A charming short story by Christina Courtenay just in time for the weekend! If you’ve read The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight already you might recognise a certain house …
Merrick Court, July 1670
‘I don’t understand why you insisted on bringing me here, Mama. It’s humiliating and utterly pointless!’
Rose Parry swished open her fan and tried to hide behind it. Not that anyone was looking at her – the great hall of Merrick Court was full of people, all talking at once, but the undoubted centre of attention was the dashing heir to the estate – Rupert, Viscount Cadell. His parents, the Earl and Countess of Merrick, appeared to have invited as many young ladies of marriageable age as possible, together with their parents. There were whispered rumours that Lord Cadell was to select a bride from among the girls present today.
‘How can he possibly make a choice when he’s only just met everyone?’ Rose scoffed. She considered it highly unlikely he’d fall in love at first sight, even though she had to admit she’d been instantly smitten with him when they’d been introduced earlier. A silly reaction and one she’d do well to forget.
‘It is very odd, to be sure,’ Rose’s mother Anne agreed. ‘His parents are apparently insisting that he choose a wife for himself.’ She sniffed. ‘They claim to have married for love and want their son to have the same opportunity. A lot of nonsense, if you ask me.’ Most parents did not consult their offspring, but contracted advantageous matches on their behalf. Rose thought it kind of Lord Cadell’s parents to give him such freedom, but it didn’t make a difference to her. She had no chance of catching him. The room was full to bursting with pretty girls and there was no way she could compete. With her wild mane of bright red curls and a face marred by freckles, there was simply no point her being here. She watched as Lord Cadell moved away from the group he’d been talking to, then lost sight of him. The room seemed less bright without him to focus on.
‘Perhaps the young man likes redheads,’ Anne soothed, then ruined it by adding, ‘There’s no accounting for taste, you know.’
Rose clenched her fist so hard she almost snapped the delicate spokes of her fan. Her mother meant well, but she could be exceedingly tactless at times.
Taking a deep breath, she concentrated on her surroundings rather than the chattering throng. The dark oak panelling gleamed with polish, there was a rather splendid fireplace with a carved surround, and intricate plasterwork on the ceiling. Several large windows let in the summer sunshine and the double doors had been left open, showing a glimpse of the garden. Rose longed to escape into the cool shade of the trees outside.
‘Mrs Parry, Miss Parry, I understand you have already met my son. I was just telling Rupert you have come from Ewyas Harold.’
Rose turned to find her hostess, Lady Merrick, smiling at them, and next to her stood the heir. The sight of him had the same impact this time – like a blow to her middle – and she drew in a deep breath. He was tall, like his father, and had inherited his sire’s handsome features, but his colouring was all from his mother’s side – hair like golden honey and eyes as blue as forget-me-nots. Combined with a decidedly masculine physique – his broad shoulders filled out his dark silk coat to bursting point – he was everything a woman could wish for.
‘I trust you are enjoying your visit to Merrick Court, ladies?’ he said, giving them a graceful bow.
Rose longed to shout ‘No!’, but of course she couldn’t. Instead, she curtseyed politely and murmured, ‘How could we not?’
When she looked up, Lord Cadell was looking at her with raised eyebrows, as if he’d heard her unspoken thoughts. Rose felt her cheeks heat up.
‘It is rather warm in here,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you’d care to take a turn in the garden with me, Miss Parry?’
Rose looked around. There were at least a dozen girls nearby, all more beautiful than herself. She frowned. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather walk with someone else? I wouldn’t want to waste your time.’
She heard her mother draw in a hissing breath, while Lady Merrick’s eyes opened wide before she turned a splutter of laughter into a cough.
Lord Cadell’s mouth quirked. ‘I’m quite sure, but thank you for your concern. Shall we?’ He held out his arm and Rose had no choice but to put her fingers on it and follow him outside. To her surprise, her mother didn’t follow to chaperone them, but then they would probably stay within sight of the house. Rose imagined a dozen pairs of eyes stabbing her back with jealous fury, but she hadn’t asked to be singled out in this fashion so she pretended not to care. No doubt Lord Cadell would soon become bored and return to the others. In her haste to escape, however, she caught her heel on one of the stairs and her shoe came off.
‘Allow me.’ Lord Cadell bent to retrieve it, then helped her put it on.
Rose felt her cheeks flaming – what must he think of her? Not just plain, but clumsy as well. ‘Thank you.’
But he pretended as if nothing had happened and again gave her his arm. ‘Would you like to see the knot garden? It is my mother’s favourite spot.’
‘So you live near the old abbey then?’ Lord Cadell asked.
‘Abbey Dore, yes, in the Golden Valley. Our home is not far from there.’
‘A beautiful place, I believe.’
‘Indeed, but so is this.’ Rose looked around and admired the profusion of roses and other flowers that surrounded them. She noticed Lord Cadell was taking her further away than she’d thought but it was a relief not to have everyone’s eyes on them.
‘I’m glad it pleases you. Do you like it enough that you can imagine yourself living here?’ Lord Cadell had stopped by a small fountain.
Rose let go of his arm and marched over to a stone bench, sitting down rather abruptly. ‘If you are going to make fun of me, you may as well return to the house and leave me here. Thank you for escorting me, but I shall be fine on my own.’ She turned her face away from him, trying to stem the tide of anger that threatened to boil over into even stronger words. How dare he toy with her in this fashion? He’d never choose someone like her when he had all those beauties waiting indoors.
He didn’t leave, however. Instead, he came to sit on the bench beside her and put his hand on her arm. ‘What did I say? I didn’t mean to offend you.’ When she glanced at him, he was frowning, the twinkle gone from his blue eyes.
She moved away from his gentle hold and blinked back tears of humiliation. ‘Must I speak plainly?’
‘Very well. My mother should never have brought me here today. She knows my father will find me a husband, someone who will overlook my faults in exchange for a substantial dowry. I doubt you need one of those so there’s no reason for you to leg-shackle yourself to a freckle-faced redhead. You can have your pick of the county’s beauties.’ She nodded in the direction they’d come from. ‘So please, waste no more time on me.’
He tilted his head slightly to one side and looked at her. Really looked at her. Rose felt a blush creeping up her cheeks and wished he would just go away and stop tormenting her. That handsome face was doing strange things to her insides and she couldn’t stop herself from staring at his perfect mouth with longing. But it was madness. Such a man was not for her, she’d always known that, had resigned herself to a sensible choice. Or she’d thought she had until now.
‘You’re wrong, you know,’ he murmured.
‘When I look at you I don’t see a freckle-faced redhead, as you said. I see a lady with the most amazing hair I’ve ever laid eyes on – like a fiery sunset combined with molten copper – and a lovely face accentuated by a very few freckles. They do nothing but draw attention to a pretty little nose and a pair of emerald eyes a man could drown in. Are you sure you own a looking glass, Miss Parry?’
‘I … beg your pardon?’ Rose was stunned. Why was he saying these things? What could he possibly hope to gain? ‘If you’re thinking that dowry of mine sounded tempting, I do believe Miss Griffiths has one twice as large.’
Lord Cadell laughed. ‘I see I shall have to speak plainly as well. Are you in love with someone else?’
‘No, of course not! Why would you think that?’ Rose was confused.
‘Because you are doing your utmost to put me off courting you.’
‘Cour– … you can’t be serious?’
‘Oh, I assure you, I’ve never been more serious in my life. Your dowry doesn’t tempt me in the slightest, but you do. Your beauty may be different from the other girls’, but it is unique and appears to be coupled with sense. You are the only lady here today who hasn’t simpered at me, batted your eyelashes or tried in any way to attract my attention. That is refreshing and intriguing, believe me.’
Rose stared at him, trying to see if he was in earnest. The incredibly blue eyes stared right back and then he smiled, a smile that made her feel quite faint.
‘I can see it will take me a while to convince you,’ he said. ‘Just tell me one thing – do you find me repulsive?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ The words were out of Rose’s mouth before she could stop them. ‘I-I mean … I’m sure you are very aware of your charms.’ If he was fishing for compliments, he wouldn’t get them from her.
He laughed again. ‘Well, there’s no accounting for taste, I understand.’
She frowned up at him. Had he heard her mother earlier? His smile told her he had. ‘My mother didn’t mean …’
‘Your mother will need to learn some tact, but I shall inform her she was right in this instance – I find I do like redheads. Or rather, one particular one. And perhaps this will convince you of my ardent regard?’ He leaned over and kissed her, softly placing his lips on hers while gazing into her eyes.
Rose couldn’t look away, nor could she leave. Her lips moved of their own accord, melding with his, and a tingling awareness spread right through her. When she opened her mouth to gasp in surprise, he deepened the kiss and it was some time before she became aware of her surroundings again. ‘My lord!’ she protested, knowing he shouldn’t have taken such liberties. But it sounded feeble even to her own ears and he grinned as if he knew she didn’t mean it.
To her surprise, he got down on one knee in front of her and brought something out of his pocket. He held out a sparkling emerald ring on the palm of his hand. ‘Miss Parry – Rose – would you do me the honour of becoming my wife? That kiss confirmed what I already guessed – we are eminently suited to each other in every way.’
‘But … we only met an hour ago.’ Rose looked from him to the ring and back again.
‘It only takes a moment to fall in love and I am sure I have found my perfect rose today among the thorns.’
Feeling dazed, but happier than she’d ever thought possible, Rose held out her hand. ‘I do believe you’re right – it only took one look in my case, so yes, I will. If you’re sure?’
He slipped the ring onto her finger. ‘I am.’ And then he kissed her again to prove it.
If you enjoyed Christina’s writing, why not give her new time-slip book, The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight a read? Click HERE for buying options.
For more information of Christina, follow her on Twitter @PiaCCourtenay