A girl knows when her life really begins, and for fifteen-year-old Lady Marcia Sherwood, daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady, it was the moment she met the two Lattimore brothers.
When the first one took his seat in the Brady carriage, she had to clamp her teeth together to keep her mouth from falling open. If her friends at school could only see him. They’d never believe he was this handsome.
“I’m Finn,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.” He gave a half-grin, his eyes gleaming with something.
He must guess. He must know she found him attractive. Or perhaps he found her attractive.
Oh, dear. Could that be so?
That would make life so much more interesting. The brothers were to be her traveling companions to Liverpool, and then across the Irish Sea to Dublin, where she’d reunite with her family.
Marcia smiled, being careful to keep her expression demure, but inside, her heart was pounding. “I’m Lady Marcia Sherwood,” she said, feeling like an idiot. “But please–call me Marcia.”
Her maid nudged her in the side. “Lady Marcia will do, young man.”
His clothes were of the finest tailoring, setting off his good looks so well that Marcia had to wonder how he lived with himself. Had he gotten used to being so handsome?
“Right,” he said lightly, “of course,” and smiled at her as if to say, When we’re alone, I’ll call you Marcia.
She already adored him.
A shadow fell across his face as another figure entered the carriage. This young man was just as tall but more solidly built and definitely the older of the two. Marcia had to move her knees sideways to allow him proper room to settle. Once he had, he looked directly at her.
He was striking in his own way, with compelling dark brown eyes, but he lacked the charm—or should she say, the obvious delight in his surroundings—that the younger brother exuded. In fact, his tightly furrowed brow suggested he was slightly irritated before the trip had even begun.
The very exciting, adventurous trip she’d been looking forward to for ages.
“Good morning.” His imperturbable gaze encompassed both her and her maid. “I’m Lord Chadwick,” he threw out in bored tones, as if they should be very grateful he’d spoken at all.
“Good morning,” Marcia answered.
She did not like him. Her body felt all prickly and hot, and it was clearly his fault.
The maid smiled at the earl. Marcia could tell she was gratified that he’d included a mere servant in his greeting. But Marcia didn’t give him credit for it. She wouldn’t. He’d put her off.
The carriage rolled forward.
Lord Chadwick inclined his head at her. “You must be Lady Marcia Sherwood.”
It was a statement, not a question. And he said it as if he didn’t give a fig who she was.
“Indeed, I am.” Marcia forced a corner of her mouth to tilt up–to please Mama. She’d been brought up with manners, after all.
“I’ve heard much of your family.” His tone was cordial but cool. He was going through the motions of polite behavior, nothing more.
What would Mama do?
She’d probably say something complimentary—and sincere—to put the person at ease, so Marcia wracked her brains. “My parents and I are grateful for your escort all the way to Dublin. That’s a trek.” She gave a little laugh.
His distracted gaze didn’t change. “It’s no trouble.”
“Of course, it’s not,” Mr. Lattimore interjected warmly. Thank God for him. He was like a knight in shining armor sitting next to a knave. “Why not travel together? We’re going to the wedding ourselves.”
His older brother didn’t bother acknowledging the interruption. “I understand the rest of your family is currently ensconced at your Irish estate?” he asked Marcia.
Poor Mr. Lattimore. To be treated like…like a nobody. Yes, Gregory treated Peter that way, and Peter did the same to Robert, but still! It must be humiliating, and Marcia was sure Lord Chadwick was far worse a brother than any of hers.
“Lady Marcia?” Lord Chadwick asked.
“Oh, yes. You must mean Ballybrook. It’s the greenest place you’ve ever seen. Daddy”—she pronounced it the Gaelic way, Doddy—”and Mama retire there when Parliament isn’t in session. Otherwise, they’re quite comfortable on Grosvenor Square in London. It’s a busy life, but they say they have the best of both worlds. One green and comfortable–and one sooty…but terribly elegant, all the same.”
There was a faint gleam of something in Lord Chadwick’s eye. Was it amusement? And if so, why? Marcia felt indignation surge in her breast, but of course, she wasn’t permitted to show it.
Instead, she turned to look at Mr. Lattimore and was gratified to see that he didn’t appear amused. He seemed to understand her completely. His large amber eyes gazed into hers with utmost sympathy, and she returned the look as discreetly as possible.
She was forced to look at his brother, while Mr. Lattimore had to sit next to him.
It was hard to say who had it worse.
“She’s got a point.” Mr. Lattimore elbowed the earl. “We can have the best of both worlds, too, now that you’ve got the title. Why stay in Kent when we can be in Town?”
“Because the estate in Kent needs a great deal of work.” Lord Chadwick’s tone was distinctly annoyed. “And I’m not ready to take up my seat in Parliament. Not yet. I’ve a great deal of reading to do on a host of topics. Not to mention that London soot is a bit off-putting.”
“That’s not it at all,” Mr. Lattimore stage-whispered to Marcia. “London’s too amusing for him. My brother is all about duty.”
“As you should be, too,” Lord Chadwick muttered, his eyes on the window.
The maid stopped knitting a moment.
“Well, then,” Marcia said brightly, whereupon the maid’s needles began flashing in and out of a skein of wool once more. “We have a long way to travel together, don’t we?”
“Indeed, we do.” The earl’s tone was dry. He turned from the window to study her a brief moment then pulled a small book out of his pocket. “If you don’t mind, I’ll be reading much of the trip.”
“Not at all,” she said courteously.
Mama would be proud of her composure in the face of such rudeness. Or grown-up-ness. Marcia couldn’t tell which was which sometimes.
The title of the book was something about the politics of war. Lord Chadwick cleared his throat and became immersed in it immediately.
Marcia exchanged the briefest of bemused glances with Mr. Lattimore. The earl thought to dismiss them as if they were children, didn’t he?
She suppressed a sensation of pique. Couldn’t he see that his younger brother was far from a child? And that she was a young woman?
She had brains. She could carry on an adult conversation. Not that she wanted to about the politics of war, of course. Perhaps something about the politics of fashion. There were definite sides to be had on so many issues–bonnets, ribbons, sleeve styles–although she could talk of war if she had to.
Lord Chadwick turned a page of his book. The maid’s knitting needles clicked and clacked. Mr. Lattimore raised his brows in a comical way and angled his eyes toward his brother.
Marcia stifled a giggle. She was too grown up to giggle, of course. But Mr. Lattimore was…well, he was simply adorable. He brought out the mischievous in her.
Lord Chadwick looked up briefly, his gaze neutral yet somehow intimidating. When he went back to reading, Mr. Lattimore’s very expressive eyes expressed relief.
I’m sorry for you, her own eyes said back.
We won’t let him ruin the trip, she read in his.
Understanding swelled between them. His mouth tilted up, just barely—a secret smile meant just for her. He leaned forward, the sharp-eyed maid’s needles flashing close by. Close enough to stab him in the thigh or arm if she so wishes, Marcia had the incongruous thought.
Thankfully, Mr. Lattimore appeared oblivious to any danger. And if he were aware of it at all, I suspect he’d scoff at it, Marcia thought.
He was that sort of young man.
“Fine weather for traveling,” he whispered to her.
His voice was like a caress.
“Yes,” she whispered back.
But the fine weather hadn’t lasted. In fact, their carriage lost a wheel en route to Liverpool, in the midst of a great, slashing storm. Thankfully, they’d been near enough a market town that Lord Chadwick had walked there with the driver to procure another. But then another deluge prevented any travel for several days.
When they finally managed to board a packet to Ireland, Marcia was already head over heels for Finnian—Finn, she called him. How else to explain that she felt completely new? Joyful? Needy? And very, very confused?
But mainly joyful.
Although perhaps blissful was a better word. Blissful and aching. How she ached! Yet it was a blissful ache. Which made no sense–
Good Lord, she needed help. But she couldn’t tell Mother what was going on. It was too…private at this point.
Janice would be a lovely confidante, but she’d have her two childhood friends with her at the wedding. She and Marcia both would be distracted by the festivities—and Marcia needed a good, long coze with her sister to explain what it felt like to fall in love. This wasn’t something she could toss off in casual conversation.
There were her close friends at school, of course—she could write them letters. Wouldn’t they read her story avidly! But she didn’t feel comfortable revealing her feelings in a missive that could possibly pass through many hands. What if her classmate Lysandra read it? She and the two foolish minions she’d managed to recruit from among the student body would make fun of her, and that Marcia couldn’t bear.
On the packet, she’d passed several girls on deck her age, but even if she were to befriend them, who wanted to reveal such deep passion to someone one had only just met?
Of course, she’d only just met Finn, too, but that was different. They’d been through so much together already. He wasn’t a stranger in the least. Riding together in a carriage for days on end tended to make one familiar with someone rapidly.
Her heart warmed. And standing at the prow of the sailing packet, she realized didn’t need any of her favorite people’s advice or shoulders to lean on, much as she loved them.
She simply needed Finn.
It was a startling, exhilarating conclusion, and she would bask in it in private, staring out at the sea and the endless horizon, where the sun hung huge and low. Life was so much bigger than she’d ever imagined it could be….
“There you are.” The deep, dark, and now familiar voice of Duncan Lattimore, Lord Chadwick, intruded upon Marcia’s thoughts, and he joined her at the bow, at her left.
She was shocked. Nay, astounded. Why was he talking to her suddenly? He’d made no effort to speak to her the entire trip, except when he’d been forced to at meal times. At dinner one night in a respectable inn, he’d asked several other young ladies closer to his age what they liked to do—what books they liked to read, for example—but he’d never asked her anything.
He was too important to be bothered with his younger brother’s friends, Finn had told her. That’s what happened when one inherited a fortune, a title, and properties at a young age.
But perhaps she should give the earl another chance.
“Hello, Lord Chadwick,” she said now, attempting to feel charitable toward him. She focused on the one day on their journey when a wheel had broken on the carriage, and he’d walked through rain and mud to a village to procure help.
“Have you seen my brother?” he asked her without preamble.
Her friendlier feelings dissolved. “No,” she said, “but I was hoping he’d make an appearance above decks soon.”
Hoping was a puny word. Praying was more like it.
“He’s not in our cabin,” Lord Chadwick said in that distracted way he had, as if he had more important things to do than speak to her.
Marcia felt another wave of dislike. Didn’t he even notice that the sea was awe-inspiring? That she was wearing a pretty bonnet that deserved to be complimented? That she was also a skilled conversationalist, if he’d give her a chance?
“I don’t know where Mr. Lattimore is,” she admitted, “but if I should see him, I’ll tell him you’re looking for him.”
“Very good,” he said, but made no motion to leave.
Perhaps he stayed because they were leaning over the prow, a compelling spot to be in those pressing few minutes between dusk and night at sea. It was a place to show fortitude–and a time that drew people to stand together against the vastness of the ocean and the impending darkness, sharing confessions they otherwise might not share.
Marcia felt no such affinity with Lord Chadwick, however. No desire to find solace in his company, no curiosity to know him any better than she already did.
But as the seconds passed in silence and the rising waves and sharpening wind pressed upon her to be as bold as they, she blurted out, “You don’t like me, do you? I’m that silly girl involved with your brother—”
A gust of wind lifted Lord Chadwick’s dark brown hair. “Involved?”
She noticed that he was handsome. He’d always been but in an understated way. Not like golden-haired Finn, who turned feminine heads in every tap room they’d entered, in every street they’d walked.
Marcia lifted her chin. “Surely, you’ve observed we’ve spent time together.”
“Of course, I have. Haven’t we all?”
They watched a cresting wave break into foam, then two more.
“True,” she said.
“Just don’t get too attached to him,” the earl replied in his nonchalant way.
She held fast to the railing, keenly aware that he hadn’t bothered to answer her original question. Not that she cared if he liked her. But she felt a frisson of annoyance—and fear—at his last remark. “What do you mean?” She attempted to sound careless. Inside, she felt anything but.
“My brother’s got obligations.” The earl kept his eyes on the horizon. “He sometimes forgets that his job is to become a man, not sharpen his skills of flirtation.”
The implication being that she was nothing more than another girl for Finn to charm.
The insult came just as a rogue wave slapped the hull, sending spray on Marcia’s face. But she ignored the salt water trickling down her cheek, barely even felt it, in fact. Her middle churned with anger, with a need to put this man in his place.
“You’re rude.” The wind flung her words out to sea, frustrating her enough that she leaned closer, demanding that he turn his head to look at her. “You’ve been rude to me since the first moment I met you. Why? What have I ever done to you?”
“Me? Rude?” The earl’s face registered disbelief.
“You don’t speak to me.”
He gave a short laugh. “You’re fifteen.”
“Almost sixteen,” she replied airily. “And I happen to know how to hold a good conversation. Not only that, I’m friends with your younger brother.”
“Lady Marcia,” the earl said in steely tones. “I’m a busy man. I have much on my mind. And yes, I’ve observed that you’re carrying on a flirtation with Finn—surely, his attentions are enough to occupy you.”
“It’s not simply a flirtation.” She felt her voice crack and was mortified. “And I’m not a spoiled child, demanding excess attention. All I ask is common courtesy. And respect.”
Lord Chadwick drew in a deep breath and looked steadily at her. “I’ve obviously disappointed you, for which I apologize. But I’ve no inclination to spar with you this evening or any other.” He turned and made his way down the empty deck.
It was the dinner hour. But she’d no appetite. For days, she’d had none. Love had taken it away.
She grabbed onto a swinging line. “You’re wrong about Finn and me!” she yelled after the earl. “But you can’t see that, can you?” She knew she shouldn’t be saying such shocking things, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. “It’s because you miss out on so much of life. You read books instead of getting to know people sitting across from you in carriages.”
Lord Chadwick stopped and turned to face her, his expression inscrutable.
“You adjourn to your room early,” she continued unabashedly, “to look at account books rather than stay up late and tell stories by the fire. And right now you don’t even seem to notice how breathtaking the sunset is. Someday you’ll be sorry you were ever so smug. And someday I’ll prove to you there is such a thing as a perfect love.”
He looked over the railing at the blood red sun, then back at her. “There is no perfect love, nor a perfect life,” he said, his eyes dark, his gaze boring into hers. “So give up wishing, will you? It would be a shame to see you hurt. Good evening, Lady Marcia.”
And he resumed walking.
Oh, if only she could throw him overboard!
Finn appeared at the prow, thank God, a few moments later. “What’s wrong?”
Instantly, she felt better. “Your brother—he tried to—”
“Tried to what?” The concern in his eyes made her care for him all the more.
“He tried to warn me against you. He said…he said you’re sharpening your skills of flirtation rather than working on your obligations.” She felt some of her anger dissipate when he pulled her into his arms.
She’d been dreaming of such a moment.
“What man wouldn’t fall head over heels for you?” he said into her hair. “And put aside work to be with you?”
“You’re kind to say so,” she said, daring to remain in his arms.
“I’m not kind; I’m truthful.” He pulled back to look at her, his hands leaving fire where he touched her shoulders. “I’m sorry Duncan was rude.”
Night was close. No one was looking. Amazing how on a small packet, one could get away with so much.
“If it means we’ll do this”–she leaned against his chest–”I hope he’ll be rude to me again.”
“Marcia,” Finnian whispered.
“Finn,” she whispered back, and closed her eyes, reveling in the knowledge that she could both feel and hear his beating heart.
He pulled back and lifted her chin. “I don’t know how it happened so fast.”
“I don’t, either.” She saw that yearning in his eyes, the same one she’d seen in other boys and men in the village in Surrey and on her school trips to Brighton and London. It was a mystery to her no more. She knew it was desire.
But she wanted him just as much. Wanted him to hold her, to kiss her.
Please, she thought.
“I’m falling in love with you.” His voice was rough.
“And I with you,” she answered.
She already had. Everything was Finn. Except for that one, small corner of her mind where she saw his brother telling her not to get attached. And then walking away as if she were a nuisance he was glad to leave.
Duncan Lattimore obviously liked to ruin things. But she wouldn’t let him ruin this.
The arc of the wind-filled jib sail obscured her and Finnian from view. She put a tentative hand on the side of his face. He leaned into her palm, caressing it with his jaw, an act so tender, her eyes began to sting. And then he drew her hand down, clutched it in his own, and kissed her.
It was perfect. So perfect she knew in that moment that love was hers for the taking.
“I must see you as often as possible,” Finn said, as if she were the greatest treasure on earth.
“I’m leaving my school,” she replied without preamble. “I must be in London. Near you.”
“Yes. I like London. Much better than the estate in Kent. Or Oxford.” He kissed her again, a possessive, lingering seal of their mutual promise.
This time his hand came so close to the underside of her breast, she shivered.
The words she’d thrown like a gauntlet to Lord Chadwick came back to her: And someday I’ll prove to you there is such a thing as a perfect love.
With Finn, Marcia knew it could be so.
It was so.
It had been a whirlwind two weeks in Dublin. She’d spent every possible moment she could with Finn. Janice was completely oblivious to her strong feelings for him, caught up as she was in the excitement of being in Dublin with two of her oldest and best friends.
And now it was the night of Marcia’s sixteenth birthday.
Her family had rented a private residence on Dublin’s Southside with a beautiful conservatory attached. Long after the rest of the family had gone to bed, in the deepest, stillest part of the night, she and Finn lay on their backs, cradled in each other’s arms, and looked up through the glass ceiling at the stars barely visible—”but still there,” Finn insisted—through the clouds.
“You only have to be sixteen to marry in Scotland,” he murmured against her hair.
She almost stopped breathing. “Really?”
“Yes,” he said, and ran his hand down her flank. “When we get back to England, we’re going to run away. To Gretna Green.”
“Yes,” she whispered, and held tighter to him, suddenly feeling small.
This was genuine, their love. All too genuine. And although most of the time, she embraced it bravely and with great joy, like a feather dancing in the wind, at the moment she felt its all-consuming power, its potential to sweep her away to parts unknown.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered back, and kissed her, his mouth tender upon her own.
No. She wouldn’t be.
He pulled her ties loose at her back, gently pushing her sleeves and bodice down while he murmured sweet nothings in her ear.
That night, Marcia let love take her where it would. She gave Finn everything. Everything.
In the dark, their coupling was awkward. Fast. The fear of discovery was strong between them. And then much to Marcia’s surprise, there had been pain. Blood.
But as was typical with Finn, he didn’t dwell on unpleasantness.
After she’d fumbled about and restored herself to order, he merely pulled her close again. “Right,” he said, and released a long sigh.
She waited a few seconds. They’d given themselves to each other. It was a profound moment. But when Finn didn’t speak, she realized he might be nervous. Her father and mother slept nearby, as did her siblings. If they were discovered, there’d be hell to pay.
“I love you,” she reassured him and snuggled close. “You’re the one and only man I will ever love.”
He stroked her hair a few moments. “We’re splendid together,” he said after a few seconds. “More than splendid.” He kissed the top of her head.
“We’re perfect,” she sighed, and looked up at him with a grin.
He grinned back and kissed her once more—a long, lingering kiss–then pulled her to her feet from the extremely crude bed they’d made of pillows stolen from a few chairs.
“And now I must go,” he said, sounding nervous, as she’d guessed he must be. “We can’t be found out.”
“I know.” She clung to him. “But I wish you didn’t have to go.”
This was their last night together. Tomorrow, she’d be off to Ballybrook, and he’d travel to Cork with Lord Chadwick to visit friends and then take a packet back across the Irish Sea to England.
Soon, though, they’d be together forever.
“Where and when will we meet to go to Gretna?” she asked him.
“I’ll plan it all out when I get back to England and write you a letter, of course.” He pinched her cheek. “Silly.” And then he laughed.
She did, too. She couldn’t help it. Seeing him laugh made her happier than anything else in the world.
She was still brimming over with it when the next morning dawned cold and gray. Her first thought wasn’t even a thought—it was a feeling that ran like a slow, lazy, warm, wonderful river through her body: Love.
Love, love, love.
She smiled at the ceiling, rubbed her lips together, remembering how Finn had kissed her. Ran her hands over her belly, and lower. He’d been there. He’d been everywhere.
He was a part of her now.
But then tears blurred her vision when she remembered that she wouldn’t be seeing him that day. She wouldn’t be seeing him for weeks. She lingered in her room, feigning a headache—utterly miserable, ready to snap at anyone who dared speak to her, almost hoping she could, because then she could cry openly, and everyone would think it was because she was sorry for being a shrew. But that wouldn’t be why she’d be crying. Oh, no. She’d be crying because she didn’t belong anywhere Finn wasn’t.
She was in the midst of packing for the journey to Ballybrook—as if she cared anymore about the new wing Daddy had designed!–when she received a note from Finn.
Finn, Finn, Finn.
She wanted to hug the servant who’d brought the stiff envelope. She sniffed it. It smelled of him. Suddenly, her world was sunshine-y again.
She pressed the paper over her heart and seated herself at her dressing table, luxuriating in the knowledge that she was Finn’s and that a message had come from her beloved.
It would be a love note to tide her over until she got back to her school in Surrey, a missive she’d keep under her pillow. And perhaps in the letter he’d write about when they could next…be together. Perhaps he had a plan for that. Gretna couldn’t come soon enough. She could hardly breathe, thinking of the risks they were taking.
Being in love, she decided, was not for the fainthearted.
When she finished the note, she stared at her reflection in the looking glass. The woman that she’d become overnight looked back at her. But whereas moments ago, that woman had been flush with love, her heart brimming over with it, in fact, the person looking back at her now was an empty shell.
Finn had written that he was shocked to hear he’d be sailing not back to England from Ireland but to America—in accordance with his brother’s wishes.
“He’s sending me to a property of ours in Virginia for an apprenticeship in land management,” Finn wrote, “but I know the real reason I’m going. He wants to keep us apart.”
There was a blob of ink, as if he’d forgotten to sign it–as if his hectoring sibling were standing at his bedchamber door with an open trunk demanding that Finn throw his breeches and cravats into it then and there.
It was the last note Marcia would ever receive from him.