicky?' Dorinda insisted.
'Dear sister,' Elizabeth answered, really annoyed now, 'this horse has been flogged once too often. Let it rest in peace, I beg you.'
'Very well. I am silent - for the present.'
'Now, if you will excuse me, Lord Maples, I believe that I shall go up to my room to rest awhile before supper.' Elizabeth stood and made a move towards the door. 'There is no need to accompany me,' she added, for Dorinda's benefit, as her sister had also risen. 'I know my way quite well.'
'Pray do not stay on my account, Lady Barrowe,' the gentleman pronounced magnanimously. 'I, too, shall repair to my chamber in preparation for the evening ahead. I am sure that you ladies will wish for a comfortable coze in private.'
'You are too kind, sir,' Dorinda gushed, causing Elizabeth to pinch her arm. Elizabeth almost dragged her sister from the room in her haste to put as much space as possible between herself and the viscount.
'Did you have to invite that man here?' Elizabeth enquired, when they were safely behind the door of her bedchamber.
'Really, Lizzy!' Dorinda perched herself on the wide ledge of the window like a curious wren. 'I am astonished at you. One of the most eligible bachelors in England comes to my house for no other reason than to be near you - and you act as though you were being led to the guillotine.'
'At least with the guillotine, death would be swift and relatively painless,' Elizabeth retorted. 'Which I find infinitely more attractive than the prolonged torture of Oswald's company.'
'You cannot be serious.' Dorinda looked quite shocked.
Elizabeth came to join her in the window embrasure. 'If only you would learn not to meddle, dear sister,' she said.
'But his pursuit of you has been so marked,' Dorinda protested. 'Sally Jersey herself wrote to me that all the news from London is of your approaching betrothal. I made sure you were ready to accept him.'
Taking Dorinda's hands in her own, Elizabeth gave a rueful smile. 'You ought not to believe everything you hear, Dorrie. Particularly from Lady Jersey, who may be well-meaning but is hardly a bosom friend of mine and not at all acquainted with my desires or plans. Oswald has indeed been pursuing me - a necessary consequence of my fleeing from him. But it seems impossible to escape what has become a form of persecution, with my own sister deserting to the enemy camp and conspiring to entrap me.'
'I cannot understand it,' Dorinda declared. Her countenance reflected blank confusion. 'He is so very handsome. Even you cannot deny that, Lizzy. Such a figure! Such an air! How can you remain insensible of his attraction?'
Elizabeth laughed outright at this panegyric. 'It seems that you are the one who has conceived a decided tendre for this Apollo. Alastair had best beware.'
'You are the most vexatious creature!' the other cried, obviously much put out. 'I was so certain that I had found the perfect man for you. Any other woman in your position would be in ecstasy.'
'No sensible woman would be for long - if she made the mistake of marrying him.'
Dorinda stood up rather stiffly. 'He is quite charming, Lizzy, but you will not allow yourself to admit it.' She stopped, placing one hand lightly on her sister's shoulder. 'My dear,' she went on more gently, 'I know your experience of men and matrimony has not been a happy one. But you must endeavour to put that behind you now and look to the future.'
'With Lord Maples?' Elizabeth asked, catching the hand and rising herself, the two of them framed in the afternoon sunlight shining through the window behind. 'Believe me, Oswald is not the man to tempt me to marriage again. He is handsome enough, I grant you, but he is also conceited, arrogant, unctuous and stubborn.'
'Surely you exaggerate?'
'No,' she insisted, adding, 'Nicky does not like him either, you know. So there is no question of anything between us but the most tepid of friendships.'
Dorinda looked grave. 'Would you allow Nicky to prevent you from marrying where you choose?'
'Why not?' Elizabeth smiled. 'My son is an excellent judge of character. In this case, however, I am following my own inclination. I am certain that Oswald would make a most disagreeable husband.'
Dorinda sighed, but appeared to be resigned. 'I fear,' she said slowly, 'that you will never permit any man to breach those walls you have built around your heart, my dear. Gerald is dead and should be forgotten.'
On that note, she quit the room. It was only after she was gone that Elizabeth recalled that Dorinda had given her no satisfactory explanation for Alastair's absence. It was altogether an unsettling beginning to her visit.
The two ladies were the first to go down for supper. Elizabeth had seen that Nicky was taken care of and had promised to look in on him before retiring. Her maid, Janet, had done an excellent job tonight, and Elizabeth knew that she was looking her best in a blue silk gown with a lace collar cut low across the bosom. Her golden curls were arranged a la Venus. She hoped that Oswald would not construe this as an attempt to impress him, but doubted that his vanity was capable of supposing anything else.
'Lord Maples is a trifle tardy,' Dorinda remarked, tapping her slippered foot impatiently on the elaborately patterned carpet. She was well turned-out herself in salmon pink and carrying a pretty silver fan.
'He is probably undecided as to which method of tying his cravat best becomes him.' Her sister treated her to a glance so censorious that it provoked a reluctant smile. 'Do not fret yourself, Dorrie. He is not late at all. In fact, if you will consult that enormous clock above the mantel, you will find that it is we who are early.'
'So we are. How vexatious!'
'You had hoped to be late, then?'
'Punctuality is so - so outre - nowadays. I hope my guest will not consider me hopelessly provincial.'
'I believe it is perfectly acceptable for a hostess. If you like, though, you can always explain to Oswald when he arrives that you only just entered the room yourself.'
Dorinda frowned. 'Had I realized the time, I would not have left Selina so quickly.'
'How is Selina getting on?' Elizabeth asked, sobering at once.
Dorinda informed her that her niece was resting fairly comfortably, and that her fever was not pronounced. She was anxious, naturally - but not excessively so.
Elizabeth nodded, reasonably satisfied. 'I only wish Alastair were here.' She looked pointedly at Dorinda. 'Even Oswald will have his hands full entertaining two ladies.'
'Oh, good heavens!' Dorinda exclaimed, placing a delicate palm against her forehead in apparent consternation. 'I quite forgot to inform you that we shall have another guest with us this evening.'
Elizabeth's brows rose in surprise. 'Alas,' she said, 'your memory was never the best. I assume our guest is of the masculine gender. Have you persuaded the vicar to attend us in Alastair's stead?'
Lady Barrowe seated herself upon the sofa and motioned her sister to do the same. 'Now, that would be shabby treatment on your first evening here,' she said, grinning mischievously. 'It is far better than the vicar.'
'From your tone, I expect no less than the Prince Regent himself.'
'It is none other than the new owner of Lammerton Hall!'
'Indeed,' Elizabeth answered, her curiosity aroused. 'I noticed as we drove past today that someone had restored the Hall. But come, tell me about your new neighbour before he arrives. What sort of man is he?'
Dorinda drew closer, the better to divulge her confidences. 'My dear, he is the answer to a scandalmonger's prayer. A London merchant, fabulously - even, one might say, disgustingly - wealthy. Every unmarried female in the country is setting her cap at him.'
'How deliciously vulgar!' Elizabeth was instantly diverted. 'But is it possible that such a man can still be single?'
'Not only single,' Dorinda said, warming to her theme, 'but quite young as well. I should be astonished if he is a day more than three-and-thirty. And he is the most amazingly handsome man.'
Elizabeth chuckled softly. 'What? Have I not one but two paragons of masculinity to contend with tonight? But,' she said, turning a quizzing look upon Dorinda, 'did you not say he was a merchant? Can such a common fellow compare to the divine Oswald?'
'You do not deceive me with your innocent airs, Lizzy,' Dorinda said repressively. 'I know when I am being roasted.'
'Forgive me.' Elizabeth was only mildly contrite. 'Tell me more about this cit of yours.'
'I own that when we first learned that our new neighbour had made his fortune from trade, we were not best pleased,' Dorinda confessed, with charmingly unconscious condescension. 'But we very soon changed our minds. He is a most worthy man, and I really think that there are a number of eligible girls hereabouts who would be very fortunate indeed to attach such a man - although I have not yet seen him display a decided partiality for any of them.'
'Poor man.' Elizabeth shook her head sadly. 'I see that he is to be yet another sacrifice on the altar of your matchmaking schemes. Is he proving a reluctant victim?'
Dorinda preserved a dignified countenance. 'I will not be drawn, Lizzy, however much you bait me. I see no reason why I should not... guide Mr Markham in his search for an acceptable bride. He is not at all encroaching, I assure you - no mushroom, indeed. Why, even Alastair acknowledges that he is quite the gentleman, and I am sure he would be well received even if he were not as rich as Croesus.'
The latter part of this speech was quite lost upon Elizabeth. At the mention of their neighbour's name, her mild curiosity had metamorphosed into the wildest speculation. Surely it could not be the same man! The name was not so uncommon. The age was about right; but he had been a mere clerk....
'Did you' - she almost choked on the words as they rose to her lips - 'did you say Markham?'
'Yes, I did. Oh, look! Why, here he is!' Dorinda exclaimed, rising at once to meet her guest, who was at that very moment being admitted by Frakes, the butler. 'Punctual almost to the minute, Mr Markham.'
'Good evening, Lady Barrowe,' the gentleman said, coming forward with a smile. This faded abruptly, however, when he spied Elizabeth.
She stood behind Dorinda on legs which were so unsteady that she doubted their ability to support her. She scarcely attended to the introductions - so calm, so unsuspecting - which, had her younger sister but known it, were quite unnecessary.
Elizabeth had been shocked upon finding Lord Maples here at Merrywood, but this latest surprise was such as nearly to deprive her of her senses. As she met the hard, glittering gaze of Mr Dominick Markham, she felt certain that she was about to swoon. Never had she felt so agitated, so alarmed - so completely nonplussed. Was she dreaming? Was she mad? Or had fate played the most cruel of tricks upon her?
Dorinda, chattering happily away, might believe that Mr Markham was a stranger to her sister, but had she known the truth, that welcoming smile would have been wiped from her face in an instant. For Dominick Markham was all too familiar to Elizabeth. Those penetrating hazel eyes, the gleaming chestnut curls so like those of little Nicholas.... How could she not recognize the father of her own son?