22 September 1797
AMALIE Bronwyn sat at the small table overlooking the Dacre peach orchards, and tried to calm her beating heart. A small way to the left, her dear cousin Mary Elizabeth and their close friend Georgina, were making preparations for Mary’s upcoming wedding to the estate’s Lord Arlington. She would have loved to have joined them. She would have loved, beyond measure, to spend the sunny afternoon enjoying fresh peach teas and teasing her lovely cousin about her marriage to England’s most notorious—albeit reformed—rake. But she was not afforded the luxury.
At the thought, she crumpled her hand tightly around the small piece of parchment. She had read and reread the letter a dozen times since receiving it that morning, and each time the words remained the same, the sentiment an aching reminder of how fleeting it all was. Had she really expected, Amalie chastised herself, to live this life forever? Surely she must have known that all wondrous things find their timely finish, and she remained no exception to that fundamental rule of living.
It was only that, to watch Mary and Lord Arlington, though she had only ever known him as Nate, it was to watch the start and middle of something truly lovely to behold. They had found each other amidst—despite—their hardships, and one only had to watch their expressions when the other entered the room, to know that their love was to be a lasting one.
Amalie had never longed for lasting love. She was French, on her mother’s side, and had spent most of her childhood growing up on her uncle’s estate just outside of Paris, due to the strained relations of her parents. Those strained relations had the added benefit of never giving Amalie cause to hope for true or lasting love. Why should she have? It seemed most of those marriages around her—Mary’s own parents a fine example as well—were fraught with unhappiness and lost opportunity, if not patent dislike for the other. She couldn’t have possibly pictured her own future so grimly, with the stuffy dinner affairs and the strained relations of husband and wife that made her breath feel constricted. Other girls had spent their lives dreaming of marriage and domesticity, running households and raising their children, but never her, and she hardly felt her experiences had lacked for it.
All that went on to explain how she’d made an utter mockery of her first year in society. And, while French society was certainly far more forgiving than the stricture of London, she had managed her fair share of reputation damaging scandal. She had been sent back to England, and married to George Bronwyn, Lord of Hendlebrooke, her age twice over, and abjectly uninterested in his new wife.
But then Bronwyn’s antics regarding the fairer sex had reached Amalie’s ears. She had always assumed, how could she not have? But for him to parade each beautiful young waif before her and all of England sent Amalie into a wildness of her own. She refused to let herself be the only one not meriting from a happy union. So she followed in his footsteps, allowed herself to be seduced by the handsome young lords and barons at court, enjoyed them, if not quite as publicly, then close to as obviously as her husband had.
After a particularly salacious affair with a young country lord in a library at a ball, Bronwyn had finally sent her back to her father’s estate, unwilling to endure anymore of her antics. At the time she hadn’t minded the matter. Some months’ stay at her father’s estate had cleared her of any guilt. She hadn’t felt any guilt, not when her husband demanded a divorce, an act of complete dishonor, and hardly any at all when she’d heard that he had fallen into a puddle of his own spirits one night, and never woken from it. She was desperate to leave her father’s estate, with his constant demanding of her to be in mourning, when she hadn’t even seen her husband in more than half a year. So, when she had learned that a friend she had met in the French courts was back in England, she left her father with little more than a farewell, and made her way to the Dacre Estate, then considered the country’s most notorious den of iniquity.
She and Nate became dear friends over the course of her stay. He never asked her questions, and for that she was grateful. It hadn’t always been easy, defying her parents so openly, and certainly dealing with the aftermath of Bronwyn’s passing. But it had been worth the risk for the small semblance of freedom that she had enjoyed. Apparently, that part of her life was now over.
She uncrumpled the small letter in her hands, as if she hadn’t committed the missive to memory, and scanned the few short lines of writing.
Lord Temple-Blackwood is returning from abroad, and remains committed to our arrangement. As his estate is located in the north, I shall travel to meet you both. I recognize that Lord Arlington’s coming nuptials have gone a far way in restoring the estate’s reputation, and so I will arrive within a fortnight and stay until the terms are settled.
Edmund Hastings Seton
Earl of Lindsey
As with the dozen times she had read the letter before, the message hadn’t changed. After twenty-four years of living a life that she wanted for herself, she was set to marry a complete stranger, likely within the month. Her disastrous reputation in France had left her with few prospects in the way of matrimony, a future that had suited her without pause. She could have lived with Lord Arlington until the estate no longer remained, and then found herself a new home, a new ongoing festival of artists and theater, a life that would have suited her just fine.
But the fates had been unkind to her. Her father had found her a match in a man who had been thousands of miles away at the time of her scandal, and if he had been exposed to the gossips at all, surely the tall tales remained far from the truth. The man was a navy captain for the British fleets. He likely paid as much thought to the gossip rags of London as he did to the latest fashions. He had been utterly and completely ignorant of her behavior, and for that she had been rewarded with a marriage agreement.
This would truly be the end of her, for Amalie could no better picture herself as the pinnacle of proper society lady than she could picture a captain in the King’s navy to knowingly marry a woman who had once been caught flat on her back on a pianoforte with the head of a young marquis buried somewhere beneath her many skirts.
She had a month, a month to find some way from eternally damning herself to matrimony and the binds that came with it. If she didn’t come to some form of plan, she would spend the rest of her life wishing she had.
A small sob caught in her throat. Amalie wasn’t the type to cry. She wouldn’t have survived very long with her reputation, had small things impacted her. But the loss of her future was no small detail, no cutting remark in a gossip rag. This was everything.
She looked at the message again. How she felt like crying now, how she felt like bursting into tears, wrapping herself up in her coverlet and sleeping until all of this had passed. But she wasn’t the type of woman to do that, and it was far too early in the fight to concede defeat. Instead, she stood and turned for the house, the crumpled note clenched in her hand.
* * * *
24 September, 1797
Somewhere in the Atlantic
Captain Malcolm Emmett Temple-Blackwood, Lord of Huntley, sat in his quarters and stared at the small, folded page of parchment, running his rough thumb over its edge. He didn’t need to open it to know what it said, in the simple, straightforward verbiage of a man of war. The Governor had his best interests in mind, one could argue, when they had the knowledge that young lords who took to distant war ships in far-off lands and never returned, were unlikely to bestow praise upon an unworthy candidate. But it hardly eased his temper, now rising and rising and rising with the motion of HMS Ardent as it took each swell of ocean with an almighty pounding.
Normally, little about the open sea or the natural movement of a ship in water would ever have an ill effect upon Malcolm’s temper. He had been captain of the Queen Charlotte for the better part of a decade, after working his way up the ranks of the British Navy. For Malcolm, the open ocean and command over the sea was the only life worth living. He had left his estate in the capable hands of his solicitor, and taken off for India, returning rarely, far preferring the company of his men and ships to the overly polite, overly decorous world of the British aristocracy.
But now, it seemed that whole world, the fresh sea air, the company of sailors rather than gentry, the knowledge that he was the captain of his own ship, the guard of his own life, was behind him. One raid, one botched, routine raid, and he was leaving that world behind and heading back to the shores of England, back to his home country, his estate, his old life.
To his credit, Governor William S. Marshall, had insisted that the discharge was a temporary one, and a many year knowledge of the governor inclined Malcolm to believe him honest in nearly every matter. The troubling element of the whole situation, or rather, one of the troubling elements, was that Marshall had made no indication as to just how long he intended for the suspension to last.
Malcolm ran his hands over the edges of the small paper as he recalled his conversation with Marshall. While the man remained only a governor, and he the lord of a large estate, superiority rested with the leading official of the navy base, and so Malcolm had been forced to acknowledge the ruling, with little in the way of ally at his disposal.
“You’ve been a brave solider, Blackwood,” Governor Marshall began, sitting across the large writing table. “And an admirable captain.” Even then, Mal could remember the silence that had fallen over the office room, an utterly still, utterly unbreathable air, that left him anticipating the man’s following words. “But you need a holiday. You’ve been on active duty for, well, how long has it been?” Governor Marshall had a face that could only be described as jolly, even if one longed for another word. His cheeks remained perpetually flushed, and long wisps of white hairs were known to spider their way from his brows, up to his forehead and down to his eyelashes.
When Malcolm had responded, “Six years, eight months, three weeks and over a day,” those eyebrows had risen, stray hairs and all, nearly reaching the man’s real hairline, hidden somewhere under an ostentatious wig. He waved his hand in Malcolm’s direction and nodded.
“Exactly. You haven’t taken a holiday for nearly five years.” He’d paused, and in a manner surprisingly serious, for a man who took with considerable joviality to the latest fashions from Paris and London, he looked Malcolm straight in the eye.
“Go home. Marry. Get yourself an heir.” He looked, with consideration, at his captain and continued. “I’ve a brother who lives a short way from Huntley. I’ll send him round to check on you and see that you’re not simply biding your time until I give you a new ship.” Then he sealed Malcolm’s letter of temporary dismissal with his signet ring and held it out to him. “A wife,” he repeated the sentiment. “It will be good for you.”
Good for him. What could possibly be good for him after losing a dozen men in what should have been a simple, nearly practice endeavor? How could they have known that a small band of pirates would have been expecting them in those ports, Malcolm had repeated to himself time and again. How could he possibly have prepared them all for the slaughter that followed? More than a dozen men, killed at the hand of pure evil, killed when he should have been protecting them, not in war, not in honor, but in the face of theft and robbery.
He was a naval captain; surely the sight of blood was hardly enough to stir his senses to attention. But he should have been applying more attention, shouldn’t have let his focus shift, and perhaps, then, they might have been spared. Perhaps what Governor Marshall should have said was that he was getting soft in the head, losing the skill he held as captain, forgetting his instinct and strength. Malcolm wouldn’t blame the Governor if he did place the responsibility squarely on his shoulders—that’s what he had been doing to himself since the day it took place. But neither did wallowing in the issues make them go away, and for that, Malcolm was little surprised that Marshall had sent him home, away from the seas that could be so kind and so cruel, away from the fighting, the blood, the loss. He would be safe, in body and mind, and if the Governor deemed it, so it was to be.
That reminiscence brought him quite squarely to the more pressing of his troubles. A wife. The issue was not, as might have been imagined, that he needed to find himself a woman with which to wed. Quite the opposite—he already had one. His father had written him some three years back, lamenting that a close friend hadn’t yet found his daughter, a beautiful half-French lady, a suitable match. So, in deference to his father, Malcolm had signed the marriage agreement, with the sole thought that it would be many, many years before he returned to the shores of England, and no doubt by that time she’d have grown so impatient of his arrival that the whole arrangement would be called off.
That hadn’t occurred. And now he was destined for the shores of home, with the knowledge that when he arrived there would be no fooling himself, no delaying the future in the prolonged search for a wife.
No, he’d be married within the fortnight, to an utter stranger, a woman some thousands of leagues from him now. For a moment, he considered the woman he was to pledge his life to. In all likelihood she would be calm, demure and fairly innocuous, as young women of the ton, especially foreign women to court, could often be. That sort of wife, he could handle. She was going to have to play a very important part. The sooner he made a show to Governor Marshall’s brother, with a docile, sweet wife helping to solidify the role, the sooner he would be back on his journey to India and back to the life he longed for.