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Excerpt

Trentingham Manor, the South of England
September 1677

Standing in her family’s small, crowded chapel, Rose Ashcroft shifted on her high Louis-heeled shoes, wishing she were in a cathedral so there would be somewhere to sit.

Wishing she were anywhere but here watching her sister get married.

“Randal John Charles, Baron of Newcliffe, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”

“I will.” The confident words boomed through the magnificent oak-paneled chamber, binding Rand to Rose’s sister Lily.

But Rose wasn’t listening to the ceremony. Instead she heard nineteen, nineteen, nineteen running through her head. Nineteen and a lonely spinster…while both her sisters had found love.

Happy tears brightened their mother’s brown eyes. She leaned close, bumping against Rose’s left side. “They’re perfect together, aren’t they?” she whispered.

Rose could only nod dumbly, staring at her sister’s petite figure laced into a gorgeous pale blue satin wedding dress embroidered with gleaming silver thread. Lily’s hair, the same rich sable as Rose’s, cascaded to her shoulders in glossy ringlets. Beside her, Rand beamed a smile, looking tall and utterly handsome in dark blue velvet, his gray gaze steady and adoring.

The two were so clearly in love, Rose knew they belonged together—and truly, she was happy for her sister.

If only Lily weren’t her younger sister.

The priest cleared his throat and looked back down at his Book of Common Prayer. “Lady Lily Ashcroft, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband…”

Standing on Rose’s right, her older sister Violet shifted one of her twin babies on her hip and gazed up at her husband of four years, Ford. Sun streamed through the stained-glass windows, glinting off her spectacles. “Oh, isn’t this romantic?” she sighed.

Holding their other infant, Ford squeezed Violet around the shoulders. Seated cross-legged at their feet, their two-year-old son Nicky traced a finger over the patterns in the colorful glazed tile floor, obliviously happy.

Rose gritted her teeth.

Her friend Judith Carrington poked her from behind. “I cannot believe Lily’s wedding is happening before mine,” she whispered in a tone laced with dismay. “I was betrothed first!”

Rose couldn’t believe Lily and Judith would both be married before she even received a proposal.

“…so long as ye both shall live?” the priest concluded expectantly.

In the hush that followed, even knowing it wasn’t kind of her, Rose half wished Lily would fail to reply.

But Lily didn’t, of course. “I will,” she pledged, her voice as sweet as she was, ringing clear and true.

A few more words, a family heirloom ring slid onto her finger, and Lily was clearly and truly wed now, the new Lady Newcliffe.

And Rose was clearly and truly miserable.

When Rand lowered his lips to Lily’s, Rose turned away. Behind her, Judith was grinning up at her own betrothed—although only a little way up, since his stature was less than impressive. Lord Grenville was five-and-thirty to Judith’s nineteen, and his pale brown hair was thinning on top, but Rose imagined that the way Judith looked at him made him feel like a king. And he looked down on her in a way that surely made pretty, plump Judith feel like a queen.

Rose wanted someone who’d make her feel like a queen. Gemini, a duchess or countess would do. Or even a lowly baroness…

As the years crawled by without a husband on the horizon, she was getting less picky. Most any man was acceptable to her now.

So long as he was handsome, titled, rich, and powerful.

The guests parted as Lily and Rand began making their way from the chapel. They’d taken but a few steps when a cat, a squirrel, and a chirping sparrow came to join them.

Rose moved to hug her sister. “It was beautiful,” she murmured. “I’m so happy for you.”

She was. Truly she was.

Lily leaned down to pick up the cat, straightening with a brilliant smile. “Your turn next.”

A hurt retort came to Rose’s mind, but she wouldn’t snap at her sister on her wedding day.

“I’m happy for you, too, Rand,” she said instead, rising on her toes to give her sister’s new husband a kiss on the cheek. But not too far up on her toes, because Rose was tall. Too tall, perhaps, or too slim, or too quick-tongued…or too something.

There had to be some reason she had yet to marry.

Too intelligent, most likely. At one point, she’d thought Rand might be the one for her. Handsome, titled, and a professor of linguistics at Oxford—surely a good match for Rose, given her own exceptional command of foreign languages. But he’d chosen her little sister.

“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he said now, making Rose feel the unluckiest woman.

She’d had better days.

Lily must have noticed her dejected expression, because her fingers stopped stroking the cat’s striped fur. Concern clouded her lovely blue eyes. “You will be next,” she said quietly.

“Undoubtedly so, since I’m the only one left,” Rose quipped. “Unless, that is, Rowan manages to find himself a bride before I find a groom.”

They both swung to look at their ten-year-old brother where he stood with Violet’s young niece, Jewel, their dark heads close together as they whispered animatedly.

“He may have found himself a bride already,” Rose added dryly.

Lily’s giggle rang through the chapel, echoing off the molded dome ceiling. “Surely someone will claim you long before Rowan gets it in his head to wed. Why, you’re the prettiest of us all!”

Rose had always thought Lily the most pretty, but she knew she was pretty, too. Yet beauty, she’d learned, was not enough to hook a husband.

Well-wishers pressed closer. Rose began moving toward the drawing room and found Judith by her side. Forsaking her betrothed, Judith clutched Rose’s arm. “Who is that charming fellow?” she whispered conspiratorially.

Rose slid a glance to the fellow in question, a friend of Rand’s whose gaze suddenly found hers, then skimmed over her in a way that might have made her heart skitter…if she were at all interested. “That’s Mr. Christopher Martyn—Rand calls him Kit. He’s an architect,” she added dismissively.

Judith frowned. “The name sounds familiar…”

“King Charles recently awarded him a contract to renovate Whitehall Palace,” Rose admitted. “Among other commissions.” She happened to know that Windsor Castle and Hampton Court were also on Kit’s account books. But she didn’t want Judith to go getting the wrong idea. That he was someone of importance.

But Judith’s blue eyes grew round with awe. “He must be of great consequence to work for the king. And intelligent, too—no need to play the featherbrained country maiden for him.”

“I’ve no interest in playing anything for him. And I’ve never acted featherbrained.” But perhaps now was the time to start.

Her recent efforts to entice a certain gentleman—very well, to entice Rand—through intellectual conversation had failed. Hideously. So hideously that the object of her affection was at this very moment marrying her sister. What could be more hideous than that?

Nothing. Which was why she wouldn’t be making the same mistake again.

Unfortunately, where Rand was concerned, Rose’s mistakes had multiplied. Desperation had driven her to proposition him in a most unseemly manner, and when that hadn’t worked, in vexation and despair she’d attempted bribery and trickery of the worst kind.

She couldn’t imagine what had come over her that day and had feared she’d never be able to look Rand in the face again. But to her utter relief he seemed at ease with her, as though he’d graciously forgotten that humiliating episode.

“You cannot tell me,” Judith whispered, dragging Rose back to the present, “that you don’t think Mr. Martyn good-looking.”

Rose slanted Kit another covert look. Dressed in forest-toned velvet, he was tall and lean, his hair dark as jet, his eyes a startling mix of brown and green. She shrugged. “I suppose he’s handsome in a typical sort of way.”

Judith sighed. “He looks ever so nice. Do you think he’s nice?”

“He’s nice enough.” Except for those unusual eyes, which were decidedly not nice. Roguish would be a better description.

“And good Lord, he’s building things for the king! I’m certain he has money—“

“Money,” Rose interrupted pointedly, “does not make up for lack of a title.”

Her sister Violet walked up, sans children for once. “Who needs a title?”

Judith crossed her arms. “Lady Rose apparently wishes to become Lady Something-Higher.”

“Oh, well.” Violet sent Rose an indulgent smile. “That’s only because she has yet to fall in love.”

Rose smiled in return. “And given that it’s as easy to fall in love with a titled man as one without, I’ve decided to concentrate on the former.”

Violet and Judith exchanged a glance that set Rose’s teeth on edge, then left her, to return to their respective—titled—men.

Since Lily had given their mother barely two weeks to plan the event, the wedding party was small. Still, there were more than enough guests to fill the drawing room and spill out onto the Palladian portico and into the exquisite gardens. Trentingham Manor was known for its gardens, thanks to Rose’s father and his passion for flowers and plants.

But it was a warm, sunny day, and Rose feared for her creamy complexion, so she opted to stay indoors. She wandered the crowded drawing room, sipping from a goblet of the new and frightfully expensive champagne her parents favored for special celebrations. Although she enjoyed sharing a word or two with various relatives and neighbors, she was generally feeling at loose ends, not quite sure what to do with herself.

Until, that was, she heard her father’s voice and turned to see him addressing Kit Martyn.

“…one of those newfangled greenhouses,” Father was saying. “On the east side of the house, I’m thinking, to catch the morning sun. Since autumn is nearly upon us, I’d be much obliged if you could start it immediately.”

Rose couldn’t believe her ears. It was the second time her father had asked the esteemed architect to build him a lowly greenhouse.

Half tempted to ball up the lacy handkerchief she had tucked in her sleeve and stuff it into her father’s mouth, she hurried to join them. “Mr. Martyn builds things for the king, Father! Palaces, for heaven’s sake. He hasn’t—“

“Well, not quite palaces,” Kit corrected her. “Renovations to palaces, additions to palaces, but I’ve yet to build an entire—“

“See?” Rose met her father’s deep green eyes, speaking loudly and slowly to make sure he could hear her over the hubbub of the celebration. “Palaces. He hasn’t the time to build you a greenhouse.”

Kit sipped from his own goblet of champagne, then grinned at Rose’s father. “Oh, I think I might find the time,” he disagreed, his words infused with a hint of laughter. “In exchange for a dance with your lovely daughter.”

He shifted to look at Rose, making it clear which daughter he meant. His green-brown gaze swept her lazily, almost as though he were mentally assessing her…and Rose wasn’t certain she liked being assessed.

Lord Trentingham frowned. “My chubby doctor?”

Kit looked confused, and Rose knew she should remind him that her father was hard of hearing at the best of times—and in a crowded room, he was all but deaf.

But she couldn’t seem to speak. The impertinence—thinking he could trade a building for her company! Surely her father would never—

“I’ll be most pleased to build your greenhouse,” Kit reiterated a bit louder, “if your lovely daughter will grant me a dance.”

“Plant what in grass?”

Understanding dawned in Kit’s eyes. “A dance,” he shouted. “May I have the honor of a dance with Lady Rose?”

“Oh, yes. Of course,” her father said. “Now, about that greenhouse—“

“I’ll do a preliminary design before I leave,” Kit all but bellowed.

“Excellent.” Lord Trentingham turned a vague smile in Rose’s direction. “Run along, my dear. Enjoy yourself.”

Her mouth dropped open, then shut when she found herself propelled from the drawing room by a warm hand at her back. Then she was stepping out onto the covered portico, which had been pressed into service as a dance floor.

Three musicians in one corner were playing a minuet, a graceful dance that facilitated conversation. The wedding guests chatted and flirted, their shoes brushing the brick paving in unison. Though the dance was already in progress, Kit handed both their champagne goblets to a passing maid, took Rose’s hands, and swept her into the throng.

She’d never touched him—certainly not skin to skin—and the contact reminded her of her reaction to him the first time they met. The mere sight of him had set her nerves to jangling inside her, and she was not a nervous girl. But that, of course, had been before she’d discovered he was a plain mister. Since then, seeing him had had no effect on her at all.

So it was disconcerting to find that touching him now seemed to make the champagne bubbles dance in her stomach.

“Lovely Corinthian capitals on the columns and pilasters,” Kit noted, ever the architect. “Do you know who carved them?”

She pliéd and stepped forward with her right foot at the same time she finally found her tongue. “Edward Marshall, who also carved the Ashcroft family arms in the pediment. And in future, please keep in mind that there’s no cause to seek my father’s permission for a dance. Ashcroft women make their own decisions.”

“So Rand has told me,” Kit said, breezing over the implication that she might have refused him.

They rose on their toes, and when he pulled her closer, she caught a breath of his scent. A woodsy fragrance with a base of frankincense and myrrh. It smelled nice, she thought, wondering if she could duplicate it in her mother’s perfumery.

“Your family is an odd one,” he said. “I don’t allow my sister to make her own decisions. Not the important ones, in any case.”

She felt sorry for his sister. “Our family motto is Interroga Conformationem.”

He looked at her blankly.

“Question Convention,” she translated. What sort of educated gentleman didn’t know Latin? Certainly not one she’d ever consider husband material.

It was a good thing he wasn’t in the running.

They dropped hands to turn in place, then he grasped her fingers again. “Is it true, as Rand said, that your father allows his daughters to choose their own husbands as well?”

She noticed Lily and Rand dancing together—much closer than the dance required. Surprisingly, envy didn’t clutch at her heart this time. She only smiled. “Yes.”

“In future, I’ll keep that in mind,” Kit responded with a disarming grin.

Ignoring his impertinence, Rose gazed across the wide daisy-strewn lawn toward the Thames. Just then, her brother Rowan raced onto the portico, looking like a miniature version of their father in a burgundy suit, his long midnight hair streaming behind him.

A quite ordinary-looking man followed more sedately, but as he wore red and white—the king’s livery—he attracted more attention.

The musicians stopped playing, and the dancers ground to a halt.

“There he is,” Rowan said, pointing to Kit in the sudden silence. “Mr. Christopher Martyn, the man you seek.”

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