Authors: Elizabeth Boyle
To my father, Denton Herlan,
the other storyteller in our family.
Thank you for teaching me
just how far you can stretch a fish story,
and then how to stretch it just a bit further.
All my love and deepest appreciation
“Mother, where are you sending me? You can’t hide me…
“Cousin Felicity, my brother had the business sense of a…
“Riley, my love, whatever took you so long? While you…
The next morning Mason stared out his study window onto…
Riley could only stare down at the Earl’s firm hand…
“I will not be—” Riley started to protest as the…
“Damnation, here comes Del,” Mason muttered early the next morning,…
Mason returned from his ride an hour or so later,…
Before Riley could make any further introductions, the door to…
Riley had watched from the library window as Mason and…
Mason arose the next morning at the same time he…
“Oh, Mason,” Cousin Felicity wailed as she burst into his…
“You can’t decline the Duke’s invitation,” Riley said, following doggedly…
The Dowager Countess of Marlowe sat in her morning room…
Mason had never considered himself a coward before, but when…
Mason stared at the woman on the floor. “What the…
Mason was as swift and true to his word as…
Mason walked home from the Everton masquerade, each pounding step…
Riley awoke disoriented. The sun streamed in through a crack…
“Oh, aye, my lord, he was Daniel Nutley all right,”…
“Can you believe it?” Riley said. “I’m a Countess.” She…
Opening night of any new production found the Queen’s Gate…
Lord Cariston lurked about the edge of the crowd pouring…
Riley snatched the book out of Mason’s hands, as their…
other, where are you sending me? You can’t hide me away forever!”
The angry cries erupted outside the morning room where the Countess always took her breakfast. Summoning all the breeding and reserve of her noble forebears, the lady set down her teacup and awaited the next outburst. Even as she raised her napkin to her lips, her daughter Elise burst into the room. Two footmen followed the young woman, catching her arms and trying to pull her back into the hallway, their faces apologetic and fearful.
As well they should be
, thought the Countess,
to allow such a scene in my house
Before she could chastise either of them, her scandal-ridden daughter shook herself free from her captors and continued her headlong rush toward the Countess.
“What are your plans now, Mother?” Elise cried, banging her fist down on the table and sending the delicate teacup clattering out of its saucer. “Commit me to Bedlam? I am a married woman with child, not some dockside whore riddled with pox!”
The Countess blanched at her daughter’s vulgar outburst. Coughing discreetly, she waved the gawking maid and the ever-present butler out of the room. With a nod, she sent the footmen following as well. As the sound of their hurried steps died away, the Countess carefully set aside her napkin, reached for her gold-tipped cane, and rose from the table to face her only child.
A strained silence filled the room. The two women glared at each other, mirror images of stubborn determination.
Why couldn’t she have borne a son? the Countess lamented. Though her husband’s title and estates were entailed so they could pass to a daughter, Elise was not worthy to wear the noble name—not with her antics or her ill-fated connection.
The family’s honor and decency had to be maintained, no matter the personal cost.
“Mother, I demand to know where you are sending me,” Elise said, her scorn and contempt defining each word. “I’ll have a say in my future. I’ll not be treated like a child any longer.”
Confronted again with this unrelenting defiance, the Countess lost any hold she’d claimed on her steely reserve and flew into a blind rage. Without even blinking, she slapped her daughter across the face as hard as she could.
The blow sent Elise reeling to her knees.
The Countess clenched her stinging hand at her side and continued to glare at her daughter.
From the floor, Elise looked up through the mass of dark hair that had tumbled loose in her fall and now fell about her head like a black shroud. “How dare you,” she said. “I am with child!”
“I heard you the first time!” The Countess pounded her
cane on the polished floor. “Why not say it loud enough for even the scullery maids to hear?”
As Elise staggered to her feet, her chin lifted again in rebellion. “I’ll say it loud enough for everyone in London to hear, once I am free of this house.”
“Oh, don’t worry. You’re about to leave. But don’t think for a minute you’ll have the opportunity to make a greater fool of yourself.” The Countess resumed her seat at the small table. Taking a deep breath, she steadied her shaking hands and poured herself another cup of tea.
Elise moved closer. “You truly mean to send me away from London?”
To the Countess’s keen ears, it seemed her daughter’s words held an anxious edge. She smiled inwardly at this first small victory in their battle over Elise’s ill-advised elopement with Geoffrey Stoppard. Until fifteen years ago the Stoppards had been nothing but wool merchants, until they’d purchased a baronetcy in a pitiful attempt to raise their family above their common origins. Geoffrey, as a third son, had aimed at a higher lot in life than even his ambitious father could have imagined or purchased.
And Elise had offered him just that opportunity.
For as her husband, Geoffrey Stoppard not only would have gained control of her fortune, but the cursed letters of patent also entitled Elise’s husband to take the rank left open by her father’s death, the title of Earl.
The Countess shuddered at the unthinkable union of her daughter and some…some…conniving cit’s son. Or worse, a cit’s son taking her esteemed husband’s title.
What would the
have said about the sudden elevation of that odious man from commoner to one of the most respected titles in the peerage—all because she’d been unable to control her errant daughter?
At least she’d been able to prevent such a contemptible
situation—so far, though only through stealth and sheer bribery. The Countess had quelled all the rumors of Elise’s springtime elopement, and even privately rejoiced when Stoppard and his arrogant ways had gotten him killed by brigands as the honeymoon couple returned from Scotland.
The entire episode could have been hushed up and forgotten, until this, she thought, glancing at the growing swell of Elise’s normally flat stomach, this final reminder of Stoppard’s rapacity and her daughter’s reckless indiscretion.
“Where are you sending me, Mother?” Elise’s insistent demand broke the Countess’s reverie.
Selecting a roll, she buttered it with slow, precise strokes. “I intend to send you far enough away that this embarrassing situation will never be discovered.”
Elise shuddered. “Why? Because Geoffrey didn’t have all the titles and family connections you find so important? I don’t care about any of that. I loved my husband. I’m proud to be carrying his child. At least now some part of him will continue on.”
Anger narrowed the Countess’s vision. “I doubt your precious Geoffrey would have appreciated such devotion, for he cared only for your money and the titles you brought to your marriage.”
Her daughter’s chin cocked upward again. “He cared not for those things. He would have loved me if I’d been a pauper. He told me so.”
The Countess sniffed. “He said the same things to Lord Easton’s daughter when he tried to elope with her last fall.”
Elise blanched. “Cynthia?”
“Why yes, Lady Cynthia. Luckily her maid revealed their plans and Lord Easton was able to stop them before
the idiotic girl ruined herself completely.” She paused and glanced up at Elise. “Why, I thought you knew—nearly everyone does. But I can see by your face you didn’t.” The Countess glanced away, allowing her lie to sink into her daughter’s love-besotted mind.
“What do I care what Geoffrey did before we were…” Elise struggled valiantly to defend her dead husband.
“Married?” her mother finished for her. “I wouldn’t be so sure. There is no proof of a wedding, as you know, since you allowed it to be stolen along with all your belongings. And why would you want to claim it? Think, you foolish girl, what an alliance to that family would mean,” the Countess said. “His father will step in as guardian to that bastard and take control of your inheritance. If something happened to that child, while the title would be safe, our holdings, our income, would pass to that wool merchant and his loathsome brood. No, it is better the entire episode is hidden away, better for you if this child is forgotten.”
Elise shook her head. “Forget my child? Never.” She drew herself up to her full height. “Geoffrey’s child deserves a name, a home. Why should this babe bear the brunt of your anger because I married Geoffrey Stoppard?”
The Countess, refusing to speak, stared at her with icy regard.
“How can you deny your own grandchild?” Elise demanded.
“I will not acknowledge your unfortunate association with that impudent man, nor will I lend our good family name to his leavings,” came the cold reply. “There is too much at stake.”
“My child deserves a name.”
The Countess raised her eyebrows at this continued defiance. Looking around the room she spied the wagging
tail of her deceased husband’s favorite hound lounging near the fireplace. “If you insist on giving your little bastard a name, call it Riley,” she mocked, pointing her finger at the ugly old hound.
“After the dog?”
“Why not?” she told her daughter. “Without the protection of this family or that of a husband, you would be no better in the world than the whore you played to your perfidious lover. Riley is the best name your child could hope for.”
Elise’s hands folded over her stomach, as if to protect her babe from the nightmare unfolding around her. “You would have my child live as a…”
“A bastard,” the Countess said coldly, dismissing any possible sentiment about the child her daughter carried.
Again, she took a deep breath. The child was none of her concern.
“I could marry someone else, pass this child off—” Elise said quietly.
The Countess shook her head. “You’re too far gone for that. If you had come to me two months ago, it might have worked. I’m sure there are many who would take you even now, but I’ll not endure the gossip come March when that babe arrives four months after a hasty marriage—nor will I risk any speculation by those Stoppards as to who the father may be.”
The Countess reached for her cane and rose again. Pacing to the garden window, she glanced out at the cold November morning and frowned.
“So what will you do with me?” Elise finally whispered.
Drawing a deep breath, the Countess laid out her plan. “You will sail to France and bear this child in secret. Once it is all over, you can return and marry Tamlyn, as your
father and I have planned since your birth. He’s heir to his grandfather’s dukedom. One day you’ll be a duchess and all of this,” she said, pointing a beringed finger at her daughter’s stomach, “will be forgotten.”
Elise shook her head at her mother’s scheme, her gaze focused out the window as well. “No, there must be another way. I’ll not abandon my child.”
The Countess leaned forward. “You will agree to these arrangements, or you will find yourself in a French convent for the remainder of your days. I will live without a daughter rather than have you ruin this family’s honored name.”
“Even you wouldn’t be so cruel to bury away your only child in some foreign convent.”
The Countess arched a brow. “I would rather see everything pass to your father’s cousin than allow you another opportunity to rain scandal down on this house. Give up this bastard and marry Tamlyn.”
“My child is not a bastard. It has a father. My husband.”
“Then where is he, Elise? Where is your proof of matrimony?” the Countess jeered. “I’ll tell you where—stolen away, just like that conniving blackguard did with your virtue and reputation.”
It wasn’t without some regrets that she watched Elise’s shoulders sag in defeat.
All is not lost yet, my child
, her mother thought.
You can return and take your position as Tamlyn’s wife and you’ll rule society as I have
A famous beauty from the moment she’d stepped into the London social circuit at sixteen, Elise and her mysterious green eyes had been regaled by poets, her lithesome and flirtatious manners imitated by the highest born down to the parroting masses, and her company sought by every man from seventeen to seventy-nine.
Elise slowly turned her gaze from the window. The Countess watched her with a level stare, trying to discern any sign, some evidence that her daughter would make the right decision.
“What will it be?” the Countess asked, silently urging her to make the right choice.
Forget this child. Marry the Duke.
“I’ll go to France.” Elise’s green eyes burned with hatred. “But I will not give up this child. Nor will I marry Tamlyn.”
The Countess instantly heard something underlying her daughter’s terse words.
Hope. And a plan.
Well, she would nip any harebrained designs right here and now. “Don’t think because you go to France you will have any opportunity to gain your freedom. You will be escorted by Edrich and his brothers, all of whom have been well paid and are not foolish enough to risk my wrath.”
The Countess rose from the table, her cane in hand. “They will take you under guard to the ship, and then you will be locked in a room for the crossing. The Captain has been informed of your unfortunate tendency toward lunacy and is more than sympathetic to seeing you kept under lock and key. Your wiles, your pleas will go unheard, for you will neither see nor speak to anyone. In France, the abbess will not allow you to leave your cell until the child is born. And if you continue to refuse to marry Tamlyn, in the Abbey you will remain for the rest of your days. There will be no escape.”
“Mercy, what will become of my child?” Elise said quietly, the words whispering of despair and loss.
The Countess thumped her cane down hard on the floor, driving away the bitterness of the last two months now
wrenching at her heart. She wouldn’t let imprudent sentimentality tear her from the course of action she’d chosen.
“That is no longer my problem,” the Countess replied. “I wash my hands of you. You have done everything possible to ruin this family’s name with your common behavior and theatrics more suited for the stage than my home. Your days of bringing disgrace to this house are over. If you do not come to your senses when this child is no longer an issue, then I will tell the world you died of a fever.”
At the Countess’s signal the footmen returned and caught Elise in their strong grasp.
“I shall escape you, Mother. And I will return,” Elise cried out, as they dragged her from the morning room.
Though she did escape, she never returned to her mother’s house.
But one day, Riley did.