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Authors: Anne Barbour

Tags: #Regency Romance

Buried Secrets

 

BURIED SECRETS

 

Anne Barbour

 

Chapter One

 

“Gone!” Lady Binsted bristled, her fine eyes afire. “What do you mean, gone?”

“I meant just what I said, Elizabeth.” George, the Marquess of Binsted, ran plump fingers around his collar and retreated to a corner near the fireplace. “Gone. Disappeared. The fellow has evaporated, apparently, into thin air.”

The couple stood in the drawing room of Binsted House, which nestled sedately in a row of fashionable town houses in Mayfair’s Mount Street. The chamber appeared even more elegant than usual. Great bouquets of hothouse flowers stood in vases about the room and each lustre on every chandelier had been washed and polished to diamond-like radiance.

“But the dinner party is only two hours away.” Lady Binsted all but wailed. “Our guests will be arriving soon. The Rantrays will be here any moment! Where
is
he?”

If her husband harbored any thoughts on the subject, he kept them to himself, merely shrugging his shoulders. He turned swiftly when a tap on the door heralded the entrance of Blevins, the butler, with the intelligence that Mr. Wilfred Culver had just arrived at the house.

“Well, show him up,” snapped Lady Binsted. “Perhaps he can tell us something.”

“Doubt it,” interposed Lord Binsted. “You know how Wilf and Cord feel about each other.”

“I know,” her ladyship agreed with a sigh. “One would never know they were brothers.” A few moments later, the door opened again to admit a tall, slender gentleman in his late twenties. Every line of his person declared him the dandy in full flower. His mouse-colored hair was painstakingly arranged in the Brutus style affected by the Prince Regent. His coat of lavender superfine was carefully fashioned to make the most of a rather meager chest and narrow shoulders. Pale yellow inexpressibles clung lovingly to carefully padded calves, and his tasseled Hessians were polished to blinding perfection.

“Gone?” he declared blankly in response to Lady Binsted’s dramatic declaration. “What do you mean gone?”

“I should think my meaning is quite clear,” Lady Binsted replied impatiently. “Cordray knows very well that the party is tonight. I spoke to him about it just yesterday. You remember, do you not, Binsted? We made a special trip to Curzon Street to speak to him about it.”

“Mm, yes.” The marquess rubbed his nose dubiously. “And do you remember, m’dear? He told you right then—the same as he did last week—that he had no intention of coming tonight—or of asking—”

“Tchah!” In anyone less exquisitely refined, the expletive might have been called a snort. “He inevitably refuses the slightest request on my part, but I cannot believe he would behave so shabbily on such an important occasion. As I recall, last week he said he would think about it.”

“Mpf. As if that meant anything. If you ask me, he was in a strange mood.”

“Cordray is always in a mood. Lord, how could my brother and dear Calista have produced such an aberration?”

“Come, now, Bessie,” said the marquess, absently using an appellation that invariably set his wife’s teeth on edge. “Cord ain’t a bad fellow. He just has an aversion to marriage.”

“Aversion!” Her ladyship sighed. “I just don’t know what is the matter with the boy. Ever since he inherited the title, he has proved to be a lazy degenerate with no regard for his family obligations. Do you know how many years it took to bring him up to scratch—to actually promise to propose to Corisande? Well, of course, you do.”

Lord Binsted acknowledged this last with a grimace.

Mr. Culver, examining a vase of pink chrysanthemums through his quizzing glass, murmured absently, “Don’t know why you went to all the bother, Aunt. Corisande and Cord are completely unsuited to each other.”

Lady Binsted gaped at her nephew. “Well, of all the unmitigated nonsense. Their union has been planned since they were in infancy.”

Mr. Culver merely grunted.

“And now,” continued Lady Binsted, “when the stage is set, so to speak, he is nowhere to be found. I suppose he is in one of those unspeakable hells he patronizes and will stroll into the room an hour after everyone is seated at table without so much as—” She halted abruptly, an expression of horror on her patrician features. “Dear heaven! You don’t suppose he’s bolted!”

Lord Binsted cleared his throat noisily. “Well, now, m’dear, it did occur to me that he was balking at the bit when we saw him yesterday. You know, I’ve told you more than once, you can’t force a man, especially one like Cordray, into matrimony when he don’t want to cooperate. However, I expect you’re right,” he concluded placatingly. “He simply found himself engaged in, er, other pursuits, and will show up ... if not on time, as least to do the pretty.”

A discreet knock was followed by another appearance by Blevins, this time carrying a folded note on a small silver salver. He glided across the floor, coming to a halt before Lady Binsted. He proffered the salver.

“This was just delivered, my lady. It was brought by one of Lord Cordray’s footmen.” The marchioness snatched the missive and perused it, before crumpling it in her hand with an audible gasp.

“He
is
gone!” she shrieked, handing the note to her husband. “Binsted, he
has
bolted! I simply do not believe it!” She tottered to a cherry-striped satin wing chair and dropped into it, limp and red-faced.

“‘My dear Aunt,’ ” read the marquess aloud, “I find it necessary to leave Town for a few days on business. I hope my departure will not cause you any inconvenience, and I hope your dinner party will be a success.’ ”

“I cannot believe it. The wretch
knew
we were expecting him. He
knew
how important his presence was tonight.”

“By God, he ought to be horsewhipped!”

At the sound of the angry voice, Lord and Lady Binsted whirled to stare at Wilfred. The young man reddened, shuffling his feet against the carpet.

“I just meant . . . well, it is extremely uncivil of him to serve Corrie such a turn. She has her heart set on marrying Cord, after all.”

“Ah, well, m’dear.” Lord Binsted waved an expansive hand. “We must carry on. P’raps he’ll turn up after all. You never know with Cord. He changes his mind as often as his cravat, y’know.”

As time plodded inexorably forward, however, the marquess’s words echoed hollowly in his wife’s ears. The guests arrived, dinner was served, eaten and the covers removed, all without the desired arrival of the man with a duty to perform that evening.

At about the time when the Marchioness of Binsted was making yet another apology, by now bordering on the frantic, to her guests, a solitary rider made his way over the rolling landscape of East Anglia. The skies were clear and starry, and he was grateful that the moon shone full as well.

Why in God’s name, wondered Christopher Culver, the Earl of Cordray, had he chosen to make his journey in the dead of night on horseback? A sensible man would have embarked in broad daylight, in his eminently serviceable—to say nothing of dashing—curricle, complete with valet and tiger. The answer, of course, was obvious, he reflected with a grimace. He was in full flight, haring off from London in the dead of night like a thief with the family silver in his pockets. Cord sighed. And it was all because he simply could not face the prospect of marriage, particularly not marriage to the Honorable Corisande Brant.

“Corisande,” he muttered. Was his aversion to the wedded state in general, or Corisande in particular? He knew the answer to that one, too. It was Corisande, oldest daughter of the Viscount Rantray. A perfectly decent female, he supposed, but she’d been a tedious little girl, and now possessed the capability of boring him to paralysis after five minutes in her company. She was intelligent enough, for a woman, but her thoughts rarely strayed beyond her wardrobe, her relatives, the latest
on dits—
and, of course, the thinly veiled references to her plans for him after they were wed.

For their future union had been considered a confirmed fact. Since their estates marched together, the two had been constant companions all during their formative years. He liked the chit well enough, he supposed, but . . . well, actually, no, he didn’t. She was a tad too grasping, a bit too set up in her own estimation, and a great deal too smug in her expectations, which centered on her future position as the Countess of Cordray.

This evening was to have been the culmination of their lifelong understanding. Corisande and her parents had been invited to a dinner party at his aunt’s house. Corisande’s older brother and younger sister, Lionel and Hyacinth respectively, were also to have been on board. After dinner, despite Cord’s best efforts over the past several years to avert disaster, he was scheduled to ask formally for Corisande’s hand.

He’d told his Aunt Binsted that he had no intention of proposing to Corisande, indeed, that he would not put in an appearance at the dinner party. As usual, of course, she hadn’t believed him—and as usual, he nearly capitulated. This time, however, the noose was too visibly in place above him, and in the end, he just couldn’t do it.

He’d awakened this morning with a bit of a head. All right, to be honest, after a night at the Beefsteak Club and the revels that had followed, the little men with pickaxes inside his skull were in full form, threatening to burst through his eyeballs. He’d forgone breakfast, electing instead to take himself off for a meditative ride in the park. The coming festivities at his aunt’s home and their unpleasant results had weighed heavily on him, and on his return home he’d ordered Hopkins, his man, to pack a portmanteau and sent him off. A few hours later, knowing his aunt would soon be on site to chivy him further into attending the proposed dinner party, he dashed off a note to her. He knew this was an act of sniveling cowardice, but he’d then crept stealthily from Cordray House. Now, here he was, well on his way to sanctuary.

Sanctuary, in this case, was a pleasant estate outside the village of Great Shelford, which, in turn, was only a few miles from Cambridge. The estate, Wildehaven, had been a bequest from a fond uncle several years ago. Cord had visited the place upon being notified of the gift, but had never returned, content to leave it in the hands of its competent manager. The Earl of Cordray was an urban creature and had never experienced the slightest desire to “let the countryside and the gliding valley streams content him.”

Until now, that is.

When he had begun searching for a bolt-hole, an image of Wildehaven had appeared in his mind like a line thrown to a drowning man. All the time he’d been aware that he was going completely beyond the pale, that Corisande would never forgive him and that her father would no doubt come after him with a horsewhip. Indeed, Rantray would no doubt be obliged to stand in line behind his Aunt Binsted. But, dear God, he had to do something before he made the betrothal official by a formal proposal. When the engagement was announced, papers sighed, and settlements arranged, it would be too late. He would be trapped forever in a union he knew to be doomed at the start.

He could not avoid the unpleasant consideration that his flight was an exercise in futility. He must return to London sometime, and when he did, Corisande would still be waiting for him to appear on bended knee. His family would still be at his back, wedding gifts in hand. All he was doing, he reflected gloomily as he picked his way along the rocky path that led to Wildehaven’s formal parkland, was postponing the inevitable. All he would have accomplished was to make a great many people furious with him. Not that this bothered him a great deal. He was accustomed to carrying on his life at his own pace and pleasure, and had been the object of his family’s schemes on many previous occasions. This was different. He knew very well that his position behooved him to marry. He must preserve the line. This fact had been drilled into him with great thoroughness by his father—and grandfather before him. God forbid the title should go to Wilfie was the general consensus among his relatives, and Cord could not but agree. Wilf was a nice chap, but had the judgment of an infant. He had some years ago formed a connection with Lord Brinhaven, a close associate of the Regent, and had drifted into the Regent’s set. Wilf had apparently somehow made himself indispensable to the Regent. He had told Cord once of tactfully retrieving a packet of indiscreet letters for the Prince. However, keeping up with this rackety conglomeration of elderly roués was rapidly bringing him to
point non plus.

A flood of guilt washed over Cord. The thing was, that through all this, he had conceded long ago, in his own mind, that he would marry Corisande. Not just because she was the choice of his family, but he had come to accept the notion that if he must marry, he might as well marry Corisande. He knew her well, and would no doubt become accustomed to her presence in his life. She had been bred to fill just this position, and she would be a credit to his house. She knew the mores that guided life in the
ton
and would make no attempt to interfere in the pleasurable tenor of his life. She would make no unpleasant scenes over his
cher amées,
nor, as long as his expenses did not impinge on her own comfort, would she object to his gambling losses—or the time spent away from home in these amiable pursuits. There was certainly no other female to whom he’d ever had the slightest inclination to become leg-shackled. Lord knew he wasn’t stupid enough to look for love. Love was for fools and poets and the writers of those god-awful novels. But, was it too much to ask that the woman with whom he must spend the rest of his life, would be someone whose company he could enjoy?

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