Scandalous Secret, Defiant Bride
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Suddenly James rose out of the water and splashed towards her, his lips stretched in a wide smile over his youthful face, his blue eyes laughing and so very appealing, and suddenly the warmth came back into the day and the obnoxious Mr Lloyd was forgotten.
The Thornton family had a long and distinguished history in Cambridge. In the reign of Queen Anne, William Thornton, a man who revelled in hunting and was a lover of all country pursuits, had bought several hundred acres of farmland and forests, built the magnificent Tanglewood and settled his family there.
It was so named because of the thick woodland that had to be cleared so the house could be built. It stood at the end of a drive of beech and oak like a timeless old lady, its brooding structure of mellow stone preserved for centuries, looming out of the shadows of another time.
Having separated from James and Peter, Christina made her way to the back of the house. It would never do if Mama saw her in her bedraggled state. Hopefully she’d make it to her room and she would be none the wiser.
She entered the servants’ block, with its numerous rooms housing at least fifteen servants, as furtively as any criminal. Unfortunately she had to go by the kitchen, which was the proverbial hive of industry, with extra catering staff employed to assist cook with the evening’s dinner party. She would be lucky to pass unnoticed. She didn’t. Holding her breath as she sneaked past the open door, she froze when Mrs Barnaby’s voice boomed out.
‘Miss Christina! Well, I never.’
Carrying her stockings, her skirts saturated halfway up to her waist, her wet petticoat uncomfortable beneath her dress, with her face a picture of guilt, Christina slowly turned and looked into the cavernous kitchen with its ranges, dressers and gleaming copper pans and a massive central table. Kitchen maids, preparing ingredients for Mrs Barnaby’s use, and scullery maids, scouring pans at a large pot sink, paused in their work to gape open mouthed, their eyes popping out on stalks, at the young miss who resembled a drowned rat. Although it was nothing new. It wasn’t the first time they’d seen her in a similar state—often much worse.
Attired in a pristine starched white apron and cap, moving towards her, her hands on her ample hips, Mrs Barnaby’s eyes ran up and down her appalling appearance disapprovingly. ‘Why, Miss Christina, it’s plain to see you’ve been on one of your jaunts. I don’t know what your mama will say to this.’ Hadn’t she seen her crossing the park in the direction of the lake with Mr Peter and his friend hours ago, their laughing faces as they larked about seeming to suggest they were up to something exciting?
Mrs Barnaby had been at Tanglewood since before Christina was born and, with the familiarity of an old retainer, felt she could say what she liked—indeed, every one of the servants and even Lady Thornton stood very much in awe of her.
Well and truly caught and in something of a fix, knowing she would have to bluff her way out of it, on a sigh and shifting restlessly from one foot to the other, Christina shrugged.‘I’m sorry, Barney,’ she said, addressing Tanglewood’s large and cosy cook by the nickname she’d used since she’d learned to talk. ‘I know how it must look to you, but I had the most awful accident and slipped and fell into the lake. Please don’t tell Mama. You know how cross she gets. Besides, I know she’s got company this afternoon, so I don’t want to disturb her. I don’t want her to see me looking like this.’
‘And I should think not. She would scold you most severely, as would your papa.’
‘Papa would understand.’ She smiled sweetly.
Mrs Barnaby sighed, shaking her head. If her parents couldn’t stop her, who was she to interfere? ‘Ah, well, I’m up to my eyes in preparations for tonight, so away with you and have Molly prepare you a bath.’
As Christina scampered off to her room, Mrs Barnaby went back to preparing the food for the evening’s dinner party. Would the girl never grow up? She was seventeen and supposed to be a young lady, but there had been nothing ladylike about her just now. An image of the handsome young Mr James Embleton’s sisters came to mind—sweet natured they were, always stitching samplers or dabbling in water colours or playing the piano, a trouble to no one, which could not be said of Miss Christina.
Defiant of all restrictions and rebellious of all convention, she was a complex young woman—untameable, hot tempered, truculent when she failed to get her own way, and an angel when she did. Her parents despaired of ever making a lady of her.
Molly was folding some of Christina’s clothes away into drawers when Christina flounced in, crashing the door behind her and making Molly almost jump out of her skin.
‘I need a bath,’ she declared, throwing her muddied stockings on to the bed and kicking off her shoes. ‘I’m filthy.’ Immediately she began peeling off her clothes.
Molly stopped what she was doing and wrinkled her nose. For all the world her young mistress looked like a wild thing. ‘I can see that.’
Molly was a first-class lady’s maid. Lady Thornton had employed her when Christina was fourteen years old. She was thoroughly experienced, a first-rate hairdresser and experienced in dressing a lady and everything that appertained to her office. Molly had never met anyone quite like her mistress. In the beginning she’d been tempted to seek another position, but as she got to know her better she found there was something so appealing about her that she’d decided to stay.
‘Have you seen Mama?’
‘No, but I know her company left some time since.’
‘I suppose she’ll want to rest in preparation for the dinner party this evening.’ Christina stepped out of her undergarments, leaving them in a wet heap on the carpet, from where Molly immediately retrieved them, curious as to their dampness, but deciding it would be better not to ask.
‘I’ll wear my sapphire blue gown tonight.’ Wrapping her robe around her now naked body, Christina tied the belt tight around her small waist. ‘I want to look my absolute best.’
Molly gave her a puzzled look. ‘But you don’t like that dress. You hate sapphire blue.’
‘I’ve changed my mind,’ she said, James having told her that sapphire blue was his favourite colour.
Sitting at her dressing table, she carefully began studying her face from every angle—which she had taken to doing frequently of late, much to Molly’s quiet amusement—one didn’t have to be a genius to know the cause of this sudden interest in her looks and that it had everything to do with her brother’s friend.
‘And you can dress my hair—all sophisticated like, with some of those glittering combs Mama likes to wear.’ So James will notice how grown up I am, how pretty I am, she thought. She knew she hadn’t imagined his liking for her, although as yet he hadn’t told her he had any special feelings for her. He was always telling her what a good sport she was, that she was clever and interesting, and once, when she’d made an extra-special effort with her appearance, as she would do tonight, he had told her she was pretty. How she wished he would get a move on. He would have to go back to university soon. Perhaps she was going to have to make the first move.
Having brought the sapphire blue gown from Christina’s dressing room, Molly was surveying it with disapproval. ‘I don’t think this is suitable for a quiet dinner party at home. The neckline is daringly low—far too revealing in my opinion.’
‘Nonsense, Molly. It’s perfect.’
‘You will certainly not wear it,’ came her mama’s firm voice from the doorway. Lady Thornton breezed in. ‘Molly is quite right. The cleavage is far too deep and will shock Mrs Travis, the vicar’s wife, who will be sitting across from you. Dear me, what would she think? The evening will be a low-key, conservative affair, so your pale yellow muslin will do nicely, so be a dear and get it out, will you, Molly? And your hair, Christina—wear it down tonight. I prefer to see you with it that way for the present. There will be plenty of occasions for your sophisticated hair-dos on more formal occasions.’
‘No, Christina, and that is my final word.’ Lady Thornton smiled kindly at Molly’s relieved expression, glad that she had come in time to prevent a disagreement between maid and mistress.
Christina was a constant worry for Audine Thornton. Her daughter had always been unmanageable and refused to live by the rules of polite society. It concerned her that, because of her nature, Christina would probably never form a union with a man who would be prepared to put up with her wild ways. Unfortunately Gerald, her husband, who had given Christina free rein to do just as she liked from early childhood, didn’t share her concern.
‘I’m going to rest for a while, but I’ve come to tell you to be punctual and that you must be on your best behaviour. The company will be from the local community and perhaps not as young as you would like, so, if you get bored, please remember your manners and don’t let it show. There are a few additions to the invitations—Reverend Kingston and his wife—oh, and our new neighbour.’
‘What new neighbour?’ Christina asked sullenly, absolutely mortified that her mama had forbidden her to wear the sapphire blue.
‘The one who is renting Cranworth House while Major Il-lingworth is in India. He took up residence a few days ago. I sent him an invitation yesterday, thinking it would be polite to welcome him to the neighbourhood. I’m so pleased he sent a note to accept.’
Christina wasn’t the slightest bit interested in Cranworth House’s new tenant. Turning back to the mirror as her mama went out and Molly prepared her bath, she sighed. What did she care about any of the invited guests, as long as James was there?
Mingling with the guests—twenty in all, elegant, wealthy, local people, who were partaking of pre-dinner drinks, sherry for the ladies and brandy for the gentleman—Max took a glass from the salver of a circulating servant. Of course, by now everyone knew who he was and couldn’t wait to be introduced. His arrival among them had caused quite a stir—it wasn’t often that a man with so colourful and mysterious a background appeared among them.
Uncommonly tall and lithe, his features strong and darkly handsome, he moved among them with the confident ease of a man well assured of his masculinity and his own worth. His hair, parted at the side, was thick and glossy black, and he had the kind of looks that set feminine hearts aflutter.
Max conversed politely, seeming to give them his full attention, but the major part of it was concentrated on the door as he waited for the daughter of the house to make an appearance. And then, as if he was seeing a dream, there she was. Everyone paused in their conversations and glanced her way. Her smile was dazzling and she seemed to bestow it on every one of those present—and did he imagine it, or did everyone resume talking with more animation than before? He smiled. Christina Thornton could lift the mood of a room simply by walking into it.
Max’s whole sum and substance became concentrated on the slender young woman. She drifted in like a butterfly in a pale lemon muslin gown, lovely and expensive, completely at odds with the young hoyden he had met earlier by the lake. The waist was tight, around which was fastened a narrow gold velvet ribbon. The skirts dipped and swayed as she glided over the smoothness of the richly patterned carpet to reveal the tips of her gold-slippered feet. She moved with a fluency and elegance that drew the eye. Her back was straight, her head tilted proudly, and her small breasts thrust forwards showed beneath the modest bodice of her gown. Her hair, a rich dark brown bordering on black, thick and gently curling, was drawn off her face and hung to her waist.
She had an individuality that had nothing to do with her beauty, which took Max’s breath away. With her creamy-white complexion she was utterly feminine, but there was nothing demure about her. When in company other young ladies would keep their eyes cast modestly down—Miss Thornton showed no such restraint. Filled with restless energy, she stared directly, looking about her with a keen interest, her glance filled with anticipation and bright expectancy. When her eyes picked out James Embleton, the object of her desire, she smiled the widest smile that warmed and lit her features.
But then she saw Max. His eyes pierced her with their steadfast gaze and her smile disappeared. Something shifted in Christina. She was most surprised to find him among the guests and curious as to how he had come to be invited, but she did not show it. Tearing her offended gaze from his and lifting her head in that unique way she had of showing her haughteur and defiance, with a deliberate snub she turned her back on him and made a beeline to where James stood talking to Peter.
They were animatedly discussing the cricket match that was to be played the following day, one that was played twice a year, the second a return match at the rival village of Farnley. Christina was swamped with dismay when they told her they were to play. She hadn’t much use for cricket, considering it boring anda waste of time.
‘You are to play cricket? But I—I thought we could take a picnic—the three of us, to the lake. Peter, you promised.’
James smiled an apology. ‘I’m afraid not, Christina. We’ll have a picnic another day. It can’t compete with cricket. What do you say, Peter?’
‘Certainly not. Look, there’s Hal Jenkinson. He’s in charge. Let’s go and have a word.’
Seeing Christina’s downcast face, James smiled. ‘I’m sorry, Christina. Look, have Mrs Barnaby prepare a basket and we’ll picnic during a break in the match—at lunch time. How about that?’
She brightened a little. ‘Yes—yes, I will.’
As they were about to walk away, Peter turned back. Tall and still rather gangly, with light brown curly hair and brown eyes, he was like his mother. Sensing his sister’s disappointment, he gave her a pitying smile. ‘You go on, James. I’ll be with you in a moment. I’d like to have a word with Christina.’ Taking her arm, he drew her to a quiet corner. ‘Christina—this is awkward, but I feel I must say something.’
Christina stiffened, not liking her brother’s tone, which was suddenly serious and more often than not heralded a telling off. ‘What about James?’
‘Look, I know you like him, Christina, a lot, but try not to show it quite so much. This afternoon—well—you did go overboard a bit at the lake—you know, taking your dress off and…’
‘Why?’ she gasped. ‘You’ve never minded before.’
‘That’s because we’re always alone—and you’re my sister—but—you do trail after James a bit, and—well—you’re too forward, Christina, by far.’
‘Forward?’ Her eyes snapped with righteous anger. ‘I am not. I don’t see James complaining.’
‘He wouldn’t. He’s much too polite.’
‘I need no instructions on how to conduct myself when I am with him,’ Christina retorted crossly, careful not to be overheard as her cheeks flushed with hot indignation.
‘I’m simply trying to warn you of the dangers.’
‘To stop you getting hurt—as you surely will. James sees you as my sister, someone who is fun to be with, and nothing more than that.’
‘Keep your warnings to yourself, Peter. I can take care of myself—and I will make him care for me.’
‘He won’t, Christina.’ Peter’s tone was sharp. ‘You will be wasting your time and more than likely make a fool of yourself into the bargain. Stop it now. Please.’
When he’d gone Christina was suddenly snatched from her angry preoccupations by a voice behind her, a voice that was deep and rich in timbre—and foreign.
‘Well, well, so we meet again, Miss Thornton. Who would have thought we would do so—and so soon?’
She spun round. Tall and incredibly handsome in the black and white of his evening dress, his black hair brushed to a smooth shine, Mr Lloyd towered over her.
His eyes were full of mockery when he smiled and quietly said, ‘I fear my presence this evening is going to bother you some more.’
Christina straightened imperiously. ‘What are you doing here?’ she retorted ungraciously, with none of the manners her mama had tried to instil into her. ‘How have you managed to wheedle your way into my parents’ dinner party?’
‘Lady Thornton very kindly invited me.’ His smile widened. ‘In truth, I suspect she took pity on my single state and thought to draw me into the fold, so to speak.’
‘As she would a stray dog,’ Christina retorted drily. ‘I didn’t know you were acquainted with Mama.’
‘I wasn’t, until yesterday when she issued the invitation. Since I am new to the area and wish to become acquainted with my neighbours, although my stay is only temporary, I accepted. It would have been ungracious of me to refuse.’
‘Why? Where do you live?’
‘At Cranworth House.’
Christina’s lips parted in surprise and, despite herself, she felt her interest quicken. ‘Oh, really—so you are the foreigner.’
‘If that is what you want to call me, then please do so, although it is not a term I like. I am half-Italian.’
‘And the other half?’
‘But why should you object to being referred to as a foreigner? If you are Italian—a very rich Italian, by all accounts—then surely the term is not incorrect.’
Max’s mouth tightened ominously. ‘And how can anyone here know my circumstances? My affairs are private. But then in a small community such as this, I suppose a stranger will be the subject of gossip and speculation. Have you done your share of speculating, too, Miss Thornton?’ he asked, one sleek dark brow arched, his eyes gleaming with derisive humour.
Realising that Mr Lloyd was trying to provoke her, Christina turned to walk away. Max stepped in front of her to bar her way. Their combined movements brought them closer together. He stared at her with impudent admiration, his gaze resting for a moment on the gentle swell of her breasts before moving up to her face. His brilliant blue eyes, the curl of his well-cut lips and the lounging insolence of his long body were saying something to her she did not understand. Perplexed, instinctively she looked away. Beneath his close scrutiny her cheeks had grown pink and hot, for she was young and had not yet learned the control which comes with age and experience.
‘Mr Lloyd, I would be obliged if you would step aside. I don’t want to talk to you.’
Directing a glance of wry humour at her, his eyes narrowing, he said, ‘Tell me, Miss Thornton. Are you normally hostile to everyone you meet, or is it just me?’
Her chilled contempt met him face to face. ‘It’s just you.’
‘Do you mind if I enquire as to why?’
‘You can ask, but I’m not obliged to answer.’
‘You have certainly none of your mother’s good manners,’ he remarked, looking towards where Lady Thornton flitted amongst her guests in a rustling lavender-grey dress. ‘She also looks so young you are more like sisters than mother and daughter.’
Christina’s eyes narrowed and her lips twisted scornfully. ‘What an expert flatterer you are, Mr Lloyd. Mama is still youthful, I grant you, but given the fact that she has produced two offspring, she can hardly be mistaken for my sister.’
‘I see you have met my daughter, Mr Lloyd.’
Max turned and smiled at his host. Inwardly, however, he was not smiling, and he was mentally dictating a sharp reprimand, which he would deliver to the man who had masqueraded as Christina’s father for the seventeen years of her life.
‘I have had that pleasure—and very charming she is. You must be very proud.’
Sir Gerald beamed. He was still a handsome man, despite his balding pate and slightly protuberant belly. ‘She most certainly is. And of course there is Peter, my only son, who is at Cambridge reading law—and doing well, I’m happy to say. Do you have family, Mr Lloyd?’
Max shook his head. ‘Sadly, no. I have no siblings. My mother died bringing me into the world, and my father followed her several years ago.’
‘Then what brought you to England?’
His expression became guarded. ‘Several reasons, one of them being that my mother came from Cambridge—and I was at university here. I had a yearning to see it again—to spend some time here and look up old friends. It is where I spent many happy years in my youth.’
Christina gritted out a thin smile. ‘I believe there were some Lloyds in these parts many years ago—is that not so, Papa?—and if my memory serves me correctly, a wild bunch they were, too. In fact, I do believe one of them was hanged for holding up coaches on the Cambridge Road,’ she remarked airily.
The sweetness of her tone did not hide the sneer she intended. Max met it with a flicker of amusement showing on his lips, and his eyes narrowed challengingly. ‘Indeed! You must tell me more, Miss Thornton. However, I do not believe it is the same branch—my mother’s maiden name was Lloyd, you see, but I am intrigued by your highwayman none the less. We may have much in common. I always thought I was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan.’
Gerald smiled to himself. For one dreadful moment he thought he was going to have to intervene to defend his guest from his sharp-tongued daughter, but it seemed there was no need. He thought Mr Lloyd was quite capable of dealing with rude young women.
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