Lydia looked through the intimidating and rather thick document that was the marriage contract. Her sharp green eyes moved up and down assessingly the document before she dropped it on top of the walnut oak desk in front of her. She looked up and met the inquisitive yes of the silent man sitting behind the desk. There was a rueful expression on Lydia’s face. “Well, I suppose that there is very little that I can do,” she admitted reluctantly. “Obviously, there is nothing I can do if this document is to be believed. You and Sir Creston made certain that this betrothal could not be broken unless one of the parties died.” She paused and added wryly, “Very clever of you and Sir Creston to do so. He knew that I would not have simply stood by and done absolutely nothing. He knew that I did not approve of these arranged marriages. Really, you must concede, Harold, it is a barbaric practice you Englishmen have.”
The Honorable Harold Lester Robbins, solicitor and confidante to most of England’s noblest families, rubbed his forehead, wishing that he were anywhere but here, facing the formidable Countess of Langley. A countess who had been once the supreme hostess of London, and then one day suddenly removed herself completely from the arena. The estranged wife of Harold Robbins’ wealthiest and most influential client. A very dear and close friend, perhaps something more if one listened to the whispers, of the late Sir George Creston, formerly physician to the late King William IV.
Harold steepled his hands and inclined his head. “Perhaps,” he conceded with obvious reluctance. “However, the noblest families of England still arrange the marriages of their issue to proper counterparts. It is what is done, my lady.”
“That’s all and well if one speaks of a person in an abstract fashion, Harold, but Honoria is a young girl who has just lost her father,” Lydia argued, leaning forward intently. “Perhaps there is a way to postpone the wedding?” she asked hopefully.
Harold looked away and started to shuffle the papers on his desk, pretending to look through them although he knew that the answer would not please the Countess. He dropped the papers; he took off his glasses and started to polish them vigorously.
Lydia raised an eyebrow and leaned back. She had her most imperious expression on her face. “Harold.”
Harold looked up unwillingly and sighed deeply. He rubbed his forehead again. “My lady, I do wish that I had the power to dissolve this betrothal between Sir St. John and your ward, even postpone the nuptials as you so elegantly suggested,” he responded, shrugging his shoulders helplessly. “But my hands are tied.”
Lydia sighed. “She will only be seventeen when she weds Sir St. John,” she pleaded. “Much too young to be married.”
Harold coughed loudly. “My lady, need I remind that you yourself were wed at fifteen?”
Lydia nodded and rose from her seat. She turned away, her hands clasped in front of her. “As you well know, Harold, having drawn up the marriage contracts, things were different then,” she reminded the solicitor quietly. “I wanted to marry his lordship. It was my choice. Our marriage had not been predetermined.”
Harold rubbed his throbbing temples briskly. He leaned back in his chair. “While I understand your concerns, my lady, Sir. St. John is not a disreputable gentleman. He was knighted by Her Majesty for his service to the Crown, though no one is certain for what. He is well-respected by the members of the Court and of the peerage, as well as by other physicians.” He tried to reassure Lydia. “And as you can clearly see from the marriage contract, Sir St. John does not wish to claim Miss Creston’s dowry. That will remain under her domain.” He straightened in his chair and steepled his fingers. “He is not a greedy peer, my lady, in spite of his vast personal holdings, which are all solid, according to his men of business. From all reports, Sir St. John is precisely the sort of young man a mother would want for his daughter,” he reproved.
“Yes, but appearances can be deceiving,” Lydia objected. “He never speaks of his family, and – “
Harold suppressed a groan. There was no pleasing the Countess. “My lady, Sir St. John’s father and mother are of impeccable lineage. The St. John family is renowned in England for their devotion to the Crown and its causes, whether it be foreign or domestic.” He peered through his spectacles and nodded approvingly. “Just as I remembered correctly, Sir St. John has no other living relatives. He is the last of his line unless heirs are produced out of his union with Miss Creston.”
Harold raised a hand to stop Lydia, who he was certain, had already composed additional questions. He absently wondered if he were before the Lords and rubbed a weary hand over his face. “My lady,” he tried yet again, “as I have stated before, marriages in the ton are not based on love but on position and wealth. And breeding,” he added as an afterthought. “I do dislike broaching this subject, my lady, but… it was unlikely that Miss Creston could have even married within the ranks of the ton due… due to the circumstances of her birth.” He paused. “Did Sir Creston ever mention whom her mother…” he trailed off delicately.
Lydia shook her head, smiling faintly. “You know what Sir Creston was like about secrets,” she remarked. “He never divulged anything about anyone at any time.”
Harold nodded. “My lady, do Miss Creston and Sir St. John… do they enjoy each other’s company?” he asked, tapping his fingers on the desk.
Lydia blinked rapidly, taken aback by the question. “Certainly, Harold,” she answered. “Honoria has great respect for Sir St. John, and she seems to trust him completely.”
Harold nodded approvingly. “My lady, I need not remind you that most ton marriages are not even built on the foundations of friendship and trust.”
Lydia began to pace out of frustration. Harold blinked. It was most unusual to see this serene, beautiful woman renowned for her often extraordinary calm so agitated. “I love Honoria as if she were my own, Harold,” she stated. “I just … she ought not rush into marriage. Marriage can be difficult enough even without…” she abruptly stopped.
Harold’s face was carefully bland as he steepled his fingers. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “My lady, are you speaking of yourself?” he asked quietly.
Lydia froze, her feverishly bright emerald green eyes flying to Harold’s tried yet kindly inquiring face. She had always wondered how much Harold knew about her marriage and the events which led to her estrangement from her husband. Of course, he had been the solicitor who had handled the details of the marriage contract. And presently, he handled all of the Caposten family business affairs. In her more reflective, rare pensive moods, Lydia had often wondered how much Harold knew or even suspected. A cynical smile touched Lydia’s lips. After all, it had been in this very office that the terms of exile dictated by her husband had been announced.
Lydia turned away and stood before the windows. She folded her arms over her chest, her expression shuttered. She stared out, seeing yet not seeing the perpetual London fog that constantly hovered over the Thames. She did not hear the carriage wheels rolling or the sounds of voices on the busy streets below. The tears that always threatened to come whenever she thought of her estranged husband… she had not given voice to them ten years ago. She certainly would not do so now, especially not when there was an audience.
For a few moments, absolute silence reigned in the office. Harold continued to study the no longer young Countess who had come to England as an innocent, kind but intensely beautiful young American bride who by all accounts loved her English earl without any reservations, and who had married him over her parents’ objections. He recalled how the young American bride had dared to show her love for her husband with small gestures in public, something which shocked the ton to no end. Those jealous of her and of her prestigious marriage accused her of being an ill-bred, brazen American who had dared to break into the revered ranks of the ton and was deserving of neither their respect nor attention.
For many years, the young couple was blissfully happy, and then something happened. Harold had his suspicions, but… he sighed inwardly and pressed his fingertips against his lips. He remembered Lydia’s sudden need to meet him. Of course, since the Earl of Langley was one of his most important clients and since Lydia was Langley’s wife, Harold had agreed without delay.
But what Lydia had said when she came to his office astounded Harold. With a regal dignity and an extremely pale face, Lydia had quietly informed Harold of her husband’s wish to send her away to one of the Langley country estates. Forever.
During the past ten years, the ton had slowly but surely forgot about Lydia. Forgot that Langley ever had a wife. But throughout that time, there had been rumors that Langley now had a mistress. And now and again, there had also been rumors that Lydia had been Sir Creston’s lover. Harold mentally shook his head. But they must all have been rumors, he reasoned. Knowing Langley and Lydia as well as he did, he doubted that one could give any credence to these rumors.
Something must have made Lydia aware that she had been standing at the windows, ignoring Harold. Her already straight back immediately stiffened as she pulled on her pristine gloves tighter and smoothed the skirts of her gown. The faint lines around her mouth deepened as she spoke, a funny bitter twist to her lips. “You know, Harold, I have often asked myself that very question in my darkest moment, but …” she paused and moved towards Harold’s desk. “I apologize for monopolizing your time, Harold,” she stated with a gracious smile. She held out a gloved hand.
Harold rose and respectfully took the proffered hand. “My lady,” he acknowledged.
Lydia firmly kept her smile. She pulled her hand away and pivoted, her skirts whispering as she made her way to the door. But she suddenly stopped.
Harold remained standing and cleared his throat discreetly. “My lady?”
Lydia immediately turned around. “Yes?” she responded expectantly.
“Is there… would you like for me to pass a message onto your husband and your son?” Harold inquired softly.
Lydia’s eyes were devoid of expression, her features taut. “That would be very kind of you, Harold,” she thanked. “Yes, if you do happen to see my husband and my son, please… please send them my warmest regards,” she requested quietly.
Harold inclined his head. “Certainly, my lady,” she agreed formally.
Lydia opened her mouth as if she wanted to say more but she must have changed her mind. She merely smiled and inclined her head before she left the office. Harold shook his head and slowly sat down at his desk once more. But he ignored the pile of pressing documents to his left as he stared steadily at the door. He sighed and started to vigorously polish his glasses once more.
“You’s got no business pokin’ your nose wher eyou ought not, Miss Lydia,” Tilly declared, her large bosom heaving indignantly.”You’s not changed one bit. A more contrary chile I’ve never had the pleasure of meetin’, and now you’s a more contrary woman than you’ve gots any right to be,” she grumbled. She grunted with evident displeasure though her callused, plump hands were gentle as they brushed out the flowing ebony mane that bore no trace of grey on the regal head seated at the dressing table.
A large, buxom black woman of approximately five and forty with high morals and strong principles, Tilly had grown up alongside the former Lydia Louisa Royale and had faithfully served the influential and patriotic Royales of Boston. She was the daughter of two slaves who had formerly belonged to the Bouviers of Charleston, South Carolina, and who had been part of the entourage who had accompanied Lydia’s mother at the time of her marriage. Only five years older than Lydia, Tilly had been all to her mistress: protector, chaperone, confidante, and friend.
It was Tilly who had stood by her mistress – quietly in the background, of course – when the Royales objected vehemently to Lydia’s wedding an English lord. It was only Tilly who agreed to accompany Lydia to her new home in England. It was Tilly with her excellent midwifing skills who helped birth all five of Lydia’s children and who helped discipline them when necessary. And it was Tilly who knew of the tears Lydia had shed and the heartache that Lydia had suffered when her husband estranged himself from her and forbid her from seeing her eldest child and son.
Tilly was a fiercely loyal woman, who would not hear or heed any wrong done to her mistress. Although originally Tilly had been exceedingly fond of the “English gentleplum,” as she often called Lydia’s husband, she had not one kind word to say about him when he turned Lydia out of their home. Indeed, Tilly had called him every vile name in the book. Always muttered under her breath, of course. Even now, Lydia would not countenance anyone’s speaking ill of her husband.
Lydia sighed as she met Tilly’s defiant eyes in the looking glass. Tilly snorted as she put the brush down on the dressing table and began to dress Lydia’s hair into its usual neat chignon. Lydia’s hands rested in her lap. “You need not worry, Tilly,” she reassured with a faint smile. “The marriage contracts are not revocable. Harold did a very good job with them, as I might have expected.”
Tilly did not respond; she inserted another pin into Lydia’s chignon and patted it. Lydia’s lips quirked. “Tilly, do say something,” she pleaded. “I know that you are fond of Sir St. John, but I – “
Tilly moved back and placed her hands at her waist. She scowled. Her nostrils flared. “Sometimes, I do’s wonder if you’s just choose not to see what you don’t want to see,” she said darkly.
Lydia winced and turned away, her hands grabbing the first thing available to her on the dressing table. “Tilly – “
Tilly began to move around Lydia’s bedchambers. “That boy, he’s nigh crazy about Miss Honor,” she declared decidedly. “Thinks that the moon and stars set on her, I’s supposin’, though he doesn’t show it all that well. And I’s suspect that Miss Honor’s not as indifferent as she claims.”
“Oh, but Honoria can’t be… love takes time to grow, Tilly,” Lydia reminded gently.
Tilly raised an eyebrow. “I’s not sayin’ Miss Honor’s in love with Sir St. John, Miss Lydia,” she retorted tartly. “But she certainly not indifferent to him, that’s what I’s sayin’, unless you miss that soft light in her eyes whenever she sees him, Miss Lydia.” She snorted. “And as for love’s takin’ its time… I don’t know where you’s got such nonsense, Miss Lydia. You’s knew that you’s was in love with that English gentleplum,” she said scornfully, “when you first met him at that ball. I’s knew it was a bad sign when you defended his lack of qualities to your brothers and sisters. Lawd have mercy,” she added, remembering that time.
Lydia shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Tilly waved a hand. “And don’t you be tellin’ me, Miss Lydia, that half of what you felt for that English gentleplum had nothin’ to do with his good looks and his fine ways,” she continued, her eyes narrowed. “The air’s fairly crackled when you’s two were in the room. Even a poor, uneducated no-good woman like me could tell. And I sued to think that he had a fine mind too until he did what he did to you,” she added contemptuously.
“James always had a fine mind, Tilly,” Lydia defended firmly. “No matter what happened, you should not – “
Tilly snorted. “Even knowin’ how much heartache you suffered at the hands of that varmint, Miss Lydia, you still love him, don’t you, Miss Lydia?” she asked doubtfully.
Lydia did not answer immediately. She rose from her dressing table, patting her neat chignon unnecessarily. She walked over to a chair and picked up her lace shawl, carefully draping it around her shoulders. Tilly’s eyes were still narrowed as she waited anxiously for a response.
Lydia swallowed the lump in her throat, her lips thinning. Her knuckles turned white as she crumpled the stiff cotton of her skirts. Her voice was quiet and measured, barely audible. “Knowing how it would have ended, I suppose I still would have chosen him,” a gentle, sad smile curving her lips. “Love is a rather frightening emotion, Tilly. One does not choose whom it one loves… for all the wretched moments that we might have had, there are still the wonderful memories.” She paused, one finger absently rubbing over the smooth varnished finish of the chair next to her. “Our letters, his kisses, his embraces… shared laughter and children…”
Lydia closed her eyes and covered her nose and mouth with both hands. Her voice was still soft but shaky. “I always knew that he was the only one for me, and that I… that I was the only one for him,” she confessed. “He didn’t care that I was American… and he would have never cared had I not betrayed him the way I did.”
Tilly harrumphed. “You’s from a fine and patriotic American family, Miss Lydia,” she defended her mistress staunchly. “You’s did what you had to.”
Lydia glanced at Tilly over her shoulder, blinking several times to prevent the burning tears from falling. She took a deep breath. “I know that I should not have assisted my brother Lionel when he asked he asked me,” she remarked. “Though I was born American, I did marry an Englishman, and I should have told Lionel there and then that I could not help him, but… “
“I suppose that the bonds of blood are just as strong as the bonds of matrimony,” Lydia continued after a moment. “The odd thing is… is that I would have helped my brother even if I had known that my husband and he were working against each other.”
Tilly harrumphed again. “That still don’t excuse what that fine English gentleplum – “
“No, Tilly, you must not excuse my actions,” Lydia interrupted firmly. “As a wife, my loyalties should have been with James. But…” she did not complete the thought.
Tilly opened her mouth but was interrupted by a knock at the door. “My lady,” announced the footman. “Sir St. John is waiting for you in the sitting room.”
Lydia nodded. “Thank you, Bobby,” she responded. “I shall be down shortly.”
Tilly glared at her mistress. “What’s you up to, Miss Lydia?” she asked suspiciously. “You’s not goin’ to say what you ought not to, are you, Miss Lydia? You’s got no business – “
“There are many things in my life I ought not to have said, Tilly,” Lydia returned with a sad smile. “But then if I had not said them, I would not be who I am.” She gently patted Tilly’s cheek. “Don’t worry, Tilly. You can always scold me later,” she added lightly.
Tilly’s nostrils flared indignantly but she said nothing. She opened the door for her mistress and followed her out, grumbling under her breath.