The Viscount’s Veiled Lady
The third instalment of my Whitby Weddings series is out in February, but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek!
Whitby, North Yorkshire—July, 1872
‘You want me to do what?’
Frances Webster dropped the piece of jagged black stone she was polishing on to the table with a thud.
‘I want you to visit Arthur Amberton for me.’ Her sister Lydia draped herself over a chaise longue by the window, somehow managing to look both spectacularly beautiful and sound utterly shameless. ‘It’s not as if I can visit a bachelor on my own, is it? I’m a respectable widow.’
‘And I’m a respectable spinster. That’s worse.’
‘Yes, but you’re always wandering along the beach by yourself. Anyway, it’s different for you.’
‘Oh, don’t be so tiresome.’ Lydia shot her a look that suggested the answer ought to be obvious. ‘You know perfectly well why, Frannie.’
‘No. I’m sure I do not.’
Frances gritted her teeth at the hated pet name. She suspected her older sister did it on purpose, as if she were still a child to be ordered around and not a woman who’d turned twenty-two that past spring. It was also obvious what why referred to. Lydia was forever dropping hints about her scarred appearance without ever going so far as to actually refer to it directly. Well, if she had something to say, then for once she could just say it out loud.
‘I mean it doesn’t matter if anyone does see you with him. It’s hardly your fault, I know, but you’re not exactly the kind of woman a gentleman would dally with, are you? Your reputation would be perfectly safe.’ Lydia heaved a sigh. ‘It’s such a pity when you used to be so pretty. If only you’d married Leo when you had the chance—’
‘Enough!’ Frances raised a hand, deciding that she’d heard quite sufficient after all. ‘You’re right. I’m sure my face would repel any man.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.’
Not in her hearing perhaps, Frances thought icily, though what her sister and mother said about her behind her back would probably convince her to wear a bag over her head for the rest of her life. They both thought of her facial scarring as the worst misfortune that might have befallen her on the very morning of her eighteenth birthday, but then both of them were beautiful. In her mid-fifties, their mother was still a strikingly attractive woman, with only the faintest touch of silver in her dark hair and an almost unnaturally smooth, porcelain complexion. Walking side by side with her eldest daughter, the pair of them were capable of turning every male head in Whitby.
Of course there had been a time, not so long ago either, when she wouldn’t have looked so out of place beside them. With only a six-year gap in their ages, both she and Lydia had inherited their mother’s fine looks and statuesque figure, though it had taken her own curves so long to appear that she’d thought they weren’t coming at all. She’d been a late bloomer, though when she finally had, she’d shown signs of surpassing even her sister in beauty, or so their mother had once told her to Lydia’s furious chagrin.
Her accident had put paid to all of that, however, so that now, although they shared the same oval face, dark eyes and chocolate-coloured hair, they were hardly two sides of the same coin any more, rather two different coins altogether, one lustrous and shiny, the other dinted and tarnished.
‘Now will you take a message for me or not?’ Lydia was starting to sound impatient.
‘No, and I can’t believe you’re even suggesting it! John’s only been dead for ten months.’
‘Exactly!’ If she were remotely offended by the insinuation, Lydia gave no sign. ‘Ten whole months. How much longer am I supposed to remain in mourning?’
‘A year and a day in full mourning and another year in half-mourning, you know that. The Queen’s been wearing black for over a decade.’
‘I’m not the Queen!’
Frances swallowed a sarcastic retort, vaguely amazed that her sister was aware of the fact. Most of the time she acted as if she had a sovereign right to command everyone around her. If it had been up to Lydia, no one would have spent more than a week wearing black.
‘I can’t understand what good it does to imprison me in my own home!’ Lydia jumped to her feet abruptly, starting to pace up and down the parlour in frustration. ‘Mama hardly lets me go anywhere or see anyone.’
‘Only because it’s not seemly for you to go visiting yet.’ Frances gave her a sympathetic look, for once in agreement. Forcing widows to remain trapped indoors with their grief didn’t strike her as the best way of helping them to overcome it either. Not that Lydia seemed particularly grief-stricken.
‘It’s ridiculous that I’m supposed to act as if my life is over. John was already half-dead when I married him. He was past sixty when we met.’
‘I thought you said that age didn’t matter in a love match.’
‘I said that?’
‘Yes, before you got married.’
‘Oh.’ Lydia looked sceptical. ‘Well, I suppose I did care for him, as much as he could have expected me to anyway, but I don’t see why I have to waste my best years in mourning now that he’s gone. I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted it either.’ She stopped pacing in front of a mirror and pressed her fingers against her cheeks, tugging the skin gently upwards. ‘I’m only twenty-eight. Wearing black crepe makes me feel old.’
‘We’re all tired of wearing black, Lydia, but those are the rules. At least you’ve no need to worry about money.’ Frances tried to sound reassuring. ‘John left you a good legacy.’
‘Barely a third of what he was worth.’
‘But he left the rest in trust for Georgie.’
‘With his lawyer holding the purse strings. As if I can’t be trusted.’
Frances dipped her head to hide her expression. The terms of John Baird’s will, though by no means churlish towards his young bride, suggested he’d understood her better than anyone had realised. With Lydia in control of his fortune, their son George would have been lucky to see so much as a penny on his majority.
‘Maybe he thought you wouldn’t want to be bothered with such details.’
‘I don’t see why. Georgie is my son. It’s not right that somebody else is looking after his future. John used me very badly.’
‘Mmm…’ Frances picked up her stone and polishing cloth again with a sigh. Lydia’s memory in regard to her deceased husband was becoming more and more selective by the day. But then John Baird hadn’t been quite the catch she’d been hoping for when she’d made her come-out, not compared with a certain eligible viscount anyway, a man they’d all thought had been lost at sea…
‘In any case, I wouldn’t remarry until after a suitable period.’ Lydia settled back on to the chaise longue. ‘But if I have to wait until I’m out of mourning then Arthur might marry somebody else and then where will I be? I missed my chance six years ago. I won’t miss it again.’
‘Marry?’ Frances stopped polishing abruptly. She’d been working on that particular piece of jet for half an hour, smoothing away the rough edges and imperfections so that now, in the light of a flickering candle, she could see her own eyes reflected in the surface. They looked sad even to her. Quickly she put the stone aside, dropping it into a small wooden box filled with sawdust.
‘You mean you still want to marry Arthur?’ She asked the question softly, wondering why she hadn’t guessed the truth sooner.
‘Of course! What did you think we were talking about?’
‘You only said that you wanted me to take him a message.’
‘To persuade him to call on me, yes.’
‘Why can’t you just write?’
‘Because I already have.’ Lydia’s expression turned sullen. ‘He sent a note back saying he was too busy to renew our acquaintance. You know there was a time when that man would have crawled over hot coals for me and he calls it an acquaintance!’
‘You did marry somebody else, Lydia.’
‘Only because I thought Arthur had drowned! What was I supposed to do?’
‘Maybe wait more than a week before getting engaged?’
‘Wait?’ Black eyes glittered with anger suddenly. ‘I’d already spent years waiting for Arthur to persuade his father to accept me. It was humiliating enough having to keep our engagement a secret, but then he had to go and fall off his boat and abandon me. He left me to become an old maid!’
Frances fought the urge to roll her eyes. As she recalled, Lydia couldn’t have behaved any less like an old maid. She’d had more than enough spare suitors to choose from, not that Arthur had known about any of them. He’d been aware of her other admirers—in truth, it would have been nigh impossible to miss them—but he’d never known quite how serious some of those other flirtations had been. That had been one small mercy when he’d gone missing, though now Frances wondered how he’d felt when he’d come home and discovered just how quickly he’d been replaced…
‘I’m sure you were very hard done by, Lydia.’
‘How was I to know that he’d come back nine months later and I’d be stuck with John? Do you know, Arthur didn’t even visit me!’
‘How could he? You were married.’
‘Well, all right, but I’m a widow now and he’s still unattached, and now that his father’s dead there’s no one to object. I don’t see why we can’t resume our engagement. It’s quite romantic when you think about it, as if it were meant to be all along.’
‘Yes. How convenient of John to die when he did.’
Lydia shot her a petulant look. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand about love.’
‘I never said that I did.’
‘And Arthur did love me.’
‘Yes,’ Frances conceded wistfully, ‘he did.’
That part was undeniably true. She’d never seen a man so in love as Arthur Amberton had been with her sister. She’d still been in the schoolroom at the time, but to this day she remembered the way he’d gazed so adoringly at Lydia, as if she were the Juliet to his Romeo. Once upon a time, she’d hoped some man might look at her like that one day, though the chances of it seemed unlikely now.
Arthur Amberton had been the very epitome of everything she’d imagined the perfect gentleman to be: intelligent, charming and exquisitely mannered, albeit with a faint air of sadness about him. Dashingly handsome, too, with wavy, chestnut hair and intense, ochre-coloured eyes. He’d been considerate towards her, too, always taking the seat next to hers in the parlour when it was empty and asking about her art as if he were genuinely interested in her hobbies, treating her like an adult and not just a child, unlike the rest of Lydia’s admirers. She’d tried her very hardest to think of him as a brother, especially after Lydia had confided the secret of their engagement, but in truth she’d been more than a little in love with him herself, wicked as it had felt at the time. When he’d been lost at sea, she’d felt as devastated as if she’d been the one he’d left behind. She’d never understood how Lydia could have forgotten him so quickly, but then her sister had never been one to put all her eggs, let alone her heart, in one basket.