Sir Herbert Backman, baronet, had no idea why he was so attracted to lighthouses. All Bertie knew was that, from a child, he had been enchanted by the entire idea of lighthouses—the way they pierced the horizon, pristinely white and emphatic. Perhaps it was the contrast of safety and order versus energy and confusion that appealed to him.
Visiting the Portland Bill lighthouses atop these jagged cliffs required leaving behind a cheerful house party of close friends that was not precisely nearby. Bundled in his many-caped greatcoat and wearing his tall beaver hat, Bertie stood upon the Portland Bill, gazing at the blustery scene below. Why did a calm, even-tempered person such as himself love a good storm, crashing seas, and jagged cliffs?
When people met Bertie at first, they always mistook him for a dangerous black-haired rogue. He had that kind of face—an imposing nose, haughty eyebrows, and high cheekbones. But his worst fault was only diffidence. Sometimes he did not warm up to people for years. He especially did not warm up to women. If one had known the mother who had lacerated his soul with her own bitterness, that was easy enough to understand.
With care, he placed his Hessian boots upon the rocky path down to the beach. The locals had told him there were caves below reputed to be used by smugglers, so of course they were worth a look.
The stones rolled beneath his feet, almost causing him to lose his footing. Here and there were sturdy low-lying succulents that made their homes in rocky places, but nothing to grab onto in case of a fall. Stopping halfway to orient himself, Bertie looked down at the beach again.
There he saw the shrouded figure of a woman pacing the sands. As she wore a heavy hooded cloak, it was impossible to tell whether she was young or old. He hesitated. He was not in the mood to form a new acquaintance, and as she had apparently come out alone, maybe she felt the same. Bertie waited until she had rounded the point and then continued his descent.
On the beach, waves rushed to their destruction, foaming at his feet. Not wishing disaster upon his shiny Hessians, he turned toward the cliffs, seeking the reputed caves. Heading south, he found them at the base of a craggy pinnacle standing straight up from the beach.
Dangerous place this will be at high tide.
What he really needed was a torch or a lantern. Just inside the tunnel opening was a hump of charred driftwood—evidence of a fire having been lit.
“You ought not to go in there, sir,” a low but distinctly feminine voice warned him. “Not without a torch and a guide.”
Turning, he saw the hooded figure standing just outside the entrance, framed by crashing surf. Feeling like a lad who had been caught out snooping, he stepped away from the cave toward her.
For some reason he could not have explained, the lady seemed a tragic figure. Her face beneath the hood was in shadow. As he moved farther out into the diffused light of a sun blocked by an overcast sky, Bertie sought to make out her features.
Her face was heart shaped with high cheekbones, a full mouth, and a small pointed chin. Eyes downcast, she refused to look at him.
“It sounds as though you’ve been here before,” he said, gentling his voice, afraid he might startle her.
Sea-green eyes fringed with thick, long lashes looked up at him then. Their clarity made them appear innocent, and yet something about the way she studied him gave him the impression she could see into his soul.
All at once, he felt as though he were falling from a great height. His heart thumped so loudly he could hear it in his ears. Their gazes locked, and the two of them stood silent. The ocean crashed in the background.
This is no shy miss. She is full woman.
“You have unusual eyes,” she whispered. He wondered if she even knew she had spoken aloud.
Finally, he spoke, offering her a short bow. “Sir Herbert Backman. I’m at the Oaks, Portesham. House party. I cannot resist lighthouses or smugglers’ dens.”
A brief smile showed and was gone in an instant. “Who can?”
“Don’t suppose anyone uses them now,” he said.
She contradicted him. “Oh, they are in use. Our local mystery, actually. I am determined to solve it.” Some anxiety furrowed her brow. “We had best make our escape before the tide comes in.” Turning her back, she walked swiftly away.
He stood rooted to the spot. He still saw her outline in the cave entrance, like the imprint of a lightning flash in the gloom. She had left too quickly. He was not ready to end their conversation. The moment was vital somehow, and Bertie felt off-balance. Such feelings had never overtaken him before.
Was this what his friends Tony and Beau had experienced upon meeting Virginia and Penelope?
Was he not to know even her name?
Bertie watched her recede from him, climbing up the path, holding up the hem of her cloak and moving with a strange heaviness, as though she carried a burden.
What’s amiss? What brought her down to the beach today? Ten to one she’s distraught.
Though he normally possessed the empathy of a wooden door, he wondered what was wrong in her life. She looked sad. He longed to solve the mystery of her.
And there had been that curious sensation of falling . . . It was suddenly imperative that he find out who she was and what dispirited her so. Perhaps Virginia would know her identity.
* * *
Bertie returned to the Oaks, the large Tudor home of Lord Ogletree. It sat just outside Portesham on an estate that ran sheep in the rolling hills beyond the small town. It was idyllic, even in the winter.
He found his friend Tony, Viscount Strangeways, with his wife, Virginia, in the sitting room playing cards with his other friend Beau, Viscount Wellingham, and Beau’s wife, Penelope. His friends were opposites—Tony being dark and Beau blond.
Virginia, a tall lady with dark, level eyebrows that lent earnestness to her face, answered his inquiry about the woman on the shore. “I’ve spent only a little time here, Bertie.” Her uncle owned the estate. “I don’t remember anyone of that description being at the wedding, though. She sounds rather extraordinary. How peculiar that she didn’t give you her name.”
“I’ve never known you to be so taken with a female, old fellow,” said Tony. Turning to his wife, he said, “Perhaps your uncle would know her, darling.”
But Lord Ogletree could not help him, either.
“Are you certain she was a lady, not a servant?” the stout man asked, settling back in a leather armchair, his feet on a hassock as he filled his pipe.
Bertie answered, “Certain. Her cloak was velvet, and the clasp was gold filigree.”
Lord Ogletree pondered, fingering his pocket watch. “I suppose she could be staying at Fortuneswell House, though it is usually empty at this time of year. It’s only one of the marquess’s holdings.”
“Marquess?” Bertie repeated, his inexplicable hopes dimming. A marquess’s relation could have no time for a mere baronet. Perhaps that is why she walked off without giving her name after he introduced himself. Yet, somehow he doubted it.
“Marquess of Westbury,” Ogletree elaborated. “His principal seat is in Somerset, but he sometimes visits here in the summer. I have never known him to be here in the winter, though.”
“Westbury,” mused Tony. “I’ve met his son, Redmayne. He’s not the sort to mingle with minor members of the nobility.”
Tony was a wealthy, well-thought-of viscount. If the marquess had no time for a viscount, he would certainly give a baronet short shrift. Bertie sighed.
His other friend, Wellingham, indulged his odd sense of humor by impersonating a dandy. Today, he was arrayed in a suit of lime green. He rose from the card table and clapped Bertie on the shoulder. “How about some billiards?”
His wife, Penelope, spoke up, “Not until you pay up, my lord. You owe me two shillings and sixpence.” The petite blonde woman had a reputation as a cardsharp, which was totally at odds with her form and gentle demeanor. It had always amused Bertie considerably.
Beau paid up, and they left the ladies playing cards with Lord Ogletree.
This was their first house party together since Tony’s wedding in December. It was customary for them to meet in January, but though the three men continued to enjoy one another’s company, things were not the same between them. During the last year, both of his friends had married for love. While Bertie approved of their wives, he knew his friends’ principal loyalties now lay with them. That knowledge left him lonely.
He had known Tony since their days at Eton, and Beau had joined them at Oxford. For the last ten years, they had formed a tight triumvirate.
They were an oddly assorted trio, bound by those loyalties that can be cemented only over years at public school and university. Though it would come as a great surprise to London society, Bertie was a fervent Egyptologist. He lectured frequently at Oxford, which lay twenty miles from his estate. The ton knew him only as a fashionable member of the Corinthian sporting set. A scholar at heart, he spent most of the year at his estate, surrounded by artifacts and steeped in Egyptian mysteries. For years, he had come to Town only during the Season to spend time with his two friends.
Beau was with the Foreign Office, and Tony ran his estate and horse breeding operation in Kent. Beau’s wife preferred their country estate to Town, so they spent as much time as the Foreign Office allowed in Somerset. And when the war with America ended, Tony and Virginia would be off to her country for an extended visit.
As though following his thoughts, Beau said, “We must find you a wife, Bertie.”
He forced a laugh. “I won’t be getting leg shackled anytime soon. I have all the family I need in Marianne and the twins.”
“A sister is not the same as a wife,” Tony told him. “I never would have believed it myself, but marriage to the right woman is exceedingly comfortable, as well as stimulating. Virginia keeps me on my toes, but she is also in my corner, come what may.”
He couldn’t imagine altering his life in such ways as his friends had because of a woman. Contrary to what Tony averred, marriage seemed anything but comfortable. To his quiet irritation, he lost at billiards.
* * *
During the night, the mysterious lady from the beach visited Bertie in his dreams. He was walking along the shore and saw her atop the cliff, running, a red cape streaming out behind her. Suddenly, she was falling. Terror clamped his chest. He ran, and she fell into his arms. Her face was blurred with tears, and he kissed her . . .
He woke, still feeling her close in his arms, warm and familiar like home. Reluctantly, he let the feeling go and came full awake. Getting out of bed, he went to the mantel where Tony had placed a decanter of whiskey. He lit a candle and poured a short drink, taking it over by the window. Bertie pulled back the drapes and looked out into the clear night. The full moon shone, imparting a ghostly hue to the landscape. She was out there somewhere, asleep, unaware of his strange longing.
What was he to do about these feelings? They were unusual enough to make him uncomfortable and eager at the same time. This wasn’t like him at all. From his indelible experiences as a child he had come to view the fair sex (aside from his sister) as manipulative, shallow, and great disturbers of his peace. Of course, Virginia and Penelope did not appear to be that way, but one could never really tell, could one? How Tony and Beau would rib him!
His drink finished, he extinguished the candle and climbed back into bed, only to lie awake reliving the scene on the beach. It was a devil of a thing, this obsession. Perhaps tomorrow he could ride over to Fortuneswell, just to somehow ascertain whether that was where she was staying.
The following day dawned crystal clear as sometimes happened in the winter. Bertie itched for a ride. His friends hadn’t come down, so he sought out the stables and said good morning to Hermes, his chestnut stallion. Once he was in the saddle, he could not restrain himself from riding out and following the signposts to Fortuneswell. Was his mystery woman staying in the Marquess of Westbury’s home?
When he arrived at the town, it provided yet another stunning scene atop cliffs which dropped to the waters of Portland Harbor. Stopping at the Lion, a welcome-looking pub, he ordered a cup of hot cider to warm himself. The other denizens of the hostelry appeared to be locals joined in a game of darts. There was one gentlemanly fellow reading a newspaper before the fire.
Bertie approached the man. “Pardon me. Can you tell me the road to Fortuneswell House?”
The man, who appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties, was fine as fivepence in a gray morning coat, striped trousers, and gray-and-black striped cravat. “Who is inquiring?”
In answer, Bertie bowed slightly. “Sir Herbert Backman.”
The man’s nostrils flared with what appeared to be distaste. “There is no one at home, sir, so I can save you the journey.” He turned back to his newspaper.
It had been many years since Bertie had suffered a snub. Turning away abruptly, he wondered if the man had even told him the truth. Tossing off his cider, he returned outside to Hermes. Some force still compelled him to find the house. He inquired of the stable lad, “Which is the road to Fortuneswell House?”
Lady Catherine Redmayne was glad that it was winter. Besides suiting her mood, it was the time of year when social obligations did not weigh on every hand—not that she was overly social at the most demanding of times.
Settling in the conservatory, she breathed in the scent of growing things, enjoying the sun across her lap. She found comfort in these simple pleasures. Unfolding the letter she had just received from her friend Lizzie, she read:
Life is very dull and dreary in London just now, and I miss your company. However, you were wise to withdraw to Fortuneswell. William’s engagement is all over the gossip columns, just as you feared. Sybil beams and blushes whenever she sees me. I do not know how she was ever your friend. I should not say that, I know, for it can only give you pain, but I am very angry with her for her betrayal.
Although your crying off your engagement and their subsequent betrothal are the favorite meat of scandalmongers at the moment, I am certain it will all die away as soon as another scandal presents itself. It is winter, however, and the pickings are few.
Catherine paused in her reading. She had never known it was possible to feel so much pain. It completely engulfed her, until she was drowning in it. She even wondered if Lizzie delighted in the opportunity to be its messenger. Her friend had written more, but Catherine crumpled the pages in her hands. She would burn them when she got near a fireplace.
How was she to move on from here? How could she ever return to society? Would it not be better to remain here, cloistered away, doing good works for the rest of her life? Catherine never intended to risk her heart again, so it would be no hardship to remain in this place, which had always been the favorite of her homes. The wildness of the Dorset shore appealed to her imagination.
But now her imagination had turned against her. Visions of William and Sybil together would not stop coming: William’s fair head bowing down to hear Sybil’s light voice; the two of them staring into each other’s eyes; Sybil waltzing in William’s arms.
The two closest relationships in her life were now lost to her at once—that of her fiancé and her closest friend. Her heart was so sore, her whole constitution was in commotion. Catherine could not eat anything but the lightest broth, and sleep was a stranger to her.
Restlessness drove her to leave the conservatory, to venture into the garden and to feel the weak sunshine on her uncovered head. She looked at the bare stalks of the roses and perennials and thought how like them she felt. Fruitless. Ugly.
Catherine had told Sybil everything—every detail of her courtship with William, every hope, every dream summed up in her ecstatic happiness. She had never guessed that Sybil and William had begun to see each other in secret. Would they have continued once she and William were married, had she not discovered the truth?
She and her fiancé had been celebrating the holidays with her family and friends at Westbury Castle in Somerset when Catherine had come upon the pair in deep conversation in a corner of her father’s library. Something in their air had proclaimed intimacy. Her heart had hammered so hard, and she was rooted to the spot, unable to move. Their faces revealed their guilt.
Oh, they had denied their attachment, of course. But William had never looked at her that way. It was a fact, however, that she had never believed that she wholly possessed his heart. She had sensed that there was always some part of him that was restless, apart, still searching. He had apparently found what his relationship with Catherine had lacked. In Sybil.
Later, Sybil had come to her in tears, begging her to understand that they had not been able to help themselves. They had fought their attachment for months. She treasured Catherine’s friendship. Was there not any way it could survive this?
How could she even ask such a thing? Losing the two people most dear to her harrowed up Catherine’s soul. How could Sybil expect their friendship to continue? And yet she believed her friend was sincere. After all, what woman could not love William, with his blinding smile and the half-lidded look from his warm eyes that had turned her soft inside? Sybil was beautiful in a fragile sort of way—one that made men want to take care of her. It was not her fault that she and Catherine’s fiancé had been thrown together so much in their social circle and at engagement parties.
William had written her letter after letter, but she could not bear to open them. They had gone straight into the fire.
Now, attired only in her light wool gown and Shetland shawl, she hugged herself there in the cold, bare garden. Vaguely, Catherine heard hoofbeats. Her mind absently acknowledged that someone was riding down the path from the village. She did not look up, sinking instead onto the seat in the middle of the denuded rose garden. Putting her head in her hands, she tried to stem the tears, but they were all that seemed to loosen the grief in her breast.
Catherine did not know how long it was before she realized the hoofbeats had gone past. Whoever it was had undoubtedly seen her crying, but she did not care. She reentered the house and went in search of a fireplace to burn her friend’s letter.
* * *
Catherine spent the afternoon wandering the coast below Portland Bill once again. She had no idea why it drew her so. Briefly, she remembered the gentleman she had met the day before. He was extraordinarily handsome and seemed to see straight through to her grief. She had to admit, there had been an odd attraction there, though the memory was probably embellished with fairy-tale qualities. Undoubtedly their attraction had been the product of her overly fruitful imagination. Shaking her head, she decided she was in the mood to be reckless and explore the cave.
She had brought a flint with her. Someone had stacked driftwood by the cave entrance since she was there yesterday. Picking up a piece, she struck her flint against the limestone wall of the cave and lit a long piece of wood.
When it was flaming satisfactorily, she held it before her and walked into the darkness. If she were the heroine of one of her Gothic novels, this would be the start of an adventure.
The passage was not straight but twisted like a lazy river through the limestone. She came to a fork and went left. Before she had gone very far, however, the sand at her feet became swampy, and she turned around. The right fork was not so muddy, and she was able to press forward. When she had walked a fair distance, there was another fork.
The sound of low voices sent her heart into her throat. The sound was oddly hollow, but almost familiar. Smugglers?
Can it really be?
At the moment, it didn’t seem thrilling in a good way. It was terrifying. The voices came from the right fork. Catherine darted into the left fork, put out her torch, and pressed her body against the slimy wall of the cave. The darkness was alive with menace.
She could no longer hear the voices. They had to leave eventually, did they not?
Catherine began to shiver from the cold. What an idiot she was! She had almost decided to find her way out of the cave by touch when the voices sounded again close by. They were leaving.
The cave so distorted the sound that she could not quite make out their faint words, but again familiarity nagged at her.
Best not to take any chances.
Waiting until she could no longer hear them, Catherine took off her gloves and felt the cave walls with her hands. It was repulsively slimy, but she had no alternative but to find her way out by touch. She dared not light her torch and call attention to her presence.
It seemed like hours before she emerged into the sunlight. She took the first deep breath she had dared since she had first heard the voices. Walking out onto the beach, she stopped suddenly when she heard someone on the path up the cliff. Knowing she had exposed herself, she turned around and ducked back into the cave entrance. Had she been seen?
Counting to one hundred, she finally emerged again, keeping close to the cliff wall. She heard nothing. Her heart was going like a woodpecker.
When the cliff trail came into view, she pulled her hood across her face under her eyes so she would not be recognized, but there was no one there. Just to be certain no one awaited her up on the cliff, she remained on the beach, counting to two hundred this time.
Her horse, Ginger, was tethered at the top. How had the other men arrived? She had seen no other horses.
Finally judging it to be safe, Catherine made her way up the trail, grateful to see Ginger awaiting her, nibbling on the sparse grass. She untied her horse from the post, mounted, and rode speedily away.
Soon she had lost herself on the downs among the sheep, driving at an ever faster pace so that she might distract herself. The pain she had been trying to escape had been dislodged by her fear.
The sheep-dotted meadows were interrupted here and there by prehistoric monuments. Finally, as she neared Fortuneswell, the path she was on turned toward the coastal cliffs once more. As she halted Ginger on the top of one of these precipices, the sound of the surf below calmed her thoughts. The sea was so vast and eternal. Her fear had receded in the sunlight.
Without warning, a shot exploded at Ginger’s hooves. The mare reared and pawed the air, threatening to plunge them over the edge of the cliff. Terrified, Catherine pulled at her horse’s reins, attempting to turn her mount away from the edge. Every thought fled as she concentrated on preserving herself and Ginger from taking a deadly plunge.
Only because Catherine was an excellent horsewoman was she able to prevail and get her mare away from the cliff. Who had fired a weapon at her?
Out of a stand of trees to the north burst a gentleman atop a chestnut horse. Kneeing Ginger, she took off in the opposite direction. She had recognized the rider. It was the man from yesterday—the man on the beach.
She continued to spur Ginger to a faster gallop along the cliffs and finally into another stand of trees. Catherine was forced to slow the horse, but once they were sufficiently lost, she dared to look behind her. No one was chasing her.
What a narrow escape! She had very nearly been killed.
Dismounting, she stroked the trembling Ginger’s neck. “Well done, my girl. Steady on. That’s it. Everything is going to be all right.”
She walked her horse the rest of the way home. Should she tell Robert about the incident? Probably not. Her half-brother was thoroughly bored, looking for any excuse to go back to London and rejoin his set. She could not possibly do that right now, villains or no. To her, heartache was worse than physical danger.
What had been the man on the horse’s name? All she could recollect was that he was Sir Something. A baronet. From a house party. Portesham, was it not?
He had the most compelling eyes she had ever seen—silver gray surrounded by thick black lashes. They had quite transfixed her for a moment, drawing her in. Aside from his eyes, he had looked devilish enough, but she had not sensed any threat from him. Could it really have been he who had shot at her? She was going to find out.
* * *
“Robert, have you heard of any house parties going on at the moment near here?” she asked at dinner.
Her half-brother still turned himself out in town style, even for a day in the country. He had the features of their father—the perfection of those carved on a Roman coin in the British Museum. On him, the features were haughty; on her father, they were handsome.
He looked up from the lamb he was carving. “No.” He placed a slice of lamb on a plate and handed it to the footman, who handed it to her. “However, there was a rum sort of fellow asking the way to Fortuneswell House at the pub this morning. I suppose he might have been part of a house party. Or something more nefarious.”
“What was he like?” she asked.
“Tall, dark. Queer eyes—a sort of light gray.”
Her heart sped up. “Why did you say he was rum?”
“Looked a thorough rogue. What is all this? Has someone been annoying you?”
She contemplated what her answer should be. At length, she decided to ignore the question. “Who owns the big house at Portesham?” she asked.
Robert appeared to think. He was not the sharpest tool in the shed. “Old fellow named Ogletree, last I knew. The fellow at the pub wasn’t him. He was young—possibly early thirties. You never answered my question. Why this sudden interest in house parties?”
“I fancy an invitation,” she said boldly.
“Surely not!” he said with horror.
“Might you call on them? Offer your respects?”
“Catherine, you know what I’m like. I never do that sort of thing.”
“Well, you are sitting there spoiling for some entertainment. Wondering how on earth the Prince of Wales is carrying on without you, most likely. I know how dull you find things here. I am only trying to alleviate your boredom.”
He gave a bark of laughter. “So you say! I know when I’m being led about by the nose. All right. I’ll ride over tomorrow morning. Think I am going to find this rum fellow for you?”
She ignored this. “And you will report back to me?”
“Aye aye, Captain!”
What on earth?
Who was shooting at the lady he had seen on the beach? She had taken off as though she were afraid it was he. What was happening here?
Bertie decided against chasing her and dismounted, looking for the shooter. After a time, he found a custom-made rifle loader at the base of a boulder where the culprit must have hidden, just inside the trees. The ground was covered with leaves, but it was still possible to tell where a horse had been secured.
Taking the loader, he remounted Hermes and tried to follow the path of disturbed leaves through the forest. It proved a fruitless exercise. Several horses had been through here.
Who the devil was shooting at her? Why?
That evening, he discussed the incident with his friends over their port.
“Dashed odd,” said Tony. “I wonder if we should call the chief constable.”
Beau said, “It is not really our affair. Let the young woman decide that. Perhaps it is a spurned lover or something of that nature. We really have no facts—not even the lady’s name.”
“Devilishly frustrating,” said Bertie, looking into the depths of his glass.
“You are unusually distraught,” remarked Tony. “Do you know the lady?”
Bertie flicked the ash off the end of his cigar, trying for nonchalance. “She’s the one I saw on the beach yesterday.”
“And you still remember her?” Beau knew him too well. “How extraordinary.”
“Is it time to summon the vicar?” asked Tony with a laugh.
“Bertie must rescue her first. Who knows what strange affair he has stumbled upon?” Beau said.
“It was an attempt on her life,” Bertie insisted. “I don’t find that humorous.”
* * *
The following morning, to his surprise and everyone else’s, Lord Ogletree received Lord Robert Redmayne, heir to the Marquess of Westbury, who was evidently staying at Fortuneswell. Virginia’s uncle spoke with him in his library, where they visited for a half an hour. As the man left the house, Bertie recognized him as the man from the pub.
Lord Ogletree rejoined them in the drawing room, where the party was playing cards. Snow threatened, which was unusual this close to the sea, and the outside temperatures had plunged.
“Not a bad sort, Lord Redmayne,” said Lord Ogletree. “I asked him to dinner tonight. I thought we might have charades afterward. He’s bringing his sister, Lady Catherine.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” said Virginia, her face bright, her brow earnest. “It will be lovely to have some company.”
“And what do you call us?” Penelope asked, a twinkle in her blue eyes.
“You are more like family,” Virginia told her. “Everyone knows our husbands and Sir Bertie stick together whatever the season might be. Charades will be delightful, but I suspect you men to be possessed of a communal spirit; you know one another’s thoughts, and that gives you an advantage. We shall have to put you all on one team, I expect.”
* * *
When the guests arrived in the drawing room that evening, Bertie was very gratified that Lady Catherine proved to be the mysterious woman from the beach and the cliff top. However, from her bold glance and the upward tilt of her chin when they were introduced, she had a look of challenge about her.
Those sea-green eyes were every bit as stunning in the drawing room as they had been on the atmospheric shore beneath the cliffs. And now he could see that her hair was a deep shade of auburn. Her brown velvet evening gown revealed an exquisite form, and he wondered why he had never noticed her in London. Perhaps the circumstances of their meeting had endowed her with added allure, but it still clung to her. Sorrow marked her eyes, but her figure moved with unusual grace. Her wistful smile, appearing only briefly as she was introduced to the two women, tugged at his heart. He wondered again about her personal tragedy. A death?
When he had seen her distraught in the garden yesterday, it had been all he could do not to stop and offer her his aid. Clearly, he had the blood of some chivalrous knight in his veins. It was dashed inconvenient.
As for Lord Redmayne, Bertie instantly recognized him as the man from the pub, but he gave no indication he had met Bertie at all. He acknowledged all introductions in the manner of a great noble giving notice to lesser beings. Lady Catherine also made no mention of having met him, and Bertie did not prompt her memory, but he was convinced his party owed this visit to the previous afternoon’s happenings on the cliff top.
As the highest-ranking members of the nobility, Lord Redmayne, his sister on his arm, followed Lord Ogletree and Lady Strangeways as the host and hostess into the dining room. They were followed by the Wellinghams, while Tony and Bertie brought up the rear.
The dining room at the Oaks was deep green, hung with paintings of Georgian landscapes. Liking what he knew of the house, Bertie wondered how it compared to Fortuneswell House, which was not a principal seat but nevertheless one of the homes of a marquess. Bertie guessed the man must be quite elderly if he had a son Redmayne’s age.
As they sipped their soup, Lord Redmayne said to Virginia, “Surely, my lady, you are an American?”
“Yes,” she replied cheerfully. “It is a long story, but before my marriage, Lord Ogletree was my guardian. He is my great-uncle.”
“Do you miss your home?” Lady Catherine asked. “England must seem very different to you.”
“I am growing accustomed,” Virginia said. “But yes. England is very different from the part of America where I grew up.”
Lady Catherine looked like she wanted to ask another question, but she kept silent. Her brother asked, “Have you been much in London? I do not recall meeting you there.”