He was not a praying man.
He had ceased in believing in God a long time ago.
Or rather, God had deserted him long before.
But he prayed now.
Sir Frederick George St. John glanced over his broad shoulders at the motionless patient in the four poster bed behind him. The gentle rise and fall of the frail chest was the only indication of any life. He turned away his head slowly, with rigid control and returned his gaze to the view of the estate grounds afforded to him through the tall, majestic French windows. Inside this slightly, stuffy and barely lit chambers, the grim possibility of death loomed not far behind. Like a beautifully stitched but worn piece of tapestry, the frayed edges of this life were unraveling. The once slow fading of the vibrant and varying colors proceeded more rapidly. And there was no longer any way to prevent the steady unraveling and fading. The flickering but constant moonlight that streamed through the windows failed to give expression to a determinedly impassive visage. The thinning of his lips, the taut jaw, and the clenching of his fists in his trouser pockets provided the only possible clues to any emotion beneath the fierce calm. He swallowed briefly and closed his eyes.
Memories, both painful and treasured, almost always tightly contained, suddenly attacked his conscious. Eyes still closed, Frederick saw the lonely and desperately eager young boy who hesitantly shared his dreams and aspirations with an approving and understanding guardian and mentor during their long walks along the borders of the estate. He recalled the young boy who looked forward to the holidays, to the long, companionable fishing expeditions along the lazy, trickling stream. This young boy would never catch anything, but they had been jolly experiences – only during these fishing expeditions could he toss aside his training as a gentleman and make raucous noise.
Frederick’s eyes flew open as he jerked away from the windows. His heart constricted as he thought of the man in the bed, this man whose dusk would come at any moment now. This man who had raised him and advised him for most of his life. Frederick’s stomach twisted; he took deep, discreet breaths. He had been a mere nine years old when he had sobbed his heart out when his undeserving father had committed suicide, Frederick suddenly recalled with unwanted clarity. His mouth twisted cynically. It had been the last time he had shed any tears.
“Frederick?” a reedy voice called out in the darkness.
Frederick’s acute hearing picked up the barely audible sound. As was his customary fashion, he hurried over to his former guardian’s bedside without seeming to hurry. His brooding expression had been replaced with his usual nonthreatening, amiable smile. He placed two fingers gently on his patient’s wrist, relieved to find a weak but steady pulse. “You should be resting, sir,” he reproached with a faint smile and a forced lightness.
Sir George Creston, former royal physician, formerly of the Foreign Office, and faithful servant of the Crown, shook his head weakly, returning Frederick’s smile. A man who harbored no illusions about himself or the world around him, he was aware that the curtain would soon fall on a life that had spanned five decades. He had no regrets, as he gazed fondly at the young man at his bedside, save one. He wished that he could have taken care of one matter for both personal reasons and for the sake of the Crown. For as long as this one particular matter remained unresolved, he could not pass away peacefully: the fragile peace on the Continent and the security of his beloved daughter would always be in jeopardy. With what little strength he could summon, Sir Creston looked into the concerned face hovering above him. His gentle and brave heart filled with love and gratitude as he gazed at his former ward. A man could not have asked for a better pupil or surrogate son. The Crown could not ask for a more loyal servant. His daughter could not ask for a more loving and faithful future husband.
Long ago, Sir Creston had forsaken the love of a woman and all of its trappings when he chose to serve the Crown. But his sacrifice had not meant that he could not remember the powerful passions love provoked. He could still see and feel the tenderness that would unknowingly creep into a man’s eyes when he watched the woman he loved.
Sir Creston saw what the dimness of his chambers could not show in Frederick: conviction, strength of character, and compassion. A tall, lean yet muscular figure of a height two inches above six feet. Firm, direct grey eyes that could be icy or warm, depending on the circumstances. But above all, a capable, intelligent and confident yet not arrogant man who valued and honored his promises and took care of what was his.
When Sir Creston parted his parched lips to speak, he began to cough violently. Alarmed but outwardly placid, Frederick came closer but was waved away. But Frederick remained where he was, his sharp grey eyes never leaving his patient.
Sir Creston smiled wryly. “I used to despair of your stubbornness, son,” he remarked in a raspy voice. “But I see now that it shall serve you well. Yes, it shall serve you very well.”
Frederick remained mute, his brows furrowing. He leaned forward and took his former guardian’s pulse again. It was growing weaker. Frederick absently smoothed the comforter more firmly around Sir Creston.
“Sir – “ Frederick began in his most soothing voice.
“As long as he is out there, free to wreak whatever havoc he wishes, Honoria will always be in danger,” Sir Creston interrupted abruptly. “He would never come near her as long as I was alive for he knew…” he coughed again; his complexion grew grayer. “He knew that I would protect her at all costs,” he gasped, leaning back against his pillows.
Frederick kept his expression carefully bland; he had no idea of what Sir Creston was speaking. “I am certain that Lady Caposten will take admirable care of her,” he responded politely, hoping to assuage his patient.
Sir Creston shook his head, growing more agitated. “Frederick, you do not understand. Once I am gone, she cannot protect Honoria from this man should he come to claim her. And he will,” he added with absolute certainty. “He would be within his rights for…” he paused, then added softly, “you see, this man is Honoria’s birth father.”
Years of hiding his immediate emotional reaction to any announcement had not prepared him for this. Frederick could not conceal his shock. “Sir?” he queried incredulously.
“Society believes that Honoria is my illegitimate daughter, and I have never disabused the ton of this mistaken notion,” Sir Creston continued, ignoring Frederick. “She was born of a man who threatens the peace of the Continent, a man who deftly plays countries against each other. A man who has eluded capture all these years.” Frederick had schooled his features to its usual blandness. However, his grey eyes remained intent on Sir Creston’s face: like all other officers in the Foreign Office, Frederick worked towards capturing and hanging this man.
Sir Creston’s eyes grew hazy as he momentarily entered a distant world alone. “Honoria’s mother… when she realized what sort of man she had married, she turned to me for assistance,” he recalled. “She was pregnant with Honoria… I promised her on her deathbed that I would always protect and love Honoria. Love her as if she were my own.”
Sir Creston struggled to extend a hand, which Frederick immediately clasped. “But I cannot fulfill that promise when I am gone. So I…” he cleared his throat, tightening his grip on Frederick’s hand. “I want you to fulfill that promise. I want you to protect and to love Honoria.”
Frederick was speechless. He stared blankly at Sir Creston. He immediately tried to form a response but nothing came out. He took a deep breath and tried again.
“Sir,” Frederick began delicately, desperately trying to find the right words. “I suspect that – “
Sir Creston’s expression and tone were implacable as he made his next pronouncement. “Neither of you will have a choice. When my will is read, the banns will be posted and the marriage will take place six months after the reading.” He paused and added gently, “You love her, don’t you, Frederick?”
Frederick slowly raised his head and met the searching wise eyes. He neither confirmed nor denied the statement. “Sir, I believe that your daughter will want to marry of her own choosing,” he responded quietly.
But if Sir Creston had heard Frederick, he gave no such indication. “For the past year, I have brought home many a young man like yourself, son, hoping that Honoria would take to one of them,” he remarked. “But she was scornful and contemptuous of them all. All except for you, Frederick.” He paused thoughtfully and predicted, “When I die, Honoria will retreat from the world, as is her wont when she grieves, and will not dare risk her heart. She will be afraid of any consequences that come with loving and losing.” He turned his head to meet Frederick’s steady grey eyes. “Take good care of her, son. She will need you as you will come to need her.”
Sir Creston sighed deeply and closed his eyes. “Do not make the same mistake I did, Frederick,” he advised. “Do not forsake the love of the woman you love. Whatever road you will take, it will be lonely without her. And in some cases, I suspect it will be lonely even with her.”
Frederick nodded solemnly. He leaned forward and gently kissed his mentor’s forehead. Sir Creston’s eyes fluttered open as he weakly squeezed Frederick’s hand. “Send Honoria here, son.”
Frederick returned the gesture and released the hand. He walked a few steps backwards and bowed deeply.
Sir Creston, with what little strength he summon through sheer determination, watched as his former ward, the young man to whom he had given his daughter’s hand, left the room and closed the door behind him.
Sir Creston smiled. “Good-bye,” he whispered into the empty chambers. “And God bless you.”
Seated in a Louis XIV chair, positioned next to the warmth and crackling of the fireplace, the restless yet efficient slender hands of Lady Louisa Caposten, Countess of Langley, were uncharacteristically still. Her slim back straight as ever, her intelligent, beautiful emerald green eyes studied the lone, barely visible figure standing at the casement windows. She pressed her lips firmly together for a moment before trying again.
The figure at the window stood perfectly still, shrouded in the shadows of a room lit only by a single candle. However, this time, the figure spoke in acknowledgement. “Yes, Aunt Lydia?” the young voice asked without any feeling.
Lydia settled back in her chair as her capable hands lifted the needle and resumed the task of sewing neat, even cross-stitches into the delicate cambric. “Whatever happens tonight, my child, you must keep faith,” she reminded in a gentle tone.
Sixteen-year-old Honoria Marie Creston shrugged her slim shoulders as she discreetly wiped her clammy palms on her wrinkled skirts. “As you wish,” she agreed in a dull voice.
Lydia lifted her eyes from her embroidery. “It does not matter I wish, Honoria, but rather that you do as I say for your sake,” she reproached softly. Especially for your sake, she added silently.
The double doors to the dimly lit library flew open. The embroidery dropped to the floor, unheeded as Lydia rose gracefully from her chair, her hands instantly reaching out for Honoria. Honoria ran forward to Lydia, accepting the placement of coal, gentle hands upon her shoulders. Lydia studied the tall, grim-faced young man at the entrance of the library. Upon falling ill, Sir Creston had requested the presence of his former medical student at Cambridge. A young man, who, upon first impression, seemed too inexperienced, too light-hearted, too young to assist Sir Creston in fighting his illness.
But the moment Frederick entered the sickroom, the laughter left his eyes. He rarely left Sir Creston’s bedside and quietly but authoritatively issued orders to the servants for hot water, blankets, and hot food. There were moments when Lydia believed that the grey eyes flinched with pain and frustration as he struggled to save his mentor’s life. But none of his true feelings ever mirrored in his features, so Lydia was not certain.
“Sir St. John,” Lydia acknowledged with a slight inclination of her head. “How is Sir Creston?”
Frederick slowly walked into the library, shaking his head. “My lady – “
Honoria tilted her chin upwards. “He won’t survive the night, will he, Sir St. John?”
Frederick turned and met Honoria’s eyes. Lydia wondered if she had imagined the faint softening of his grey eyes as his gaze rested on Honoria. His tone was gentle but firm. “He is near the end, yes, Miss Creston.”
Honoria pulled away from Lydia and stepped forward, her young face pale but stoic. Her eyes never left Frederick’s face. “Thank you, Sir St. John, for being honest. And I thank you for coming so quickly to father’s aid.”
Lydia clasped her hands tightly together in front of her and glanced at Honoria. “Honoria – “
But Honoria ignored Lydia and spoke to Frederick. “I may see him, of course?” she asked softly.
Frederick nodded with a tired smile. “Of course,” he answered kindly. “Sir Creston requested your presence.” He moved forward and offered a bent arm.
Lydia watched as Honoria hesitantly placed a hand on Frederick’s arm. She noted Frederick’s encouraging smile as they moved from the entrance of the library to the foot of the seemingly long staircase.
Lydia moved forward, resting a hand on the doorframe for support. Her green eyes missed nothing: Honoria’s glance up the stairs to where her father rested, the pained grey-green eyes, the shaking of the head in response to something Frederick asked, and the tremulous smile she bestowed on him before she began the journey upwards. Lydia clenched her free hand, hidden among the voluminous folds of her billowing skirts. She leaned against the frame more heavily as she watched Honoria walk up the stairs.
Frederick continued to stare up the stairs long after Honoria disappeared from view, his hands in his trouser pockets. He finally turned his head and met Lydia’s eyes. He forced a slight smile as he moved from the staircase to the library entrance once again. He waited for Lydia to enter first before stepping in.
Lydia smoothed her full skirts and calmly sat down, picking up the intricate embroidery once again. She absently ran a finger over the finished stitches. “How much time do you give Sir Creston, Sir St. John?” she inquired quietly.
Frederick did not reply immediately. He had opened the liquor cabinet and examined the contents. “Sherry, my lady?” he asked politely.
“No thank you,” Lydia refused with equal politeness. She sat perfectly still, the serenity on her face undisturbed as she waited for an answer to her question.
Frederick closed the cabinet. He turned slowly and his grey eyes were strangely blank. “Perhaps the night,” he finally answered in a bland tone. He paused, the pulse in his jaw throbbing, the only hint as to the malestorm of emotion that swirled within him. “And mayhap, not even that.”
Lydia’s lips tightened for a moment before she nodded. She looked down at her embroidery blankly before returning her gaze to Frederick’s face. “Sir St. John – “
Before Lydia could finish her inquiry, a loud, piercing and anguished scream echoed through the house. Lydia’s and Frederick’s eyes met in horror before Frederick, who almost never ran anywhere, ate up the brief distance with his long legs and by taking the stairs two at a time. Lydia was not far behind.
“Honoria.” The voice was gentle but persistent.
Honoria ignored the voice that disturbed her conscious and concentration. She slowly turned her head and watched two maids perform their daily tasks. One was drawing open the brocade curtains to allow in the sun, and the other was setting up a tray of hot tea and freshly baked scones with jam. Honoria lifted her eyes to the young maids’ faces – there was no expression. Her eyes absently studied the maids’ familiar yet oddly unfamiliar clothes. There was something different…
“Honoria, how are you feeling?”
Honoria chose to acknowledge the owner of the voice this time; her eyes moved in that direction. At the foot of her bed, the stately figure was dressed in a very becoming shade of violet. Honoria closed her eyes, fighting the wave of pain that threatened to engulf her.
It had not been a bad dream after all.
Honoria felt a cool, soft hand press her limp one. “Honoria, open your eyes,” the voice commanded firmly. “I am not going away.”
Honoria reluctantly opened her eyes and met Lydia’s. However, she still did not speak.
Lydia smiled. “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” she asked lightly. With her other hand, she smoothed away a stray wisp of hair from Honoria’s eyes. “You have been asleep for the past four days after you fainted. We’ve all been terribly worried about you, especially – “
Honoria gripped Lydia’s hand tightly. “Papa is dead, isn’t he?” she asked, her entire body tensing.
There was a slight pause. Compassion but not pity radiated from Lydia’s eyes. She held Honoria’s hands between her own and nodded. “Yes, Honoria, your father did pass away,” she replied quietly. “I am sorry.”
Honoria folded her hands in her lap and seemed oddly intent on studying the shape of her fingers. “I had hoped,” she began in a low voice. “I…” she shook her head, “it does not matter anymore,” she decided with a sad sigh.
Lydia nodded understandingly. She rose from the bed and stood there, uncharacteristically hesitant about something. “Honoria, when do you think that you shall be ready…” she trailed off delicately.
Honoria looked up, bewildered. “Ready for what, Aunt Lydia?” she asked blankly.
Lydia took a deep breath. “Honoria, we have not buried your father yet.” She paused, allowing Honoria time to absorb this news. “Your father’s solicitor, Mr. Robbins, thought that we should, but… but, as Sir Creston was your father, Sir St. John and I believed – “
Honoria’s eyes flew to Lydia’s face. “Sir St. John is still here?” she asked, surprise breaking somewhat into the numbness she was feeling. Or not feeling.
Lydia smiled and nodded. “Yes, he was quite worried about you,” she answered. “In fact, he behaved as if – “ she stopped, a contemplative look entering her eyes.
“As if he what, Aunt Lydia?” Honoria prompted curiously.
Lydia looked slightly startled when Honoria spoke, but shook her head. “Nothing, my dear,” she hastily reassured. “But Sir St. John does agree with me, and believes that you ought to make all the arrangements.”
Honoria did not respond. She sat up against her pillows and stared steadily at the solid oak door. Her hands were clenched into fists; she took deep, methodical breaths, fighting the tears. She swallowed the lump in her throat as she remembered the promises she made to her father.
Honoria opened her eyes to find Lydia regarding her with concern. She forced a stiff smile. “Could you please ask Sir St. John to come here?” she requested. At Lydia’s questioning look, she explained, “I need to see him about something privately.”
“Honoria, it is not proper – “
“Aunt Lydia, please,” Honoria interrupted firmly, her tone providing a glimpse of the formidable will that was lurking just beneath the surface.
Lydia sighed and leaned forward to kiss Honoria’s cheek. She supposed that in this instance an exception to the rules of propriety could be made. She poured out a cup of tea and pushed it forward to Honoria. “Very well, Honoria,” she permitted. “I will send up Sir St. John. But you will not have more than half an hour,” she warned. “Not a minute more, young lady.”
Honoria was absently smoothing the peach comforter adorning her bed when she was startled out of her aimless reverie by a knock on the door. She quickly sat up in her bed, her hands folded neatly in front of her on top of her comforter. She lifted one hand to impatiently toss her red-gold hair behind her. She hoped to present a portrait of cool, collected calm. She wanted this conversation to proceed with logic and reason.
She took a deep breath.
“Come in,” Honoria allowed.
Honoria began to perform calculus derivations in her mind.
Frederick opened the door slowly and stood in the doorway. He kept the door ajar, his eyes watchful.
“Won’t you please come in, Sir St. John?” Honoria asked pleasantly.
Honoria forgot all about derivations as she studied Frederick. Something, somewhere in the vicinity of her heart had always lurched whenever she met those direct, assessing, and assuring grey eyes, Honoria mused, mentally shaking her head. Grey was too mundane a word to describe the shade of his eyes. Sometimes, there seemed to be forces that surged within him that darkened his eyes to the color of ferocious thunder clouds. Other times, they might be as crystalline as the thin ice that covered the lakes and ponds during the winter.
No, Honoria decided, grey was too mundane a word. She had been fifteen when she first encountered those grey eyes, Honoria recollected. She had been walking down the stairs, all prepared to ignore her father’s gentleman guest – she had long ago determined that they were tiresome and stupid creatures – and to extend a warm greeting to her father. She had opened her mouth when her father’s guest suddenly looked up. The greeting for her father had died in her throat and she almost fell down the stairs. Honoria distantly remembered the high-bridged nose, the broad forehead, the uncompromising line of his jaw, the dark brown hair that she studied now. But she remembered without any vagueness his grey eyes.
“I hope that I meet with your approval, Miss Creston,” a bland voice remarked quietly.
Honoria blinked; she had been abominably rude. Flustered, she uttered the first thought that came to her head. “I hope that you do know that I am illegitimate?” she asked. “And you do not mind?”
The rigid stance of Frederick’s shoulders eased as he chuckled. “Yes, I know, Miss Creston, and no, I do not mind,” he replied dryly.
Honoria smiled shyly, tangling her fingers. Frederick walked over to her bedside and sat down on her bed. He took her pulse and nodded approvingly as he searched her eyes. The grey of his eyes to the color of charcoal smoke as they softened. He leaned back to create a distance between them as propriety demanded. Afraid of what she might unknowingly reveal, of what she herself was not ready to understand, Honoria quickly looked away.
Frederick studied Honoria’s bent face and asked quietly, “How are you feeling?”
Honoria, who had been finding the imaginary tracings on her comforter most interesting, lifted her head slowly. She swallowed briefly and pressed her lips tightly together as she struggled to find the words to express the emotions she felt and did not feel. She parted her lips but she swallowed again, the lack of air in her lungs threatening to choke her.
A large hand stilled the fidgeting fingers. “It’s perfectly all right if you want to cry,” a deep voice murmured soothingly.
Honoria’s grief stricken eyes found comforting refuge in Frederick’s calm grey. Without volition, her hands turned over and clutched onto Frederick’s. “Oh, do you cry too?” she asked curiously. “But you are a gentleman,” she remarked, wrinkling her nose. “I thought gentlemen never cried.”
Frederick smiled without humor. “We all cry, Miss Creston, whether we choose to express it outwardly or not,” he responded cryptically. He gently pressed Honoria’s hand and released them. “The Countess informed me that you wished to speak to me privately, and she told me in no uncertain terms that we are to have no more than half an hour,” he added drily.
Honoria nodded and her back straightened. “I,” she began. She frowned and decided to be blunt. “I understand that… that we are to be man and wife soon,” she said quickly.
Frederick nodded but did not respond. His eyes never left the young face before him, which had not yet learned to control its expressiveness. Honoria’s grey-green eyes were curious. “Sir St. John, you are strangely silent. I had thought…” she frowned. “I never planned to wed anyone. I am illegitimate, and that is a great drawback in our society,” she confessed with a candor of youth and without bitterness. “I had planned eventually to open a school to educate illegitimate girls like myself but who did not have the opportunities…”she abruptly stopped, suddenly shy.
“I am sorry if you find this situation unpleasant, Miss Creston,” Frederick began quietly but without any stiffness or bitterness.
“Oh no, Sir St. John, you misunderstand me,” Honoria objected. “I… well, I do think that I like you… you are rather intelligent,” she remarked, bringing a faint smile to Frederick’s firm lips, “and…” she swallowed, her eyes filling with unshed tears, “I know that Papa approved of you, and I promised him… he told me that I could trust you.”
Honoria’s eyes met Frederick’s beseechingly, silently but unknowingly pleading with him to answer the unspoken question that she had not realized that she was even asking.
Frederick’s answering nod was barely perceptible as he swept the back of one hand briefly but gently across Honoria’s cheek. His eyes never released hers as the rose and smiled faintly. “I suspect that the Countess is pacing outside and our time is almost complete,” he said mildly but firmly.
“Then you are not… you are not disagreeable?” Honoria blurted with an extreme lack of social grace. There were so many things that she wanted to ask but she knew not what. Besides, she suspected that by the slight thinning of his lips and the crystalline quality of his eyes, this was not the time to address those unformed but lurking questions.
Frederick’s finger lingered on Honoria’s cheek momentarily before it fell. He bent down and kissed the top of her head, his hands placed solidly on her shoulders. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around her knees.
She waited for Frederick’s answer.
Honoria’s heart slowly unclenched, the frost slightly melting at the sound of the soothing baritone. The tone of conviction in that deep voice seemed to wrap her chambers in that lovely sort of comforting warmth found in a cup of hot chocolate after a long day in the cold.
“No, Miss Creston, I am not disagreeable.”