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The Escape is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or 20 страничка


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His brother grinned at him. “No one ever does drop it,” he said.

Now he was in for it for sure.

And then the Reverend Jenkins, gorgeously clad in his clerical robes, was telling the congregation to stand and the pipe organ was striking a chord.

It seemed to take Ben forever to push himself to his feet with his canes, but when he had done so, she was only just coming into sight at the end of the nave, on the arm of a proudly beaming Bevan.

Oh, Lord God, Ben thought with reverence rather than blasphemy, had there ever been such beauty? Could she possibly be his? His bride?

And then she looked along the nave, and her eyes came to rest upon him, and she smiled. He was quite unaware of the slight little sigh that rippled through the congregation as he smiled back.

And then she was beside him, and they both turned toward Mr. Jenkins.

“Dearly beloved,” he said in his lovely Welsh accent.

And just like that, all within a few minutes, the world changed.

They were married.

And not only did he not drop the ring, but he did not even think about the possibility as he took it in his hand and slid it over her finger while he spoke the words the clergyman recited ahead of him. He did not even think about how he was to manage without his canes for a few minutes.

They were married.

And then they signed the register and it was all done up right and tight.

They were man and wife.

They made their slow way back up the nave. Ben did it with one cane. Samantha’s hand was through his other arm, holding it firmly without appearing to do so. In her other hand she held her white muff. He felt no pain from the walk as he looked to left and right, acknowledging their guests with nods and smiles while Samantha did the same.

And then they were outside, and a chill wind cut at them and they turned their faces toward each other and laughed.

“Lady Harper,” he said.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Your friends are not holding what I think they are holding, are they?”

There were a number of villagers in the street beyond the church, come to see the show and cheer the bride and groom. But in their midst, sure enough, were Flavian and Ralph, who had obviously slipped out of the church early. Where they had found flowers in January, the Lord only knew. There must be a hothouse somewhere. But those were unmistakably flower petals clutched in their hands and then raining over bride and groom as they made their slow way to the carriage that was waiting to convey them back to Cartref.

“I think the answer was yes,” Ben said, laughing as he climbed in after Samantha. “And I think what is trailing behind the carriage is what I think it is too.”

The church bells were ringing. The crowd was cheering. The congregation was beginning to spill out of the church.

“Here,” Hugo said, “I’ll close the carriage door for you.”

Which he did—after tossing another great handful of petals inside.

Ben sat back on the seat and laughed. And he took Samantha’s hand in his as he turned to her.

“Happy?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Words are ridiculous sometimes, aren’t they?” he said.

She nodded again.

He dipped his head and kissed her while the crowd beyond the carriage cheered more loudly and there were a few piercing whistles.



The carriage lurched into motion.

Noisy motion as it dragged numerous pieces of metal hardware behind it.

“Ben,” Samantha said, gazing into his eyes, “I forgive you.”

“For?”

“For calling me woman,” she said, “and for uttering a whole arsenal of foul words in my hearing and Tramp’s.”

He smiled slowly at her.

“I suppose,” he said, “I have just married that wretch of a hound too, haven’t I?”

“For better or worse,” she assured him.

“Damned dog,” he said and kissed his wife somewhat more ruthlessly than he had done a minute before.


Turn the page to read Mary Balogh’s delightful and heartwarming novella

THE SUITOR

The story of a clever and headstrong young lady who clings to the power of true love and plots to claim her one and only.


1

Philippa Dean was sitting sideways on the padded window seat in her bedchamber, her very favorite spot in the town house her father had leased in London for the spring months so that she could make her come-out in society. Her feet were drawn up before her; her right hand, in which she held one of her opened letters, draped over her knee. The other letter lay forgotten in her lap. She was gazing out the window to the garden below, though she was not really seeing either the flowers or the grass and trees.

She was seeing a future filled to the brim with happiness.

And this, now, this moment, was the beginning of that future. This was the happiest day of her life.

She raised her hand and looked at the letter again, though she had it by heart already after at least a dozen readings.

Julian was coming to London.

He would be here in a week’s time, perhaps a little longer. Certainly no more than two.

And when Papa saw him again, he would discover the changes two years had wrought, and he would have no further objection to him as a suitor for her hand. Julian would be allowed to court her openly, and after a decent interval he would offer for her and then marry her, and they would live happily ever after.

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For a moment she felt a twinge of anxiety, for this desirable outcome had not yet been achieved, of course, and, as her grandmama was fond of saying, there was many a slip twixt cup and lip. But she refused to allow a silly old adage to lower her spirits. She had waited two long years for this moment, or rather for the moment that was now within her reach.

Nothing—surely!—could or would go wrong.

Julian had changed. He was also undeniably eligible. And she was eighteen now rather than sixteen. She was of marriageable age. Indeed, she had been brought to London for that very reason. It was the Season, and she had been brought here to find an eligible husband.

Papa loved her, as did Mama. They wanted her to make a good marriage, of course. She was the eldest of five children, all of whom would need to be suitably settled within the next few years, and Papa, though comfortably well off, was not vastly wealthy. But equally important to her parents was that she make a marriage in which her affections would be engaged, a marriage in which she would be happy. They had said so repeatedly.

Philippa tipped her head sideways to rest her temple against the glass of the window. She sighed deeply and happily.

Julian was coming—all the way from Cornwall. She would see him again. She closed her eyes and remembered his tall, lithe figure; his handsome, vital face with the slightly crooked smile; his dark, often intense eyes; his brown hair always attractively disheveled as though he had just been running in a wind. Had she remembered him as he really was? She sometimes wondered. Two years was an awfully long time. Had he changed? What did he look like now?

Would he think her changed? She hoped so, for she had grown up since he saw her last. She had been a girl then. She was a woman now.

She looked down at his letter, read it once more, and folded it small, as it had come to her inside Barbara’s letter. Barbara Redford, Philippa’s closest friend in Bath, was Julian’s cousin on his mother’s side. It was through her that the two of them had met and then kept up a correspondence for two years, a clandestine, guilty exchange between a single gentleman and a young girl who was not even out of the schoolroom when it started.

Philippa hoped that when she was the mother of daughters grown beyond childhood but not yet quite to adulthood, she would remember that it was possible to fall in love with a steadfastness of devotion that would continue unabated through a lifetime. Her love for Julian had not wavered in two years. Neither had his for her. He had written to her faithfully every month of those years, though everyone knew that men were not the most constant of letter writers—or of suitors.

She drew her feet a little closer to her body and clasped her arms about her knees. She gazed down at the spring flowers blooming in the garden with a more conscious appreciation.

Her court appearance two weeks ago had dazzled her with its splendor, and her come-out ball had been wonderful beyond imagining. She had danced every set, and she had received no fewer than eight bouquets of flowers the morning after. It could only have been more perfect if Julian had been there, but he had thought it wiser to wait a short while before coming. Mama and Papa might be a little suspicious if he appeared too soon, he had written. Indeed, they might not even have invited him to her ball, since Papa had been very vexed with him two years ago.

That would have been horrible. Quite disastrous, in fact.

Now he was coming—before any of her admirers could turn into serious suitors for her hand and complicate matters.

She wondered which ball he would choose to attend first after his arrival. She considered which of her gowns she would wear for the occasion and how she would have her hair dressed.

But these happy thoughts were interrupted by a tap on her bedchamber door. Her mother came inside without waiting for an invitation. Philippa smiled at her as she folded Barbara’s letter around the smaller one and slid them beneath the cushion on which she sat.

Her mother paused before she came closer.

“Oh, Philippa,” she said, “you are in such good looks. You look quite radiant even though we did not get home until after two o’clock last night. You are enjoying yourself, are you not?”

“I am, Mama,” Philippa assured her. “More than anything in the world.”

“You are looking happy now,” her mother said, smiling archly at her. “But just wait until I tell you what the morning post brought your papa. Philippa, how would you like to be a viscountess? Viscountess Darleigh.”

Philippa stared back, her smile frozen as she searched her mind. “I do not even know a Viscount Darleigh.”

Her mother came across the room and seated herself on the end of her daughter’s bed. “He lives at Middlebury Park in Gloucestershire,” she explained. “It is quite famous, both for the magnificent mansion there and for the vast, landscaped park. And his fortune is said to be very large indeed. He is Mrs. Pearl’s grandson.”

Mrs. Pearl was a friend of Grandmama Dean in Bath. Though she had moved away a while ago, Philippa remembered, to live with her daughter at the home of her grandson.

Who was blind.

“He is blind, poor gentleman,” her mother said, dispelling any possibility that she was mistaken. “He lost his sight in battle in Spain or Portugal, where he was an artillery officer. He is still very young. His mother believes it is time he married.”

Philippa licked lips turned suddenly dry. “Mama—”

“Your father has received an invitation for us all to spend a week or two at Middlebury Park,” her mother said. “The poor gentleman is unable to come to town, and he cannot be overwhelmed by too large a house party. We are to be the only guests. Mrs. Pearl sent a letter with the invitation. She assured Papa that despite his affliction, the viscount is both handsome and personable.”

“Mama—”

“Philippa.” Her mother leaned eagerly toward her. “This is a wonderful opportunity for you. A dream come true. You could be betrothed within a month of your come-out, married before the Season ends. Think what a coup that would be. We could let the London house go early and return to Bath. You could be Viscountess Darleigh, mistress of Middlebury Park, wealthy and influential beyond your wildest dreams. You would have influence, you know. Doubtless your husband would depend upon you in all things. It is unfortunate, truly unfortunate, that he is blind. But if he is handsome and personable, I do not doubt you will come to care for him. You have always been a girl with tender sensibilities. You are kind and gentle. This would be a dazzling match for you. I scarcely believe it can be true.”

“But I have just made my come-out.” Philippa was almost whispering. “I have just begun to make friends here. We have accepted invitations for almost every day in the next month. Mama, I am happy here.”

“Of course you are,” her mother agreed. “You have taken extremely well, and I do not doubt that were we to remain here, Papa would be in receipt of more than one eligible offer for your hand before the Season is out. Probably not, however, one that goes with a title, a large estate, and a fabulous fortune. You are of excellent birth and lineage on both Papa’s side and mine, of course, and Papa can offer a respectable dowry with you. And you are very pretty. But without being either a peer’s daughter or in possession of a large fortune of your own, you know, you cannot aspire to a title or any great fortune in a husband. Or could not in the ordinary way of things. But now opportunity has fallen into your lap and those things and more can be yours. Will not such a triumph be worth the sacrifice of a couple of weeks of the Season? Perhaps all the rest of it too if you are successful? And I cannot see why you should not be. We have been invited for the specific purpose of presenting Lord Darleigh with a prospective bride.”

“I would far rather stay here,” Philippa said. “Mama—”

“Philippa.” Her mother got to her feet and took a few steps closer to her. Some of the brightness had gone from her face. “You have always been such a good girl, and such a dutiful daughter and loving sister. Think of your papa now. He does not say a great deal, even to me, but I know he worries about the future, about not being able to provide as he ought for you girls and for Everett and Oswald. Everett talks about a military career after he has finished school, and of course he has his mind set on a prestigious regiment, and it has always been assumed that Oswald is for the church and therefore a few years at Oxford or Cambridge first. Think of what you could do for your sisters as Lady Darleigh. Think of how sad it would be for them if they were unable to have a Season like yours, if they could not have the opportunity to meet eligible husbands. Philippa, please. For Papa’s sake. He is so pleased at this flattering opportunity for you. And so relieved too.”

Philippa felt physically sick.

Julian should have come at the start of the Season after all. He was eligible. He was the grandson of the late Duke of Stanbrook and the nephew and heir presumptive of the present duke, his uncle, who had lost his only son in the wars and his wife soon after, and had assured Julian that he would have no other sons. And Julian had a more than comfortable fortune even apart from his future prospects. He had a sizable estate and farms in Cornwall, and they were prospering at last.

He was more than eligible, if he could only convince Papa that he was no longer the wild, rakish young hellion who had gone to rusticate with his uncle in Bath two years ago when London grew too hot for him. The same hellion who had been discovered sitting in Sydney Gardens one gala evening, holding sixteen-year-old Philippa’s hand.

But that was two years ago. An eon ago. Julian was perfectly eligible now, and he was coming to London to court her and offer for her.

How could she tell her mama that, though? As far as her parents knew, she had neither seen nor heard from him in two years. And even if she should tell her mother that Barbara had mentioned in this morning’s letter that he was coming to London, Mama would be displeased more than anything, for she would remember him as he was, or as he apparently was, when Papa had sent him packing—and Philippa had been sent to her room for two days of quiet reflection. And even if Mama was not displeased after all this time, she would nevertheless not understand that Julian was coming because he had loved Philippa unwaveringly for two years and loved her still, and because he was going to persuade Papa that he was a worthy suitor for her hand, that two years had made all the difference to his character and position and means.

Her mother also would not understand that she had loved him all that time without wavering—even during the past two weeks when she had been surrounded by handsome and charming and eligible young gentlemen who might easily have turned her head.

She could not tell her mother any of these things.

Whatever was she to do? Whatever was she to say?

There was nothing, of course. Absolutely nothing.

“When must we leave?” she asked.

Perhaps it was an invitation for the summer.

Her mother beamed at her again.

“Within the week,” she said. “Oh, my love, I am so happy for you. And Middlebury Park is not even so very far from Bath. We will be able to come and visit you there after your marriage. I do not think Mrs. Pearl would have described the viscount as handsome and personable unless he were really so, for we will know for ourselves as soon as we get there, will we not? I daresay he will love you, for you are very sweet and he is very much confined to his own home. And you will grow fond of him. I know you will. It is easy to love people who are dependent upon us, you know. We love our children for that very reason, as you will no doubt discover for yourself within the next year or two.”

She leaned down and hugged her daughter, who hugged her back—and was filled from the top of her head to the tips of her toes with misery and utter despair.

This was suddenly the very worst day of her life.

The Honorable Julian Crabbe broke his journey from Cornwall in Bath, where he planned to spend a few days with his uncle and aunt. There he intercepted a letter whose sender had feared he would not receive it at all. She had sent it enclosed in a short note to his cousin Barbara in the faint hope that it would reach him in Cornwall before he set out on his journey. The letter was not a long one, but its brief contents were devastating to the hopes that had buoyed him for so long.

Philippa was being taken, within a week of writing, to Middlebury Park in Gloucestershire, where she was to be presented as a prospective bride to the blind Viscount Darleigh. She would be there by now.

His caution had been his undoing—their undoing. He was too late. He had spent two years turning his life about, living down the deserved notoriety the sowing of his youthful wild oats had earned him before he removed from London to rusticate in Bath. He had spent two years making himself into someone the Deans would consider a husband worthy of their daughter when she was old enough to be married. It had not been an easy thing to do, for they would not be meeting him as a stranger when he presented himself to them, but as the wild jackanapes whom Mr. Dean had caught in Sydney Gardens in the nick of time before Julian debauched his young daughter. Or so the man had thought, anyway, and who could blame him? Philippa had been sixteen, and he had been six years older than she and the owner of a tarnished reputation.

Julian had been holding her hand. He had had no intention even of kissing her. He was well aware that she was still just a schoolgirl. But … Well, there had been his reputation, and he had been fully responsible for earning that.

He had been a wild and reckless young cub who had dabbled in every imaginable vice—except that he had never been a womanizer. He had expected a dull time in Bath, especially when his cousin Barbara showed a tendency to hang about him as if his arrival was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. But he had liked her despite himself, and he had liked her friend even more. Philippa Dean had been sweet and modest and bright and cheerful and remarkably pretty. He had enjoyed her company for a number of weeks until it had suddenly occurred to him that he was falling in love with her.

It had been an alarming as well as an astonishing realization. She was far too young for courtship, and so was he. And even if they had not been, he was in no position to court her. He had scarcely a penny to his name.

But love, he had found, did not follow the laws of logic.

And so, when sober good sense replaced astonishment, he had decided to leave Bath and return home to Cornwall. He had taken her aside after the concert at that grand and crowded gala in Sydney Gardens in order to say goodbye to her—only to discover that her feelings were engaged as deeply as his. But it would not do, he had decided. He had taken her gloved hand in his to say his farewells.

And, irony of ironies, that had been the very moment when her father had found them and drawn his very understandable conclusions.

That might have been the end of it. But he had felt horribly guilty at getting her into trouble, as he did not doubt he had done, and wrote a letter of apology, which he smuggled to her through Barbara.

She had written back.

And so had started their secret correspondence.

He had never stopped loving her. Would he have without the letters? He supposed it was possible, even probable. But there had been the letters, and so there was their love, two years old now and in no way dimmed. Quite the contrary.

He had tried to make allowances for her youth, though, to allow her to meet other eligible gentlemen before she saw him again. Hence his decision not to arrive too soon in London when she was finally eighteen and about to make her come-out. She must be allowed some little time, he had decided, to discover if her heart was indeed as set upon him as she believed it to be.

There was no longer any question of his eligibility, thank God. The circumstances of his life had changed and helped him to change. His father had died six months after the Bath incident, and Julian had been able to set to work on the difficult task of bringing the Cornwall property and estate back to something resembling the splendor and prosperity they had enjoyed before the Duke of Stanbrook, Julian’s grandfather, had willed them to his younger son. Lord Charles Crabbe, Julian’s father, had lived a life of expense and dissipation and had neglected his inheritance, except to draw every penny from the rents he could squeeze out of tenants whose genuine complaints had gone unheeded for years.

Julian had worked hard to reverse the long neglect, and this year he expected to make a decent profit from his farms and holdings, even if not a fortune. Next year would bring even higher returns, and the year after more again. He would see to that.

He was not without fortune even now, however. His maternal grandmother, who had died just one month after his father, had left half her considerable fortune to his mother and half to him.

He had something solid, then, with which to convince Mr. Dean that he was a worthy suitor—accomplishments that came from both steady hard work and inherited wealth. And, of course, there were his expectations, for his uncle, the present Duke of Stanbrook, had shown no inclination to remarry since the death of Aunt Miriam, and no inclination therefore to secure the succession in his direct line. Julian had the probability, then, of a future dukedom to dangle before Mr. Dean.

But now everything had changed. He had waited too long, and she was to be affianced to Viscount Darleigh.

“You have turned quite white,” Barbara said from her place beside him at the breakfast table. She set a hand over his. “It is bad news. I know. She told me in her note.”

They were alone there, his aunt and uncle having withdrawn from the room to go about their own business.

“She will say no,” Barbara assured him. “She will refuse to marry him, and then she will return to London, where you will be waiting for her.”

“No.” He refolded the pink note into its eight folds. “I have heard of Middlebury Park, Barbara. It is one of the great showpieces of England. Its owner is a viscount and I have no doubt he is vastly wealthy. And he is actively in search of a bride. Philippa has been invited there with her family specifically for his inspection. He is not going to reject her under the circumstances, is he? He has committed himself, and the Deans have committed themselves by going there.”

“But he is blind,” Barbara said.

Julian picked up and unfolded the note again.

“I cannot say no if he offers,” Philippa had written. “I cannot, Julian. Mama has impressed upon me that it is my duty to do this for Papa’s sake. And the duty is one of love. I might resist if he were a tyrant, or if Mama were. But they are not. And my sisters are excited at the prospect of my marrying a viscount and being able to sponsor dazzling come-outs for them when it is their turn. Oh, Julian! My only hope is that he will not offer for me, and I shall do all in my power to see to it that he does not. I do not know how that is to be accomplished, though, or even if it can be accomplished. I can only try.”

Julian refolded the letter with deliberate care and got to his feet.

“What are you going to do?” Barbara asked. “Will you go back home?”

Something was niggling at the back of Julian’s mind. He held up a staying hand and frowned in thought. Darleigh. A blind man. Was it possible?

“My uncle,” he said, “the Duke of Stanbrook, that is, opened his home during the wars to officers while they recuperated from the wounds they had sustained in battle. He had lost my cousin in the wars, you know, and then Aunt Miriam. I suppose it was his way of keeping busy and … healing himself.”

“Yes,” she said. “I remember your telling us, Julian.”

“Some of them stayed for several years,” he said. “One of them was blind and very young. I wish I could recall his name. Was it Darleigh? By God, it was. I remember at one time my father making a joke about Darling Darleigh. It was him, Barbara. He did not have the title when he went to Penderris Hall. He acquired it later. That was when my father made that joke.”

“And now he is going to marry Philippa,” she said. “Oh, Julian, I am so sorry.”

He looked at her, the frown still on his face.

“Middlebury Park,” he said. “It is not even so very far from here. And I met him once, you know, when I went to Penderris with my father.”

“What are you thinking, Julian?” she asked after a lengthy silence.

“I am thinking,” he said, “that I have an acquaintance not far from Middlebury Park, whom I have been meaning forever to visit. I am thinking that it would be common civility to call at Middlebury while I am in the vicinity to pay my respects to Lord Darleigh, my uncle’s friend.”

“You have an acquaintance nearby?” she asked, her eyes widening—and then narrowing again. “Oh, of course you do not. But what can you hope to accomplish by going there, Julian?”

To plant Darleigh a facer? A blind man? Great credit that would gain him. To plant Dean a facer? Better still. That would clear his reputation for all eternity. To throw Philippa over his horse before him and gallop off for the border and Gretna Green? A marvelously mature plan.

But go he must. He could not remain passively here or go back home to Cornwall while all his hopes and dreams—his very being—were being shattered where he had no control whatsoever over them.

“I have no idea,” he told his cousin quite truthfully.


2

Middlebury Park was indeed an imposing mansion, its gray stone central block flanked by long wings with tall round towers at each corner. There were formal gardens in front of it, a lake and island off to one side below undulating lawns dotted with ancient trees.

It was all enough to strike terror into the most intrepid of hearts.

“Oh, Philippa,” her mother said, her voice hushed with awe as the carriage made its way up the straight driveway toward the house. “You are to be mistress of this place.”

“The offer has not been formally made yet,” her father said more cautiously. He turned his head to smile fondly at his eldest daughter and reached across the seat to squeeze her cold hand. “But there can surely be little doubt that it will.”

Philippa’s two sisters and their governess were coming behind in a second carriage. Philippa felt an overwhelming longing to be with them again, back in the schoolroom, where life was dull but safe. She wondered fleetingly how she would be feeling at this moment if she had never met Julian. Would she be filled with excited anticipation, even if Viscount Darleigh was blind? But it was a question impossible to answer, for she had met Julian, and so her heart was in her shoes and heavy with dread.

The front doors had opened and spilled out ladies by the time the carriages drew to a halt on the terrace. Philippa recognized Mrs. Pearl in their midst, Grandmama’s friend, the viscount’s grandmother. Soon they were engulfed in greetings and introductions, while the girls and their governess were whisked off indoors.


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