A GEORGIAN HISTORICAL ROMANCE
Salt Hendon Series Book 1
When the Earl of Salt Hendon marries squire’s daughter Jane Despard, Society is aghast. But Jane and Salt share a secret past of heartache and mistrust. They are forced into a marriage neither wants; the Earl to honor a dying man’s wish, Jane to save her stepbrother from financial ruin.
Beautiful inside and out, the patient and ever optimistic Jane believes love conquers all; the Earl will take some convincing. Enter Diana St. John, who has been living in a fool’s paradise believing she would be the next Countess of Salt Hendon. She will go to extreme lengths, even murder, to hold Salt’s attention. The newlyweds must overcome their past prejudices and sinister opposition to fall in love all over again.
Another delicious Georgian gem from Lucinda Brant: High drama, deep emotion, and witty prose, all deftly sprinkled with historical detail to keep you mesmerized from beginning to end. Immerse yourself in the romance and opulence of her eighteenth century aristocratic world.
B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree, Readers’ Favorite book Award Finalist, Australian Romance Readers Award Finalist.
Character-driven romantic suspense
Classic romance style, similar to Regency noir
Non explicit (mild sensuality)
Story length 117,000 words
More Salt Hendon Series books
Featured Reviews & Accolades
It is the year 1763 and King George III is on the throne. The rakish, raucous character of the Georgian period is contrasted superbly with the sophistication of the age. The author has created a love story that fans of historical romance will relish, guiding the reader though the maze of misunderstandings without ever giving the game away. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.
Fiona Ingram for Readers’ Favorite
Brant’s talent is undeniable and I can’t wait to get lost in more of her wonderful storytelling. Dare I admit… I enjoyed Salt Bride more than many of Georgette Heyer’s own beloved works and that is high praise indeed.
Courtney Webb Stiletto Storytime
The intricate web that Lucinda Brant constructed with a most amazing cast of characters is sure to keep you mesmerized. As the plot develops and darkens to a place where you can’t help but start to squirm you realize the imagery is spectacular. If you have never met true evil just wait till you meet Diana St. John’s. Definitely made me a Brant fan. Enjoy.
★★★★★ TOP PICK ALL-TIME KEEPER SHELF
SWurman, Night Owl Reviews
Brant really knows her history and drops in historical fact with fiction in a way that informs and delights. The period detail is rich and the style of writing veers comfortably away from the sort of 'contrived speak' that flags—and trips up—modern writers.
Lady A~ Ye Bath Corner Review
LONDON, ENGLAND, 1763
‘TOM, DO I HAVE A DOWRY?” Jane asked her stepbrother, turning away from a window being hit hard with rain.
Tom Allenby glanced uneasily at his mother, who was pouring him out a second dish of Bohea tea. “Dowry? Of course you have a dowry, Jane.”
Jane wasn’t so sure. When her father disowned her four years ago, he cut her off without a penny.
“What is the amount?”
Tom blinked. His discomfort increased. “Amount?”
“Ten thousand pounds,” Lady Despard stated, a sulky glance at her stepdaughter. Annoyance showed itself in the rough way she handled the slices of seedy cake onto small blue-and-white Worcester porcelain plates. “Though why Tom feels the need to provide you with a dowry when you’re marrying the richest man in Wiltshire, I’ll never fathom. To a moneybags nobleman, ten thousand is but a drop in the Bristol River.”
“Mamma,” Tom said in an under voice, close-shaven cheeks burning with color. “I believe I can spare Jane ten thousand when I am to inherit ten times that amount.” He regarded his stepsister with a hesitant smile. “It’s a fair dowry, isn’t it, Jane?”
But Lady Despard was right. Ten thousand pounds wasn’t much of a dowry to bring to a marriage with a nobleman who reportedly had an income of thirty thousand pounds a year. Yet Jane hated to see her stepbrother miserable. Poor Tom. The terms of Jacob Allenby’s will had disturbed his well-ordered world.
“Of course it’s a fair dowry, Tom. It is more than fair, it is very generous,” she answered kindly before retreating once more to the window with its view of London’s bleak winter skies and gray buildings. She wished for the sun to show itself, if but briefly, to melt the hard January frost. Tom could then take her riding about the Green Park. Somehow, she had to escape the confines of this unfamiliar townhouse crawling with nameless soft-footed servants.
But there was no escaping tomorrow. Tomorrow she was to be married. Tomorrow she would be made a countess. Tomorrow she became respectable.
Tom followed her across the drawing room to the window seat that overlooked busy Arlington Street and sat beside her. “Listen, Jane,” he said gruffly as he picked at a thread of a tapestry cushion. “You needn’t rush into this marriage just for my benefit. Attorneys for Uncle’s estate said there is still time…”
“It’s perfectly all right, Tom,” Jane assured him with a soft smile, thin white hand covering his. “The sooner I’m married the sooner you inherit what is rightfully yours and can get on with your life. You have factories to run and workers who are relying on you to pay their long overdue wages. It was wrong of Mr. Allenby to leave his manufacturing concerns and his estate to you without any monies for their upkeep. You shouldn’t be forced to foreclose, or to sell your birthright. Those poor souls who make your blue glass need to be paid so they can feed their families. Should they be made destitute, all because your uncle willed his capital to me? You are his only male relative, and you have an obligation to those who now work for you. We know why your uncle made you assets rich but cash poor, why he left his capital to me—because he hoped to force a union between us.”
“Why not? Why not marry me, Jane?”
“Because despite being my brother in law, you’ve been my little brother since I can remember, and that will never change,” Jane explained kindly. “I love you as a sister loves a brother, and that is why I cannot marry you.”
“But what of Uncle’s will?” Tom asked lamely, not forcing the argument because he knew she was right.
“We have been over this with Mr. Allenby’s attorneys,” Jane answered patiently. “The will does not specifically mention that I must marry you, Tom, and so we are not obligated to do so. That was an oversight on your uncle’s part. The attorneys say that I may marry any man, and the one hundred thousand pounds will then be released in your favor.”
“Any man?” Tom gave a huff of embarrassed anger. “But you are not marrying just any man, Jane. You are marrying the Earl of Salt Hendon! I cannot allow you to make such a sacrifice. It is not right. It is not right that in marrying him you are left destitute. Surely something can be worked out. We just need time.”
“Time? It has now been three months since Mr. Allenby died and you cannot keep putting off your creditors. How much do you owe, Tom? How long do you think you can go on before you must sell assets to meet your debts?” Jane forced herself to smile brightly. “Besides, is it such a sacrifice to be elevated from squire’s daughter to wife of the Earl of Salt Hendon? I shall be a countess!”
“Wife of a nobleman who is marrying you because he gave his word to your dying father and feels honor-bound to do so,” Tom grumbled. “Not because he wants or loves you… Oh, Jane! Forgive me,” he apologized just as quickly, realizing his offence. “You know I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t apologize for the truth, Tom. Yes, I am marrying a man who does not care two figs for me, but in doing so my conscience is clear.”
“Well, if you won’t marry me, then marriage to a titled Lothario is better than you remaining unmarried,” her stepbrother said in an abrupt about-face that widened Jane’s blue eyes. “Only a husband’s protection will fend off lecherous dogs. Living unmarried in a cottage on the estate was all well and good while Uncle Jacob was alive to protect you. But even he was powerless the one and only time you ventured beyond the park. You became fair game for every depraved scoundrel riding the Salt Hunt.” Tom squeezed her hand. “Uncle showed more restraint than I. I’d have shot those lascivious swine as let them take you for a harlot.”
That humiliating incident had occurred two years ago but the memory remained painfully raw for Jane. What Tom did not know was that the lascivious swine of which he spoke were in truth the Earl of Salt Hendon and his friends. On the edge of the copse, with her basket of field mushrooms over her arm and dangling her bonnet by its silk ribbons, she had not immediately recognized the Earl astride his favorite hunter, with a full beard and his light chestnut hair tumbled about his shoulders.
He had brought his mount right up to her and stared down into her upturned face with something akin to mute stupefaction. Then, much to the delight of his boon companions, he exacted a landlord’s privilege for her trespass by dismounting, pulling her into a tight embrace and roughly kissing her full on the mouth. She had tried in vain to push him off but his arm about her waist was vise-like, and he continued to crush her mouth under his, violating her with his tongue; he tasting of spirits and pepper. When he finally came up for air, his brown eyes searched her shocked face as if expecting some sort of revelation. It was only when she slapped his face hard that the spell was broken, and he was brought to a sense of his surroundings. He released her with one vicious whispered word in her ear and a low mocking bow.
Even now, two years on, remembering how pitilessly he had whispered that hateful word, Jane shuddered and swallowed. He could very well have stabbed her in the heart, such was the hurt that came with that one word: harlot.
She smiled resignedly at her stepbrother, all of one-and-twenty years of age and with so much responsibility resting on his thin young shoulders.
“But what else were they to think, Tom? I, an unmarried girl cast out of her father’s house, living under the protection of an old widower, they could not take me for anything less than a harlot.”
“No! No, you’re not! Never say so!” he commanded, a glance across the room at his mother, who was pouring out more tea into her dish. “You made one tiny error of judgment, that’s all,” he continued. “For that you must suffer the consequences for the rest of your life? I say, a thousand times, no.”
“Dearest Tom. You’ve always been my stalwart defender, though I don’t deserve such devotion,” she said in a rallying tone. “You cannot dismiss what I did as a tiny error of judgment. After all, that error caused my father to disown me and brand me a whore.” When Tom made an impatient gesture and looked away, she smiled reassuringly and touched his flushed cheek. “I cannot—I do not—hide from that. If your uncle had not taken me in, I would have ended up in a Bristol poorhouse, or worse, dead in a ditch. I will always be grateful to Mr. Allenby for giving me shelter.”
“I’d have looked after you, Jane. Always.”
“Yes, Tom. Of course.”
But they both knew the unspoken truth of that lie. Jane’s father, Sir Felix Despard, would never have permitted Tom to interfere in a father’s justifiable punishment of a disobedient and disgraced daughter. The past four years had given Jane time to reflect on the folly of her impetuousness in allowing her heart to rule her head. The loss of her virtue and its tragic consequences had bestowed upon her father the right to cast her out of the family home, alone, friendless, and destitute. She had disgraced not only her good name but also her family’s honor. Jane did not blame her father for her disgrace, but she would never forgive him for what he had ordered done to her.
Regardless of what her father, Jacob Allenby and others thought of her, she still believed in upholding the moral principles of fairness, honesty and taking responsibility for her actions. The predicament she had found herself in had not been of her father’s making, it had been hers and hers alone. But Tom would never understand. Her father and his Uncle Jacob had spared her stepbrother the whole sordid story, for which she was grateful. Tom was an earnest young man who saw the good in everyone. Jane hoped he always would.
“You’re the best of brothers, Tom,” she said sincerely, and swiftly kissed his cheek.
But Tom did not feel he had earned such praise. He should have protected her.
Sir Felix Despard of Despard Park, Wiltshire, had wanted an earl for a son-in-law at the very least, a duke if he could get it. But he had gone about it all the wrong way. Ignoring his daughter’s sheltered upbringing and ignorance of the ways of Polite Society, he pushed his only child out onto the marriage mart defenseless and left to her own devices. Tom never forgave his weak-minded and overly ambitious stepfather and he blamed him for the inevitable and very calculated seduction of his stepsister.
Tom grabbed Jane’s hand.
“If you had accepted any man but Lord Salt!” he said fiercely. “He always has this look on his face—hard to describe—as if someone has dared break wind under his noble nose. The way his nostrils quiver, I just want to burst out laughing. You may giggle, Jane, but God help me to keep a straight face if the rest of the Sinclair family have the same noble nostrils. His sister the Lady Caroline Sinclair is said to be worth in excess of forty thousand pounds and receives at least three marriage proposals a week. The Earl keeps her locked up in the country for fear of her eloping to Gretna with the first fortune hunter who makes up to her, because she is so naïve as to believe these fools have fallen in love with her and not her fortune.”
“Oh dear, Tom, you make me quite faint with anticipation at meeting my future sister-in-law,” Jane said with an indulgent smile. “But how do you know this about Caroline Sinclair?”
Tom pulled at the points of his silk waistcoat with a smile of smug satisfaction. “I have my sources, Jane. High-placed sources at that.”
“La, Tom, will you stop spreading idle gossip like an old maiden aunt!” Lady Despard lectured disapprovingly, though she had finally opened her ears, hearing mention of the noble Sinclair family. She stood before the ornate looking glass above the fireplace. A fading beauty on the other side of forty, she preened herself in the reflection, gently patting into place her blond powdered and pomaded upswept coiffure, adjusting one of the tiny bows scattered strategically amongst this greased confection. “Lady Caroline Sinclair is Wiltshire’s premier beauty, and not yet eighteen, so I’m not surprised Lord Salt keeps her locked up. Look what happened to you the one and only time you was let off the leash, Jane!”
“What high-placed sources, Tom?” Jane asked, ignoring her stepmother and hoping Tom would do the same.
“Why do you never defend yourself against her petty taunts?” Tom whispered fiercely.
“I cannot defend the indefensible,” Jane answered simply. When Tom continued to stare angrily at his mother, she touched the upturned close-fitting cuff of his velvet frock coat. “Please, Tom. What sources?”
“Do you remember Mr. Arthur Ellis who came to Despard Park just before your come-out? It was a long time ago now but he was a very particular friend of mine up at Oxford. Thin, freckle-faced chap with big ears. No? You must remember Art! He spent the entire sennight gazing at you. Well, Art had the good fortune to obtain the post of secretary to Lord Salt. Who’d have thought it back then! Although, I wouldn’t call it good fortune to be appointed scribbler to a thin-nosed iceberg. But in Art’s case, beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. His family are all terribly clever but odiously poor.”
“But surely Mr. Ellis didn’t abuse his post as secretary and confide in you about Lady Caroline?”
“Of course not,” Tom answered indignantly, feeling acute embarrassment for breaching his friend’s confidence. “I pressed Art to tell me about Lady Caroline because of Uncle’s startling bequest to her. Mamma and I do not understand in the least why a young lady my uncle never met in his entire life, who was the daughter of his estranged neighbor—”
“A spoiled beauty worth in excess of forty thousand pounds,” reiterated Lady Despard.
“—was bequeathed ten thousand pounds of Uncle’s money. It’s a mighty odd circumstance, and one Uncle’s lawyers cannot fathom either. Can you blame me for being curious, Jane?”
Jane could not. She did not pretend to understand the hatred between neighbors, merchant and noble, or what had caused the age-old feud between the Earls of Salt Hendon and the Allenbys. As for the merchant’s startling bequest to the Lady Caroline, it created more questions in Jane’s mind than she cared to speculate on, and was glad the butler chose that moment to interrupt.
“What is it, Springer?” she asked politely, hearing the door open and turning to look at the butler over her bare shoulder.
“Lord Salt and Mr. Ellis, ma’am.”
Stepbrother and sister exchanged a wide-eyed stare, as if caught out by the very object of their gossiping.
“What? He is here now?” Lady Despard blurted out rudely, and before the butler could confirm that indeed the Earl of Salt Hendon and his freckle-faced secretary waited downstairs, added with a trill of breathless anticipation, “What a high treat for us all! What a pity Sir Felix isn’t here to receive his lordship.” She looked at Jane, all resentment momentarily suspended in the excitement of the moment, and exclaimed, “Brother Jacob was used to say he’d take a shotgun to that hellborn rake if he came within a mile of an Allenby female. Shall I order up more tea?”
Jane informed the butler in a perfectly controlled voice that he was to show his lordship and Mr. Ellis up at once, and to bring a fresh pot of tea and clean dishes. But no sooner had the door closed on the servant’s back than she sank onto the window seat, as if her knees were unable to support her waif-like frame. She was deaf to her stepmother’s entreaties that she go at once to the looking glass and there tidy her hair and straighten the square neckline of her bodice, and blind to her stepbrother’s frown of concern, thinking that if she’d brought her needlework to the drawing room she could at least pretend occupation and never need look the nobleman in the eye.
Coming face-to-face with the Earl of Salt Hendon, Jane lost the facility of speech.
~ ~ ~
MAGNUS VERNON TEMPLESTOWE SINCLAIR, ninth Baron Trevelyan, eighth Viscount Lacey, and fifth Earl of Salt Hendon, strode into the drawing room on the butler’s announcement and immediately filled the space with his presence. The papered walls and ornate plastered ceiling shrunk inwards, or so it seemed to Jane, accustomed to the Allenbys, who were all short and narrow-shouldered. The Earl was neither. He was dressed in what Jane presumed to be the height of London elegance: A Venetian blue frock coat with elaborate chinoiserie embroidery on tight cuffs and short skirts; an oyster silk waistcoat that cut away to a pair of thigh-tight black silk breeches, rolled over the knees and secured with diamond knee buckles; white clocked stockings encased muscular calves; and enormous diamond-encrusted buckles in the tongues of a pair of low-heeled black leather shoes. Lace at wrists and throat completed this magnificent toilette. Yet, neither ruffled lace or expertly-cut cloth could hide the well-exercised muscle in the strong legs, or the depth of chest and width of shoulder. But he did not dominate by size alone. There was purpose in his stride, and when he took a quick commanding glance about the room, the intensity in his brown eyes demanded that those who fell under his gaze pay attention or suffer the consequences of his displeasure.
Lady Despard, standing near the fireplace, brought him up short. She dropped into a low curtsey, giving his lordship a spectacular view of her deep cleavage. When the Earl tore his gaze from her overripe bosom, it was to turn and regard Jane with a disdainful glare. A look, hard to read, passed across the nobleman’s square face, and then it was as if he suddenly realized he was being less than polite. He bowed slightly as Lady Despard rose up and with her son crossed the carpet to greet him.
Formal introductions gave Jane time to find her composure. She stood frozen, awed by the sheer physicality of the man, unable to bend her stiff knees into the desired respectful curtsey. She appeared calm enough, but inwardly she felt sick to her stomach and relieved at the same time. She was glad that he barely looked at her. When he did, it was with tacit disapproval, and as if to make certain she was paying attention. This expression stayed with him when he spoke a few words with Tom. Jane saw it in the clench of his strong jaw and the way in which his lips pressed together in a thin line, giving his classical features a hard, uncompromising edge. Yet, no amount of cold disdain could diminish the fact he was a ruggedly handsome man.
Tom managed only a few words with the Earl before his mother interrupted. She looked up expectantly at the nobleman from under her darkened lashes and endeavored to engage his interest with a run of small talk; her inanities about the inclement weather, particularly the unusual severity of the frosts for the start to the new year, receiving polite but monosyllabic replies. Jane frowned and was embarrassed by her stepmother’s blatant flirting with this jaded nobleman, who was obviously accustomed to and thoroughly bored by the wiles of women who constantly threw themselves at him.
When he turned his powdered head and stared straight at her, as if he were well aware she was taking full measure of his person, Jane was so startled to be caught out that she felt the heat rush up into her white throat. The fire burned more brightly in her cheeks when he had the bad manners to look her over, starting at her thick black braids caught up in a silver net at her shoulders, lingering on her breasts covered by a plain muslin bodice, before traveling down the length of her petticoats to her matching silk slippers. When he frowned, as if she did not meet his expectations, Jane dared to put up her chin and stare back at him before turning to the window in dismissal.
Her gaze remained steadfastly to the driving rain, despite being aware that her stepmother was now droning on at the freckle-faced secretary, Mr. Ellis, whom Jane had failed to notice standing a few steps behind his noble employer, and who was now doing his best to be polite and interested in Lady Despard’s London sightseeing forays. Then, close at her back, she heard Tom’s eager response to the Earl’s invitation to take part in a game of Royal Tennis, being held at his lordship’s private court at his Grosvenor Square mansion the day after next. Tom said he would be honored to be included in his lordship’s tournament.
His lordship’s tournament indeed, thought Jane, when only ten minutes earlier Tom had been poking fun of his lordship’s noble nostrils!
The Earl drawled something banal about hoping this Arlington Street address, usually occupied by his lordship when Parliamentary sittings continued on through the night, was proving satisfactory accommodation for Tom and his mother. Tom thanked his lordship for the use of his townhouse, saying that as soon as it could be arranged, he and his mother would let a suitable residence of their own for a month or two, to enjoy what London had to offer before returning to Bristol. The Earl told him to take his time. There was no immediate rush for them to vacate. And then the room fell silent.
The silence went on for so long that curiosity made Jane turn away from the window. Had there been a chair close by she would have sat down upon it from shock. Tom had deserted her, settling with his mother and the secretary, his friend from Oxford days, in the far corner of the drawing room, to take tea and talk over old times. They had left Jane to face Lord Salt alone.
His lordship stared over her head and out the window.
“Miss Despard, it is customary to permit me to bow over your hand,” he drawled, with just that touch of insolence required to bring immediate obedience.
But Jane was too much affected by his closeness and his earlier unfavorable appraisal to be bothered with the niceties of a formal introduction, and her hands remained firmly clasped in front of her. She told herself she was being obstinately bad-mannered, but, for the first time in years, she allowed emotion to rule her tongue and spoke her thoughts.
“I am fully sensible to the honor you do me, my lord,” she answered in a clear voice, gaze riveted to the engraved silver buttons of his waistcoat. “But I am not ignorant of the fact it was forced upon you in a most ungentlemanly manner. It is a circumstance I bitterly regret and wish I could alter.”
There was the smallest of pauses before Salt said in his insolent way, “You’ve had ample opportunity to release me from such a damnable circumstance. You merely had to refuse the honor. Still, there are some eighteen hours before the ceremony…”
This blunt speech did tilt Jane’s chin to his face, blue eyes wide with astonishment. He was offering her the opportunity to give him an eleventh hour reprieve; indeed his very manner suggested he expected her to do so there and then. That she wanted to release him from his forced obligation with all her heart was momentarily forgotten with the wound to her feminine pride. That he did not even have the good manners to disguise his abhorrence for a match that was of her father’s making, not hers, angered her into giving an impudent reply.
“You cannot imagine, my lord, that I leapt at your backhanded offer of marriage,” she stated with as much coldness in her voice as she could muster. “Doubtless there are dozens of females eager to take their place at your side as Countess of Salt Hendon. I wholeheartedly wish you’d offered for one of these ladies, for then this horrid situation would never have presented itself.”
“I am not in the habit of making life-altering decisions merely to oblige others,” he replied coldly, gaze remaining fixed to the wet windowpane. “Yet… knowing you for a fickle female with no heart and even less brain, who has the barefaced cheek to accept a backhanded offer of marriage, I should indeed have married the next fresh-faced virgin who presented herself for mounting.”
Jane staggered back a pace, mind reeling and hand out to the heavy brocade curtains for support at such crude speech. “How… How dare you speak to me in such a repulsive manner!” she whispered indignantly, a fervent glance at her tea-drinking relatives at the far end of the room. “I am not one of your whores who you can—”
This brought his hard gaze down to her beautiful face. “Come now, Miss Despard,” he said with bored indifference. “Your show of offended sensibilities insults my intelligence. It is a bit late in the day to exhibit virginal outrage.” He watched her throat constrict, and when she turned her fine nose to the window, giving him a view of her lovely profile, he smiled crookedly. How well she played the part of indignant female! As if she were the injured party. “By the way, I don’t waste conversation on whores.”
“If you hope to unsettle me with your-your—by that, then you are vastly mistaken in my—in my—” She stopped herself and bit her full lower lip, for how could she say the word character when she had none?
He seemed to read her mind, for he said so softly that she could only just hear him, “You were wise not to say it. You lost what little character you possessed when you thumbed your nose at constancy and decency to take up with a conscienceless old merchant. But as you are your father’s daughter, I am inclined to believe Sir Felix never taught you the meaning of such words. Thus I will own that the fault lies with me for being taken in by your beautiful face.”
Jane bravely met his gaze, and seeing the loathing in his eyes, a painful knot formed in her chest, making it difficult for her to breathe. She did not understand what she had done to deserve such hatred. He spoke of her not being constant or decent, and yet if there was one thing she had been in those days, weeks, and months after the night in the summerhouse, it was constant. Nor did she understand why he had such an intense dislike for Jacob Allenby, the only person to offer her sanctuary. She knew there was no point defending her own character with this male colossus of unreasonableness, but there was no reason for him to besmirch her protector. She forced herself to remain outwardly calm.
“Your vast experience of the type may give you some latitude to speak to me as you would any whore of your acquaintance,” she said in a steady voice, “but it does not give you leave to besmirch Mr. Allenby’s unblemished character. I have never heard an unkind word spoken about him. And despite the difficult circumstances in which I lived under his roof, I never had cause to—”
Salt goggled at her, appalled. “I won’t stand here and listen to you praise—”
“—slap his face!”
There was a moment’s heavy silence, then the Earl let out such a bark of genuine laughter that he startled those taking tea to momentary silence. “My dear Miss Despard, pride still smarting?”
“I have no idea to what you are referring, my lord.”
“Don’t you?” he asked curiously, the anger gone from his deep voice. “I’d wager my best Hunter you were sorely disappointed when your merchant protector intervened that day on the Hunt. Truth be told, you had no need to lash out as you did. I wasn’t about to offer you a second helping of my vast experience.”
“What a dull, hollow existence you must lead to hold to the memory of such a trifling incident. I assure you I had not recalled it until now.”
His smile was sardonic. “It was to your dull, hollow existence I was referring, madam. Your hand hasn’t been the only one to have slapped this noble cheek.”
“What a comfort to know there are females who have spurned Wiltshire’s libertine lord!”
“No. I never said that. Every other slap invited pursuit; yours, I’d no desire to satisfy. Easy game doesn’t interest me. No, don’t turn your face away,” he commanded in a low voice, pinching her small chin between thumb and forefinger and forcing her to look up at him. “Do we go before parson tomorrow or not?”
To her shame and embarrassment, Jane felt hot tears sting her eyelids and she swallowed hard, unable to give him an immediate response. He had exposed the raw nerve of her life under Jacob Allenby’s protection by stating the painfully obvious. The old Bristol merchant had kept her fed and clothed, and in return, whenever he visited the little thatched cottage that nestled in a grove between the Sinclair lands and the Allenby estate, she was at his beck and call. If it hadn’t been for Tom’s supervised quarterly visits, her life would’ve been unbearable. And now this arrogant nobleman dared to sneer at her and expect release from an obligation he had given in good faith.
It humiliated her to think that on his deathbed, her estranged father had forced Lord Salt to honor a promise made to her years earlier. Her father had fulfilled his life’s ambition in bringing about her marriage to this arrogant nobleman by means of blackmail, with no thought to her feelings in the matter or the mortification she would endure as wife of a reluctant husband. It humiliated her further that Jacob Allenby had written up a despicable will, leaving her no choice but to accept the Earl’s offer of marriage or watch her stepbrother face financial ruin. And as much as she wanted to release Lord Salt from his forced obligation, as much as she wanted to tell him why she must accept his backhanded offer of marriage, she could not; it was with an aching heart and a halting voice that she gave the Earl the answer she knew he did not in the least want to hear.
“There are factors—circumstances—Yes, my lord, we will go before parson tomorrow.”
“You surprise me,” he said with an ugly pull to his mouth. “But what female could resist the lure of a coronet? Be good enough to hold out your left hand.”
Listlessly, Jane did as she was told, and was rewarded by having an old gold filigreed band set with sapphires and diamonds slipped over her ring finger. She did not look at it, nor was she aware the band was too large for her slender finger until the Earl mentioned he would have the ring resized once they were married. She thought her mortification complete until she was ordered to sit on a ribbon-back chair placed in the center of the Turkey rug by the fire. It was only then that she realized she was alone in the drawing room with the Earl and his unobtrusive secretary.
Tom and his mother had abandoned her.
~ ~ ~
‘YOU WILL SIT, Miss Despard.”
It was a command Jane ignored.
“Very well. Let that be your last act of defiance,” Salt replied coldly, taking a turn about the room, circling her as a lion does its prey. “Tomorrow, once you and I have been up before parson, spiritually and legally we become one. Make no mistake, Miss Despard, I am that one. As that one, you, as my wife, will act in accordance with what is in my best interests. Never forget: wherever you go, whomever you see, however you conduct yourself, it is I that society sees, not you.
“You will not do or say anything that I do not want you to do or say. You will not go anywhere I do not want you to go. You will do precisely as you are bidden. Do I make myself perfectly understandable?”
Jane understood. He was intent on making her realize how thoroughly undeserving she was of the social position to which he was reluctantly elevating her. And yet, what she was thinking was how much he had altered since they had danced at the Salt Hunt Ball four years ago. It had been her eighteenth birthday that day, and her first proper social engagement, her coming out as a young lady.
During the hunting season, and later the Salt Hunt Ball, indeed during the whole of that wonderful autumn month preceding her eighteenth birthday, he had been an entirely different being from the one standing before her now. She remembered that behind those thin uncompromising lips there were beautiful white teeth, and that he possessed an infectious, good-humored laugh that made his brown eyes crinkle at the corners. And then there was the summerhouse…
Instantly, she mentally pulled herself up.
It didn’t do to let her thoughts wander to the summerhouse by the lake and what had occurred there. The summerhouse made her acutely aware of the consequences of her impulsive actions, and that only brought forth darker, more unspeakable memories, memories she tried desperately to suppress. Nurse had told her not to dwell, she must go forward, not look back. That was the last piece of advice Nurse had given her before her death. She missed her nurse terribly. She wished with all her heart she was with her today. She needed her strength and her no-nonsense approach to life. Go forward, don’t look back, child! Looking forward meant accepting the Earl of Salt Hendon as he was now, not as he had been during that fateful autumn.
“I will take your silence as assent and not stubborn disobedience,” he stated, circling her once more. “You are not unintelligent, and thus you will see that if you play your part in public, if you adhere to the strict upbringing you had as the daughter of a country squire, society will, given time, come to accept you not only as my wife, but as the new Countess of Salt Hendon. As Lady Salt, you will soon be invited everywhere. As for Polite Society’s private opinion of you, that is of supreme indifference to me.” He signaled impatiently for his secretary to step forward. “But how you conduct yourself as my wife is very important to me and to my family. To this end, I have had a document drawn up which sets out the rules governing how you will live as Lady Salt. Ellis will read it aloud and you, Miss Despard, will sign it as evidence of your understanding of how your life will be conducted from this day forward.”
“This document, my lord,” asked Jane with studious enquiry, but unable to hide a sardonic dimple in her left cheek, “does it state terms by which you will conduct yourself as my husband?”
The choking sound came from Mr. Arthur Ellis.
Salt’s lip curled. “Don’t take me for a fool, Miss Despard. You will listen to Ellis, and when he’s done, put your signature—”
“Oh, this is all very unnecessary!” Jane complained with an impatient sigh, annoyed beyond endurance by such insufferable arrogance. She sat upon the chair. “You said yourself, my lord, that once we are married we become one, and that you are that one. Then what is the purpose of my signature to a document that you could very well sign in my stead? You have made it perfectly clear that I cannot do or say anything without your permission. Is there not some wording in the marriage vows about obeying? That should suffice, surely? Besides, if you’ve no thought for me, then spare one for your secretary, who, as anyone with eyes can see, is as uncomfortable with this wretched business as I am!”
For the second time that morning, Salt goggled at her. Not only that but he could not speak.
Mr. Ellis, despite Jane’s accurate observation and wishes, thought it best to begin reading aloud before his lordship burst a blood vessel. He had seen his employer angry, he had seen him furious, but never had he seen him so angry that he was lost for words. In the three years he had been employed in the Earl’s household no one, not servant, retainer, friend or family member, had ever spoken so frankly to his lordship.
Looking at Jane over the parchment in his trembling hands, it was as if it were only yesterday that he had first gazed upon his friend’s beautiful stepsister, and fallen under the spell of her loveliness on the spot. And so it was with the hint of a smile that Arthur began to read, though the smile soon disappeared when his concentration returned to the written word.
He had not given much thought to the Earl’s strictures at the time of their dictation, except that they seemed just and necessary for the self-preservation of a great and wealthy nobleman about to marry a young woman who had lived unmarried with an old Bristol Blue Glass manufacturer. Yet, taking another glance over the sheaf of papers at the girl who sat ram-rod straight, hands clasped lightly in her lap, he felt acute discomfort to be reading out what was nothing less than a sentence of life imprisonment. Albeit the prison was a magnificent sprawling Jacobean mansion in the heart of Wiltshire, but it was a prison nonetheless.
“…As to the dowry Miss Jane Katherine Despard brings to the marriage, a dowry bequeathed to her by Jacob Allenby of Allenby Park, Wiltshire and Bristol, Lord Salt refuses to accept a guinea of the ten thousand pounds,” Arthur Ellis continued after a short pause to clear his throat of nervousness. “Further, Lord Salt instructs Miss Despard to bring to the marriage only those possessions that were hers at the time she was denied the protection of the house of her father, Sir Felix Despard, Squire of Despard Park, Wiltshire. Thus, everything that was gifted to her by Jacob Allenby: clothes, jewelry, money, writing instruments, china, linen, furniture, servants, horses, equipage, in fact anything at all that was purchased with Jacob Allenby’s coin, will not form any part of her dower. The said articles are to be discarded and disposed of before marriage.
“Upon marriage, Lord Salt forbids Lady Salt to live in London, to visit Bath or its environs, or to visit Bristol and its environs. Lord Salt directs Lady Salt to live year-round at his seat in Wiltshire, Salt Hall. Lady Salt will be confined to Salt Hall, and may take exercise only in the immediate parkland surrounding the Hall’s main buildings. Lady Salt is not to venture beyond the lake or the gardens without the express written permission of her husband. Lady Salt is not to take it upon herself to visit any of Lord Salt’s tenants, the vicar and his good wife, or visit the local village of Salt Hendon.
“Lady Salt has her husband’s permission to do with her apartments at the Hall as she so pleases. Her apartments will consist of bedchamber and six adjoining rooms, plus a room and closet for her personal maid. But the remainder of the one hundred and sixty-seven rooms are to be left as she finds them; so too, the grounds; so too, the summerhouse by the lake, a place within the parkland expressly forbidden her ladyship. Once a year, when his lordship opens his house for the Salt Hunt, Lady Salt will confine herself to her apartments and the small rose garden and courtyard thereto attached. From time to time, Lady Salt may have visitors to Salt Hall, but Lord Salt must approve them in writing before their intended stay. None by the name of Allenby may trespass on Lord Salt’s lands. Furthermore and finally—”
“No!” Jane interrupted, up off the chair. “I will endure much, my lord, but that I will not tolerate! You may strip me of every material possession given to me by Mr. Allenby, though that is no great loss, but you cannot strip me of my memories. You can lock me away in your hideous house and dictate my movements, but as I am quite used to my own company, that will be no great deprivation. But you will not take from me the only family I have.” She sniffed back tears; it was a prosaic action, yet it caused the secretary to drop his gaze from her lovely face. “Tom is my brother,” she continued in a calmer voice, turning her head to look at the Earl, who had not moved from his position by the window. “You may argue that he is my brother in law only, but he is the only brother, the only close relative, who has cared anything for me since the death of my mother when I was not quite a year old. And he was the only relative to continue to own me after I left my father’s house. I love him dearly. I will not allow you to banish him. He may visit me whenever he chooses or-or-or—”
“—or what, Miss Despard?” Salt drawled to the rain-spattered window. “You will stamp your pretty foot and refuse to go through with the wedding? Please, say the word…”
Jane stared at the broad back for a good ten seconds, and then sat down again in defeat. She shut her eyes hard to stop the tears and dropped her head, hands clasped tightly in her lap.
The secretary felt his stomach turn over.
Finally, the Earl turned his wide back on the clearing sky and propped himself on the sill.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Despard,” he said quietly. “At the time the document was drawn up, I was unaware that Mr. Thomas Wilson had been required to take the name of Allenby under the terms of his uncle’s will. Ellis will correct the document to read ‘no Allenby but Mr. Thomas Wilson Allenby, her ladyship’s brother, etc. and so forth’.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Jane replied, unconsciously twisting the unfamiliar oversized betrothal ring and audibly sighing with relief.
The Earl inclined his powdered head and turned again to the window, but not before his secretary saw the crooked smile that twisted his mouth. “Ellis? Have you lost the facility of speech? Pray continue. You’re forgetting I have a prior engagement which requires I be elsewhere within the half hour.”
“Yes, my lord, of course,” the secretary mumbled, and coughed, for he had been glancing at the next and final paragraph to be read aloud, and wished himself anywhere but in this drawing room, standing before this lovely young woman. Jane’s impassioned interruption had broken his flow of words and as such would only highlight this next stipulation all the more. “Furthermore, when his lordship is in residence at Salt Hall, Lady Salt will not seek to question, interfere, or acknowledge her husband’s domestic arrangements—”
“You mean to bring your lovers to Salt Hall.”
The secretary paused, but as the sentence was a statement and not a question he continued, though he couldn’t stop the flush to his freckled cheeks.
“—This in no way negates Lady Salt from her responsibilities as a dutiful and obedient wife. Should his lordship desire to avail himself of his—of his conjugal rights, his wife will oblige with mute servility. This document dated this day, and so forth, etc., etc.”
Mr. Ellis noisily reshuffled the pages to hide his embarrassment, not a glance at either party, and quickly crossed to the small walnut escritoire in the far corner of the room, where it had been placed by the undraped window to catch the muted rays of sunlight of a cold January day. He picked up the inkpot, but had not flicked open the silver lid when he was directly addressed by Jane. Such was his surprise that he jumped and would have spilled ink down the front of his fine linen waistcoat with its polished horn buttons, but for the fact his thumb remained poised over the lip of the closed lid.
“Mr. Ellis?” Jane enquired with a frown of puzzlement, as she slowly rose to her feet but did not move away from the chair. “This document makes no mention of any children of the marriage.”
“Children?” the secretary repeated thinly, voice breaking on the word, a swift telling glance at his employer who remained inert. Slowly, he replaced the inkpot on the desk and picked up the quill. “My lady, I-I—Ma’am—um—Miss Despard, there is—there is no-no such paragraph dealing with such an-an eventuality. No provision has been made for children of the marriage.”
Jane’s frown deepened, more so because of the note of nervous apology in the young man’s voice. “Mr. Ellis, that document is most frank, and therefore so must I be when I tell you that it stands to reason if a husband exercises his conjugal—”
“Ellis, be so good as to wait a moment in the passage,” Salt ordered, a rough jerk of his head at the door. He watched his secretary hastily rearrange the sheets of parchment and quill and ink before scurrying from the room with a short bow. “Poor Arthur. You have disconcerted him, Miss Despard.”
Jane was frowning at the closed door, but she turned at this and regarded the Earl openly. “Yes, I must have. I am sorry, for he is a nice young man. But I don’t see why he should be so coy when one must assume that if a husband and wife share a bed—”
“Miss Despard, I am unable to father a child.”
This statement was greeted with such an expression of horrified disbelief that the Earl let out a deep laugh of genuine good humor, finally allowing Jane to see his lovely white smile.
“My dear Miss Despard! Priceless! The look on your lovely face is—priceless. Dear me! I must own I’m glad you’re not a virgin. Only a woman familiar with the carnal delights of the bedchamber could so misinterpret such a statement. Accept my apologies for disconcerting you.” He made her a bow, smile vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. “I am still very much a man, Miss Despard. What I should have said, to make myself perfectly plain, is that while I am more than capable of the act, the physicians tell me I am unable to beget a woman with child.”
“How is that possible?”
Salt glanced up from drawing on his fine kid gloves and saw it was an earnest enquiry, and not one designed to unsettle him. He had to grudgingly admit he preferred her direct approach to the timid dissimulation used by most females.
“Years ago, I fell off a horse in full flight over a fence. I landed very hard and awkwardly on a particularly cherished part of my anatomy. It was excruciating. My—er—ballocks swelled to the size of apples, turned black and went hard. To say I was extremely worried for my manhood would be a gross understatement. I was advised by the learned physicians who attended on me that although the swelling and bruising would subside I had in all likelihood suffered some internal injury that would leave me barren. Since my recovery, I have had the hollow satisfaction of rutting with impunity. Not one of a string of mistresses has presented me with a bastard which would seem to confirm the physicians’ learned opinion.”
“Years ago? How many years ago?”
“Ten years ago?” Jane blanched. She reached out for the ladder back of the chair to steady herself. If he believed himself infertile then… He did not know he had impregnated her that night in the summerhouse… Her note had never reached him… He had not chosen to ignore her… He remained ignorant after all these years… But surely… So many questions and possibilities swirled about her mind that she felt herself sway and thought it prudent to sink back onto the chair. She looked up at him. “My lord, what you say is not possible.”
Embarrassed by her acute disappointment to this news, and annoyed that he should feel a stab of inadequacy at not being able to provide this heartless jezebel with a brood of brats, he snapped back impatiently, “Miss Despard, it is not only very possible, it is fact. Now you will excuse me. My carriage will collect you tomorrow at eleven and convey you to my house in Grosvenor Square, where a private ceremony will be conducted without pomp and circumstance. And, God willing,” he muttered to himself as he crossed the Turkey rug, “with very few persons in attendance to witness my humiliation.”
A blank-faced footman opened the door for the Earl.
The sheaf of parchment on the little escritoire awaiting Jane’s signature fluttered, but was ignored.
Jane forced herself up off the chair and scurried after him, determined to say something, but her thoughts were such a jumble of mixed emotions that she had no idea where to begin or what to tell him. She certainly couldn’t bring herself to inform him there and then that the physicians who had advised him he was barren had got it wrong. He would not believe her without proof. Jacob Allenby’s constant sermons about the wanton wicked ways of the nobility had her convinced that the Earl was not the sort of nobleman to concern himself with the fruits of his couplings, and she had been given no reason to disbelieve him. But here was the Earl telling her that he was infertile and had believed himself to be so for the past ten years! Why then had Jacob Allenby lied to her? How then was she to disabuse the Earl of his conviction? And when?
Jane did not know what to say, or how to tell the Earl that he was as fertile as the next man, without breaking down into a flood of tears for the loss she had suffered. So she kept her mouth shut. When the right time presented itself, she would confess all to him, but that time was not now.
At the door, the Earl hesitated, turned on a low heel, and almost collided with Jane, who was close at his back. She managed to pull herself up only inches from falling into his arms, which he had instinctively thrust out to stop her falling forward. They were so close that her petticoats crumpled against his long muscular legs and she caught a hint of his masculine cologne. It was such an evocative scent that she was gripped with a sudden frisson of desire, and was so shocked by it that she quickly stepped away and hung her head.
Salt gently tilted up her chin with one gloved finger, forcing her to look him in the eyes. Wordlessly, he searched her beautiful face, a knot between his brows. Her liquid blue eyes stared back at him with such frankness that he could almost deceive himself she was without guile. The pouty curve to her lovely lips was so rosebud red and made for kissing that he wanted to crush her mouth under his until they were bruised and numb.
Bruised and numb…
That’s how he felt, how he had been feeling for so many years now that he was drained of hope. He wanted to blame her and the false promises of love and devotion he had tasted in her kisses. Beauty such as she possessed was utterly beguiling, and yet so wretchedly deceptive. He reviled everything about this young woman who was to become his wife and countess and yet there was no mistaking her inherent allure. She had captivated him four years ago, trapped him, made him lose his head, forget all that he had been taught about being a gentleman and what he owed his name, and made him cast caution to the four winds.
He had allowed his heart to rule his head.
In a single night of passion he had ruined a gently-bred girl of good family, destroyed his honor, and given Jacob Allenby the means by which to have his revenge on him. He hated himself for what he had done to Jane, but he reviled her for not having the strength of character to believe in him; to wait for him; to be constant and true. She had not waited. Worse, she had not kept secret their night of passion as she had promised, and was rightly disowned by her humiliated father. Even more appalling, she had run to the protection of Jacob Allenby, a man he loathed and despised, a reprobate who masqueraded as a moralizing windbag.
With the passage of time and countless lovers, he convinced himself he was cured of Miss Jane Despard. And then, two years ago, while on the hunt, he had come across her gathering mushrooms in a field scattered with awakening wildflowers. With a sickening thud of realization, he knew he had been fooling himself. He was not cured. He festered with guilt for ruining her and for still wanting her. He sank lower still by giving his word to her dying father that he would indeed honor the pledge made to her in the summerhouse on her eighteenth birthday, and marry her.
Marriage, if it did nothing but expunge the burden of guilt and restore his sense of honor, was worth the humiliation of friends and family. He could at least get on with his life with a clear conscience of righting a serious wrong. That he still wanted her, desperately, he could easily cure. He would make her his wife, bed her, and then banish her to his estate, lust and honor both satisfied. Yet, the gentleman in him made one last futile attempt to force her to realize what sort of union she was entering into.
“Miss Despard, you are a young woman with many child-bearing years ahead of you. With your face and figure, you could easily ensnare yourself a wealthy husband capable of giving you children. Release this barren earl from his obligation.”
Jane curtsied, but kept her gaze lowered, because her eyes were brimming with hot tears of shame. Real regret sounded in her voice. “I am sorry to disoblige you, my lord, but I must marry you.”
There was the briefest of silences, and then the Earl was gone, the door slamming so hard that Jane jumped and took an involuntary step back, fearing it had come off its hinges. Alone, she crumpled to the floor in a billowing balloon of petticoats and gave in to her disordered emotions.