Authors: Lauren Royal
Tags: #ISBN-13: 9780451208316, #Signet
ALSO BY LAUREN ROYAL
In Praise of Younger Men
A S I G N E T B O O K
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A SIGNET Book / published by arrangement with the author All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2001 by Lauren Royal This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.
Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.
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The Signet Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
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A SIGNET BOOK®
SIGNET Books first published by Berkley Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
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Electronic edition: October 2003
For DeeDee Guiver Perkins,
Diena Brennan Simmons,
and Julie Bowring Walker,
who wore hoop skirts with me at the senior prom.
Our friendship means the world to me.
I wish to thank:
My son Brent, for his patience whenever I ask for Web site updates (which is
the time); Terri Castoro, for cri-tiquing my books again and again (and again); Jack, Brent, Blake, and Devonie, for putting up with the whims of a writer; Glynnis Campbell and Cherie Claire, for being the other two-thirds of the Three Musketeers; Ayn Rand, for the concepts behind Violet’s philosophical musings on love at first sight; Nancy and Charles Williams, for so graciously hosting my signings at the Highland festivals; Warren Berger and George Elmassian from Dazzlers, for their help with the gold necklaces for my
trilogy contests; my parents, Joan and Herb Royal, for being the best (parents, that is); my official First Readers: Karen Nesbitt, Taire Martyn, Alison Bellach, and Jane Armstrong, for both the opinions and the laughter; Ken and Dawn Royal, for invaluable feedback and support; The World’s Best Publicity Team—Rita Adair-Robison, Debbie Alexander, Dick Alexander, Robin Ashcroft, Joyce Basch, Alison Bellach, Diana Brandmeyer, Carol Carter, Terri Castoro, Vicki Crum, Elaine Ecuyer, Dale Gordon, Darren Holmquist, Taire Martyn, Lynne Miller, Sandy Mills, Amanda Murphy, Karen Nesbitt, DeeDee Perkins, Jack Poole, Caroline Quick, Joan Royal, Ken Royal, Wendi Royal, Sandy Shniderson, Diena Simmons, Connie Story, and Julie Walker—for all their effort and enthusiasm . . . and, last but certainly not least, all my wonderful readers, especially those of you who have sent e-mails and letters.
He’d forgotten about her.
Well, maybe he hadn’t quite forgotten about her, but he’d certainly put her out of his mind.
Well, maybe he hadn’t quite put her out of his mind, but he’d known she was only sixteen. And sixteen was too young, so being the sort of man he was—an honorable one, or so he liked to think—he’d made a conscious decision not to pursue her.
For the four long years since their last meeting, whenever thoughts of Lily Ashcroft had sneaked into Lord Randal Nesbitt’s head, he’d reminded himself she was only sixteen.
But now, he realized with a start, she must be twenty.
Focused as Rand was, the priest’s voice, reciting the baptism service, barely penetrated his thoughts. Nor did the wiggling month-old child in Rand’s arms. He stared at Lily standing beside him in her family’s oak-paneled chapel, her sister’s other twin baby held close.
Twenty. A lovely dark-haired, blue-eyed twenty. A marriageable twenty.
In all of Rand’s twenty-eight years, he’d never really considered marriage, so the notion was jarring.
“Having now,” the priest continued, “in the name of these children, made these promises, wilt thou also on thy part take heed that these children learn the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and all other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul’s health?”
“I will, by God’s help,” Lily replied softly. Gently, gazing down at the babe in her arms.
Rand was unsurprised. In four years she had changed, of course. But her gentleness, that innate sweetness, hadn’t changed. Couldn’t have changed. ’Twas what made her Lily.
Ford Chase, Rand’s friend—and father of the children in question—elbowed him in the ribs.
“Hmm?” Startled, Rand looked down to the lad he was holding, its bald little head patterned with colors made by sun streaming through the chapel’s stained-glass windows. Ford’s child, he thought, surprised by a rush of tenderness. Rand’s godchild . . . or at least the tiny babe and his twin sister would be his godchildren once they managed to get through this interminable service.
“I will,” he answered, echoing Lily’s words and vaguely wondering what he’d just agreed to.
“By God’s help,” the priest prompted.
“By God’s help.”
God help him get through this ritual. Mass, and then a lesson, and now this ceremony at the font—Rand felt like he’d been standing on his feet forever. Delivering a two-hour lecture at Oxford wasn’t nearly this exhausting. He feared his knees were locked permanently.
He wanted it to be over. He wanted to talk to Lily.
Never mind that she’d barely noticed him. He’d arrived at the last minute and had no chance to greet her before this rigmarole all began.
The priest turned a page in his
Book of Common
“Wilt thou take heed that these children, so soon as sufficiently instructed, be brought to the bishop to be confirmed by him?”
“I will.” He and Lily said it together this time. Their voices, Rand thought, sounded good together.
“Name these children.”
The child squirmed in Rand’s arms, choosing then to begin wailing. “Marcus Cicero Chase,” Rand bellowed over the cries.
“Rebecca Ashcroft Chase,” Lily said more softly and with a smile, even though the girl’s cry had joined her twin brother’s, seeming to fill the chapel all the way up to its molded Tudor ceiling.
Whoever would have thought such small infants could make such a huge racket?
The priest rushed to finish, scooping water into his hand. It trickled through his fingers, running in rivulets down the backs of the two babies’ heads and landing on the colorful glazed tile floor. “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” He muttered some more words and made crosses on the children’s foreheads. “Amen.”
Amen. It was over. Well-wishers crowded close. Still holding his squalling godson, Rand turned to Lily.
She was gone.
How could she have disappeared so quickly? Using his height to advantage, he peered over heads. But she had vanished.
Nearby, Ford held tiny Rebecca and was chatting with an older man. Lily’s father, if Rand remembered right. Or rather, Ford was shouting at the man, since the Earl of Trentingham was hard of hearing.
Marveling that his tall, masculine friend looked so comfortable holding an infant, Rand shifted little Marc uneasily. Rebecca had stopped crying, apparently content in Ford’s arms, but in Rand’s arms, her twin brother still howled.
Rand looked around for help, relieved to see Violet Chase—Ford’s wife and Lily’s sister—moving close.
When she reached for her son, Rand gave her a grateful smile. But then he found himself oddly reluctant to hand Marc over. The babe might be loud, but he smelled sweet and had a pleasant, warm weight.
Marc quieted immediately when Violet took him. Rand resisted the urge to run his fingers over that fuzzy little head, leaning a hand on one of the intricate carved oak stalls instead. “I assume you chose his name, Marcus Cicero, for the philosopher.”
Violet bounced the lad in her arms, her brown curls bouncing along with him. She looked more motherly than Rand usually pictured her. Did children change people so much? Life as a single man had its distinct advantages.
“’Twas only fair,” she said. “Ford had the naming of our firstborn.”
“Nicky? Ah, Nicolas Copernicus,” Rand remembered.
“Well, I suppose ’tis a better name than Galileo Galilei.”
“Ford’s other scientific hero?” She laughed, her brown eyes sparkling with humor behind the spectacles Ford had made for her. “Even
wouldn’t saddle a good English child with Galileo for a name.”
“And Rebecca? Who is she named after?”
“No one. I just like it. And there’s never been a major female philosopher.”
“Yet,” Rand added, knowing she hoped to publish a philosophy book of her own someday.
“Yet,” Violet confirmed with a nod, clearly appreciating his support. She touched her husband’s arm, claiming his attention. “We’d best be heading home,” she said when he turned, “or everyone will arrive there before us.”
When Ford smiled at her, Violet’s responding smile transformed her face. Perhaps she wasn’t as beautiful as her sisters, Lily and Rose, but she was attractive in her own, unique way, and it had nothing to do with the magnificent purple gown she’d donned for the baptism.
Moreover, ’twas obvious she made Ford very, very happy. A sort of happiness that glowed from his eyes whenever he looked at her. A sort of happiness neither Rand nor Ford had dreamed of back in the days they attended university together.
’Twas frightening how much the man had changed.
Ford was still holding his new daughter, her tiny fist tangled in his long brown hair. Unable to resist this time, Rand skimmed his fingers over Rebecca’s dark curls. “So soft,” he murmured.
Violet nodded. “Have you never touched a baby before today?”
“Not that I can recall.”
“Someday you’ll have children of your own.”
“Perhaps,” he allowed. “My favorite truism is ‘Never say never.’ But God willing, should it happen, ’twill not be too soon.”
Her laugh tinkled through the almost empty chapel.
“We really must be going.”
“Come along, Rand,” Ford said. “I want to show you the water closet I built. ’Tis much better than the ones imported from France.”
A smile curved Rand’s lips as he followed them out the door. It seemed his friend hadn’t changed that much, after all.
“What?” Lily laughed as her friend Judith Carrington pulled her toward a carriage. “What is so important that you couldn’t wait until we got to Violet’s house to tell me? So important that you almost made me drop my niece, not to mention almost dislocated my arm dragging me out of there?”
She paused before climbing in, waving at her parents and sister Rose lest they think she’d abandoned them.
They were a handsome family, she thought suddenly, her father tall and trim, his eyes a deep green, his real hair still as jet-black as the periwig he wore for this special occasion. Her mother and Rose were both dark-haired and statuesque, elegant in their best satin gowns, Mum’s a gleaming gold, Rose’s a rich, shimmering blue.
Looking at them, one would never guess they were so eccentric.
Her mother waved back distractedly, holding her two-year-old grandson, Nicky, as she busily ushered guests out the door to their waiting transportation. Feeling Judith’s hand on her back, Lily laughed again and lifted her peach silk skirts to duck inside the carriage.
“What?” she repeated.
“Oh, just this.” Even though they weren’t ready to leave, Judith pulled the door shut. Then she settled herself with a flounce. “I’m betrothed.”
“Betrothed?” Lily blinked at her friend. “As in you’re planning to wed?”
“Well, Mama is doing the planning. It is ever so exciting. Can you believe it, Lily? Come October, I’m going to be a married woman.”
“No, I cannot believe it.” The third of her friends to marry this year. Yesterday they’d been children; now suddenly they were supposed to be all grown-up. “Who?”
“Lord Grenville. Did your mother not tell you she’d suggested he offer for my hand? Father says it is a brilliant match.”
Grenville was wealthy, but thirty-five years old to Judith’s twenty. “Do you love him?” Lily wondered aloud. She hoped so. Judith was plump and pretty, but even more important, she was genuinely nice. A good friend who deserved happiness.
“I barely know him. But Mama assures me we will grow to love one another—or get along tolerably, at least.” The excitement faded from Judith’s blue eyes, replaced with a tinge of anxiety. Her fingers worried the embroidery on her aqua underskirt. “’Twill work out fine, I’m sure of it.”
“I’m sure of it, too,” Lily soothed, reaching across to take her friend’s cold, pale hand. She squeezed, wishing she were as certain as she sounded. Her own parents had promised their daughters they could choose their own husbands, but Lily knew it did not work that way for most young women.