The Duke and Duchess of Carrick had watched as Captain Blackheart had swept up Lady Katherine and swept her away into the study. After a moment, Elliot had stalked after them leaving the Duke and Duchess of Carrick to sweep in behind, effectively blocking the view of onlookers. When they reached the open doors, they grasped the handles in carefully choreographed unison and shut them firmly behind the quartet before locking them in and turned back to face the ballroom. With a quick nod and a wave of his hand, the Duke signaled to the orchestra to resume the music and the baffled onlookers, not wanting to offend a peer of the realm, went back to dancing and talking, as if nothing untoward had occurred.
“Well, that seemed to go very well.” The Duke, seeming quite pleased with playing his part, grinned at his wife before taking her hand and pressing a kiss. The Duchess pulled her hand away.
“Don’t count your chickens, Carrick. You know that if anyone can possibly ruin the outcome tonight, it would be your sons. They are both quite charmingly hopeless.” Glancing about the room, she smiled at the revelers in an encouraging way. Enticing them to continue with their fun and ignore the fact that four young people had just disappeared, unchaperoned, under dubious circumstances.
“Those young ladies are well-matched with your errant sons, m’dear. I think this will all go very well.”
“Carrick, you are ever the optimist. As much as I like Miss Steele, I fear that Christian has underestimated his opponent. As to Lady Katherine. We both know that she is not the problem.” She smiled fleetingly at Lady Montford as she waddled past, effectively dismissing the tiresome old biddy’s unwelcome approach.
“Would you care to wager?” Her Grace raised an eyebrow as her husband continued, “four gold sovereigns that there will be grandchildren on their way by Mistlemas.”
Her Grace laughed. “Grandchildren! Oh, I should like to take that wager, and I would gladly lose.”
“What happens now?” The Duke snatched up a glass of champagne from a passing footman.
“We hope that Sir Raymond remembers his lines.”
As the words left Ana’s lips, they both heard a loud voice shout up from the gardens.
“What the devil is going on?” At the sound, Ana jumped away from Captain Blackheart, her skin flushing with heat. What was going on indeed? “Unhand my daughter!”
Ana swallowed before Sir Raymond Steele emerged from the shadows looking for the world like he was ready to throw down a glove.
“Papa,” Ana fought to bring her breathing under control. “May I present…”
“I know who this blackguard is, gel. I want to know what he thinks he is doing, pawing my daughter in the gardens of Carrick House?”
“But Papa…” Ana would have felt dangerously out of control except for the fact that this would not be the first time her father had rescued her from the attentions of an unwanted suitor.
“Don’t ‘Papa’ me, gel.” Ana imagined that even in the dim light, she could see Sir Raymond’s face was reddening.
“Father, think of your heart.” As if on signal, Sir Raymond’s hand slipped to his chest. Ana knew, with a certainty based on historical precedent, that now her father would feign an apoplexy that would allow her to claim that she could never leave her dear Papa’s side. This show of solidarity would result in the suitor being excused to fetch water, thus giving them the opportunity to sneak off into the night in his absence. If an approach was later made to apply for her hand, her father would claim that he had no memory of the event and that the young scallywag could rest assured that it was all a mistake and they would not be required to do the proper thing by his daughter.
So she stepped back a little and waited. And waited. Only, to Ana’s surprise the hand did not so much clutch at his heart but rather, it grasped at the lapel as if in readiness to deliver a speech to parliament. Sir Raymond rose up and down on the balls of his feet, as if sizing up an opponent. And instead of the opponent being the Captain, he appeared to be weighing his next words to her.
“There is nothing wrong with my heart, young lady. This rogue has compromised your reputation and I wish to know his intentions.” Ana watched in abject horror as her father ascended the stairs to the balcony and stood nose to chin with the Captain. The Captain looked over his head at her and gave a calculated smile.
“I have no intentions. Your daughter dragged me out here and was asking me to run away with her. It seems as if she has compromised my reputation, Sir.”
Ana gasped. The cad! How dare he? Except that, she had, hadn’t she? Oh, goodness. A guilty flush crept up Ana’s decolletage and over her cheeks and she was eternally grateful that they were standing in the shadows.
“What the blazes?” Sir Raymond took an angry step toward the Captain, looking for the world as if he would like to tear him limb from limb. Ana glanced from one man to the other and noted, with some annoyance, the smirk on Captain Blackheart’s face. This really was no way to win friends and influence people. It was her father’s face that caused her the most concern though.
“The Captain and I were discussing a business venture, Father.” The Captain’s eyebrow quirked.
“Were we indeed?” Well, really! The last thing she needed was for Captain Blackheart to nay say her. How dare he? “If your business involved running away together, I suppose we were.”
“You are insufferable.” Ana resisted the temptation to stamp her foot. If only because she was fairly sure her delicate slipper was no match for his leather boots. “I was about to offer you funds.”
“I’m not for sale, Madam, for you or any woman. I’m not that sort of man.” Ana was quite sure that steam was indeed coming from her ears. Sir Raymond appeared to choke a little before giving the Captain a warning glance that Ana, in her anger, failed to notice. “Perhaps, I should insist on your daughter doing the right thing by my reputation.”
“Do not be flippant, Sir. You have been caught in a compromising position by half the ton and you will tell me now, Sir, what you will do to rectify the situation?”
“Half the ton? Father, there is only you and he and me. That hardly constitutes a crisis of state.” Ana was furious with her father. They had an agreement that he would never put her in this situation. Of course, she had never really been in this situation of her own volition before. In the past, they had always known that young men of dubious motives, were often intent on entrapment that had nothing to do with her desires for matrimony. She couldn’t debate that in this particular instance, she had indeed chosen to be on a secluded balcony, in the dark, with a man but her motives were clear. Surely, her father would hear her plea.
“I say, Sir Raymond. Is that you?” Ana groaned inwardly. As if on cue, the Duke and Duchess of Carrick, accompanied by Lady Mia, strolled into the dim light on the garden path. Her Grace’s voice was crisp and clear and Ana’s worst nightmare, as it rang through the gloom.
“Your Graces.” Sir Raymond and the Captain effected bows and Ana nervously and somewhat belatedly, executed a rather awkward curtsy.
“I am sorry to report, Your Grace, that I have found my daughter with this nefarious gent, in flagrante.” Sir Raymond’s angry tone made his position clear. He was about to sell her out. To a pirate! Had the man taken leave of his senses? She looked around nervously for Kate, hoping that her friend would save her.
“Oh, my! Well, that will never do.” Her Grace’s worry was touching. Ana felt hopeful for an ally. Then she caught the look on the woman’s face and knew her fate was set. “It would seem that the right thing needs to be done. What say you, Christian?”
“Christian?” Ana apparently had taken up mimicking codfish. She turned to Captain Blackheart, who was reaching up to remove his mask.
“Yes, my dear. This is my son’s little idea of a joke. He would normally never attend an event like this for longer than a few minutes. I’m afraid I put my foot down and he tried to call my bluff by saying that the only way he would attend for longer would be if he was permitted to dress as that notorious pirate, Captain Blackheart. So I said yes. The desperation of a mother, you see, to have her sons attend her. If I had known the evening would turn out like this…”
Ana’s mind reeled at the Duchess’ little speech. Christian pretended to be Blackheart? Good heavens.
“Your Grace, I am sure that there is no need to take this any further than this little group. You are all family, after all, and no harm was done.” Ana knew that the plaintive tone of her voice was probably not convincing anyone. She did, however, feel quite desperate, that this was all about to end in tears and servitude. Marriage to Captain Christian Grey was untenable. He did not love her any more than she loved him and marriage for anything less than love was unthinkable.
Then her Grace looked over Ana’s shoulder to the end of the balcony, where a crowd had suddenly gathered and were watching, with Kate and Elliot in the lead. A look of confusion and solidarity passed between Kate and Ana. However, any hope that her friend was about to rescue her was completely lost when Lord and Lady Lincoln emerged from a door between Ana and the small crowd. Lady Lincoln sneered a smile, her face a mask of disdain but her eyes shrouded in thunder.
“It does rather look as though our fates are sealed, my dear.” Christian, sans mask, but looking all the more like a cat who had stolen the cream, smiled reassuringly down at her. In that moment, Ana knew in her heart that he had engineered this whole scene. His motives were unclear to her but since they did not love each other, and she had no money or station in life to offer him, she could only think that this was some sort of insufferable restitution for his injured male pride as a result of her refusal of his impulsive proposal. She looked incredulously at the hopeful faces of her father and Christian’s parents, Lady Mia’s amusement, Kate horrified shock, Lord Elliot’s pleased smile. Then she glanced at the shocked and disdainful faces of the assembled crowd, before swallowing down a little whimper of hopelessness. Her lip sneaked beneath her teeth, and she felt the moisture of one hot, angry tear as it rolled down her cheek.
Raising her head to look Christian in the eye, she hissed under her breath, “I will never forgive you for this.”
The Duke being who he was, was able to secure a marriage license within a week and Ana and Christian were married in the small chapel at Bellevue Manor, the seat of the Duchy. They had barely set eyes on each other in the days leading up to the wedding, Ana refusing to see anyone except her mother. Lady Caroline Steele, was of course, in her element as she fluffed and preened, telling and untelling Ana what a spectacular match she had made. Ana not being prepared to forgive anyone for what had transpired, least of all herself, felt compelled to endure her mother’s endless activity and invasive attention as penance for her ill-conceived decision to seize the moment to barter a deal with the man she believed to be Captain Blackheart.
“You know, the Duchess really is a saint. That boy was the child of an actress, you know. An actress! On the stage! Everyone knew she was the Duke of Carrick’s mistress. Ella du Thierry. French, if you please. Rumour has it she was a spy. Of course, his father encouraged it. Yes, the old Duke was a reprobate if ever there was one. The story goes that he had a liaison with Ella first and then passed her down to the current Duke along with the title. Never heard of such a thing. Fancy writing a mistress into the will. Just goes to show that money and title doesn’t always buy class. The actress contracted consumption when the Captain was merely a baby and she made the Duke promise to take care of her son. Their son, she said, although there is no proof that he is the Duke’s. That lad has well and truly fallen on his feet. Her Grace claimed him as her own from the start and refused to let anyone say different. That woman is a saint. A saint, I tell you. Of course, it doesn’t change the fact that you are about to marry the bastard son of an actress. I don’t know how I shall keep my head up in society. Honestly, why you couldn’t have married that nice, Mr Hyde, when you had the chance. I wouldn’t be surprised if that Captain Grey doesn’t jump back aboard his ship and sail off to France leaving you alone at the alter. But Mr Hyde won’t ask you again. You’ve well and truly blown your chances there, my girl. It is a shame. Still it is lovely here at the Duke’s manor. Did you see all of those servants? And their livery? My goodness, a pretty penny has been spent there. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the Duke saw fit to bestow a little property and funds on the Steeles. He can’t possibly expect us to provide a dowry when they have so much. No, no, they should be like those heathens from the India’s and pay to take you off our hands. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be paid with a chicken and a camel but the gold. That could come in very handy. Now, turn around so I can sew the other side. We don’t want this to fall off you in front of the congregation. Goodness, imagine the gossip if that happened! Although, you’d think if they were prepared to claim Captain Grey as their child then they should be prepared to pay for a London Abbey wedding. Oooh, I do love the London Season. Of course, I haven’t been able to attend due to my poor health but I would have made the trip for that. Just to see the looks on all those jealous biddies faces when my little Ana marries a Duke. Well, the son of a Duke. The bastard son of a Duke. If that Lord Elliot Grey dies will the Captain inherit? No, no, I can’t imagine that. Such a disappointment. Anastasia, that colour looks lovely on you.”
All of this was accompanied by wistful pauses, wringing of hands and the odd stab of the needle into Ana’s fair skin. Ana felt fated to attend her wedding as sieve. She would have been exhausted if she bothered to listen to half of it. Instead, she was in a state of emotional shock, her mother’s buzzing a comforting background noise to the tumultuous thoughts that haunted her night and day. Somewhere in the buzz she was holding her own internal commentary.
I’m not sure the Duchess is a saint. A conspirator in my downfall, perhaps. Yes, actresses often act…and upon the stage, too. Perhaps I could run away and join the theatre. Or become a French spy. That sounds lovely. His father encouraged her to spy? Or to act? Oh, the mistress. Yes, well. If father wasn’t so exhausted by you, he might have taken a mistress, too. Perhaps he could do so now and contract a nasty disease of his own. Serve him right, the traitor. Women have always been chattels, mother. Why else would you be so willing to sell me off to the highest bidder? I’m not sure that having one’s mother die could really be called falling on one’s feet. Not if society kept up this level of gossip and speculation for the rest of your life. The proof of his parentage is in evidence whenever those Grey men stand together in a room. All of them strikingly handsome and so very similar in looks. You will never be accepted in society, Mother, because they are collectively terrified of you, as am I. Yes, Bellevue is lovely, soothing. I would happily go with a Bedouin tribe if it meant escaping this nightmare. Losing my gown in the chapel would complete my ritual humiliation perfectly. A small wedding is perfect, though. Less witnesses to my demise. The reason you don’t go to the Season is that no one will receive you, Mother. Father wishes to spare you the shame of rejection. Yes, he loves you that much. I have always wanted to know what it would be like to have a man to love me like that. Now I will never know.
Christian stood at the alter in the small family chapel and watched as Sir Raymond escorted his daughter down the short aisle. Those gathered grinned with great enthusiasm as the ceremony proceeded. For his part, he couldn’t take his eyes off the beautiful woman who stood before him. She was wondrously luminescent in her dove gray gown; lavender ribbons intricately woven in her dark hair. Her large blue eyes stared over the head of the vicar as she responded in quiet emotionless tones and Christian had the ominous feeling that she was like some wild mare whose spirit he had broken. He feigned ignorance, hoping that she might slip with a small smile or even a loose tear but there was nothing. The nausea loomed.
After hours of small talk at their wedding breakfast, they ascended his carriage and began the long ride south to his coastal property. Perhaps the sea air would brighten her mood. He didn’t hold out much hope. She wouldn’t speak to him. She hardly looked at him. In defense of his own heart, he sat huddled against the corner of the carriage and pretended to sleep. She was angry. She had every right to be. He just hadn’t expected her stay angry this long. He’d mistakenly asked her mother for assistance and then spent an hour hearing about childish tempers and a misspent youth that no mother should have to suffer. Lady Steele’s idea of misspent youth included the hours that Ana had apparently spent reading and being educated. He concluded that he and Lady Steele had very different views on a young lady’s education and vowed then and there that any daughter of their’s would require more influence of his mother than Ana’s. Then he supposed that Ana would not look favorably upon him if he suggested that her mother was anything other than stellar and made another vow to not ever tell her about his conclusions regarding their off-spring and respective parents.
When finally they had arrived at his estate, Ana had greeted the staff with humility and civility before ascending to their apartments. He hoped that she might receive him but the sight of the silent and emotionless Ana walking to the windows and staring out at the ocean convinced him it would be right and proper to wait. She simply needed time. Without discussion, he removed himself to the adjacent room and left her alone on their first night as a married couple in their own home.
Ana dismissed the maid and prepared herself for bed and slipped between the covers with a shiver to wait for her husband. When it became apparent that he was not coming she turned onto her side and cried herself to sleep.