Lady Emily Marlowe is beautiful, independent, and unspoiled. Deaf since childhood, she appreciates her family’s efforts to nurture her spirit, but the man they’ve chosen for her betrothal can never fulfill her. The only one Emily has ever desired is bold and reckless Lord Ashley Kendrick. Her childhood amour inspired her fantasies and vowed never to forget her—even as he left her for a new life in India and a new love.
Seven years and countless dreams later, Ashley has returned a desolate widower to Bowden Abbey and, true to his promise, to Emily. Yet his heedless proposal of marriage has left her unexpectedly conflicted. Though the heat of passion still burns, Emily fears that it’s only a sense of duty—not love—that has brought him to bended knee. And what is she to make of those seven lost years clouded in secrets too dark for Ashley to share?
For Emily, her greatest and only love now becomes one worth fighting for, one of startling revelations and second chances, and one, like a melody, too beautiful for words....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Of all my books, Silent Melody seems to be a reader favorite, mainly because of the heroine. She is a deaf-mute living in the eighteenth century, when there was no standard sign language and deaf people were often considered mad and consigned to insane asylums. Lady Emily Marlowe is fortunate enough to belong to a family that loves her and wants her, and she has taught herself to lip-read. However, most of her life is lived internally. I did not see her as a victim or as handicapped. I tried to show how richly her life is lived even though she cannot share that richness—until she meets Lord Ashley Kendrick.
When Emily and Ashley fall in love, he has much to offer her. Because she had hearing for the first few years of her life, he is able to teach her to speak. And he is able to protect her from all the dangers that threaten over the course of the story. But Emily has at least as much to offer Ashley. She teaches him that silence is rich and teeming with life and color and joy, and she teaches him that companionship and love do not need the medium of words.
Writing a love story without any real dialogue between the hero and heroine was incredibly challenging, but it was rewarding too. I am delighted that the book is being republished in this lovely edition so that it will be available again to those of you who have read it before as well as those of you who will be discovering it for the first time.
IT was hard to leave. But it was impossible to stay. He was leaving from choice because he was young and energetic and adventurous and had long wanted to carve a life of his own.
He was going to new possibilities, new dreams. But he was leaving behind places and people. And though, being young, he was sure he would see them all again someday, he knew too that many years might pass before he did so.
It was not easy to leave.
Lord Ashley Kendrick was the son of a duke. A younger son, and therefore a man who needed employment. But neither the army nor the church, the accepted professions for younger sons, had appealed to him, and so he had done nothing more useful with his twenty-three years than sow some wild oats and manage the estate of Bowden Abbey for his brother, Luke, Duke of Harndon, during the past few months. Business had always attracted him, but his father had forbidden him to involve himself with something he considered beneath the dignity of an aristocrat—even of a younger son. Luke felt differently. And so Ashley, with his brother’s reluctant blessing, was on his way to India, to take up his new post with the East India Company.
He was eager to go. Finally he was to be his own man, doing what he wanted to do, proving to himself that he could forge his own destiny. He could hardly wait to begin his new life, to be there in India, to be free of his dependence on his brother.
But it was hard to say good-bye. He did it the day before he left and begged everyone to let him go alone the following morning, to drive away from Bowden Abbey as if on a morning errand. He said good-bye to Luke; to Anna, Luke’s wife; to Joy, their infant daughter; to Emmy . . .
Ah, but he did not really say good-bye to Emmy. He sought her out and told her he was leaving the following day, it was true. But then he set his hands on her shoulders, smiled cheerfully at her, told her to be a good girl, and strode away before she could make any reply.
Not that Emmy could have replied verbally even if she had wanted to. She was a deaf-mute. She could read lips, but she had no way of communicating her thoughts except with those huge gray eyes of hers—and with certain facial expressions and gestures to which he had become sensitive during the year he had known her, plus others they had agreed upon as a sort of private, secret, if not entirely adequate language. She could not read or write. She was Anna’s sister and had come to Bowden soon after Anna’s marriage to Luke.
Emmy was a child. Though fifteen years old, her handicap and her wild sense of freedom—she rarely dressed or behaved like a gently born young lady—made Ashley think of her as a child. A precious child for whom he felt a deep affection and in whom he had been in the habit of confiding all his frustrations and dreams. A child who adored him. It was not conceit that had him thinking so. She spent every spare moment in his company, gazing at him or out through the window of the room in which he worked, listening to him with her wonderful, expressive eyes, following him about the estate. She was never a nuisance. His fondness for her was something he could not put satisfactorily into words.
He was afraid of Emmy’s eyes the day before his departure. He did not have the courage to say good-bye. So he merely said his piece and hurried away from her—just as if she were no more to him than a child for whom he felt only an indulgent affection.
He regretted his cowardice the following day. But he hated good-byes.
He got up early. He had been unable to sleep, his mind tossing with the excitement of what was ahead of him, his body eager to be on the way, his emotions torn between an impatience to be gone and a heaviness at leaving all that was familiar and dear behind him.
He got up early to take a last fond look at Bowden Abbey, his home since childhood. But not his, of course. It was true that he was heir to it all, that Luke and Anna’s firstborn had been a daughter. But they would have sons, he was sure. He hoped they would. Being heir was not important to him, much as he loved Bowden. He wanted his own life. He wanted to build his own fortune and choose his own home and follow his own dreams.
But he loved Bowden fiercely now that he was leaving it and did not know when he would see it again. If ever. He strode away behind the house, watching the early-morning dew soak his top boots, feeling the chill wind whip at his cloak and his three-cornered hat. He did not look back until he stood on top of a rise of land, from which he had a panoramic view down over the abbey and past it to the lawns and trees of the park stretching far in all directions.
Home. And England. He was going to miss both.
He descended the western side of the hill and strode toward the trees a short distance away and through them to the falls, the part of the river that spilled sharply downward over steep rocks before resuming its wide loop about the front of the house.
He had spent many hours of the past year at the falls, seeking solitude and peace. Seeking purpose. Seeking himself, perhaps. A little over a year ago, he had been in London. But Luke had returned from a long residence in Paris, rescued him from deep debts and a wild and aimless life of pleasure and debauchery, and ordered him to return to Bowden until he had decided what he wished to do with his life.
He climbed to the flat rock that jutted over the falls and stood looking down at the water as it rushed and bubbled over the rocks below. Emmy had spent many hours here with him. He smiled. He had once told her that she was a very good listener. It was true, even though she could not hear a word he said to her. She listened with her eyes and she comforted with her smiles and with her warm little hand in his.
Dear, sweet Emmy. He was going to miss her perhaps more than any of them. There was a strange ache about his heart at the thought of her, his little fawn, like a piece of wild, unspoiled nature. She rarely wore hoops beneath her dresses and almost never wore caps. Indeed, she did not often even dress her hair, but let it fall, blond and loose and wavy to her waist. Whenever she could get away with doing so, she went barefoot. He did not know how he would have survived the year without Emmy to talk to, without her sympathy and her happiness to soothe his wounded feelings. He had felt despised and rejected by Luke, his beloved brother, and his own sense of guilt had not helped reconcile him to what he had considered at the time to be unwarranted tyranny.
He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was time to return to the house. He would have breakfast while the carriage was brought around and his trunks were loaded, and then he would be on his way. He strode back through the trees in the direction of the house. He hoped everyone would honor the promise not to come down to see him on his way. He wished that he could just click his fingers and find himself on board ship, out of sight of English shores.
He wished there did not have to be the moment of leaving.
• • •
Ashley had told her yesterday that he was leaving today. It had not been unexpected. For weeks past he had been excited over the prospect of joining the East India Company and going to India. There had been a new light of purpose in his eye and a new spring in his step, and she knew that she had lost him. That he no longer needed her. Not that he ever avoided her or turned her away. Not that he stopped talking to her or smiling at her or allowing her to walk about the estate with him or to sit in his office while he worked. Not that he stopped holding her hand as they walked or stopped calling her his little fawn. Not that any of the affection had gone out of his manner.
But he was going away. He was going to a new life, one that he craved. One that he needed. She was glad for him. She was genuinely glad. Yes, she was. Oh, yes, she was.
Lady Emily Marlowe curled up on the window seat in her room and gazed out on a gray and gloomy morning. She tried to draw peace from the sight of the trees and lawns. She tried to let them soothe her aching heart.
Her breaking heart.
She did not want to see him today. She would not be able to bear seeing him actually leave. It would hurt just too much.
And yet instead of peace, the only feeling that would come to her was panic. Had he left yet? She could not see the driveway or the carriage house from her room. Perhaps even now the carriage was before the doors. Perhaps even now he was stepping inside after hugging Anna and Luke—would they have taken Joy down too for him to kiss? He would be looking about him for her. He would be disappointed that she was not there. Would he believe she did not care? Perhaps he was driving away—now. At this very minute.
It could well be that he would be gone forever.
It was possible she would never see him again. Ever.
She leapt up suddenly and dashed into her dressing room. She shoved her feet into a pair of shoes and grabbed the first cloak that came to hand—her red one. She flung it about her shoulders and rushed from the room and down the stairs. Was she in time? She felt that she would die if she was not.
Ashley. Oh, Ashley.
There was only one footman in the hall. And a mound of boxes and trunks by the doors, which stood open. There was no carriage outside.
Emily sagged with relief. She was not too late. Ashley must be at breakfast. She took a few steps in the direction of the breakfast parlor, and the footman hurried ahead of her to open the doors. But she stopped again. No. She could not after all see him face-to-face. She would shame herself. She would cry. She would make him uncomfortable and unhappy. And she would see the pity in Anna’s and Luke’s eyes.
She ran outside and down the steps onto the upper terrace and on to the formal gardens. She ran fleet-footed through three tiers of the gardens and then down the long sloping lawn to the two-arched stone bridge over the river. She ran across the bridge and among the old trees that lined and shaded the driveway for its full winding length to the stone gateposts and the village beyond. But she did not run all the way to the village. She stopped halfway down the drive, gasping for breath.
She stood with her back against the broad trunk of an old oak and waited. She would see his carriage as it passed. She would say her own private good-bye. She would not see him, she realized. Only his carriage. He would not see her. He would not know that she had come to say good-bye. But it was just as well. Fond as he was of her, to him she was just a type of younger sister to be indulged.
She could remember her first meeting with him, the day she arrived at Bowden Abbey to live with Anna, feeling strange and bewildered. She had instantly liked Luke, though she had learned later that her sister Agnes was terrified of his elegant appearance and formal manners. But he had been kind to her and he had spoken with her as if she were a real person who had ears that could hear. And incredibly she had understood most of what he said—he moved his lips decisively as he spoke and he kept his face full toward her. So many people forgot to do that. But she had felt uncomfortable during tea in the drawing room until Ashley had arrived late and demanded an introduction. And then he had bowed to her and smiled and spoken.
“As I live,” he had said, “a beauty in the making. Your servant, madam.” She had seen every word.
Tall, handsome, charming Ashley. He had gone to sit beside his sister, Doris, and had proceeded to converse with her after winking at Emily. He had taken her heart with him. It was as simple as that. She had adored him from that moment as she had adored no one else in her life, even Anna.
Ashley had a loving heart. He loved Luke, even though they had been close to estrangement for almost a year. He loved his mother and his sister, who were now in London, and he loved Anna and Joy. He loved her too. But no more intensely than he loved the others. She was Emmy, his little fawn. She was just a child to him. He did not know that she was a woman.
He would forget her in a month.
No, she did not believe that. There was nothing shallow in Ashley’s love. He would remember her fondly—as he would remember the rest of his family.
She would hold him in her heart—deep in her heart—for the rest of her life. He was all of life to her. He was everything. Life would be empty without Ashley. Meaningless. She loved him with all the passion and all the intense fidelity of her fifteen-year-old heart. She did not love him as a child loves, but as a woman loves the companion of her soul.
Perhaps more intensely than most women loved. There was so little else except the sight of the world around her with which to fill her mind and her heart. She had somehow made a life of her own dreams before meeting Ashley. It had not always been easy. There had been frustrations, even tantrums when she was younger—when perhaps she had remembered enough of sound to be terrified by its absence. She had no conscious memories of sound since it had been shut off quite totally after the dangerous fever she had barely survived before her fourth birthday. Just some fleeting hints, yearnings. She did not know quite what they were. They always just eluded her grasp.
Ashley had become her dream. He had given her days meaning and her nights fond imaginings. She did not know what would be left to her when the dream was taken away—today, this morning.
She was beginning to think that she must have missed him after all. Perhaps he had gone ahead and his luggage was to follow later. She was almost numb with the cold. The wind whipped and bit at her. But finally she heard the carriage approach. Not that she could hear it in the accepted sense of the word—she often wondered what sound must have been like. But she felt the vibrations of an approaching carriage. She pressed herself back against the tree while grief hit her low in the stomach like a leaden weight. He was leaving forever and all she would see was Luke’s carriage, which was taking him to London.
Panic grabbed her like a vise as the carriage came into sight, and despite herself she leaned slightly forward, desperate for one last glimpse of him.
She saw nothing except the carriage rolling on past. She moaned incoherently.
But then it slowed and came to a full stop. And the door nearest her was flung open from the inside.
• • •
There had been a feeling of mingled sadness and relief as the carriage lurched into motion, drew away from the house, and turned at the end of the cobbled terrace to take the sloping path beside the formal gardens and past the long lawn to the bridge.
He was on his way. Soon now he would be beyond the park, beyond the village, and leaving Bowden land behind him. He could look ahead with pleasure and excitement. Ashley set his head back against the comfortable upholstery of his brother’s carriage and closed his eyes with a sigh of relief. It had been easier than he had expected.
But he did not keep his eyes closed. When he heard the rumble of the bridge beneath the carriage wheels, he opened them again for one backward glance at the house. He looked at the trees of the driveway and beyond. He could see a small group of deer grazing peacefully off to his left.
And a slight flutter of red.
It caught his eye when the carriage was already on a level with it and for a moment he could not identify it. But then he knew.
He leaned forward without thought and rapped sharply on the front panel for the coachman to stop. Almost before the carriage had come to a complete standstill, he flung open the door and jumped down onto the driveway. He looked back.
Ah. He had not been mistaken. And only now when it was too late did he realize that it might have been better if he had kept on going. He was not going to escape painful good-byes entirely after all.
She was standing against a tree trunk, holding it with both hands behind her as if she feared falling. Her face was all eyes and ashen paleness despite the slight color the wind had whipped into her cheeks. He walked toward her slowly and came to a stop only when he was a few inches in front of her. He felt guilty. He was off on an adventure, off to begin his adult life. All of the world, all of life were ahead of him. But Emmy, his close companion for almost a year, was to be left behind to—to what? What would life hold for a child who would grow into a woman who could not always understand others or communicate with them?
“Little fawn,” he said softly. He clasped his arms together and shivered. You must be cold, he told her in one of their private signs—as if physical comfort was of any significance at this moment.
She made no reply. Her eyes gazed back into his—and filled with tears.
He leaned forward until his body pinned her against the tree. He wished—Lord, but he wished he had not noticed the flapping of her red cloak. What could he say to her in either words or gestures? He knew she was desperately unhappy, and her unhappiness clouded the exhilaration he had been feeling. He tilted back his head and closed his eyes. He clenched his hands tightly at his sides. He should have done this properly yesterday instead of just telling her cheerfully to be a good girl.
When he raised his head and opened his eyes, he found that she was looking at him. Her face was only inches from his own.
There were no words. And no gestures, except one, which was no part of their private language. There was only one way to say good-bye.
Her lips were cool, soft, and motionless beneath his. She had been chilled by her wait for his carriage. He warmed them with his own, softly and gently. He warmed them until they pushed back against his, and he realized in sudden shock that what they were sharing was undoubtedly a kiss.
A kiss, not of a brother and sister, but of a man and woman. Her body against his, he noticed now that he had been alerted, was slim, coltlike, soft with budding womanhood.
He felt a flush of heat, a rush of tightness to his groin.
He lifted his head, feeling disoriented. She was Emmy. She was a child who needed comforting. She needed some sign of affection from him, something to wrap about herself until she had grown accustomed to his absence. She certainly did not need . . . He framed her face with gentle hands, keeping one still while the other smoothed back her windblown hair.
“I will be back, little fawn,” he said softly but distinctly, as he always spoke to her, noting that the tears had gone so that she was able to read his lips. “I will be back to teach you to read and write and to teach you a more complete language you can use—not just with me but with everyone. One day, Emmy. But by that time you will have found other friends to love, other friends who will love you and learn to find meaning in your silence. You must not mind my going too deeply, you know. I am a careless sort of fellow. There will be others far more worthy of your affection.” He smiled gently at her.
She gazed at him in such a way that he was given the impression that her whole soul gazed out at him. Her right hand, clenched loosely into a fist, lifted and pulsed lightly over her heart. I feel deeply. I am serious. My heart is full. It was a gesture he used sometimes when talking, a sign that he was speaking the deep emotions of the heart. It was a gesture she had picked up from him and added to their all-too-inadequate language. He wondered if the gesture was involuntary at this particular moment.
“Ah,” he said. “I know, Emmy. I know. I’ll be back. I’ll not forget you. I’ll carry you here.” He stepped back from her at last and touched a hand to his own heart.
And then he turned and strode back to the carriage. He vaulted inside, shut the door firmly behind him, and sat back as the vehicle lurched into motion. He blew out his breath from puffed cheeks.
Emmy. His dear little fawn. Sweet child.
He tried to convince himself that that was how he had seen her, how he had treated her right to the end. He had put his body against hers and his lips to hers in an almost instinctive gesture of comfort. Brother to sister, uncle to niece, man to child. But he was uncomfortably aware that his chosen method of giving comfort had been unwise and inappropriate to the occasion. He had discovered a body and a mouth that would very soon belong to a woman.
He did not want Emmy to be a woman—foolish thought. He wanted her always to be that wild and happy child who had brought him peace when his life had been in turmoil. He wanted to remember her as a child.
He was ashamed of himself for reacting to her for one startled moment as a male. He loved her. But not as a man loves a woman. The feelings he had for her were quite unique in his experience. He loved no one else as he loved Emmy. He wished—ah, he wished he had not sullied his feelings for her by reacting to her physical closeness as a man reacts to a woman. He would not remember her so. He would remember her standing on the rock above the falls, her skirts loose about her legs and short enough to reveal bare ankles and feet, her blond hair in a wild tangled mane down her back, her lips smiling, her lovely eyes telling him that, incredible as it might seem, she had found peace and harmony in her silent world.
The village was already behind him, he noticed. He was well on his way. His future had already begun. His thoughts turned ahead to India and his new life. What would it be like? How well would he meet the challenge? He could feel the exhilaration of youth and the thirst for adventure humming in his veins.
• • •
Emily stood where she was for many long minutes after she had felt the vibrations of the carriage moving off again. Her head was back against the tree trunk. Her eyes were closed. And then she pushed herself away from the tree and began to run recklessly, heedlessly, through the woods, over the bridge, in among the trees again, faster and faster, as if all the fiends of hell were at her heels.
She stopped only when she came to the falls and had bounded up the rocks beside them so that she could cast herself facedown on the flat rock that jutted out over the water. She buried her face on her arms and wept until her chest was sore from the weeping and there were neither tears nor energy left.
Behind her closed eyes she could see him as he had appeared when he vaulted out of the carriage, before she had been blinded by tears, tall and slender and handsome, his long dark hair tied back with a black silk ribbon and unpowdered as usual. He had been elegant in cloak, frock coat, waistcoat, and breeches. But elegant in his own almost careless manner—quite unlike Luke, with his Parisian splendor.
She lay on the cold rock beside the falls, spent and passive, for hours until at last she felt a hand on her shoulder. She had neither seen nor sensed anyone coming, but she was not surprised. She turned her head to see Luke sitting beside her, his eyes intent and sympathetic on her. She set her face back against her arms while his hand patted her shoulder.
There was nothing left to live for. Ashley had gone. Perhaps forever. Taking her heart, her very life with him.
And yet there was Anna, her eldest sister, who had been more of a mother to her than anyone else in her life. And there were her brother, Victor, the Earl of Royce—and Charlotte, her sister, though both lived far away with their spouses. And Agnes, Lady Severidge, the sister next in age to herself, who would be living close by at Wycherly Park after she returned from her wedding trip. There was Joy, her niece, on whom she doted. And there was Luke.
She loved Luke dearly. He loved Anna and Joy, and Anna loved him. Emily would love anyone who loved Anna. And he was Ashley’s brother, though he was not as tall as Ashley, nor was his face as good-humored or quite as handsome—at least not to Emily’s partial eyes. But he was Ashley’s brother.
When he turned her finally and lifted her onto his lap and cradled her just as if she were a child, she cuddled against him, trying to draw comfort from him. He too must have hated seeing Ashley leave this morning. Ashley had used to say that Luke was cold and did not care for him. But she knew that it had never been true. Luke was neither cold nor unloving.
Luke had made it possible for Ashley to find purpose in life. He had arranged for Ashley to join the East India Company. And he had given her a home here with Anna instead of forcing her to live with Victor and Constance, who felt awkward with her silence even though they loved her well enough.
She felt some warmth creep back into her body as Luke murmured comforting words to her. She could tell he was doing so by the vibrations of his chest.
She loved Luke. She loved her family. But it was going to be very difficult to live on. Ashley had found purpose in life. How was she to find purpose in hers? Could it have meaning without Ashley?
But she knew, emerging as she was now from the blackest depths of despair, that she must live on and that she must do so without him. For he would not come back. She knew that. He might return at some distant time in the future. But the Ashley she knew and loved would change. And she would change.
She would change. She would grow up into the womanhood that was already changing her both physically and emotionally. And she would learn to live without him. She would not mope and pine her life away for what could not be had.
Ashley could not be had. He loved her, but she was not in any way central to his very being. He would soon consign her to nothing more important than a fond memory. She knew that. She had no illusions about what she meant to him.
She would grow up without him. She would live without him. No one would ever know how much he would always be a part of her. She would live as if her heart had not broken from love for him—although it had.
She would always love him, but from this moment on she would take her life back and live it as fully as she had before she set eyes on Ashley a year ago—and all else had faded into insignificance. And it had been a full life, even if it had necessarily been an almost totally solitary one.
Even at its darkest moment, life was a precious gift.
“FAITH, child,” Lady Sterne said, “but you are as lovely as all your sisters put together. With no offense meant to the two who are present.” She laughed, clasped her hands to her bosom, and let her eyes sweep once more over the young lady who stood in the middle of the dressing room.
“Oh, but she really is,” Lady Severidge said generously. “She really is beautiful.” At the age of six-and-twenty, seven years and two children after her marriage, Agnes was still pretty, though she had grown almost plump.
“Of course she is as lovely as all of us put together,” Anna, Duchess of Harndon, said, smiling her bright, warm smile. “And lovelier even than that. Oh, Emmy, you look wonderful.” But in truth Anna herself looked equally lovely. Although she was well past her thirtieth year and had given birth to her fourth child only three months before, her face was still youthful and unlined, and her figure was again as trim as it had been before her marriage.
“You will be the belle of the ball tonight, as I live,” Lady Sterne said. She was in the dressing room only partly by right of the fact that she was Anna’s godmother. Although she was no blood relation, she had assumed the role of favored aunt to Anna’s sisters as well as to Anna herself. After all, she always reminded them, when a woman had no daughters of her own, then she simply had to adopt a few. “’Tis a pity you cannot dance, child. But no matter. Dancing merely makes a lady flush and sweat—and smell.”
“Aunt Marjorie!” Agnes said, shocked.
Lady Emily Marlowe’s eyes followed their lips for a while, but it was a weary business and she knew she had missed at least half of what had been said—as she always did in a conversation that involved more than one person. But no matter. She had caught the trend of the conversation, and it pleased her to for once be called beautiful—as other women were beautiful. She turned her head to steal another glance at herself in the pier glass of Anna’s dressing room. She scarcely recognized herself. She was dressed in pale green, her favorite color, but all else was unfamiliar. Her petticoat, with its three deep frills, was held away from her legs by large hoops. Her open gown was trimmed with wide, ruched, gold-embroidered robings from bosom to hem. Her stomacher, low at the bosom, was heavily embroidered with the same gold thread. The three lace frills that edged the sleeves of her chemise flared at the elbows below the sleeves of the gown. Her shoes were gold. Her hair—ah, it was her hair that looked most unfamiliar.
Anna’s maid had dressed her hair rather high in front, in the newest fashion, and curled and coiled at the back. In the glass Emily could see the frills of the frivolous lace cap that was pinned back there somewhere, its lace lappets floating down her back. Her hair was powdered white. It was the first time she had allowed anyone to do that to her.
Beneath the gown she could feel the unfamiliar and uncomfortable tightness of her stays.
At the grand age of two-and-twenty, she was about to attend her first real ball. Oh, she had occasionally—when Luke, Duke of Harndon, had insisted—attended local entertainments with her sister and brother-in-law, and there had sometimes been dancing, which she had sat and watched. And she had always been present at the occasional balls held here at Bowden Abbey, though usually she had watched unseen, looking down from the gallery. Dancing had always fascinated her.
She had always wanted, almost more than anything else in the world, to dance.
She could not dance. She was totally deaf. She could not hear the music. Though sometimes she imagined that once upon a time she must have heard it. She could not remember music—or any sounds at all—but there was a feeling, an inner conviction that music must be more beautiful, more soul-lovely than almost anything she had ever seen with her eyes.
Tonight she was to attend a ball, and everyone was behaving as if the whole occasion were in her honor. Almost as if this were her come-out. In reality the ball was in honor of Anna. There was always a ball at Bowden a few months after Anna’s confinements, following the christening of the baby. There had been balls after Joy’s birth seven years ago, and after George’s and James’s more recently. Now there was to be this one, following Harry’s birth. He needed to demonstrate to his neighbors, Emily had once seen Luke say as he bent over Anna’s hand and kissed her fingers, that his duchess was just as beautiful now as she had been three months before, nine months swollen with child.
“Lud,” Lady Sterne said now, taking Emily’s hands in her own and bringing both her eyes and her mind back from the glass, “but you have not heard a word we have said, child. I vow your head has been turned by your own beauty.”
Emily blushed. She wished Aunt Marjorie would speak more slowly.
“Luke will approve, Emmy,” Anna said with her warm smile, cupping Emily’s chin with one gentle hand and turning her head so that she would see the words.
That would be no small accomplishment. Although Luke loved her unconditionally, Emily knew, he also did not always approve of her. He paid her the compliment of treating her as if she had no handicap. He often pushed her into doing things she had no wish to do, assuring her briskly that she could do anything in the world she set her mind to doing, even if she must do it silently. He was unlike Anna in that way, and the two of them sometimes exchanged hot words over her. Anna felt that her sister should be allowed to live her life in her own way, even if doing so made her unsociable and totally unconventional. The implication, loving though it was, was that Emily could never be quite as other women were. Luke was more capable of bullying.
There had been the time when she was fifteen, for example, and he had decided that it was time she learned to read and write. And she had learned too—slowly, painfully, sometimes rebelliously, with Luke himself as her patient but implacable teacher. After the first week, he had banished Anna from the schoolroom and had never allowed her back in. Enough of foolish tears, he had told her. Emily had learned in order to prove something to him—and more important, to herself. She had had everything to prove to herself at that painful stage of her life.
She had proved that she could learn, as other girls could. But she had learned the severe limits to her world. Books revealed to her universes of experience and thought she had never suspected and would never properly understand. She was different—very different. On the other hand, there was in her intense relationship with the world close at hand something unique, she believed.
Luke’s approval, Emily thought now, smiling back at her eldest sister, was worth having. Sometimes she almost hated him, but always she loved him. He had been both father and brother to her during the almost eight years since she had come to live at Bowden.
“And Lord Powell will be enchanted,” Agnes said. “Oh, Emmy, he is such a very distinguished-looking gentleman. And he seems genuinely not to mind the fact of your affliction.”
Lord Powell liked to talk. He rather enjoyed the novelty of having a silent listener, Emily suspected. But indeed he was rather handsome and his manners were polished and charming. It was hardly a surprise, of course. Luke had chosen all of her suitors with meticulous care. All four of them had been eligible in every possible way. She had rejected the first three without making any effort whatsoever to become acquainted with them—or so Luke had claimed. He had regarded her with pursed lips and a look of mingled exasperation and amusement in his eyes after each had left.
“Emily,” he had said on one of those occasions, “if you would merely cultivate a different image while you are being courted, my dear. If you would only not do your best to appear before the flower of male, unmarried society as the witch of the woods.”
It was unfair, as she would have told him if she had had his advantage of a voice. She might have written it, but she never enjoyed holding such awkward conversations. It was unfair, because it was she who had rejected them, not they who had taken fright and left her. Besides, she did not look like a witch. But it did not matter.
And now Lord Powell was here, paying court to her. He had been here for five whole days. Luke had decided to invite him while other visitors were here for Harry’s christening and for the ball that would follow it. Perhaps, he had reasoned—Emily was well acquainted with his mind—the formality of the occasion would force his sister-in-law to stay in company and to behave in a more conventional manner than was usual with her.
And she had stayed in company and behaved herself and worn stays and hoops and shoes and curls and caps—though nothing as elaborate as tonight, it was true. But not just because of the house guests and the christening.
This time she had decided to allow herself to be courted.
“I vow ’twould be strange indeed if he did not come to the point tonight,” Lady Sterne said. “He will make you his offer, child, and Harndon will make the announcement before the night is over. But mercy on me, I almost forgot that Victor is here. ’Twill be Victor who will make the announcement—mark my words.”
Victor, the Earl of Royce, was Emily’s brother. He was here for the christening with Constance, his wife, and their child. So was Charlotte, Emily’s other sister, with the Reverend Jeremiah Hornsby, her husband, and their three children. Charlotte was in the nursery now, nursing the newest baby before attending the ball.
“Will you say yes, Emmy?” Agnes looked eagerly at her. “William says that Lord Powell has spoken privately with both Victor and his grace. It can mean only one thing. How splendid ’twill be to have a wedding in the family again. But would it be here or at Elm Court? Victor will want it at Elm Court, I do declare. How provoking of him. Will you say yes?”
There was a feeling of breathlessness and panic at seeing on the lips of her sister and Lady Sterne what she had really known already in her own heart. Lord Powell had come to court her—Luke had arranged it all on a visit to London. He had walked with her and sat with her and talked with her and had seemed pleased with her. She had not discouraged his attentions. Tonight there was to be a grand ball. And she had been fully aware of the private meeting this afternoon involving Lord Powell, Victor, and Luke. Everyone had been aware of it.
Tonight in all probability she was going to be called upon to make her final decision. Not that there was any decision still to be made. She had already decided to have him. She was going to be Lady Powell. She was going to marry and have a home of her own where she would be dependent upon no one. She was going to have children of her own. She was going to have a warm, cuddly baby like Harry to hold, but he would be all her own.
She was going to change—again. She was going to be more than just half respectable. She was going to be entirely so. Anna and Luke and all her other relatives were going to be proud of her.
But Anna was hugging her suddenly, as far as the combined widths of their hoops would allow. She let Emily see her lips before she spoke. “You are frightening her,” she said. “Emmy does not have to do anything she does not want to do. She is different, but very special. She belongs here. We love her. You must marry no one just because you think you ought, Emmy. You may stay here forever. I hope you will stay here. How would I live without you?”
Very well, Emily thought, watching her sister blink back bright tears. Anna had Luke, whom she loved dearly and who loved her with an equal intensity, and she had her four children, on whom they both doted. Emily had—no one. She belonged nowhere. It was true that her brother and sisters issued frequent invitations for her to come and stay and always urged her to remain indefinitely. And it was true that even Luke had explained to her—it was just before the appearance of the first suitor—that Bowden was her home as much as it was his and Anna’s and their children’s, that he was thinking of her lasting happiness, but only she could know where that happiness lay.
“You must never feel that I am urging marriage on you because I wish to be rid of you,” he had said, looking at her with keen eyes. “Even though your sister, my wife, has accused me of just that.” He had thrown a stern look at Anna, who had protested the introduction of a suitor. “I will present you with marriage possibilities, my dear, because I feel it is my duty to do so. You will decide if you want marriage and all it can bring with it or if you would prefer to remain with us here, as much a member of our family as Joy or George or James. Have I made myself clear, Emily? Madam?”
He had made both her and Anna reply.
“But Lord Powell is very handsome,” Agnes said now. “I do not know how you could resist him, Emmy. I could not if I were still young and unmarried and he paid me court, I declare.” She smiled kindly. But Agnes, who had had choices, had married the very plain and portly William, Lord Severidge, for love and had long ago settled into dull domestic felicity with him.
“And Lud,” Lady Sterne said, clapping her hands, “if we stand here for much longer, admiring the child and anticipating her betrothal, the ball will be over and Lord Powell will have gone home. And no one will have seen Emily in all her finery.”
“Come, Emmy.” Anna smiled and took her by the hand. “Tonight you will stand in the receiving line with Luke and me. And my nose will be severely out of joint because everyone will be looking at you and will not notice me at all.”
“Pshaw!” Lady Sterne said as she strode to the door to lead the way downstairs to the ballroom. “Harndon has eyes for no one but you, child. He never has had since he first laid ’em on you at just another such ball.”
Anna laughed as she slipped her arm through Emily’s, and Emily could see the happiness sparkling in her eyes. Emily herself fought bewilderment. There had been so much talk, most of which she had missed, though she had determinedly kept turning her head from one speaker to another, trying to concentrate. She often noticed the fact that other people did not find conversation wearying and did not seem to share her all-too-frequent urges to be alone and undistracted—it was just one more thing that set her apart . . .
She drew a few deep, steadying breaths. This evening was so far beyond anything in her past experience that her mind could contemplate it only as a complete and rather terrifying blank. She was dressed as formally and with as much glittering splendor as Anna. She was going to attend a full-scale ball. She was to stand in the receiving line, smiling and curtsying to all of Luke’s guests. And she was to receive the continued attentions of Lord Powell and possibly—probably!—his marriage proposal too. She was going to accept.
By the time she came back upstairs in several hours’ time, much would have changed in her life. Everything would have changed. She would be betrothed. As good as married.
There was something resembling panic in the thought.
Ashley. Ah, Ashley.
• • •
He had forgotten just how cold England was. He shivered and drew his cloak more closely around him. He sat in a darkened carriage, looking out on darkness—though the landscape was not pitch-black, it was true. There were moonlight and starlight to illuminate the way. Although the coachman had been reluctant, he had agreed to continue the journey after dark. The man had even commented on what a pleasant warm evening it was for late April.
Warm! He shivered again. He had had time to get used to the coldness during the long voyage home from India, of course, but somehow he had expected that he would be warm again once he reached land.
Perhaps, he thought, setting his head back against the cushions, he would never be warm again.
And yet Lord Ashley Kendrick still clung to the notion that there was warmth to be had. At Bowden. If he could but get there. For months he had been living for the moment that was now only an hour away, if that long. He must be almost on Bowden land already, he reasoned. The thought of Bowden had sustained him through all the months of his voyage, through calms and storms, through the sleepless nights.
Luke, he thought. If only he could reach his brother. Luke was a pillar of strength. And Anna. Sweet, warm Anna. And their children, three now. Joy would be seven, George five, and James three. Luke had been almost apologetic in his letter announcing the arrival of George, Marquess of Craydon, his heir to the dukedom. Ashley had been delighted, and even more so when he had read of the birth of James two years later. Luke was secure in his line. There could never be any question now of Ashley’s breathing down his neck.
He longed for Bowden and for Luke and Anna. Almost as if they could make all right for him. Almost as if he were not a man capable of ordering his own life and handling his own emotions and purging his own guilt. Almost as if there were warmth to be had. And peace.
Ashley rolled his head on the cushions as if to find a comfortable position for sleep. But he soon opened his eyes and stared out onto darkness. And inward into deeper darkness.
Peace! He had had the strange notion that it was to be found at Bowden. And only there. Now that he was approaching it—yes, he was sure now they were on Bowden land; they would pass through the village very soon—he stared at the truth. There was no peace to be had anywhere. Not even here. Why had he thought there was? What was it about Bowden that always brought with it the illusory idea of peace? As if it were a place unlike any other on earth. A place of escape, a refuge, a home, a belonging.
What was it about Bowden?
He had come back from India with the desperate idea that if he could but reach home all would be well again. Yet now, even before he had quite reached the house—the carriage was passing along the village street and slowing to make the turn between the massive stone gateposts onto the winding driveway through the park—he knew that he had deceived himself.
There was no home for him. No end to his journey. No end of the rainbow.
Even so he found himself leaning forward in his seat, eager for his first glimpse of the house as the carriage emerged from the trees to cross the bridge at the bottom of the long sloping lawn that led upward to the terraced formal gardens and the upper cobbled terrace and the house beyond.
But he sat back abruptly as the wheels of the carriage rumbled over the stone bridge.
Deuce take it, but they were entertaining. The house was lit up by what had to be a thousand candles. There were carriages outside the carriage house and stables.
Damnation, but what rotten bad fortune.
He should have stayed in London for a few days, he thought. He should have sent word ahead of him. Zounds, but they did not even know he had left India. They did not even know . . .
He set his head back against the cushions again and closed his eyes once more.
No, they did not even know.
• • •
“Well, my dear,” the Duke of Harndon said to his wife, their first duties in the receiving line with his mother and Emily at an end, their secondary duty of leading off the opening set of country dances about to begin, “you may as usual have the satisfaction of knowing yourself by far the loveliest lady at the ball. ’Tis almost shameful with Harry in the nursery for only three months and you already—ah, nine-and-twenty, is it?”
“For the fourth year in succession,” she said, laughing at him. “Luke, you have been shopping in Paris again. Your coat is such a splendid dark shade of blue, and there is so much embroidery on your waistcoat that you put my gown to shame.”
“Ah, but ’tis the woman inside the gown who dazzles the sight, madam,” he said.
She laughed again. “I am glad you remembered your fan,” she said. “It still scandalizes a few people.”
He fanned her face with it. “My cosmetics I have abandoned with the greatest reluctance, my dear,” he said, “in deference to country tastes. But a man must be allowed to retain some of his pride. Without a fan at a ball I would feel quite naked, by my life.”
“’Tis what comes of those ten years you spent in Paris,” she said. “Luke, what will Emmy do?”
“Emily,” he said, “is looking so fine that every other lady’s face, except yours, is tinged with green. And as I told her earlier, if she dressed thus all the time, I would by now be beating back all of His Majesty’s army and navy and the single portion of his civilian male subjects as well from my doors. Perhaps I should be thankful that she is more often the witch of the woods.”
“Oh, Luke,” she said reproachfully.
“If you must quarrel with me, madam,” he said, “let it be later. Much later, in your bedchamber. But I will not play fair, I would warn you.”
“Will she have him?” There was acute anxiety in her voice.
“She would be a fool if she did not,” he said. “Powell has everything to recommend him to a bride below the rank of princess, I believe—looks, breeding, wealth, mildness of manners. And he is remarkably eager to bring the matter to a point. There are Emily’s dowry and her connections to attract him, as well as his openly expressed determination to please his mother and do his duty by taking a wife and setting up his nursery. I believe too he is somewhat captivated by the prospect of a wife who will not prattle. There is the small question of love, of course, and experience has demonstrated to me that in reality it is no small matter at all. But I believe we can trust your sister to order her own destiny, my dear. There is nothing abject about Emily. One can only hope that Powell does not see her as someone who will be passive and biddable, poor man. The musicians and all our guests await my signal to start the ball. Shall I oblige them or would you prefer to indulge in a fit of the vapors?”
“No one else will understand Emmy as you and I do,” she said. “What if he does not like her when he learns more about her? As you say—”
“’Tis what marriage is all about, madam,” he said. “Have you not realized it? ’Tis about discovering unknown facets of the character and experience and tastes of one’s spouse and learning to adjust one’s life accordingly. ’Tis learning to hope that one’s spouse is doing the same thing. ’Tis something only the two persons concerned can deal with. Let us dance.” He looked toward the leader of the orchestra, raised his eyebrows, and lifted one finger.
The music began.
• • •
“Egad,” Theodore, Lord Quinn, Luke’s maternal uncle, said to Lady Sterne, his longtime friend and lover, “but the young gels grow lovelier with every passing year. As do the mature ones. That is a fine new hairdo, I warrant you, Marj, m’dear. Takes ten years off your age.”
“Mercy on me,” she said, “but that would make me more than ten years too young for you, Theo.”
He threw back his head and laughed heartily before speaking again. “So will she have him?” he asked.
The two of them were sitting rather than dancing the opening set, which they had agreed was somewhat too lively for their aging bones. They looked across the ballroom to where Lord Powell was seated on a sofa beside Emily, talking to her despite the loudness of the music and conversation.
“Do they not look splendid together?” she asked. “And her affliction really does not signify, Theo. The dear man likes to talk, and Emily is well able to listen with her eyes. I had no notion that she would dress up so fine, though she has looked well for the past number of days, I declare.”
“Zounds,” Lord Quinn said, “but it would be hard, Marj, to be tied to a woman who could not answer one back. One hopes that is not her chief attraction to the man. One has the notion that there is more to little Emily than receptive silence. But how is one to know what she is saying with those big eyes of hers?”
“My dear Anna has always worried about her,” Lady Sterne said, her eyes softening on the sight of her goddaughter dancing opposite her duke, her face smiling and animated. “She has always taken the full burden of her family on her own shoulders even though Royce is the head of the family. ’Twill be good for her to know that the last of her sisters is well settled. Anna can be finally and fully happy.”
Lord Quinn patted her hand, though he did not leave his own on hers. They were ever discreet in public. “And so can you, Marj,” he said. “Anna is like the daughter you never had. You love her to distraction. I might almost feel jealous.”
“But you do not.” She turned her head to smile at him.
“But I do not,” he agreed. “I am fond of the gel m’self, Marj, and of Luke too. He has always been my favorite nephy, though one is not supposed to have favorites.”
“Ah, look at them,” she said, returning her attention to Emily and Lord Powell across the room. “As I live, Theo, she is smiling at him and he is dazzled enough to move back six inches. ’Tis just like my Anna’s smile, I vow. If only they can be one half as happy as Anna and Harndon.”
Lord Quinn patted her hand again. “Leave love to take its course,” he said. “By suppertime he will have got up the courage to speak and she will have given him her answer with those eyes of hers and the announcement will have been made. Then our dear Anna will be happy, and you too. And hark ye, Marj, m’dear: ’Tis your happiness that concerns me more than all else.”
She smiled at him once more.
EMILY sat beside Lord Powell on the sofa and longed to dance. But no one had ever asked her to join a set, and she supposed that no one ever would. People had a strange notion of deafness. They assumed that because one could not hear, one could not really see either. More important, they did not seem to notice for themselves how much of sound came in vibrations that could be felt. Sound was not just a thing of the ears. It affected the whole body.
She could feel the rhythm of the dance. And she knew every step of every dance. She had watched with attentive longing for many years.
Lord Powell was telling her about his mother and about his younger brothers and sisters—a sure sign, she supposed, that he was moving closer to a declaration. There was a whole brood of them—his own word. Three of his six sisters were married, as was one of his three brothers. He had two nieces and a nephew already. He considered family, commitment to one’s home and one’s domestic duties, important. He had noticed how well Lady Emily was loved by her own nephews and nieces and how she loved to play with them. Children, he had observed, never needed words when they were able to see affection at work. And children almost never returned love that expressed itself only in words.
It was a compliment to the way she handled her deafness, Emily supposed. She smiled. Indeed, she had not stopped smiling since leaving Anna’s dressing room.
There was a great deal to smile about, though she felt the strain of having to watch a man’s lips when she longed to gaze about her, and even so missed many of the details about his family that he tried to share.
His eyebrows were dark and thick. A little too heavy for perfection of looks, perhaps, but they were the only small defect to an otherwise handsome appearance. His nose was well shaped if a little prominent. His eyes were dark and compelling. His hair, she supposed, was dark. She had not seen him without his carefully powdered wig, but thought his own hair must be short beneath. His teeth were good and only a little crooked—and not unattractively so.
She had noticed several of the other young ladies present gazing at him admiringly and glancing at her in envy. He was a handsome man, moderately tall and well formed. He dressed elegantly. Tonight he wore dark brown and gold.
“I am engaged for the second set with her grace,” he said, leaning toward her slightly as if to be heard above the noise that Emily could not hear, “and for the third with Lady Severidge. I have not engaged the supper dance with anyone, Lady Emily. Will you sit with me for that half hour? Perhaps after we have eaten, you will allow me to send a maid for your cloak and step out onto the terrace with me?”
Emily opened her fan. The room suddenly felt suffocatingly hot. She kept her eyes on Lord Powell’s lips. They were rather full lips, well shaped. He had spoken slowly and precisely, she guessed, so that she would know the final request was important to him.
“I observed earlier,” he said, almost as if he felt his invitation needed explanation, “that it is a fine spring evening.”
She nodded and smiled.
“Perhaps,” he said, “you will allow me to speak on a matter of some importance? When we are on the terrace, that is.”
She held her smile and nodded again.
“Splendid,” he said, and looked enormously relieved as he rushed on with an account of his youngest sister’s tyranny over her governess in the schoolroom. Emily could not understand most of what he said. She longed suddenly and illogically to be alone. Anywhere—alone. “I believe she would like you, Lady Emily. I believe you will—would like her.”
She liked him, Emily decided. Not just because she had determined to like him, but because he was a pleasant and earnest young man. She just wished he did not talk so much. Was silence so unnatural to those who could hear that they felt obliged to fill it without ceasing? But how could she dislike any man who loved his mother and his brothers and sisters? And who was willing to accept a wife who was handicapped—though she did wonder why. She wished she could ask him exactly why he wished to marry her. Did he think her beautiful? Did he like the fact that she was Victor’s sister, Luke’s sister-in-law? Did the mystery of her character intrigue him?
She looked down briefly at his hands. They were blunt-fingered, capable-looking hands. She imagined them touching her, touching her body—beneath her clothes. She imagined his mouth against hers, his body. Imagination forsook her after that. She was not really quite sure . . .
She looked up to find him telling her more about his sister—he had demanded that she apologize to the governess. He seemed to believe that because she could read lips she could understand everything he said. Would he be disappointed when he learned that she did not?
She had often wondered about physical love. Was it something that added a dimension to life? Or was it an intrusion, the ultimate invasion of privacy? By both necessity and inclination she had always been an excessively private person. She knew enough to understand that a husband would come right inside her body.
This man. Lord Powell. She did not yet know his first name, she realized.
On their wedding night she would have to allow him inside herself. Only so could she be a wife. Only so could she have the babies she wanted. Would it be wonderful, magical? Or would it be demeaning?
She knew sometimes during breakfast that Anna and Luke had loved the night before. They would be horrified if they knew that she knew, but she did. Perhaps it was the absence of one of her five senses that had sharpened the others. Certainly it was nothing very obvious. Just something about the softened look in Anna’s eyes, something in the slight droop of Luke’s eyelids. Or perhaps not anything even as overt as that. But whatever it was, it was something that told Emily that what they shared was more wonderful than anything she could yet imagine.
Perhaps she would know soon. Or perhaps she would be disappointed. Would it make all the difference, she wondered, that she did not love him, though she liked and respected him?
But there were other things to imagine. This man would become as familiar to her as her own image in the glass. He would be her companion for the rest of her life. Her friend, perhaps. She would live in his home. It would become hers, and his family would be hers. She would learn to run his household. Would she be able to do it? She had watched Anna run Bowden Abbey. She would have to write things down, she supposed. She would visit his tenants and his neighbors. She would not be able to allow herself to be daunted by the fact that she could not speak to any of them or even understand all that was spoken. Indeed, it was the exhilaration of the challenge that was one of the main inducements to her accepting the offer that was about to be made.
She would become like Anna. She would have a marriage like Anna’s. Or was she deluding herself? Was such a thing possible for her? But she would have a chance at happiness. At last. After so long. And she would be happy. She had learned through hard experience that the will was a powerful thing. She would will herself to be happy, and she would be.
“The set has ended,” Lord Powell was saying, bent slightly toward her again. “More is the pity, I vow. I shall dance each set until the supper dance, Lady Emily, but I shall look in envy at each gentleman who occupies this sofa with you.”
It was the closest he had come to a declaration of ardor, though Emily, sensitive to the language of the body, guessed that he spoke what he thought she expected him to say. She smiled at him.
But something was wrong. The music had stopped, of course. She had felt that even before Lord Powell had mentioned it. There was something else. She felt something almost like panic and looked over her shoulder to the doorway.
A man was standing there. No one else appeared to have noticed him yet. He was wearing a long dark cloak and was only just removing a three-cornered hat even though he must have entered the house downstairs and passed numerous footmen before climbing the two flights of stairs to the ballroom. He was tall and thin. Beneath his dark unpowdered hair, which was neatly curled at the sides and bagged in black silk behind, his face was thin and pale. Pale to the point of being haggard. His expression was dark, morose.
She did not recognize him with her eyes. Only with her heart. Her heart lurched and left pulses beating erratically in her throat and in her temples. It left her breathless and gasping for air. She got to her feet and turned and stood still, watching.
Lord Powell, everyone, everything, no longer existed.
Ashley was home.
• • •
It had been his intention as his carriage approached the house to avoid whatever entertainment was proceeding within—by the number of lights and carriages, it appeared that it must be nothing less than a ball. It had been his intention to have himself shown to a room—his old one, it was to be hoped—and to remain there until the morning. It certainly had not been his intention to make a grand, theatrical entrance.
But Cotes, his brother’s butler, was in the hall when he entered it, apparently giving some instructions to one of the footmen standing there. And Cotes had looked at first stiff with suspicion of the stranger who had arrived apparently ill-dressed for the occasion, then shocked as he recognized the new arrival, and then his usual dignified, impassive self. And Cotes informed him, when he asked, that there was indeed a grand ball in progress and that the occasion was the christening of his grace’s new son, Lord Harry Kendrick.
Ah, a new child. Another son. Ashley bowed his head and closed his eyes and swayed on his feet. One of the footmen had taken a step toward him, arm outstretched, by the time he opened his eyes. He held up a staying hand.
But he was close. So very close. Was he now to go to his room and shut himself inside and postpone everything until the morning?
“They are in the ballroom?” he asked.
“Yes, my lord,” Cotes said. “If your lordship would step into the salon, I shall fetch his grace myself.”
But Ashley turned as if he had not heard and made his way to the archway that led to the grand staircase. He would wait in no salon. He would retire to no bedchamber. Luke was close.
“My lord?” Cotes sounded surprised, even perhaps a trifle alarmed.
It was indeed a grand ball, considering the fact that it was taking place in the country, where most of the guests must have had to travel a long distance. The ballroom seemed filled with light and noise and laughter, with color and movement. Ashley stood in the doorway, unaware of the inappropriateness of his appearance, of his cloak and travel-creased clothes and top boots. He removed his hat, more from instinct than conscious thought. His eyes scanned the throng of people. He was unaware that a few of them were already beginning to look at him curiously. He was looking for only one person.
And then he saw him. A set of dances had just concluded, and he was bowing over the hand of his partner and raising it to his lips. Luke, looking as richly splendid and fashionable and elegant as he had looked on his return from Paris eight years ago. Luke, looking familiar and solid and dependable. Ashley stood very still.
Luke raised his head and looked toward the doorway. And raised his eyebrows in an unconsciously haughty expression characteristic of him. Ashley watched the expression become fixed and frozen on his face. Then Luke took a step toward him, stopped, frowned slightly, and came hurrying across the ballroom. He kept on coming, opening his arms when he was near, then closing them hard, like iron bands, about his brother. Ashley returned the embrace and closed his eyes very tightly.
“Good God!” Luke said after what felt to Ashley like minutes but was probably only seconds. “Dear Lord God. Ash!” His voice sounded dazed, shaken.
“Yes.” Ashley swallowed. He did not want to open his eyes.
But Luke ended the embrace and took a step back. He set his hands on Ashley’s shoulders. “By God, Ash, it really is you. What the devil?” He patted his brother’s shoulders as if to assure himself of the reality of his presence. “What the bloody devil?” Clearly he had forgotten his surroundings.
Ashley, facing into the ballroom, had become suddenly aware of them. Noise, or rather the surprising lack of noise considering the occasion and the largeness of the gathering, assaulted his ears. He was aware of people, of the very public nature of this reunion. He was aware of Anna, who came hurrying up behind Luke, looking scarcely a day older than when he had left and every bit as lovely, looking as sweet and as sunny as she had ever looked.
“Ashley,” she said, and Luke stood aside and she was in his arms. “Oh, Ashley, my dear, you are home.”
And then his mother was there, looking her usual composed, dignified self even though her eyes were wide with surprise. He had recovered some of his control and bowed formally over her hands and kissed her cheeks.
“Madam,” he said, “you are looking well.”
And then a lady in pink satin and silver lace was hurtling across the room and throwing herself into his arms, and he closed his eyes again briefly as he hugged his sister to himself.
“Ashley.” She said his name over and over again. “Oh, Ashley, you wretch. You have not written to any of us for over a year, so that we have been almost beside ourselves with worry. And all the time you have been coming home. How could you!”
Doris, Lady Weims, looked a vibrant and lovely woman rather than the pretty, sometimes petulant girl she had been when he left. She had married Andrew, the Earl of Weims, five years ago. They had two children.
But Luke was recovering control of both himself and the situation. He turned to face his guests in the ballroom and raised his arms, though the gesture was unnecessary. The attention of almost everyone was already focused upon the drama playing itself out in the doorway.
“My apologies for the delay in the festivities,” he said. “As you can see, Lord Ashley Kendrick has arrived home from India unexpectedly. You will pardon my family group for withdrawing for a few minutes? The music will resume as soon as the sets have formed.” He nodded to the leader of the orchestra.
“Ashley.” Anna had taken his arm and was leading him away from the ballroom. “Where have you left Lady Ashley—Alice? And Thomas? Are they downstairs? Or did you have Cotes or Mrs. Wynn show them to a room?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Silent Melody
“Don’t miss Silent Melody.”—Jo Beverley
“If you can read only one book this year, Silent Melody should be that one.” —*Romance Forever
“Intensely emotional…[a] stunning book from an author who consistently sets new standards in the genre.”—Old Book Barn Gazette
“Truly an enjoyable work.”—RegencyRomanceReviews.com
“Balogh brings a twist to her Georgian romance...wonderfully sensitive.”—Publishers Weekly
Further praise for Mary Balogh and her novels:
"Once you start a Mary Balogh book, you won’t be able to stop reading.” —New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Elizabeth Phillips
“A romance writer of mesmerizing intensity.”—New York Times bestselling author Mary Jo Putney
“Fulfilled all of my romantic fantasies.”—New York Times bestselling author Teresa Medeiros
“A superb author...reminiscent of Jane Austen.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“One of the best!”—New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn
"Mary Balogh sets the gold standard in historical romance."—New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz
"When it comes to historical romance, Mary Balogh is one of my favorites!"—New York Times bestselling author Eloisa James