A Victorian Romance
North Yorkshire, England
Tristan Sinclair, Viscount St. Ashton, strode through the woods that bordered the ramshackle estate of his hosts, Lord and Lady Fairford. His father, the Earl of Lynden, was waiting for him back at the house. To beard him in his proverbial den, no doubt. Why else would he have tracked him to the wilds of Yorkshire, seeking him out at one of the most notorious house parties of the season?
“Your father is here, my lord,” his groom had whispered as Tristan dismounted from his horse and tossed him the reins. “He is taking tea with Lady Fairford and has asked to be informed the moment you arrive.”
Tristan was tired and irritable. He’d spent all day in the saddle. His servants had travelled ahead in the carriage, leaving the posting inn at the crack of dawn, while he’d remained abed, sleeping off the effects of a night of heavy drinking. And now, here he was, hiding out in the woods as if he were a boy of ten instead of a man of two and thirty.
He struck a low-hanging branch with his riding whip, severing the wet leaves with a loud, satisfying crunch. “Damn and blast!”
And then he heard it.
The unmistakable sound of a woman weeping in the woods.
Tristan stopped where he stood and listened. Yes. It was, indeed, a woman. He would recognize that muffled sound anywhere. He’d certainly heard it enough in his lifetime. More often than not, he’d been the cause of it. And yet…this weeping woman did not sound at all like the distraught mistresses, angry actresses, and spoiled heiresses he’d often provoked to tears.
This woman sounded as if her heart was breaking.
It seemed to be coming from within a cluster of trees just up ahead. There had been a broken down little folly there once, a popular location for lovers’ trysts, as well as the many and varied debaucheries that were the hallmark of Lord and Lady Fairford’s house parties. He’d once met a raven-haired widow there in the moonlight. Meg something? Or was it Mary? He couldn’t recall. It had been years ago when such anonymous, amorous adventures still held some appeal for him.
Perhaps that was what he was hearing now? A liaison gone wrong? It wouldn’t be unthinkable that a gentleman might bring his lover here to break things off with her. That would certainly explain the tears.
He would do better to ignore it and continue on his way. A random weeping woman was none of his affair.
Unless she was hurt.
Tristan was far less compassionate toward women than he’d been in his youth. He’d spent too many seasons being pursued by marriage-minded mamas and young ladies determined to wed the heir to one of the wealthiest earldoms in the country. For years he’d avoided the canniest tricks and the most outlandish traps, all the while becoming more and more jaded about the female sex.
Nevertheless, something about that pitiful sound compelled him forward.
He was vaguely conscious of the state of his appearance. His greatcoat and breeches were stained from travel. His cravat was a wilted disgrace and his boots, normally polished to a mirror-shine, were scuffed and filthy. Good God, but he must look like some shabby country squire! And, as if that image were not repulsive enough, he was well aware that he reeked of horses, sweat, and the aftereffects of a night of heavily liquored self-pity.
Not that any of that had ever mattered to a woman before.
Tristan came to a gap in the trees and, turning his large frame sideways, ducked through it. Wet leaves brushed his greatcoat, the smell of damp wood and sodden grass permeating the air. His eyes found the folly at the edge of the small clearing, exactly as he remembered it. Like much on the Fairfords’ estate, it was in desperate need of repair. Half the roof had rotted away and the steps leading up to it were splintered and broken.
There inside, he saw the small, hunched figure of a woman in a drab, ill-fitting gown. A ray of sunlight through the branches of the trees glinted and sparkled off of something on her face.
Tristan grimaced. He didn’t need to go any closer to identify one of the ranks of colorless, bespectacled lady’s companions who trailed meekly in the wake of Lady Hortensia Brightwell. Every year, Lady Brightwell had a new one. And yet, somehow, they always looked the same. Hair scraped back into a tight little knot. Shapeless, drooping gowns. And, on every single one of them, spectacles.
He’d long suspected that Lady Brightwell chose her companions specifically for their lack of charm and beauty.
Tristan hesitated only a moment before striding forward to the folly. He had no interest in comforting a dreary little spinster, but if the alternative was returning to the house where his father was waiting to read him a lecture, comfort her he would. And who better? If there was one thing the Viscount St. Ashton understood, it was women.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said as he vaulted up the broken steps.
At the sound of his deep voice, the woman sprang up from her seat. A crumpled paper fell from her lap onto the ground. She looked at it and then looked up at him. For an instant, Tristan thought she might bolt.
He raised a staying hand. “Don’t be uneasy,” he said. “I mean you no harm. Indeed, I meant to offer you some assistance.”
She stared at him through spectacles that were steamed from her tears and then, with a choking sigh, she sank back onto the wooden bench and covered her face with her hands.
A rare pang of sympathy briefly softened his expression. The poor little antidote. One might think that she had just discovered that her entire world had come to an end. Perhaps she had been given the sack? Or perhaps one of Lady Fairford’s less reputable houseguests had attempted to steal a kiss?
Moving as carefully as he would if he were approaching a wild animal, Tristan crossed the folly to stand at her side. He did not wait for an invitation. This was not a drawing room in Mayfair and she was not a gently bred young lady. He sank down beside her on the bench, close enough that his thigh brushed presumptuously against her skirts. And then he looked at her. Really looked at her.
Damnation, but she was not an older lady at all. In fact, she appeared to be a relatively young woman. Her overlarge gown hung over what his practiced eye recognized as a slender and altogether pleasing frame. And the severe knot at the nape of her neck did nothing to disguise the light golden splendor of her hair. It was glossy and fair, several strands escaping their imprisonment to fall forward over her face and hands.
Small, elegant hands with delicately tapered fingers.
“Come now,” Tristan said gruffly, “this won’t do. You’re weeping directly into your hands. Have you no handkerchief?” He extracted his own from the inner pocket of his greatcoat and offered it to her. “Here. Take mine.”
She took it from him with trembling fingers, immediately clutching it to her face.
“Give me your spectacles,” he commanded.
“M-my spectacles?” she asked.
He extended his hand. “I shall clean the lenses while you compose yourself.”
She responded to his peremptory tone with the automatic obedience he expected from those in subordinate positions, removing her spectacles and dropping them into his outstretched hand. She then covered her face with his handkerchief once again.
Tristan examined the metal-framed spectacles with vague interest. They were bent and misshapen and, quite obviously, too large for her face. Secondhand, he decided, just like everything else she was wearing. He polished the wet lenses on the edge of his sleeve. When he had finished, he held them up to ascertain his handiwork, squinting as he looked through the lenses. They were as clean as he could get them. So clean that he could see right through them to the surrounding woods. He turned to look at her, his dark eyes narrowing with suspicion. “Either you and I suffer from the same abnormality of vision…or these lenses are made of clear glass.”
“Oh, please go away, sir,” she said on a sob.
He folded the spectacles and tossed them carelessly onto the seat beside him, well out of her reach. “I assume Lady Brightwell gave them to you.”
That got her attention. She lowered the handkerchief, peering up at him over the edge of it with the loveliest pair of gray eyes Tristan had ever had the privilege to behold. “Do you… Do you know Lady Brightwell?” she ask in a husky, tear-clogged whisper.
And then her hands slowly dropped to her lap, taking the handkerchief with them.
Tristan stared at her, temporarily struck dumb. To say that her face was beautiful would not be entirely accurate. He had seen many beautiful women in his lifetime. Veritable goddesses.
The woman sitting in front of him now was no goddess.
She was, he realized somewhat nonsensically, more in line with being an angel.
Her face was ever so slightly heart-shaped. Her mouth full, soft, and unexpectedly kissable. Gently sculpted cheekbones, a straight, elegant nose, and gracefully winged brows several shades darker than her hair finished the picture.
And then there were those eyes. Wide, fathomless eyes. As stormy and tempest-tossed as the rain across an uncertain sea.
He swallowed hard. “Yes, I know Lady Brightwell,” he said, far more harshly than he had intended. “And I recognize your breed as well. A companion, are you?”
“And these?” Tristan motioned to the spectacles. “Did they come with this revolting gown and this wretched…I dare not call it a coiffure.” He frowned at her hair. “It’s a sort of uniform, I take it. Lady Brightwell’s uniform for a lady’s companion.”
“Yes,” she admitted. She brought his handkerchief to her face and, quite energetically, blew her nose.
Tristan had never seen a lady attend to the business in such a matter-of-fact manner. “No woman would wear them by choice,” he said. “Especially not a young lady like yourself.”
“I’m not a young lady.”
He raised his brows. “No? How old are you then, madam? Thirty? Forty?”
“Six and twenty.”
He knew he was being rude to her, but couldn’t seem to stop himself. “Six and twenty? So, not a young woman after all.”
She completed drying her tears and then, for the first time, turned to look at him directly. What must, under better circumstances, be a rather enviable porcelain complexion was splotchy with weeping and her perfectly proportioned little nose shone red as a beacon. “How old are you, sir?” she enquired sharply. “Fifty? Sixty?”
Tristan was surprised into a crack of laughter.
She did not smile. She merely looked at him, her expression as reproving as a schoolteacher’s.
He felt a twinge of remorse. It was a novel sensation. A deuced uncomfortable one, too. “I’m two and thirty,” he informed her. “Practically in my dotage.” He paused before adding, a tad roughly, “I beg your pardon if I have offended you. My only excuse is that, in the past, when confronted with a female in tears, I have often found incivility to be a great restorative. I suppose with you I must try some other remedy.”
“You’d prefer I go?”
“Yes.” She looked like she would have said more, but a slight breeze stirred the crumpled paper at her feet. Recalling its presence on the ground, she paled. She moved to pick it up, but Tristan anticipated her, reaching out and sweeping the crumpled paper up in his hand. “Oh don’t!” she cried.
“What is this, then?” he asked as he flattened out the paper. “A love letter?”
She held out her hand for it, but he moved it just out of reach. “Give it back!” she demanded. “It’s private! You have no right!”
“I daresay,” he muttered. But having smoothed out the paper, he realized that it was not a love letter at all. It was an ink smudged drawing and a few lines of text which read:
My beloved speaks and says to me:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
There was more, but it was illegible. It looked as if the inkwell had spilled over it, obscuring not only the remaining words, but part of the drawing as well.
“Please give it back to me,” she begged him.
“What is this?” he asked, genuinely curious. “A poem you’re writing?”
Her slender frame stiffened with something that may well have been outrage. “A poem! How can you say so? Don’t you recognize it, sir?”
Tristan shrugged one broad shoulder. “I can’t say that I do.”
“It’s the Song of Solomon. From the Bible.”
“Ah, that explains my unfamiliarity.” He frowned, reading the words once again. “The winter is past. The rain is over.” He looked up at her. “What did the rest say? This part here where you have spilled ink?”
“I did not spill any ink!”
She dashed away a fresh tear with the back of her hand. “The part that’s ruined—the part just there—it was an earlier verse.”
“Ah. I see.”
She cast him another reproachful glance. Clearly she thought he should know it already. As if he might recite a Bible verse as easily as the latest music hall ballad. As easily as she recited it to him now:
“Set me as a seal upon thine heart,
as a seal upon thine arm:
for love is strong as death—”
An unaccountable rush of warmth crept up his neck. He cut her off before she could say another word. “That’s from the Bible?”
Tristan cleared his throat. “Well. It is rather…”
“It’s beautiful,” she declared.
Beautiful. Perhaps it was. What did he know of the Bible? He had read it, of course. He was a well-educated gentleman, after all. A well-bred one, too. As a boy, he’d even attended Sunday services with his father and brother at the family seat in Hampshire. He well recalled the hours spent sitting in the family pew, affecting a dutiful interest in the dry, toneless hymns and the long drawn-out sermons.
But that was a lifetime ago. In the years since, no one had had the temerity to spout verses or psalms at him. Not that any of his confederates would do so. Most of them were as sunken into depravity as he was himself. “Who is it for?” he asked. “Some beau of yours?”
She lunged for it and, before he could lift it out of her reach, snatched the paper from his hand and pressed it safely to her bosom. “How dared you.” Her low voice was heated with indignation. “It’s going to be a book of verses. An illustrated book of verses. It’s not for some beau.”
And then she began to weep all over again.
Tristan felt a queer tightening in his chest. “My dear girl, what the devil are you carrying on about? Did one of Lady Fairford’s footmen force a kiss on you? Or was it Lord Fairford himself?” The very thought made him inexplicably angry. “Confound it. Did no one warn you to be careful here?”
She wiped at her remaining tears with his sodden handkerchief. “Yes. Lady Brightwell said I must take care never to be alone with any of the gentlemen at the house party. But it…it wasn’t a gentleman who upset me so.”
Tristan winced. “One of the ladies, was it?”
“Yes. Lady Brightwell’s daughter. Felicity.”
She gasped at his language. “Sir!”
Tristan was unrepentant. “Are you saying that Miss Brightwell…?” He ran a hand through his already disheveled black hair. The very idea! He’d known that Felicity Brightwell was forward and a bit wild, but he would never have guessed that her tastes ran to women. Come to that, he would never have guessed that Miss Brightwell would even be here. She was a chit of one and twenty and still actively seeking a husband. Or so he’d been led to believe. “Good God, what did she do to you?”
She shook her head. “I’ve already said too much.”
“You’ve hardly said anything.” He paused, watching her. “And why not? Do you fear I’ll betray your confidence? I assure you, Lady Brightwell and her daughter are no friends of mine. And even if they were, your secrets would be safe with me.”
“I shouldn’t even be sitting with you like this.”
“You’re not sitting with me. I’m sitting with you.”
She looked up at him with an expression that was both grave and damnably prim. It struck him quite suddenly that she bore more than a passing resemblance to a pretty little nun.
He wondered if she kissed like a nun as well.
“It doesn’t matter who is sitting with whom,” she said. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I don’t even know who you are.”
This was a rare turn of events. If Lady Brightwell had taken to warning her new companion about rakes, rogues, and vile seducers of women, surely his own name would have been at the top of the list. And even if it hadn’t been, what woman in England didn’t know of the infamous Viscount St. Ashton?
But then, he didn’t look much like a viscount now, did he?
“Tristan Sinclair,” he said brusquely. He waited for a reaction, but her face betrayed no hint of recognition. Doubtless it would if he added his title. Which was precisely why he did not. “And your name, ma’am?”
Tristan felt another uncomfortable quake in his heart. By God but it suited her. “I’ve never before met a woman named Valentine.”
Miss March’s cheeks flushed a delicate shade of pink. “Yes…well…my mother expected I would be a boy, you see. She only chose the one name. After St. Valentine. And then, when Mama died, Papa couldn’t bring himself to call me anything else.”
“Your mother died in childbed?”
Her blush deepened. “Yes.”
Tristan nodded. “My own mother, as well. She succumbed not long after bringing my younger brother into the world.” Good Lord! He never mentioned his mother. Not to his family. Not to his friends. Not to anyone. Her death was certainly no secret, but the very idea that he’d speak of her to a stranger— What in blazes was the matter with him?
“Well, Miss March,” he said. “Now we’re acquainted, you may tell me all your troubles.”
Miss March looked down at the ink-stained paper, a line of distress appearing across the smooth surface of her brow.
“How long have you been in Lady Brightwell’s employ?” he asked. “It can’t have been more than a year, for last season she had a different companion. Wearing the same gown and spectacles, I’ll wager.”
“For two months.”
She blinked up at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“Couldn’t you have found a position with someone respectable?”
“But I understood that Lady Brightwell was respectable. I was recommended to her by Mrs. Pilcher, the squire’s wife in our village. She and Lady Brightwell are friends, and Mrs. Pilcher had promised my father that…that when he was gone…that she would see I was taken care of.”
“Your father is dead as well.”
It hadn’t been a question, but she answered it. There was a decided tremor in her voice. “Yes. Last year. He took a chill while out visiting his parishioners and, though I tried, I could not make him well again.”
Tristan’s brows snapped together. Hell’s teeth, she was a vicar’s daughter. No wonder she looked like a beatific little nun. “And this is your first position. Your first time hiring yourself out as a companion.”
“Why hire yourself out at all? Why not marry? Surely there must have been any number of men in your village anxious to win your hand.”
Her gaze lowered to the crumpled handkerchief in her hand. “There was no one,” she said very quietly.
Tristan had the feeling that she was not being entirely truthful, but he didn’t press her. “And no family?”
She hesitated a fraction of a second before saying again, “No one.”
“And so you hired yourself out as a companion to Lady Hortensia Brightwell. A pity you and I weren’t acquainted then. I might have warned you. Lady Brightwell attends only the raciest house parties, you know. The kind with drunken orgies and lecherous gentleman creeping into random bedchambers in the middle of the night.”
Miss March’s face drained of color.
“And if you think your atrocious costume will protect your virtue, you’re much mistaken. Many of the gentlemen in attendance would consider your spectacles and outsized gown a challenge.” Tristan paused, wondering briefly if he was one such gentleman. “I hope you’ve been keeping your bedroom door locked, Miss March.”
“We only arrived this morning. But I shall lock my door tonight, sir. I-I thank you for your warning.”
He felt like an utter ass. “See that you do. And stay clear of Lady Brightwell’s daughter. If she attempts to meddle with you again—”
“Meddle with me?” Her winged brows flew up in alarm.
“Oh, she didn’t touch me, Mr. Sinclair. I would have preferred it if she had. A bruise might heal, but what she’s done to my drawings…” Her gray eyes shimmered with unshed tears. “It can never be mended. She’s ruined them.”
“Your drawings,” he repeated. And then he understood. Curse him for his depraved mind! Felicity Brightwell hadn’t been forcing indecent attentions on her mother’s companion. She’d been bullying and tormenting her. Making her life a misery. Naturally she would, for even in a drab gown and outsized spectacles, Valentine March outshone her.
“May I?” He reached out for the paper that she clutched so resolutely to her bosom. She relaxed her hold on it, making no objection as he plucked it from her fingers. He looked at it for a moment, his eyes skimming again the barely legible script.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
And come away;
For now the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
For some reason he couldn’t explain, Tristan felt the beginnings of a lump in his throat. “It’s not entirely ruined,” he said gruffly. “You can still—”
“Oh, you don’t understand!” Miss March cried. “This is the only one I could salvage! The rest are covered in ink. She poured it all over them. And then she laughed.” She pressed her hands to her face.
“She is a rather unpleasant young lady.” Tristan grimaced. Was that all he could come up with? Where were his honeyed tones? His caressing words? That famous St. Ashton address? “I take it that those drawings were very precious to you.”
“More precious than anything in the whole world. They’re all I had left of my—” She broke off. “Oh, it doesn’t matter anymore! Nothing matters anymore.”
“You can’t start over? Draw them again?”
Miss March glanced up at him. Her eyes were bleak with despair. “No. Some of the drawings… They weren’t mine, don’t you see? I was only copying the verses. And now…” She didn’t finish. Instead she retrieved her paper from him and once again clutched it to her chest. “I can’t start over. Not alone. Besides, what would be the point? She would only ruin them again. Indeed, she said that the next time she caught me scribbling, she’d throw my work into the fire.”
Tristan didn’t know what to say to that. What could he say? She was an impoverished lady’s companion. She was also a vicar’s daughter. Even if he could summon up his trademark charm, what use would it be on someone like her? “Perhaps,” he said at last, “Miss Brightwell will marry soon.”
Miss March shivered. “Undoubtedly so, but what—”
“You’re trembling,” Tristan interrupted. His expression grew dark. “And no wonder. Out of doors in November without a bonnet, gloves or cloak. Have you no respect for the Yorkshire weather?” He began to remove his greatcoat. “Just because this estate is sheltered from the worst of it doesn’t mean you still won’t catch your death of cold. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been raining for three days straight.”
Miss March watched him, wide-eyed, as he divested himself of his greatcoat. “I ran out of the house in rather a hurry. There was no time to find gloves or a bonnet or— Oh!” She drew back from him. “What are you doing?”
Tristan paused, his greatcoat held open in his hands, poised to drape around her. “Lending you my coat, you little fool.”
Her bosom rose and fell on an unsteady breath, but she made no further objection as he settled it around her shoulders. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s quite warm.”
Tristan moved away from her. “I should think so. I’ve been wearing it the better part of the morning.”
His words brought a fierce blush to her cheeks.
At another time, in another place, he might have laughed. A woman so innocent that the very thought of a man’s body heat put her to the blush? A fine joke, to be sure. But as he looked at Valentine March, swallowed up in the folds of his caped greatcoat, he did not feel very much like laughing. Instead, he felt an aching swell of tenderness. It was so disconcerting that he almost swore aloud.
“What difference does it make if Miss Brightwell is married?” she asked.
Tristan rubbed the side of his face in an effort to collect his scattered thoughts. The scratch of uneven stubble abraded his palm. He had sent his valet, Higgins, ahead with the carriage. As a result, this morning at the inn he had been obliged to shave himself. And done a damned poor job of it, too. “When she marries, she’ll go to her husband’s house. Then you’ll see her but rarely, I imagine.”
“She is looking for a husband,” Miss March conceded. “It’s why we’ve come to this house party.”
Tristan’s mouth curved in a sardonic smile. “If that’s so, Lady Brightwell isn’t half the matchmaker I thought her to be.”
“Why do you say so?”
“There are no gentlemen at Lord and Lady Fairford’s house parties who are suitable for marriage. They invite only those of their same ilk. Inveterate gamblers, rakes, reprobates. The dissolute dregs of polite society.”
“That can’t be true, for Lady Brightwell said specifically that she brought Miss Brightwell here to further her interests with a particular gentleman. I believe he’s considered to be a great matrimonial prize.”
Tristan’s eyes were already upon her, but at her words his gaze sharpened. “And who might this unfortunate soul be? Did Lady Brightwell name him?”
“Viscount St. Ashton.” She looked up at him. “He’s not one of those bad sorts of gentlemen you mentioned, is he? The rakes and the reprobates?”
Tristan gave a humorless laugh. It was a hoarse and bitter sound, edged with something very like anger. “My dear, Miss March,” he said. “The Viscount St. Ashton is the biggest rake and reprobate of them all.”