Fothering Place, London, England1702
Lord Chesney sat at ease in his lodgings and eyed his friend, Jack, Duke of Hertfordshire, whose tall frame was clad in extravagant silk and velvet. Gem set rings, illuminated by brilliant candlelight, adorned his long fingers and His Grace’s dark amber eyes were alert. His square face with its cleft chin looked tense while he toyed with his blond periwig.
His eyes keen, Jack spoke. ‘My bailiff tells me you bought Field House.’
Chesney knew all about Jack’s insatiable hunger for land. In fact, Jack rarely missed a chance to add to his estates. ‘Yes, I did.’ He kept his tone smooth.
Jack swallowed the last of his port. ‘I would have bought the property but for my fool of a bailiff who informed me too late of the sale.’
Chesney beckoned to his man. ‘More port for His Grace,’ he ordered but decided not to drink anymore because he never risked becoming a fool through over indulgence.
While Roberts served the port, Chesney glanced round the small but comfortable book-lined room. The fact that Jack was the most influential man and the largest landowner in Hertfordshire had naught to do with their friendship.
‘Will you sell the property to me? After all the house and land fell into a sad state of neglect after the civil war.’ Jack stretched his legs out towards the fire.
‘No, I like my estate and look forward to restoring the house. Do not argue with me, my mind is made up.’
Jack’s cheeks reddened. ‘Very well, but now you are my neighbour, you must visit me whenever you wish.’ He yawned. ‘The hour grows late; I will take my leave of you.’
Chesney stood and bowed with mock formality. ‘I will call on you with pleasure.’
They smiled at each other. Jack rose and Chesney asked Roberts to fetch their cloaks.
With an arm draped over Jack’s broad shoulders, Chesney stepped out of his lodgings and glanced at the darkened street. He bade goodnight to Jack and hired a sedan chair to take him to his mistress’s lodgings.
Once there, Chesney skirted a pile of noxious matter spilled from a leather bucket put out for the night-soil men and beat a tattoo on the door of her tall, narrow house.
A pert maid, dressed in Madeleine’s cast off finery, answered his summons.
‘Good day, Susie.’
She curtsied and dimpled at him. ‘Welcome, my lord.’
‘Madam said as how she hoped for a visit from you, my lord.’
‘You look well, Susie. I trust your brother is still in good health.’
‘Yes, my lord, thank you my lord. It is more than kind of you to ask.’
Chesney took off his hat. Careless of the jaunty white plume curled round the black brim, he tucked his hat under his arm. ‘No need to show me the way.’
Susie did not protest when he marched up the short flight of stairs to Madeleine’s bedchamber.
He lingered at the threshold remembering the first time he met sensuous Madeleine when her late husband, old Mr Purvey, came with a delegation to the French court. Chesney sighed. He knew she had hoped to marry him after Mr Purvey died in defence of her tarnished honor in a duel in Leicester Fields. But as he now suspected that he was not her only lover it would be out of the question to marry her.
Chesney rapped on the door, sure of his welcome. Without waiting for permission, he entered the small room, took a taper from the mantelpiece, touched the lighted wick to the fire and used the same flickering flame to light the tall wax candles in wall sconces. Immediately, the thick rugs, tapestries and brocade curtains bloomed.
Madeleine remained abed. She blinked and brushed back her wavy brown hair before she extended her carefully tended hand to him. ‘My lord.’
‘Madam, by your leave.’ Instead of kissing her hand, he sat on a chair by the hearth.
Maddy had aged since he first met her. Yet, with skin like polished ivory, which invited his touch, lips, cheeks the colour of apple blossom and almond shaped hazel eyes that changed colour in different lights, he still appreciated her prettiness. And he found no fault with either her figure or her long, elegant limbs and full breasts.
She giggled and smoothed the lace edged ruffles at the neck of her nightrail. ‘Such formality, sir?’
‘Madeleine.’ He addressed her by her full name instead of by her sobriquet, Maddy.
Her eyes widened. ‘How serious you look. Has something untoward occurred?’
Poor Maddy, not only did she demand too much of his time, she also expected him to pay for too many luxuries. Although he feared her hysterics, he did not hesitate to come to the point, despite his reluctance to cause her pain for, throughout his life, it had never been his intention to hurt anyone either deliberately or accidentally. ‘I am sorry to grieve you, my dear, but to quote the bard, parting is such sweet sorrow.’
Maddy thrust the covers aside and sprang out of bed. With her tiny hands outstretched, she rushed towards him. ‘What do you mean, Chesney? Why do you quote words from Romeo and Juliet?’
He held out his hands to ward her off. ‘We must part.’
‘No! I love you. I cannot live without you.’ She sank to the ground and raised her head to look at him.
‘I doubt you love me,’ he murmured and smoothed his face into an inscrutable mask.
Maddy’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Chesney, since my husband died I have been waiting for you to propose marriage to me.’
If she had never taken any other lover he would sympathize with her more. But Maddy had been unfaithful to er elderly husband since the early days of her marriage. His nostrils flared. He doubted Maddy’s nature allowed her to remain faithful to any man.
She jumped up, rushed across the room and flung herself face down on her bed. ‘I am not yet done with you for I do love you, I do, I do.’ She pounded the quilt with clenched fists and sobbed.
He hesitated. Had he misjudged the depth of her feelings for him, by believing them to be shallow?
‘Have I not made you happy?’ Maddy demanded and twisted round to face him.
He sought a way to help her accept his decision. ‘We enjoyed our bed sport, yet you never quickened with child and duty requires me to father an heir. No more tears. You told me a score of times that you cannot abide puking babes and, what’s more, you always claimed the thought of motherhood dismays you. If you are honest, you will admit you could not tolerate your body thickening and I could never be brute enough to insist on fathering your child.’
Maddy stared at him, wide-eyed. ‘You are mistaken, I would be happy to bear your children.’
He bowed. ‘My dear, I cannot allow you to sacrifice yourself on the altar of reluctant motherhood.’
‘Then you are a true nobleman to part with me, your love, both out of consideration for me and for duty’s sake.’
His lips twitched. A cough concealed his amusement. He knew Maddy thrived on playacting. In all likelihood she would convince herself she had set him free and, before long, either wed an unfortunate cuckold or console herself with other lovers.
He picked up his hat.
Cat-like her eyes narrowed. ‘Chesney, give me a kiss to remember you by.’
He kissed her cheek and left the house. Should he leave town to prevent Maddy pestering him?
* * *
The following day, Chesney rapped his cane on the front door of Lady Ware’s London mansion. She was the sister of his late father’s friend, but he did not know her well and wondered at her summons.
‘Lord Chesney?’ Bennet, Lady Ware’s middle-aged butler, queried his lined face both curious and respectful.
Chesney inclined his head.
‘This way, my lord. You are expected.’ Bennet led him up the stairs to a beautifully appointed parlor on the first floor and announced him to Lady Ware.
Chesney raised his voice above the barks of six King Charles Cavalier spaniels. ‘Your servant, Lady Ware.’
‘My lord, I am pleased to see you,’ her ladyship greeted him and ordered her little dogs to sit. After he sat and had been served a glass of wine, she came straight to the point. ‘My lord, I summoned you to propose your marriage to my niece, Richelda Shaw, and, in all honesty, I assure you the union is to your advantage.’
While she waited for his reply, the petite lady fluttered her fan. In spite of her sixty odd years, she peeped over it girlishly and patted her fair hair, which had a silvery sheen.
‘You flatter me, Madam,’ he drawled.
Lady Ware’s dainty shrug released her cloying perfume of lavender mingled with roses and vanilla. She snapped her fan shut and tapped his arm with it. ‘You are mistaken. I do not flatter you. I offer you and my niece a solution. Your fathers followed King James to France. You are gossiped about and eyed as distrustfully as I think my niece will be when I bring her to London.’
‘Are you not gossiped about, Lady Ware? After all, your brother’s conversion to the Church of Rome must place you and your family under government scrutiny. For my part, I thank God my father remained true to The Anglican Church.’
Lady Ware shuddered. ‘Do not mention the matter to me, my lord. I vow I had no sympathy with my brother when he became a Papist.
All I can do is thank God he was not tried as a traitor and be glad his head was not displayed at the Tower of London.’
Chesney shifted his position and yawned before he made a cautious reply. ‘I am neither a Jacobite nor a Papist and apologize for mentioning the matter of your brother’s conversion.’
‘Some more wine, Viscount?’
He shook his head and leaned back, deliberately presenting a picture of a man completely at his ease.
Lady Ware arched her eyebrows. She sipped her wine. ‘All London knows I am a wealthy woman.’ She blinked a rush of tears from her eyes. ‘My lord, ’tis cruel not only to suffer widowhood thrice but to also lose my only child.’
To acknowledge her grief, he stood and bowed with respect. ‘My condolences, Madam.’
‘Thank you.’ She dabbed her eyes with a black handkerchief. ‘My poor daughter’s death is my niece’s gain. If Richelda is obedient, she will inherit all my property.’
Her ladyship rested her head against the back of her chair, opened her fan and plied it restlessly while she scrutinized him.
‘What do you think of the proposal, my lord?’
Chesney sat and, despite his intention to marry, replied with his customary forthrightness. ‘As yet I have neither put myself on the matrimonial market nor made my fortune and title available to any lady who wishes to marry me.’
‘I hear you purchased Field House,’ she ventured.
‘Yes, I did,’ he replied in a neutral tone.
‘Well, sir, I shall speak bluntly. My niece’s lands are adjacent to yours. Through marriage, you would double your estate and acquire my niece’s mansion, Bellemont House. As for my niece, she will become mistress of my childhood home.
He inclined his head. Ah, was this why her ladyship wanted him to marry her niece? Did she have a sentimental attachment to Field House?
Undeterred by his indifference to her proposition, Lady Ware continued. ‘I know your circumstances. Though you have no close relative, you are saddled with a clutch of distant relations who anticipate your help to advance in the world.’
Devil take it, she was correct. His family looked to him for patronage and expected him to marry and produce an heir. Confound it, not one of them had regained their positions, lands or fortunes after Charles I execution. Fortunately, his grandfather’s marriage to a French heiress saved he himself from poverty.
Her ladyship’s Roman nose twitched and her thin lips curved in a predatory smile. ‘You will consider the match?’
Reluctant to say anything she might interpret as his agreement to marry Mistress Shaw, he nodded.
‘Good, I shall not press you further.’ She hesitated with her fan mid-air, only to wave it backwards and forwards in agitation. ‘I prefer you not to tell anyone my niece is my heiress. When she comes to town, I do not want a flock of fortune hunters to approach her.’
‘On my honor, I will not mention the matter to anyone. By the way, when will Mistress Shaw come to London?’
‘Within the week.’
He stood and each of the small dogs wagged their tails, stirred and yapped for attention round his ankles. Although no thought of imminent marriage had entered his head when he arrived, he might change his mind after meeting her ladyship’s niece.
Lady Ware clapped her hands. ‘My poppets like you and, believe me, my lord, they are good judges of character.’
Chesney restrained an incipient chuckle at the notion of her ladyship’s dogs tricked out in wigs and gowns to judge him. ‘I am complimented by their approval, my lady.’ He bowed and kissed her bejeweled hand. ‘As for your niece, only providence knows if Mistress Shaw and I are suited.’
With a rustle of her black silk mourning gown and petticoat she rose. ‘I believe you and Mistress Shaw are well matched, my lord.’