The Baron St. Ives was an ugly little man.
Jeannette Boucher could hardly pull her gaze away. Standing next to her, perched on skinny shapeless legs, arms behind his back, abdomen swelling in front of him, he reminded her of a pelican.
Three reddish chins hung low over the top of his collar while powder from a ringletted wig dusted the shoulders of his lavish gold-embroidered coat. Despite Jeannette’s own diminutive size, he barely cleared the top of her head.
“…into which holy state these two persons present come now to be joined…”
God, help me, Jeannette prayed as beads of nervous sweat trickled down her back. Her wedding dress was laced too tight. Dizziness almost overwhelmed her as she eyed her future husband again.
At least forty years beyond her own eighteen, Lord St. Ives looked back at her through heavylidded, lashless eyes. White flakes congealed in the creases of his face, contrasting with the purplish veins that burst like blossoms on his cheeks. Something occasionally twisted his lips into what a less perceptive soul might have interpreted as a smile. But not Jeannette. She was too young to be so fooled, too acquainted with happiness. She could not mistake Percival Borden for anything other than what he was: a sick old man, as unfamiliar with gaiety as she was with its opposite.
Until the Revolution, of course. The Revolution had changed everything.
Wetting her lips, Jeannette tried to draw air into her lungs. She didn’t want to swoon, dared not give away her desperation. She and her family had barely escaped war-torn France with their lives.
Her parents and younger brother deserved a reprieve from the terrible hardships they had suffered.
Jeannette was determined to give them that.
But she had never expected her heart to fight so tenaciously against the tether of her will.
Even now, hemmed in by innumerable bodies, she was tempted to flee, to part the nuptial witnesses like the Red Sea and run for her life.
“Wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded husband…”
The words of the ceremony slipped in and out of her consciousness. It wasn’t until a hush fell over the church as those crowded inside strained to hear her response that she knew the vicar had asked the question that would make her the wife of a man she did not love.
For an awkward moment she could not speak. Throat dry, voice gone, she glanced at the twinkling prism created by an errant ray of sunshine that had penetrated the cloudy sky outside to filter through the stained-glass window. Dust motes danced like fairies in that light, twirling, shimmering in vibrant array. To be so free …
Lord St. Ives’s hand tightened on hers, and Jeannette forced her gaze back to the tall, gaunt vicar.
But it wasn’t until she pictured her parents’ worried expressions that she managed a weak, “I will.”
Minutes later, it was over. The baron kissed her with slack lips, clasped her fingers in his small, manicured hand, and, turning her to face the rows of pews behind them, presented his new bride to the congregation.
Faces beamed at Jeannette—strangers all, except her parents and brother, who nodded their approval while standing to watch the new couple parade down the aisle.
Jeannette heard many murmur of her youth and beauty as she passed, but more spoke of the ball awaiting them that evening at Hawthorne House. Her new husband was no small man among those in the county, his wedding no obscure event in Cornwall.
“What a joy to see you properly wed!” her mother gushed as soon as St. Ives turned away to accept the felicitations of his friends.
Jeannette was glad to stand in the warmth of the sun. At least it felt familiar, despite the intermittent rain. The church interior, beautiful in its way with an abundance of marble and stained glass, had been so cold.
Unable to think of an appropriate response to her mother’s fabricated brightness, Jeannette turned to her father.
“I am proud of you,” he whispered in their native French. “You have chosen well. Lord St. Ives may not look the handsome gallant, but he comes from some of the finest blood in all of England. Our cousin Lord Darby has assured me of that, no? And he is rich as a king. You will always be well cared for.”
Jeannette struggled to swallow the lump that swelled in her throat. “Yes, Papa.”
Her thirteen-year-old brother Henri stood watching them with a gentle, pained expression.
She managed a smile when she caught his eye, but before she could speak to him, her new husband drew her toward a fancy, gilt-edged coach waiting at the head of a line of lesser conveyances. A team of four huge horses pranced while their driver, dressed in burgundy livery, held the matched beasts in check and several footmen stood at attention.
“Thank God that is over with,” St. Ives muttered.
As one of the footmen helped her inside, Jeannette wondered if her husband expected some kind of response, but she had no idea what to say to such a rude remark.
The baron climbed in behind her and took the opposite seat. “But a man must marry, eh?”
He reached out and squeezed her knee, his grin a picture of eager anticipation.
Trying not to notice how his dull-gray eyes measured every detail of her body, Jeannette quelled the urge to shrink from his touch and stared out at the many guests who would soon be joining them again.
“Will you miss France overmuch?” he asked.
The carriage lurched forward, forcing her to brace herself with a hand on one side. Rain over the past several days had left the streets full of ruts and mud, making the coach sway dramatically as they began their journey.
For politeness’s sake, she wanted to say that she wouldn’t, but knew her husband would interpret it for the lie that it was. “Oui,” she admitted at last.
“France’s loss is my gain.” His lips curved into another of his odd smiles, revealing teeth yellowed with age and tobacco.
Jeannette’s stomach tightened into a hard knot. For a moment she wished her governess had not taught her such excellent English-she understood him only too well. Fearing she might disgrace her family yet, she made no reply.
Thankfully, her new husband said nothing more, and they rode in silence the three miles to Hawthorne House.
* * *
Lieutenant Crawford Treynor stiffened as his mother welcomed him with a kiss. Her smile looked contrived amid the elegant features of her face, an expression Treynor didn’t recognize. But then, he’d seen little of Lady Bedford over his lifetime—and wished to see even less.
Her slender fingers plucked at the braid on his uniform. “You grow more handsome every year.”
Reseating herself, she picked up a gold-handled letter opener and an ivory envelope from a pile of correspondence on the table next to her. “Come, sit down.”
The drawing room where his mother received him was only half as luxurious as her husband’s home in Devonshire. Even so, it lacked little by way of creature comforts.
Compared to the poverty Treynor had known as a child, this cottage, with its ornate cornices, carved mantel, and fine furniture, looked like a castle.
He followed her to the settee but remained standing, his hands clasped behind his back. He planned to stay no more than a quarter of an hour, just long enough to fulfill his duty toward the woman who had given him birth.
“How did you know I was in Plymouth?” he asked, using polite conversation to fill the abyss between them.
“Certainly not from your infrequent letters.” She placed the letter opener on top of her papers and arranged her expensive, stylish gown before looking up at him. “You send me little more than the weather or general war information. Nothing I can’t learn from reading The Times.”
“My apologies. Perhaps I shall do better in future,” he said, but his sense of obligation did not extend that far. Although he sometimes wished he could put the past aside, he knew he could not. The ill treatment he had received at the hands of the brawny farmer she’d paid to raise him had left too many scars.
His mother grimaced. “Forever the gentleman, aren’t you? Tell me, has anyone the power to penetrate that cool reserve?”
“You already know the answer to that.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So you still blame me. Tell me, what else could a woman in my position have done with a bastard son? Have you forgotten that my first duty is to my husband?”
Treynor shrugged. She’d managed to take excellent care of herself along the way, but he wasn’t willing to argue. “Certainly you didn’t ask me here to dredge up the past.”
“No.” Her pale blue eyes held a cynical gleam that seemed to pierce right through him. “But that is why you finally came, is it not? Hoping I would do just that?”
Tensing, Treynor studied the delicate clutter that surrounded them. He wanted to appear aloof and unconcerned, as if his manner could deny the hammering of his heart. “You’ve kept your secret for twenty-eight years. I would not expect you to part with it now.”
He ignored the icy undercurrent, refused to let her bait him as she had in years past. “What brings you to Plymouth?” he asked, idly stroking the wing of a porcelain bird sitting on a table nearby.
The verbal feint made her laugh. “A wedding.” She stood and glided to the bell pull. “Lord Percival Borden, the Baron St. Ives, married this afternoon.”
“Did he now?”
“He did. Will you at least sit? And have tea?” She arched an eyebrow at him, making her invitation a challenge.
Again, he shrugged, but the tinge of bitterness he heard in his own voice betrayed the depth of his you.”
Chuckling without mirth, she moved back to her own seat. “Sit down. My headache would detain me even if you didn’t. Besides, I have decided to tell you.”
The bald statement plucked Treynor’s breath away. “About my father? I’m waiting.”
She waved the question aside and, still smiling, changed the subject. “At the wedding I met the family of another officer who serves on your ship. They mentioned that their son was in port and would be attending the ball tonight. That’s how I knew you were in Plymouth.”
The hope that she might actually provide him with the information he’d craved since his youth held Treynor prisoner, as she knew it would. “And who were they?”
“The Viscount Lounsbury and his wife, Eleanor.”
“Ah. Cunnington’s parents.” He didn’t bother to conceal his dislike for the lieutenant he served under, but neither did he elaborate on it. Miles Cunnington was a sadistic bastard.
Not that his mother would care. Titles and privileges meant far more to her than character.
“You don’t like him?”
She’d heard the underlying disdain in his response. But before he could answer, a sallow-faced butler knocked and entered the room pushing a cart bearing an elaborate tea service. He stopped at his lady’s side and, at her gesture, poured two cups.
“You can go now, Godfrey. See that you close the door tightly on your way out.”
Although Godfrey had been with the family for years, even traveled with his mother on this and every other trip, he bowed with brittle formality, scarcely acknowledging Treynor’s presence, and withdrew without a sound.
“Back to Cunnington,” she said. “What is it you hold against him?”
“Besides his arrogance? And the fact that his father’s title is the only reason he is where he is today?”
“Do I detect a bit of jealousy? Surely you don’t hate the entire aristocracy.”
“I pride myself on hating only those who merit such emotion,” he responded. “The rest inspire little more than contempt.”
This time her laughter sounded genuine. “My son is a champion of the common man, then?
“Neither.” Although he longed to head back to Plymouth and the pub where his mates awaited him,
Treynor accepted the cup she offered. That he felt obligated to take tea when he had no desire to remain in the room tested his patience. But he had to allow his mother time to show her hand.
Perhaps, at last …
“How long are you in town?” she asked.
“Weather permitting, we sail tomorrow.” He drank his tea in almost one gulp and leaned forward to put his cup on the tray. “Where is the marquess?”
She shrugged. “I’m sure he will be along presently.”
“Does he know I am here?”
“I told him you might come.”
“And he doesn’t mind? How odd. Now that I am an adult, he becomes generous.”
“He’s getting old. Sometimes power shifts in a marriage, something you might learn for yourself someday.”
“I doubt it. I don’t plan to marry.”
His mother blinked in surprise. “Ever?”
Again, he shrugged, but the tinge of bitterness he heard in his own voice betrayed the depth of his conviction. “I think I have learned enough about the fairer sex to prefer my bachelorhood.”
“Don’t tell me Mrs. Abbott beat you as often as her husband did.”
Treynor flinched at his mother’s casual acceptance of the abuse he had suffered as a boy. She cared no more now than she had then. “Since you have asked, Mrs. Abbott was more than kind. She was so desperate for any crumb of masculine attention, I was terrified to be left alone with her.” He fixed her with an unswerving gaze. “And her daughter Millicent became singularly determined to seduce me.
When I refused her, she told her father I tried to rape her.” He tacked a smile to his lips. “Of course Cayle had something to say about that. He got good and drunk and came after me. And I believe you know the rest of the story.”
“Yes. You were fourteen when you broke his jaw and left the Abbott farm for good …to join the navy.” She sipped her tea, watching him over the rim. “Then there’s me, of course. You already alluded to the fact that you think me less than a credit to womankind.”
“Evidently you feel you had good reason for doing what you did. Whether or not I agree makes little difference now.” He tucked the strand of hair that had fallen from the cord holding the rest back behind his ear. “Why not tell me about my father and be done with it?”
Her movements calm and fluid, she took another sip of tea. “Would you like something else?” She motioned to the tray that held scones, clotted cream, and gooseberry preserves.
“No. I believe it’s time to go.” Coming to his feet, Treynor sketched a formal bow. “Keep your secret, Mother. The possession of it seems to agree with you.”
He was nearly clear of the portal when her voice rose behind him. “If you must know, he was the stable master. William was in America for nearly two years, and I enjoyed the attentions of our stable master. He had a fine physique, he was kind, and he was loyal to a fault, even if he wasn’t always right in the head.”
He whipped around to face her. “You’re lying.”
“Am I? William didn’t return when he said he would, not soon enough to claim you were legitimate. I had no choice but to give you up. Certainly even you can see that. Are you happy now, my dear?”
Treynor felt as though someone had opened a trap door beneath him. He’d waited his whole life to learn that he was the spawn of a man who’d started having fits and eventually lost his mind?
Once again, his mother had drawn blood. Whether she spoke the truth or a lie didn’t matter. Her mocking words proved how little she cared about him.
His hands curled into fists as he fought to tamp down the pain he couldn’t believe he still felt. “Good night,” he managed through clenched teeth.
A shrill laugh answered him, one that echoed off the walls as he closed the door.