A Fair Pretender [Kindle Compatible (MOBI)]
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by Janet Woods
Description: Graine Seaton impersonates Evelyn Adams because she wants to survive. Her new identity comes with a fortune, and betrothal to a man of letters. Graine doesn't count on falling in love with Saville Lamartine, the master of Rushford House, nor does she envisage opposing the slave trade from which her fortune came. When her pretence is exposed and her life is under threat, will Saville come to her rescue? Georgian Romance by Janet Woods; originally published by Robert Hale [UK]
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2004
Fictionwise Kindle eBookstore Release Date: August 2010
Available eBook Formats [Kindle Compatible (MOBI) - What's this?]: Kindle Compatible (MOBI) [304 KB]
Reading time: 225-315 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
Dorset England - Winter 1750
From now on I must respond only to being called Evelyn Adams.
So thought Graine Seaton as she straightened the skirt of her travelling gown. Her gloved fingers plucked at a lace handkerchief, which now bore the elaborately entwined and inexpertly embroidered initials of her late mistress in the corner.
Evelyn Adams' estate had already been sold, her wealth transferred and the nuptial agreements exchanged----and since Evelyn had drowned en-route from the West Indies when their ship had foundered, Graine had seized the opportunity to better her own lot in life by assuming her identity and marrying the English gentleman in her place.
Could she pull the deception off, she wondered?
Of course she could. She and Evelyn were similar in appearance, if not in size, with Evelyn being a good head taller and larger boned. Related as they were through their mutual father, their similarities were understandable, though Graine's hair and eyes were tawnier shades of brown.
Not that Evelyn Adams had known they were sisters. How could she when Graine's mother had stated in a letter that Seth Adams denied that he'd fathered a child on the wrong side of the blanket? All the parties concerned had died long before the convent nuns had secured her the position of companion to Evelyn.
Graine had not known of the connection herself then, for the sisters of the convent she'd grown up in hadn't seen fit to inform her. She only discovered the identity of her father in a letter left for her amongst her mother's few personal effects, and those had been handed to her long after she'd been hired.
The coincidence had hardly mattered to Graine. She'd been orphaned for too long to miss any ties that close family might furnish her with. She enjoyed her job as Evelyn's companion, and had grown to love her over the four years she'd been with her.
Her half-sister had been placed in the care of the ageing male guardian who also managed South Winds, the Adams's sugar plantation. Evelyn had not been quick-witted or beautiful, but she was generous natured, kind and pleasant. She'd been pleased to have the company of a girl six years her junior and had overlooked Graine's ineptitude, treating her more like the younger half-sister she was, rather than a hired companion.
'Be damned if I'd have agreed to wed John Lamartine sight unseen,' Graine had said to her.
To which Evelyn had shrugged. 'I'm twenty-six years old and the only offer I've had was from a sea captain with a reputation for cruelty and licentiousness. John Lamartine comes with impeccable references from an earl and an archbishop. Better to marry him than stay here as an old maid and grow sugar cane.' She shuddered. 'England will be such fun. I'll be able to go to balls and such and will try and find a suitable husband for you.'
'I refuse to marry anyone I do not love just to provide him with children,' she said, which ironically, was something that would now come to pass.
Evelyn's eyes had softened with longing. 'Most women have to. I should like a child or two to love. For whoever fathered them, the bond would be that of mother and child and they'd be close to my heart.'
And Evelyn would have made the best of mothers. Graine hoped she hadn't suffered too much as the sea had taken her life. Confined to the cabin with seasickness, she must have been trapped there when the ship foundered. Graine had been on deck, enjoying the buffeting wind and the slap and crack of the sails when the huge wave had born down on them.
Washed overboard, she'd thought the crushing weight of the water would prevent her from ever seeing the sky again. But it hadn't. The sea had spat her to the surface like a cork from a bottle. The ship was half submerged on its side some distance away, floating in a tangle of sails, spars and ropes. Then she lost sight of it.
Clinging to some debris she floated for several hours before being picked up by some of the crew in the ship's boat. Somehow, they'd made it back to the nearest port, where she'd been looked after by the ship's agent for a month before being placed aboard another ship.
The crew had mistakenly called her, Miss Adams, and it was that which had given her the idea of taking Evelyn's place.
But England had turned out to be colder than she'd expected, and the skies were as grey and heavy as convent oatmeal. Rain hissed and slanted against the carriage roof with unrelenting fury. She was tempted to turn around and go back home, but to what? At least she would have a roof over her head and food in her belly here.
She just hoped John Lamartine was not as cold-hearted as she'd heard the English were, and that he'd treat her with kindness rather than the condescension they were renown for in this cold land.
She went flying as the carriage hit a pothole and lurched to an abrupt halt, canting them sideways. The driver cursed as he hurtled from his seat to crash upon the ground, where he cried out in agony. The horses squealed and fretted.
Graine was out of the carriage in an instant, to gently soothe the matched pair of greys. Up to her calves in oozing mud, she led them out of the pothole and away from the driver, who was in danger of being trampled on. Luckily, the carriage wheel had not sprung.
She turned, sloshing back through the mud to administer aid to the driver. He was dazed. Blood trickled from a cut on his head, his arm hung awkwardly and his head was pulled to one side. His collarbone was broken, an injury she was familiar with after helping the nuns work in the charity hospital. Assisting him to the carriage, Graine fashioned a sling from her scarf to support his injury and staunched the blood flowing from his head with her handkerchief.
'How much further is it to Rushford House, Tom?' she asked him.
'A mile or so around the bend, Miss.' Although he was shaking with shock, the coachman looked concerned. 'It's not long until dusk. As soon as I feel better I'll try and go for help.'
'You'll do no such thing,' Graine said gently as Tom collapsed into the corner of the cushions, ashen-faced. Tucking a rug around him she climbed up on the driver's seat and picked up the reins.
'Now listen to me,' she said to the muscular grey rears and swishing tails, and was gratified when two pairs of ears on the far end of the horses swiveled towards her. 'I've only ever driven a horse and wagon once before, and that was an old nag who couldn't have run if a pack of wolves were after him. I'm relying on the pair of you to convey us home slowly. I will tell your master of your good behavior and, no doubt, there will be a nice warm stable, a rub down and a feed as a reward. Do you understand?'
One of the horses snickered, the other stamped its foot on the ground. Graine took it as a sign of assent. 'Right, let us now proceed.' Flicking the reins she clicked her tongue as she'd heard their usual handler do.
'Good girls,' she said, smiling with relief when they slowly began to move forward. The rain was coming down in torrents now. It slanted from the greys' backs to hit the ground beneath them. There, it turned into instant mud that splashed upwards again to cake them in slime. With the rain came dusk, until finally she could hardly see. Frozen to the marrow she mulled over events as her temper began to fray at the edges.
What sort of man was John Lamartine? The least he could have done was be there to greet her when she'd stepped ashore in the quay in Poole. She imagined him sitting in a warm, comfortable room, sipping port, his legs propped up on a stool in front of a fireplace and with a huge fire roaring up the chimney. He'd probably consumed a huge dinner of roast beef surrounded by roast vegetables and dripping with juice. At least, that's what Evelyn had told her the English ate. Graine felt rather hollow herself; her stomach rattled pathetically.
After what seemed an age of gingerly encouraging the horses forward, over to her right Graine spied a light shining through the watery darkness. Rushford, at last! She guided the horses into a wide carriageway. Not that they needed guiding, she realized. With the scent of home in their nostrils they'd suddenly picked up speed.
'Whoa!' she yelled in alarm, pulling on the reins. The beasts took no notice. Graine hung on like grim death, fighting their forward momentum as they lengthened their stride. The house loomed closer and closer. Frantically, she applied all her strength to the reins and yelled. 'Stop, you stupid beasts; you promised to get me here safely.'
Out of the gloom dim figures appeared. One stood in front of the horses, arms outstretched, shouting, 'Whoa there, nags! Whoa!' Another leaped nimbly astride one of the mares and applied some strength to the reins. The carriage and pair came to a shuddering stop.
'What in hell's name is going on here?' somebody roared from the porch. Footsteps crunched across gravel and when one of the servants held a lantern aloft, there came a curse. 'Good God! You look like a drowned rat. Where's Tom?'
'In the carriage,' she said, her teeth beginning to chatter. 'The carriage hit a pothole and he was thrown. He's badly injured.'
'You drove the horses by yourself?' The man shook his head. 'You little fool. You could have killed yourself, or worse still, killed my horses. Look at them, they're all lathered up.'
A growl gathered momentum inside her. 'They're not the only ones lathered up. I'm exceedingly angered by your incivility. I'm incensed! In fact, I'm seething with fury.'
Surprise filled his eyes. 'Are you, by God? Now there's a thing.'
He barked out orders to the men around him, sending them scurrying in all directions. Tom was gently lifted out and carried away. A great hairy dog came to stand by the man's side, his tail lashing back and forth. The man absently fondled its head, gazed up at her again and began to laugh. 'Well, are you going to sit up there seething with fury all night? The groom wants to stable the horses.'
The arrogant, cold-hearted, mealy-mannered ogre! Not one word of thanks for bringing his horses and carriage home----not one word of enquiry for her own welfare, either. Was this what Evelyn had drowned for? Her memory deserved better.
'If you think I'm going to wed you, you're very much mistaken,' she spat out. 'You're not worth a penny of the money you cost me. In fact, both you and your horses need to learn some manners.'
So saying, she launched herself from the seat. If she'd been expecting assistance she was disappointed. He chose that moment to take a casual step backwards. She landed awkwardly, tripped over her skirt and sprawled face down on the gravel, her nose a scant few inches away from the toes of his boots. Rain pounded relentlessly down on her back. The dog came to slurp a tongue over her face.
'Get off, you slobbering beast,' she yelled and, glaring up at the man looming over her, said. 'Kindly feed your dog, sir. He seems to be hungry.'
He hunched down in front of her, hardly able to contain his laughter. 'I hope you're feeling better now.'
'You're despicable.' She struggled on to her knees and did the only thing possible under the circumstances. She burst into tears and scolded, 'Isn't being shipwrecked and losing everything I own enough for you? Isn't it enough that your beastly horses wouldn't do what they were told and this damned England of yours is a grey and freezing bog? Couldn't you, at least, have come to fetch me yourself? The only person who seems intent on welcoming me is your smelly dog.'
The dog licked her face in sympathy, then sat and pressed his pungent rain soaked body against hers. At least he cared about her. She put her arms around him in a comforting hug.
The man's expression didn't accommodate much in the way of compassion. 'John understood the ship was to dock in London. That's where he is at the moment, in the capital. There he will remain, until spring.'
'Didn't he get a message from the East India Company that the ship had foundered off Barbados? I was put aboard another vessel that docked at Poole.'
'So I was given to understand this morning; and that was only by chance. Unfortunately, my favorite mare was having difficulty dropping her foal, so I couldn't leave her. I'll send a message to John to let him know you're safe, as soon as the weather clears.'
She suddenly realized what he was saying. 'You mean you're not John Lamartine?'
'I'm Saville Lamartine, The Earl of Sedgley. John is my cousin. So, you're not obliged to wed me, after all, though I'm certain I could have provided you with good value for every penny you spent. And as for manners ... ' His hand described an arc through the rain. 'This is, Rushford, my home. I bid you welcome to it. Is that mannerly enough?'
She swallowed a moment of disappointment at the announcement, but refused to succumb to his charm. 'Damn it, my knees are skinned, sir,' she said accusingly.
He didn't turn a hair at her unladylike retort. 'How was I to know you were about to leap from the driver seat like a flea-bitten monkey from a rock?' He sighed and held out a hand. 'Here, let's stop this bickering and get out of the confounded rain. You're soaked through and you must be hungry.'
Pulled upright, she was swung up into his arms. He strode off with her towards the house, the dog racing on ahead. She couldn't see her host's face properly but there was an impression of strength about him, for he carried her easily and without effort.
'I'm quite capable of walking,' she fumed.
A soft chuckle warmed her ear. 'No doubt you are, but not until your knees have been looked at. I cannot have you suffering further damage whilst you're my guest. John is most particular about things. He would never forgive me if I handed over his bride in a less than perfect condition. Still, what can you expect from a man of the cloth.'
'He's a church cleric?' she said, aghast at the thought when she'd spent most of her life in the company of nuns.
'Pious, pernickety and pompous, that's John. You'll be expected to pray a lot, but I imagine you'd be used to that, sore knees or not.'
Her eyes sharpened. His remained bland.
'John mentioned you prayed on a daily basis.'
Relief came in a hot, shameful rush, as she was reminded of her dishonesty. Instantly, Graine prayed he'd never discover she was deceiving them.
Not that she relied much on prayer, having learned in the past that it rarely produced results. Though now she thought of it, Evelyn had prayed for a husband and received an offer the very next day. But when all was said and done, that hardly counted when John Lamartine had been after her fortune. Poor, lonely Evelyn had really wanted to be loved for her own sweet self----as did she.
She mumbled something banal to her host. 'Yes, of course.'
'He has his good points,' Saville said cheerfully as he kicked the door open. 'He's honest, and he respects his mother, even though ... ' He chuckled. 'But then, it would not be gentlemanly of me to pass judgment on somebody you have yet to meet.'
Her ears pricked. 'Even though, what? You cannot leave it at that,' she prompted after he deposited her on the cushions of the hall settle and knelt before her.
The dog shook himself free of water and sat attentively beside his master. His coat was dark and roughly spiked. So was his master's hair. A pair of guileless blue eyes gazed through dark lashes to meet hers in a delicious confrontation. His mouth was a curve of dubiety. 'Oh nothing. I expect you'll be able to manage the old termagant. God knows you're strong-minded enough. Given time, Aunt Harriet will relinquish her position as head of the household, I expect, even though she chose you herself from likely candidates.'
She stared at him. 'John Lamartine allowed his mother to choose his wife?'
'Oh don't sound so ruffled. There was only two other candidates, neither of which reached Harriet's main requisite for her son.'
The side of his mouth twitched. 'Harriet has ambitions of John becoming a Bishop, so his wife must be lacking of strong opinion and have a biddable nature.'
Disbelieving, she stared at him.
I suspect you're neither,' he said gloomily.
'You're right.' Graine let out an exasperated sigh. 'I will soon route that notion from her head.'
He chuckled. 'Don't ask John to take your part. He's been dominated by my Aunt Harriet all his life, and old habits die hard.' His smile warmed her. 'Pull your skirt up so I can inspect the damage to your knees.'
'Certainly not! I'm capable of tending to them myself.' In truth, she'd greatly exaggerated the damage and knew they were hardly touched at all. She'd be surprised if the skin had even been broken. Her teeth began to chatter and a shudder racked her body.
His expression became one of concern. 'We must make you comfortable before you catch cold, Miss Evelyn Adams.'
Who was the 'we' he referred to, his wife? Was Saville Lamartine a married man? He looked to be under thirty years of age . . . man in his prime, in fact. Yes, he was certainly of an age to be married, she decided.
He shouted for servants. Soon, Graine was borne to an upstairs chamber by two maids. There, a fire burned cheerfully in the grate. Stripped of her muddy clothes she was bathed and cosseted. Dry clothes were found. She was enveloped in a voluminous garment of flannel, which was perfumed with lavender. Her hair was damp dried into ringlets and curls. Steam rose from it as she sat by the fire, eating a bowl of thick, chicken broth.
Later, feeling relaxed and clean, she lay in a four-poster bed watching the candle flicker in the draft caused by the maid bustling back and forth as she lifted garments from storage boxes to inspect and sort. She set some aside for repair.
Graine contemplated her future. She had not expected to feel such guilt over her action of impersonation, even though Evelyn's demise was not her fault. Poor dear Evelyn, so good and so kind. She'd deserved much better. A tear slid down her cheek for her sister, and was hastily wiped away when there was a rap at the door.
Saville Lamartine called out. 'May I enter?'
Graine nodded to the maid, who opened the door to allow the earl entry. He'd changed into dry breeches and hose. His shirt was open at the neck, and over it he wore an embroidered waistcoat. His long legs carried him to the bed, where he sat and scrutinized her face.
Her cheeks heated under that intense gaze of his. 'Why are you looking at me, thus?'
'Now the mud has been washed off you appear younger than I'd been led to expect.'
'I expect the candlelight flatters me.'
'Your hair has sunlight threaded through it.'
Graine's hands went to her cheeks. 'Now, you're being too personal, sir.'
'It was a statement of fact, not an inappropriate compliment, though I must admit it was more on the poetic side than is usual with me.' He grinned at the thought. 'I've come to make sure you're comfortable and have everything you need.' He turned to the companion. 'Jessie, have you found something for Miss Adams to wear in the morning?'
'Yes Sir. Lady Charlotte left several garments behind when she departed for Kent.'
So, the earl was married. 'You've been very kind. I hope your wife won't mind me borrowing her clothes.'
'The clothes belong to my sister.' There was something mocking about his smile, as if he knew her remark was more than casual query. He wasn't going to satisfy her curiosity, however, leaving the specifics of the query hanging in the air. 'You shall have your own clothes before too long.'
'But I have no money with which to pay for them.'
'John will settle things up from your dowry, no doubt.'
How careless of her to forget already. She must pay more attention to her role else this man would soon expose her lie. He was no fool. 'Oh, yes, of course.'
There was an awkward silence for a moment, broken when the dog pattered across the floor. Placing his head on the bed, he stared at her. The whole of his body wagged with his tail and his rough eyebrows operated independently, going up and down with each movement of his eyes.
She laughed and fondled the rough head. 'What's his name?'
'He doesn't look very rebellious, to me.'
'Looks can be deceiving.' Saville rose. 'The carriage driver has asked me to convey his thanks to you. I've strapped his shoulder and the bone will mend before too long.' He took her scarf from his waistcoat pocket and dangled it from his finger. 'He asked me to return this.'
When she held out her hand for it he chuckled and returned it to his pocket. 'It's covered in mud. I'll have it laundered before I return it. Now we have you clean and looking more the lady, we must try and keep you that way. Good night, Miss Adams. Sweet dreams.'
He strode off, leaving behind him the lingering aroma of soap. Rebel went to follow after his master, then changed his mind, came back and hauled himself on to the bed. He curled up on the end with a dog-deflating sigh of bliss, which turned out to be short-lived.
'Reb, I trust you haven't made yourself comfortable on Miss Adams' bed!' Coming from somewhere in the corridor, the statement was followed by a sharp whistle.
The animal's eyebrows waggled, he gave a grumbling sigh, then unfolded himself on to the floor and trotted reluctantly off after his master.
Sleep came not long after. It was a novelty to be in a bed that didn't move beneath her, to be surrounded by walls that didn't creak, crack or strain with every movement. It was wonderful that the air was so dry and warm when the inhospitable wind hurled slashing rain against the windows.
'I know you'd understand why I've done this, dearest Evelyn,' she said sleepily, 'But I do wish you'd picked a less worthy man than John for a mate. Someone like Saville Lamartine would have suited me so much better.'
Saville found it hard to sleep. Sprawled on a chair in front of the fire he gazed into the glowing embers and growled. 'Damn the girl!'
He hadn't expected someone quite so spirited, so exquisite, or so wealthy, to have remained unattached for so long. And what did it say of his cousin's taste regarding feminine attributes, for John to have accepted a woman so negatively described by her guardian?
Theodore Chambers must either have been blind, or a misogynist by nature, for he'd written, Evelyn is plain, awkward, a dull conversationalist but virtuous and obedient. Chambers had made her sound like a carthorse.
Why, he was quite taken by her. She was delicious, a delectable morsel, a provocation of desirable femininity. And she was promised to his cousin, a worthy fellow, but the very epitome of establishment. Saville told himself; John would crush the light from her. And if he didn't, Aunt Harriet would.
'And to think I arranged the marriage for John after I turned a match with her down,' he fumed. 'I should have gone to Antigua and inspected the little baggage, first-hand. No, I must write to John and tell him she's unsuitable for him, after all.'
But perhaps he should consider his options first. It wouldn't be fair to Evelyn to withdraw her expectations of a decent marriage and family, especially since he'd pushed John into the deal in the first place. And he must remember his cousin needed her dowry whilst he didn't, which was why John had agreed to the scheme in the first place.
Saville grinned as he recalled her muddy appearance. She'd been caked in slime from head to toe, her eyes gleaming through it like angry little wasps. Her temper tantrum had made him laugh, until he'd begun to realize what she'd been through, and how close to collapse she'd been. She was a plucky little thing, too, bringing the carriage in when she was too slight to handle such horses. Or was she just foolhardy! She certainly didn't fit into his expectations of Miss Evelyn Adams.
He frowned. He was thinking of her too much when he should be sleeping. Snuffing the candle, he dropped his robe to the floor and strolled naked across to his bed.
Soon he began to toss and turn. He scowled when it became obvious why--he shouldn't be thinking of Miss Evelyn Adams at all, especially when she had such a disastrous effect on his physical comfort!
When dawn came he was not sure whether he'd slept or not. He opened one eye and stared out of the window. The sky was a solid sheet of pewter threatening more rain--or even snow. 'To hell with it,' he said, and turning over, went back to sleep.