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Excerpt

England
July 15, 1673

St. Swithin's Day. Well, it was fitting.

Viscount Lakefield stared out his carriage window at the miserable, wet landscape. According to St. Swithin's legend, if it rained on the fifteenth of July, it would continue for forty days and nights. Normally not a man given to superstition, today Ford Chase found such nonsense plausible.

This was shaping up to be the worst day of his life.

The carriage rattled over the drawbridge and into the modest courtyard of Greystone, his older brother's small castle. Cold raindrops pelted Ford's head when he shoved open the door and leapt to the circular drive. Drenched gravel crunching beneath his boots, he made his way down a short, covered passageway and banged the knocker on the unassuming oak door.

Benchley cracked open the door, then slipped outside and shut it behind him. "My lord, what brings you here today?"

"I wish to speak with my brother." Ford frowned down at the small, wiry valet. What was he doing answering the door? "Will you be letting me in?"

"I think not." Benchley lifted his beak of a nose. "I'll fetch Lord Greystone." And with that, he disappeared back into the ancient castle.

Shivering, Ford stood frozen in disbelief before deciding this treatment fit in with the rest of his day. Rain dripped from his long brown hair to sprinkle on the stones at his feet. Wondering why he should need permission to enter his brother's home, he moved to reach for the latch.

The door opened, and his brother stepped out. He looked haggard, his face a pasty gray, his green eyes and black hair dull.

"Colin? What the devil's going on?"

"Illness. Measles, we think. Thank God you're here."

Ford pulled his surcoat tighter around himself. "Come again?"

"Amy is ill, along with little Hugh and the baby. And half of the servants. One of them died yesterday," Colin added grimly.

"Died?" Ford's gut twisted as he thought of Amy—Colin's beautiful, raven-haired wife—and their bright four-year-old son, Hugh, and the baby, Aidan…all dead.

"It's not so bad as all that," Colin rushed to assure him, evidently reading the concern on his face. "The poor maid was eighty if she were a day, and the disease went straight to her lungs. I'm not expecting my family to perish."

"At least you won't be getting it. If you'll remember, all four of us had it while in exile on the Continent."

"I could hardly forget." Appearing as though he could barely hold himself up, Colin leaned against the doorpost. "But what does that have to do with now?"

"At a Royal Society lecture, I learned one cannot fall ill with the same disease twice," Ford explained.

"I've had measles more than once."

"Not true measles, the one with the high fever. Spotted skin is a symptom of many different conditions."

"Trust you to know something like that." Although Colin looked relieved, his smile was bleak. "Still, the fever is savage, and Jewel has yet to suffer measles. True measles, as you put it. Will you take her from here before she succumbs as well? It would relieve my mind, and Amy's too, I'm sure. The worry is doing her recovery no good."

Alarm bells went off in Ford's head. Take his niece? Where? What would he do with a young girl? "Well, I only stopped by to let you know I've left London and will be at Lakefield for the foreseeable future—"

"Perfect."

"—working on my new watch design. I…I just wanted to be alone for a while. Lady Tabitha has eloped."

"With the rest of the family off in Scotland, I was at my wit's end deciding what to do. I was about to settle Jewel in the village. But this will be much better—"

"Tabitha eloped," Ford repeated, wondering why his brother hadn't reacted to this astonishing news. After all, Tabitha had just upset his entire life plan.

"She eloped?" Colin blinked, then shook his head. "Come now, Ford. What did you expect? After six years of suffering your attentions whenever you deigned to show up in London, and sharing your bed, I assume—"

She had. So what of it? No one in King Charles II's circle was virtuous. Colin hadn't been a monk before meeting his wife, and neither had their oldest brother Jason. The three Chase brothers were all titled and intimates of the king, which naturally meant they were popular with the ladies at court—and none of them had hesitated to take advantage in their day.

"—a lady," Colin continued, "would expect a proposal."

"I told her we'd marry someday. In two or three years." Tabitha had seemed the ideal woman for Ford—stunningly beautiful, always ready to attend a ball or an evening at court. They matched well in bed, and when they weren't together she busied herself with whatever women liked to do, leaving him plenty of time for his work. "For God's sake, she's only twenty-one, and I'm just twenty-eight. Jason married at thirty-two, and no one was on his back."

"I married at twenty-eight."

"You were in a hurry to have children."

"While I'm sure you would as soon do without them altogether." Colin rubbed his eyes. "You really have no idea why Tabitha gave up on you, do you? I hate to tell you this, little brother, but it's time you grew up and realized there's more to life than science and seduction. As the baby of the family, maybe Jason and I coddled you too much."

From beyond the passageway, the patter of rain filled their sudden silence. Colin was obviously weary, so Ford thought it best not to argue. Doubtless Colin had spent sleepless nights watching over his wife and sons—exactly why Ford wasn't ready for a family of his own.

"You look tired," he said. "You'd best get some rest."

His brother heaved a sigh. "I'd rest easier if I knew you had Jewel. You'll take her, won't you?"

What the devil would he do with a girl who wasn't yet six? He loved her, of course. She shared his blood. But that didn't mean he had a clue how to care for her. Bouncing her on his knee or playing a simple card game with her was one thing. A few minutes of fun before returning her to her parents. But to be responsible for a child…

He shoved a hand through his wet hair. "For how long?"

"A week or two. Maybe three. Until the illness has run its course." Colin twisted the signet ring on his finger, narrowing his gaze. "Why are you hesitating? I need you."

"I'm not hesitating," Ford protested. "I just…"

His brother's eyes opened wide. "Did you think I'd expect you to care for her on your own? God forbid." His lips quirked as though he might laugh, but he coughed instead. On purpose, Ford was sure. "I'll send Lydia along with her."

Despite his annoyance at being read so easily—not to mention distrusted—the tension left Ford's shoulders. With Lydia, Jewel's very competent nurse, on the premises, he wouldn't have to care for the girl, wouldn't have to struggle to interpret her mystifying female language and needs. He could just poke his head into her room and say hello every once in a while.

"You won't have to do a thing," Colin added, his tight expression easing into a wry half-smile. "You might try talking with your niece, though. It's time you learned to communicate with the lesser species. You know, those of us of insufficient age or intelligence to grasp the deepest secrets of the universe."

"I don't—"

"Maybe that was your problem with Tabitha."

Ford gritted his teeth. He'd never fooled himself into thinking he understood the opposite sex. His science was what drove him. But he'd had no problems with Tabitha, and he was finished with this discussion.

"Of course I'll take Jewel," he said, consciously relaxing his jaw. "Bring her out—I'll be waiting in my carriage."


"Listen to this." Sitting with her two sisters while their mother worked nearby, Violet Ashcroft cleared her throat. "'To say that a blind custom of obedience should be a surer obligation than duty taught and understood…is to affirm that a blind man may tread surer by a guide than a seeing man by a light.'"

"What is that supposed to mean?" her youngest sister, Lily, asked. Busily stitching her tapestry in the grayish light from the large picture window, Lily probably had little real desire to know what the quote meant. But she was unfailingly kind, and Violet would never turn away from anyone willing to listen.

She hitched herself forward on the green brocade chair. "Well, now—"

"Why do you care?" their middle sister, Rose, interrupted. Rose cared little for anything that didn't have to do with dancing, clothes, or men. Looking up from the vase of flowers she was arranging, she tossed her gleaming ringlets. "It's nothing but a bunch of gibberish, if you ask me."

"Nobody asked." Violet pointedly looked to Lily. "Did you hear anyone ask?"

"Girls." Clucking her tongue, their mother poured a dipperful of water into the kettle over the fire. "I used to comfort myself that when you all grew up, this bickering would cease. Yet it never has."

Lily's blue eyes were all innocence, despite having reached the advanced age of sixteen. "But Mum," she said sweetly. Their mother's proper name was Chrystabel, but as their flower-obsessed father called her Chrysanthemum, they'd taken to calling her Mum. "It's loving bickering."

"And a bad example for your young brother." With a sigh, Chrystabel resumed plucking petals from a bunch of lush pink roses. "What does it mean?" she asked Violet. "And who said it?"

"It means we should understand why we are doing things instead of blindly following orders. Rather like our Ashcroft family motto: Interroga Conformationem, Question Convention. But said much more eloquently, don't you think? By Francis Bacon."

Violet snapped the book closed, its title, Advancement of Learning, winking gold from the spine in her lap. "But I'm wondering," she teased. "When did my Mum become interested in philosophy?"

"I'm interested in all my children's hobbies."

"Philosophy is more than a hobby," Violet protested. "It's a way of looking at life."

"Of course it is." The kettle was bubbling merrily, spewing steam into the dim room. The fire and a few candles were no match for this gloomy, rainy afternoon. "Will you come and hold this for me, dear?"

Violet set down the book and wandered over to the large, utilitarian table she always thought looked somewhat out of place in what used to be a formal drawing room. "Did Father bring you more roses this morning?"

"Doesn't he always?" Chrystabel's musical laughter warmed Violet to her toes. "Sweet man, he is, rising early to gather them between dawn and sunrise, when their scent is at its peak."

Violet's laughter joined her mother's. "Insane man, you mean." Sweet wasn't a word she'd use to describe the Earl of Trentingham—eccentric fit her father much better. But her parents both seemed to be blind where the other's oddities were concerned.

Not that that was a bad thing. For certain, if Violet were ever to wed—an event she considered unlikely indeed—her husband would have to be more than a little bit blind. She didn't have rich chestnut hair like her sisters—hers was a blander, lighter brown. And her eyes were plain brown as well, not the mysterious almost-black of Rose's or the fathomless deep-blue of Lily's. Just brown.

Average, she decided. Neither fat nor thin. Not tall like Rose nor petite like Lily, but medium height. Average.

But, happily, she didn't mind being average. Because average was rarely noticed, and the truth was, she'd never liked being the center of attention.

Rose thrived on it, though. "Let me help, Mum," she squealed, dropping the stem of blue sweet peas she'd been about to add to her floral arrangement. "Violet probably won't get the top on straight."

Tactless, at best, but at seventeen, Rose still had some time to grow up. With an indulgent sigh, Violet stuck a wooden block upright in the big bowl. She held it in place while Mum sprinkled in all the rose petals, then turned to lift the kettle.

In a slow, careful stream, Chrystabel poured just enough water over the fragrant flowers to cover them. Quickly Rose popped another, larger bowl upside down on top of the wooden block, using it as a pedestal. The steam would collect beneath and drip down the edges to the tray below. As it cooled, it would separate into rosewater and essential rose oil.

Distillation, Mum called it.

A rich, floral scent wafted up, and Violet inhaled deeply. As hobbies went, she did appreciate her mother's unusual one of perfume-making.

"Thank you, girls," Chrystabel said when Violet released the bowl. "Would you hand me that vial of lavender essence?"

Violet turned and squinted at the labels, then reached for the proper glass tube. "I read in the news sheet this morning that Christopher Wren is going to be knighted later this year. And he was just elected to the Council of the Royal Society."

Mum took the vial. "That odd group of scientists?"

Violet smiled inside, thinking Chrystabel Ashcroft a bit odd herself. "There are philosophers as members, too. And statesmen and physicians. I'd love to hear one of their lectures someday."

"The Royal Society doesn't allow women at their meetings." Chrystabel pulled the cork stopper and waved the lavender under her nose. "Besides, most of the men are married."

"I don't want them to court me, Mum." On the whole, she didn't want anyone to court her, much to her mother's distress. "I only wish to cudgel their brains."

Frowning, Chrystabel lowered a dropper into the vial. "Cudgel their—"

"Talk to them, I mean. Share some ideas. They're so brilliant."

"Men aren't interested in talking to women," Rose told her, "and the sooner you learn that, the sooner you'll find one of your own."

"Faith, Rose. I'm only twenty. You'd think I was in my dotage, the way you've become set on marrying me off."

"You're expected to wed before I do."

The words were uttered so innocently, Violet couldn't find it in her to hold a grudge. Of course Rose wanted to marry, and convention dictated the girls wed in order.

But Violet was nothing if not realistic. She knew her plain looks, together with her unusual interests, were likely to make it difficult—if not impossible—for her to find a compatible husband. But that didn't really bother her, and she would never want her own dim prospects to keep her lovely sisters from finding happiness.

Besides, when had the Ashcrofts been conventional? They could marry in any order they chose. Or in her case, not at all.

She watched her mother add three drops of lavender to the bottle of fragrance she was creating, then swirl it carefully.

"Is that a new blend?" Violet asked.

"For Lady Cunningham." Chrystabel sniffed deeply and passed the bottle to her oldest daughter. "What do you think?"

Violet smelled it and considered. "Too sweet. Lady Cunningham is anything but sweet." The woman's voice could curdle milk. Violet handed back the mixture, hunting for the vial of petitgrain she knew would soften it.

Nodding approvingly, her mother added two drops, then made a note on the little recipe card she kept for each of her friends.

"Look," Lily said, her embroidery forgotten. She rose and settled herself in the large, green-padded window seat. "There's a carriage about to pass by."

Chrystabel and Rose hurried to join her at window, while Violet returned to her chair and opened her book. "So?"

"So…" Lily brushed her fingers over one of the flower arrangements that Rose left all over the house, sending a burst of scent into the air. "We get so little traffic here, I'm just wondering who it might be."

"The three of you are too curious for your own good." Violet flipped a page, hoping to find another sage insight. Not that she'd bother sharing it this time.

"It's our occasional neighbor," her mother said. "The viscount."

Violet's attention strayed from Bacon's brilliance. "How do you know?"

"I recognize his carriage. A hand-me-down from his brother, the marquess."

"How is it you know everyone's business?" Violet wondered aloud.

"It's not so very difficult, my dear. One need only take an interest, open her eyes and ears, and use her head. I believe the viscount is in tight straits. Not only because of the second-hand carriage, but heavens, the state of his gardens. Your father nearly chokes every time we ride past."

"I'm surprised Father hasn't made his way over to set the garden to rights," Lily said.

"Don't think he hasn't considered it." Chrystabel leaned her palms on the windowsill, studying the passing coach. "Why, I do believe Lord Lakefield isn't alone."

Despite herself, Violet rose, one finger holding her place in the book. "And how do you know that?"

"The vehicle's curtains aren't drawn." Chrystabel gave a happy gasp of discovery. "There's a child inside! And a woman!"

Her interest finally piqued, Violet wandered to the window to see, but of course the carriage was only a blur.

Everything more than a few feet from Violet's eyes always looked like a blur. It was the reason she preferred staying at home with her books and news sheets, rather than going about to socialize with her mother and two younger sisters. She was afraid she'd embarrass herself by failing to recognize a friend across the room.

"Well, well, well," Mum said. "I must go bring the lady a gift of perfume and welcome her to the neighborhood."

"You mean find out who she is," Violet said.

Her mother's second hobby was delivering perfume and receiving gossip in exchange. Not that anyone begrudged her the information. To the contrary, Chrystabel Ashcroft never needed to pry a word out of anyone. Warm and well-loved, she barely walked in the door before women began spilling their secrets.

On the rare occasions her mother had succeeded in dragging her along, Violet had seen it happen, her bad eyes notwithstanding.

"I wonder if the viscount has married?" Rose asked.

"I expect not," Chrystabel said. "He's much too intellectual for anyone I know." As the carriage disappeared into the distance, she turned from the window. "Why, he's a member of that Royal Society, isn't he?"

"I believe so." Violet watched her mother wander back to the table, wishing she'd never mentioned wanting to attend a Royal Society lecture. The last thing she needed was Mum plotting her marriage. "Perhaps he would suit Rose or Lily."

"I think not." Mum sniffed the perfume in progress, then chose another vial. "I cannot imagine whom he would suit, but certainly not your sisters."

"It's just as well," Rose said, "since you know we three have a pact to save one another from your matchmaking schemes."

It was one thing—perhaps the only thing—the sisters agreed on.

"Heavens, girls. It's not as though I arrange marriages behind the backs of my friends." Everyone Chrystabel knew was her friend. Literally. And they all adored her. "All of my brides and grooms are willing—"

"Victims?" Violet broke in to supply.

"Participants," Chrystabel countered.

Lily sat and retrieved her handiwork. "How many weddings have you arranged this year, Mum? Three? Four?"

"Five," their mother said with not a little pride. She tapped her fingernails on the vial. "Only seven months in, and a banner year already. But none, I assure you, against the participants' will."

Rose plopped back onto her own chair. "You're not matching me up, Mum. I can find my own husband."

"Me, too," Lily said.

"Me three," Violet added.

"Of course you all can." Chrystabel's graceful fingers stilled. "I wouldn't dream of meddling in my own daughters' lives."


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