The estate of Lord Garrison, Lancashire, Summer 1799
A clandestine meeting, particularly where nakedness is involved, is best arranged for a moonless night.
Or so Gloriana Warren told herself, for her mother would never have uttered such a scandalous dictum. Unfortunately, it was tonight or never. Tomorrow, the man she had sworn to love forever would leave Lancashire and return to London—without her. They wouldn’t be able to marry for years because of his stupid scruples about money.
Men and their tedious pride! She and the Marquis de Bellechasse loved one another. They shared the same lofty ideals. She had a substantial dowry. Marrying now made sense. Not only that, her mother would die happy.
So Gloriana was taking matters into her own hands. She had planned the upcoming encounter in glorious detail—every word, every gesture. As she emerged from the summerhouse to greet him, he would stand and stare at her, transfixed by her beauty.
“Darling Philippe,” she would say, reaching for him, offering herself without reserve. “Love is eternal. It cannot—must not—be denied!”
“Ah, ma belle,” he would respond, his hand on his heart, his voice throbbing with desire. “I adore you. What a fool I was to think we could wait for years. Even another minute is too long. Tonight I shall make you mine!”
She would fling herself into his waiting arms, swept away on the tide of his passion.
She wasn’t sure exactly how it would go after that, apart from plenty of kissing, but judging by her previous experience of Philippe’s kisses, it would be the most thrilling experience of her life.
She sneaked out the French doors, arms full of blankets, and glanced back up at Garrison House. Not a glimmer of candlelight showed in the windows. She hurried through the rose garden and skirted the lawn, keeping to the bushes and out of the moonlight. In the secret room under the summerhouse, she and her darling Philippe would be safe. Tomorrow they would announce their engagement to Mama. They would send for a special license and be married within a week.
Ten minutes later, she had set up a makeshift bed under the summerhouse and removed all her clothes. Shivering more from excitement than from the chilly night air, she waited for Philippe to arrive.
Tonight would be the most perfect night of her life.
~ ~ ~
The Marquis de Bellechasse left his horse in a convenient copse and made his careful way forward, pausing at the edge of the trees. Garrison House was reassuringly dark, but moonlight reflected off the ripples on the lake. The summerhouse gleamed white on its little knoll, exposed on all sides. He paused, listening. No sound disturbed the darkness except a nightjar complaining from a nearby oak. He hoped and prayed no one else was up and about tonight. He couldn’t afford to get caught with Gloriana Warren, but nor could he bring himself to ignore her passionate plea to see him once more before they parted.
He loved her—to the point of folly, judging by his current behavior. He had already said farewell, and yet here he was, trespassing on her brother’s estate at midnight to say it again. He dreaded her inevitable tears.
The door to the summerhouse stood wide open, which meant Gloriana was here already. Fine. Best to get it over with now. He took a deep breath and set out across the lawn.
He had almost reached the doorway when she came into view, rising from out of nowhere, her face pale, her hair loose around her bare shoulders. He halted, staring, his heart thundering. She continued to rise, her breasts round and luscious in the light of the moon. His eyes slid helplessly down the curve of her hips to the darker patch at the apex of her thighs . . .
Mordieu. He shook his head and began to back away. “No, chérie. We must not do this.”
She set her feet on the floor—she must have emerged from a trapdoor—and beckoned with her sweet arms and smiled with her lush lips. “Philippe, my darling, please come to me. I love you so much.”
“No, ma belle, I cannot.”
“But love—” She faltered, then continued toward him, arms wide. “Love is eternal. It must not be denied.”
Sacrebleu! She was declaiming like a shoddy actress on the stage. The thought revolted him. Surely his idealistic Gloriana could not cheapen herself so. Anguished, he put up his hands to fend her off. “It is not possible, Gloriana. Not yet. It would not be right.”
She hurried forward, her breasts jiggling enticingly. “Truly, we mustn’t delay. My mother may not have long to live, and seeing me married well is her dearest wish.”
He didn’t care in the least about old Lady Garrison, who was the worst sort of snob. He shook his head. “No. To wait is best.”
“Philippe, I cannot wait. I need you now.” She reached for him, her nakedness inches away.
He gritted his teeth and took another step backwards. His imbecile cock was reacting to her, but he had long ago gained control over its demands. “I am sorry, but I must go.” He turned away.
She wailed, a sharp, keening sound, and immediately a shout came from nearby. Her brother? No. He was in London. A gamekeeper?
Whoever the man might be, he was lurking here on purpose. So much for love, Philippe thought. Gloriana was just another lust-crazed woman trying to trap him into marriage. He turned and ran. Pursued by shouts and then shots, he reached his horse and galloped away.
~ ~ ~
Nothing is more painful than rejection, except perhaps rejection when one is completely naked. Yet another scandalous dictum, and unlike many of her mother’s, this one was entirely true.
Gloriana stood frozen, heart pounding, while Philippe fled. Weatherby, the gamekeeper, emerged from the Home Wood, pursued him, then halted and took aim.
“No, don’t!” Gloriana cried, but he had already fired. Philippe disappeared into a small copse.
Weatherby eyed the trees for a long moment. The sound of frantic hoof beats reached them, then faded into the distance. He shrugged, then turned and gaped at her. “Miss Gloriana!”
She got ahold of herself, stuffing her shock and misery and mounting rage somewhere deep inside where she would deal with it later. She stomped back into the summerhouse and climbed down the ladder.
Weatherby’s horrified voice followed her. “Miss, what in God’s name are you doing out here at this time of night?” He was old enough to be her father and had known her since she was a baby.
If there was one thing the Warrens did and did well, it was handle the most mortifying occasions with aplomb. Putting on an act—of amusement, indifference, scorn, or what-have-you—was in their blood, honed through generations of scandal. “I was planning to bathe naked in the lake,” she retorted from the shadows of the secret room. She pulled her nightdress on over her head. She would have to leave the blankets here and retrieve them tomorrow.
“This will be the death of Lady Garrison,” Weatherby said. Poor Mama, devastated by the recent scandals of other Warrens, had nothing left but her pride.
“Not if she doesn’t find out,” Gloriana said. “Usually, it’s perfectly safe to bathe here. How was I to know there would be a poacher so close to the house?”
“A poacher, was it?” By his tone, Weatherby didn’t believe her.
“Must have been.” She pulled her wrapper on and did up the buttons. “Did you hit him?” Her heart squeezed at the dreadful thought. What if Philippe was bleeding his life away even as he rode?
Rage bubbled and boiled in her gut. He deserves it, said the part of her that wanted him as dead in reality as she felt inside.
Another part thought she would indeed die if anything happened to him.
“Dunno, miss,” the gamekeeper said. “Come morning, we’ll find out.”
She climbed the ladder and shut the trap door. Weatherby, seeing she was now clothed, helped her spread the carpet over it and placed a chair and her easel on top.
“Dear Weatherby, don’t be distressed,” she said. “I’ll be good from now on. I promise.”
“I wish I could believe that, Miss Gloriana,” he said heavily. “I wish his lordship was here.”
Thank God he wasn’t. Her brother Miles, Lord Garrison, was a good, kind brother, but he wouldn’t condone her behavior, despite the fact that his was far worse.
“We Warrens all misbehave, don’t we?” Everything from a murder a few centuries ago to her father’s death in a gaming hell brawl, her brother’s seduction and abandonment of a lady, and her cousin Daisy’s recent affair with a smuggler. Trysting with Philippe—a French nobleman of impeccable lineage—was almost respectable in comparison. “But I mean it, truly I do. Henceforth, I shall be perfectly ladylike.”
For she would have no reason to misbehave. In every way that mattered, her life was over.
He sighed. “I’ll say nowt, but I’ll still worry, miss.”
Impulsively, she kissed his leathery cheek. “Thank you. I wish you had been my father. You’re so much kinder.” Her own father had been a particularly unpleasant man. Mama loved Gloriana in her rigid way but valued nothing but rank. She would have died happy to see her only daughter married to Philippe—an aristocrat, albeit a French one.
Curse him. He had ruined everything!
Her aunt, who lived with them, was as rigidly proper as her mother. The only family members she genuinely liked were the disgraceful ones she rarely saw. She far preferred servants, most of whom were ordinary, well-intentioned people. Of course, she never dared say so to Mama, who firmly believed servants were lesser beings.
“If you were my daughter,” Weatherby said gruffly, “I’d give you a good hiding.”
“Rightly so,” she said pertly, and left, head high. He would watch until she was safely inside the house, so she maintained this pose until she was through the door with it closed behind her. Alone at last, she let the first burning tears fall.
She fully intended to cry herself to sleep, but Elspeth, her maid, stood tutting at the top of the service stairs. She must have been wakened by the shots, or perhaps she’d just been awake and waiting.
Gloriana tossed herself weeping on her maid’s breast. “I hope he’s not dead,” she sobbed.
“Hush, love. Hush. Mustn’t wake your mama or auntie.” Elspeth hurried her into the bedchamber, where she fussed and soothed and built up the fire, while Gloriana wept and blew her nose and dropped one sodden handkerchief after another to the carpet. “What if I never see him alive again?”
“No sense worriting yourself about it.” Elspeth set a saucepan on the hob. Unsurprisingly, the maid knew perfectly well what Gloriana had been up to—but she never scolded or tattled, merely offering practical advice. Perhaps this was because she was only a few years older than Gloriana, and therefore, she understood.
“I’m not worrying,” Gloriana lied. “He deserves to be dead.”
“That bad, is it?”
“But I love him, and now I’ll never, ever love another man.”
“Come now, Miss Glow. You’re upset, that’s all. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” Elspeth did all the lovely things a good maid, a good friend, did for one—comforted, offered handkerchiefs and warm milk laced with brandy, and listened.
“I know I sound like a hysterical fool,” Gloriana said. “I know there are plenty of eligible men out there. But the cards are stacked against me because of my scandalous family.”
“A gentleman who truly loves you won’t give a button for scandals—unless,” she added darkly, “it’s you making them, Miss Glow.”
No one used her nickname nowadays but Elspeth. No one, she thought, truly cared about her as dear Elspeth did.
Gloriana stood, wiping away the last of her tears. “I have no reason to make a scandal anymore. As for love, we Warrens don’t even believe it exists.” She’d imagined, for the few short weeks she’d known Philippe, that she might be the exception.
Elspeth gathered up all the soiled handkerchiefs and tossed them in the laundry basket in the corner. “Whether or not you believe in love, it still exists.”
Fine, but not for me. “For another thing, I’m ugly when I’m n-naked.” Her voice broke. Drat, she was crying again. How could she not? Philippe had looked at her with such revulsion. Such disgust.
Elspeth stared, her voice and expression incredulous. “What? Don’t be silly. You’re beautiful—dressed and undressed.”
Gloriana didn’t consider herself more than passably pretty—although she did get compliments on her unruly auburn hair—but until now, she’d been rather proud of her naked curves. She twisted the fabric of her wrapper in trembling hands. “Then why did he reject me?”
“Because he’s a gentleman of principle who’s not ready to marry,” Elspeth said severely. “I hope to God your poor mother doesn’t hear about this.”
“Weatherby won’t tell on me.” She sighed wearily and slumped into the chair again. “Mama would have died happy. He’s handsome and eligible—a marquis.”
“A French one with revolutionary ideals,” Elspeth muttered. “Your mother wouldn’t have liked that one bit.”
No, but by the time Mama found out about Philippe’s views on liberty, equality, and fraternity, they would have already been married.
“And he’s poor,” Elspeth added.
“I have plenty of money of my own.” Gloriana hiccupped on a sob. “I’ve heard that men are incapable of resisting an unclothed woman—but he resisted me.”
“And you should honor him for it.” Elspeth passed her another handkerchief. “This is the last clean one. We’ll have to use your old petticoats next.”
She had to stop crying now. “If you had seen the disgust on his face, you would understand.”
The maid rolled her eyes. “It was dark, Miss Glow. You’re imagining things.”
No, she’d seen his expression clearly in the moonlight. Perhaps she should be grateful for the full moon. At least she knew for sure what she’d witnessed. “I don’t honor him at all, and I wish I were finished with him for good.”
“Sounds to me like you are.” Elspeth shifted the hot brick she was rewarming over the coals. “Give it a little time, and he will be nothing but a memory.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t forget Philippe. I made a vow to love him forever.”
“Tsk,” the maid said, unimpressed. “I’m sure God will forgive you if you change your mind.”
“A sacred vow,” Gloriana said. “On my Book of Hours.”
That silenced Elspeth, who was religious in a more commonplace way, attending church and saying her prayers at bedtime. She didn’t approve of Gloriana’s attachment to the book, although she never said so. In a godless family like the Warrens, any religion was better than none.
As a child, Gloriana had fallen in love with a beautiful old Book of Hours, one of the Warren family treasures. It had provided her with comfort through all the vicissitudes of growing up—her parents’ shouted quarrels, her father’s drunkenness, the death of her beloved nurse, the more recent scandals. She owed the book eternal gratitude. She couldn’t make a vow on it and then change her mind. “You don’t understand.”
“No,” Elspeth said, “I’m glad to say I don’t.” She poured warm milk from the saucepan into a cup.
Gloriana took the milk and sipped. “I was so happy,” she explained. “I’d fallen in love, which is something we Warrens never do. I loved Philippe, and he loved me, or at least I thought he did. He said so, and naturally I believed him! I was so thankful, I swore upon the Book of Hours that I would love him forever and ever.”
“That’s what you’re supposed to do when you marry someone,” Elspeth said. “Best to save that vow for the wedding.”
“Maybe,” Gloriana mourned, “but I didn’t. I can’t go back on a holy vow. I’d be better off dead.”
Elspeth scooped the hot brick into the warming pan and ran it between the sheets. “That’s foolishness, Miss Glow, and well you know it. Get some sleep, and you’ll feel better in the morning.”
Gloriana doubted it, but she didn’t have the energy to argue. She took a few more sips of milk and gave it back to Elspeth, who set it on the table by the bed.
“Be patient,” the maid said, “and maybe in a few years your handsome marquis will have enough money and be ready to marry you.”
Not likely, since he didn’t love her. She loathed him for rejecting her and for his cowardly departure. As Elspeth tucked her in and closed the curtains around her, she murmured, “Is it possible to love someone and hate them too?”
To which Elspeth replied, “If anyone can do it, you can, Miss Glow.”
~ ~ ~
Some people don’t realize how fortunate they are, Elspeth thought as she went up the stairs to her attic room. It was stuffy at this time of year and frigid in winter, for old Lady Garrison would never allow fuel to be wasted on mere servants.
Gloriana has money and position, a comfortable bed, and a man who loves her! What does it matter if she has to wait a few years?
But I mustn’t complain, Elspeth acknowledged to herself. Gloriana was a far more pleasant mistress than Lady Garrison—a miracle in itself for one so spoiled, and yet so unloved. The old bat probably believed she loved her daughter, but for her it was all about money, position, and pride, and nothing to do with genuine parental love. In any event, one couldn’t expect Gloriana to be aware of all the discomforts of a maidservant’s life. At least she didn’t look down her aristocratic nose and say, “Servants are little better than animals,” or “They’re all dishonest and lazy,” like her mother did. For a well-born lady, Gloriana was surprisingly considerate.
But so childish! Surely, with a little attempt to put herself in the shoes of her marquis, Gloriana would appreciate his entirely proper behavior. What I wouldn’t give for such a man! Not that Elspeth would want a marquis—heaven forbid. No, all she wanted was a hard-working fellow with the money to afford a wife. But the chances of that were slim. She would most likely accompany Gloriana when she married and remain with her for the rest of her life or until she was pensioned off.
This, she reminded herself, was far more than most single women could hope for. Still, one could dream, and dream Elspeth did.
She lit a candle and settled herself in bed. Wasting candles on servants was, of course, forbidden by Lady Garrison, but Elspeth and Gloriana had an arrangement. Elspeth got Gloriana’s half-burned candles in return for concealing the romantic novels also forbidden by Lady Garrison. Which meant Elspeth got to read them all, often before Gloriana did! For some reason, this was balm to Elspeth’s soul.
If only Gloriana would be patient. If only Gloriana would be rational about her vow on that Book of Hours. If only . . . But no, Elspeth wasn’t about to catalogue all the faults and follies of her mistress. She would far rather read a novel.
Gloriana’s marquis, poor man, was much better off without her.