Authors: Patricia Veryan
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One of the gentlest, kindest, and
most courageous ladies I know.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
Sir Walter Scott “Marmion”
“Beast!” she hurled at him. “Horrid, impertinentâ”
The balance of her denunciation was smothered as his mouth came down upon her own. His lips seared hers in a long, hard kiss. The arm about her tightened until she could scarcely breathe, and his other hand was wandering down her throat, tracing the shape of her breasts, beginning to unfasten the buttons of her habitâ¦
With all her strength, Penelope tore free and boxed his ear.
“Oho! What a firebrand! Yet you'll make me a good wife, nonetheless!”
Speechless with shock, she stared at him.
m'dear! You are mine, sweet shrew. And before the month is out, I'll have youâ¦”
England. July, 1741.
Hector John Montgomery, Fifth Baron Delavale, was a gentle and scholarly man, having a deep love of nature and little children. His hopes for a large family were blighted when his beautiful young wife survived a long and painful labour to present him with their second child but, never recovering the bloom of her health, became increasingly frail until she died, some four years later. Desolated, Lord Delavale sought consolation in his children. His fortune was moderate, but no necessity of life was denied them, and many luxuries given without contributing to the overindulgence that nourishes selfishness. At age nineteen, Geoffrey was a handsome, well-built youth of a good-natured temperament. Penelope, four years his junior, had inherited neither her mother's daintiness nor her father's good looks, and on the day she left the schoolroom her Aunt Sybil threw up her hands in despair and informed her spouse that his niece had little to recommend her.
“For she is,” declared Mrs. Montgomery pithily, “at least seven inches too tall; she speaks her mind in a most vulgar way, does not hesitate to stare any gentleman out of countenance, and is besides always buried in a book! My heart goes out to poor Delavale! 'Twill be a miracle can he ever fire her off!”
It was true that any one of these lamentable qualities was sufficient to condemn a debutante to a place among those unfortunates who occupied the chairs edging Society ballrooms. However, upon receiving an invitation that included his family, it was not the apprehension that his daughter might disgrace him that caused Lord Delavale to hesitate. He would take Geoffrey, of course. The boy was pretty-mannered and would be a credit to him. Penelope, howeverÂ â¦ My lord frowned uneasily. Despite his sister-in-law's occasional waspish remarks, he was very aware that his allegedly plain daughter had an oddly compelling quality. Perhaps it was the warm, welcoming glow that came into her clear hazel eyes when she met someone. Perhaps it was her way of speaking very softly, but evincing an intense interest in what others had to say, or her eagerness to help any creature in affliction. Whatever the cause, my lord had lately become aware that although Penelope Anne did sometimes voice opinions rather more knowledgeably than was entirely feminine, and although her frank gaze was not always demurely lowered as it might have been, young gentlemen did not seem to find her unattractive. It was more than kind of Sir Brian Chandler, the closest friend of his boyhood, to invite them to Lac Brillant for so long as they should be able to stay. The estate was situated in Kent, not far inland from Dover, and was renowned for its magnificence. It would be a joy to present his children to such an old and dear friend after all these years. Onlyâthere were two sons to be considered. The eldest, Gordon, was in his twenty-fifth year. The younger, Quentin, was two and twenty, and rumour whispered he was already a bit of a rascal with the ladies.
One might be pardoned for supposing that a middle-aged widower with a plain daughter on his hands would welcome the opportunity to introduce her to the sons of a close comrade, who also chanced to be extremely wealthy. In Delavale's case, such a supposition would have been unwarranted. My lord had an intense interest in birds. Regrettably, his heir did not share the fascination. To Geoffrey, birds were noisy little pests who woke him at an ungodly hour with their shrieked hymns to the dawn. It was Penelope who accompanied Delavale on his long country walks, who searched with him for nests and kept his records of sightings, migration patterns, and behaviour. It was she who sat with him hour after wintry hour in some damp and chill meadow to catch the first glimpse of wild geese flying south, or who helped him nurse some tiny scrap of fragile bone and scrawny feather that had slipped from a nest until, with care and luck, and perhaps an assist from the Almighty Hand, a sleek young bird was at length released to seek its fellows. No, indeed! Quite apart from the fact that my lord loved his daughter almost as much as he adored his son, he had no wish to lose Penelope. His loss would, in fact, constitute a minor disaster. Not that he was a selfish man. She must marry, of course. Eventually. Butâshe was only fifteen. And there were those two blasted sons.â¦ If they took after their fatherÂ â¦ Thus, it was with considerable misgiving that Delavale yielded to his daughter's importunities and allowed her to accompany him.
When their two carriages turned on to the long, winding drivepath that led to Lac Brillant, Penelope was far too awed by the richly wooded slopes, the sweeping park, the magnificent gardens, the ornamental water and fountains, to pay more than fleeting attention to the young man who rode at the gallop to meet them, his welcoming shouts echoed by Geoffrey's equally exuberant responses. The newcomer drew his black Arabian to a walk and reached up to shake hands with Geoffrey, who rode on the box beside Charles Coachman. Not until he fell back to greet the inside passengers and thus came between her and the view did Penelope withdraw her fascinated gaze from the distant roofs of the three semicircular blocks that constituted the main house.
“Welcome, Miss Montgomery; my lord. I trust you had a pleasant journey?”
As from a great distance Penelope heard her father answer courtesy with courtesy. It seemed to her that the carriage had ceased to rock, or the wheels to rumble. The panelled walls fell away and the door ceased to exist so that she looked unhindered upon a lithe, loose-limbed young man who rode with easy grace. A youth taller than she, to judge from his height in the saddle. He was clad in buckskin breeches and gleaming boots. A riding coat of dark green hugged his broad shoulders, and lace edged the cravat that was secured by a gleaming emerald pin. Thick hair of a rich chestnut colour, waving back from a high brow, was tied in at the nape of the neck. Heavy eyebrows arched at her enquiringly, and laughter danced into the brilliant green eyes. Penelope knew he had said something, but she made no immediate reply, her intent stare drifting down the lean lines of the high-cheekboned face, the narrow Roman nose, the well-shaped lips and firm chin. “How doÂ â¦ how do youÂ â¦ do,” she said faintly.
Curiosity in his eyes, he reached out a gauntletted hand. Her mittened fingers drifted into it. They had come to a stop now, and he bowed in the saddle as gracefully as though he stood in a ballroom, and touched his lips to her hand.
So soft a touch. So gallant and gentle. Yet a warm shiver ran down her back. Something deep inside her stirred and awoke, and she felt a tingling sensation, as though until this moment she had scarcely been alive.
Straightening, he said in that rich, deep voice, “May I introduce myself? I am Quentin Chandler. I'm afraid my brother is in the North for the summer, but my father bids me assure you there will be other guests to spare you from ennui.”
His strong clasp tightened slightly, and Penelope awoke to the fact that she had not withdrawn her own hand as she should have done. Drawing back, she felt her cheeks redden, and smiled shyly. Quentin Chandler returned the smile, his innate kindness deepened by interest.
âWe have met before,' Penelope thought dreamily. âLong and long ago. But he does not know it. Yet.' And in that one short interval, irrevocably, her heart was given.
Lord Delavale had viewed his daughter's behaviour with deepening alarm. She turned to him with an odd, almost guilty little start. As though, he thought, she had quite forgotten he was with her. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, and in her eyes was a new look, a sparkling joy that had in it also an awareness of her femininity. He groaned inwardly, and knew his worst fears had been realised.
It began to rain in late afternoon and the wind, gusting fitfully over the rivers and scarps and chalk hills of Oxfordshire, carried on its breath the chill of northern ice-floes. Cold held no terrors for Penelope, but there was a limit, and when it became evident she would soon be soaked through, she patted the tired mare's neck gently and turned her into the lane that led towards the eastern boundaries of Highview. Here, venerable chestnut trees met overhead to cast a shade that was pleasant on a hot day. This afternoon was gloomy even under the open skies, and the lane was dark and hushed, but at least they were protected from the rain to an extent and Missy could amble along with less effort than on the sodden fields.
They soon came to the gate and the higher hedges that marked the start of the Highview preserves. Penelope reined to a halt, slid from the saddle, and gathered her wet habit over one arm as she opened the gate. She paused, her small gloved hand resting on the top rung as she looked nostalgically at the weathered wood. How many times she and Geoff had galloped this way. And wouldn't he tease her, could he see her now, dismounting so staidly to open the gate they had been used to jump, neck and neck. She sighed wistfully and glanced up at the lowering clouds, wondering where her brother's valiant spirit wandered today. He wouldn't be here, she decided. Except perhaps out of love for her. Geoff had loathed Uncle Joseph and his opinion of their beautiful aunt had been couched in unequivocal terms. “The woman is a vulture!” he'd declared, his dark eyes flashing indignation. “She and that rascally uncle of mine could scarce wait for Papa to be decently buried before they descended on Highview to manage my affairs. Much I need
management! At the rate they spend, I shall be fortunate to have an estate left to manage by the time I reach five and twenty and am allowed to come into my inheritance!”