Diana Gresham hugged the thin cotton of her nightdress to her chest and snuggled deeper into the pillows of the posting-house bed. She had never been so happy in her life, she told herself, and today was just the beginning of a glorious future. This afternoon, she and Gerald would reach Gretna Green and be married, and then no one could part them or spoil their wonderful plans—not even her father. Of course, Papa was unlikely to protest now. Diana’s lovely face clouded as she considered the terrible step she had been forced to by her father’s harshness. If he had only listened this once, it wouldn’t have been necessary to defy him. But almost eighteen years as Mr. Gresham’s sole companion had repeatedly—and painfully—defeated any such hopes. Papa was implacable; he had never shown the least interest in her ideas or opinions, except to condemn them. Diana felt only a small admixture of guilt in her relief at having escaped her rigid, penurious home. A tap on the door made her expression lighten. Sitting up and smiling expectantly, she called, “Come in.” The panels swung back to reveal first a loaded tray, then an extremely handsome young man. “Voilà,” he said, returning her smile possessively. “Tea.
And hot toast.” He swept a napkin from the tray to display it. “I play servant to you.” Diana clapped her hands. “Thank you! I am so hungry.” “The unaccustomed exertions of the night, no doubt,” he replied, placing the tray across her knees and resting a hand on her half-bare shoulder. Diana flushed fiery red and gazed fixedly at the white teapot. She would get used to such frankness concerning the somewhat discomfiting intimacies of marriage, she thought. Her first experience last night had not been at all like the stolen kisses she and Gerald had exchanged in the weeks since they met. Yet Gerald had obviously seen nothing wrong, so Diana dismissed her reaction as naïveté.
She knew she was less sophisticated than other girls, even those not yet eighteen. Because her father had never allowed her to attend any party or assembly, nor meet any of the young men who visited her friends’ families, Diana was deeply humble about her ignorance, while passionately eager to be rid of it. Until Gerald’s miraculous appearance during one of her solitary country walks—an event she still could not help but compare to the illustration of the Archangel Michael in her Bible—she had never spoken to a man of her own age. That her sole opportunity should bring a veritable pink of the ton (a term Gerald had taught her) had been overwhelming. From the first, she had joyfully referred every question to him, and taken his answers as gospel. Diana raised her eyes, found her promised husband gazing appreciatively at her scantily clad form, and promptly lowered them again. For his part, Gerald Carshin was congratulating himself on his astuteness. He had been hanging out for a rich wife for nearly ten years, and his golden youth was beginning, however slightly, to tarnish. Even he saw that. His sunny hair remained thick— automatically he touched its fashionable perfection—and his blue eyes had lost none of their dancing charm, but he had started to notice alarming signs of thickness in his slim waist and a hint of sag in his smooth cheeks.
At thirty, it was high time he wed, and he had cleverly unearthed an absolute peach of an heiress in the nick of time. Carshin’s eyes passed admiringly over Diana’s slender rounded form, which was more revealed than hidden by the thin nightdress and coverlet. Her curves were his now; he breathed a little faster thinking of last night. And her face was equally exquisite. Like him, she was blond, but her hair was a deep rich gold, almost bronze, and her eyes were the color of aged sherry, with glints of the same gold in their depths. She wasn’t the least fashionable, of course. Her tartar of a father had never allowed her to crop her hair or buy modish gowns. Yet the waves of shining curls that fell nearly to Diana’s waist convinced Gerald that there was some substance in the old man’s strictures. It had taken his breath away last night when Diana had unpinned her fusty knot and shaken her hair loose. “Your tea is getting cold,” Carshin said indulgently.
“I thought you were hungry.” Self-consciously Diana began to eat. She had never breakfasted with a man sitting on her bed—or, indeed, in bed at all until today. But of course, having Gerald there was wonderful, she told herself quickly. Everything about her life would be different and splendid now. “Are they getting the carriage ready?” she asked, needing to break the charged silence. “I can dress in a minute.” “There’s no hurry.” His hand smoothed her fall of hair, then moved to cup a breast and fondle it. “We needn’t leave at once.
” But as he bent to kiss Diana’s bare neck, he felt her stiffen. She won’t really relax till the knot’s tied, he thought, drawing back. A pity she’s so young. “Still, when you’ve finished your tea, you should get up,” he added. Diana nodded, relieved, yet puzzled by her hesitant reaction to Gerald’s touch. This was the happiest day of her life, she repeated to herself. Gerald moved to an armchair by the window. “Once we’re married, we’ll go straight to London. The season will be starting soon, and I…we must find a suitable house and furnish it.” Gerald pictured himself set up in his own house, giving card parties and taking a box at the opera.
How the ton would stare! He would finally have his revenge on the damned high sticklers who cut him. “Oh, yes,” agreed Diana, her breakfast forgotten. “I can hardly wait to see all the fashionable people and go to balls.” Gerald scrutinized her, the visions he had conjured up altering slightly. Diana would, of necessity, accompany him. “We must get you some clothes first, and do something about your hair.” She put a stricken hand to it. “It’s lovely, but not quite the thing, you know.” “No.” Diana looked worried.
“You will tell me how I should go on, and what I am to wear, won’t you?” “Naturally.” Gerald seemed to expand in the chair. “We shall be all the crack, you and I. Everyone will invite us.” Diana sighed with pleasure at the thought. All her life she had longed for gaiety and crowds of chattering friends rather than the bleak, dingy walls of her father’s house. Now, because of Gerald, she would have them. “You must write at once to your trustees and tell them you are married,” he added, still lost in a happy dream. “We shall have to draw quite a large sum to get settled in town.” “My trustees?” Diana’s brown eyes grew puzzled.
“Yes. You told me their names, but I’ve forgotten. The banker and the solicitor in charge of your mother’s fortune—yours, I should say, now. You come into it when you marry, remember.” “Not unless I am of age,” she corrected him. Gerald went very still. “What?” “Papa made her put that in. Mr. Merton at the bank told me so. Mama would have left me her money outright, but Papa insisted upon conditions.
It is just like him. The money was to be mine when I married, unless I should do so before I came of age. Otherwise, I must wait until I am five-and-twenty. Isn’t that infamous?” Carshin’s pale face had gone ashen. “But you are not eighteen for…” “Four months,” she finished. Sensing his consternation, she added, “Is something wrong?” His expression was intent, but he was not looking at her. “We must simply wait to be married,” he murmured. “We cannot go to London, of course. We shall have to live very quietly in the country, and—” “Wait!” Diana was aghast. “Gerald, you promised me we should be married at once.
Indeed, I never could have”—she choked on the word “eloped”—“left home otherwise.” Meeting her eyes, Gerald saw unshakable determination, and the collapse of all his careful plans. One thing his rather unconventional life had taught him was to read others’ intentions. Diana would not be swayed by argument, however logical. Why had she withheld this crucial piece of information? he wondered. This was all her fault. In fact, she had neatly trapped him into compromising her. But if she thought that the proprieties weighed with him, she was mistaken. The chit deserved whatever she got. He looked up, and met her worried gaze.
The naked appeal in her dark eyes stopped the flood of recrimination on his tongue, but it did not change his mind. Hunching a shoulder defensively, he rose. “I should see about the horses. You had better get dressed.” “Yes, I will,” replied Diana eagerly, relief making her weak. “I won’t be a minute.” Gerald nodded curtly, and went out. But when Diana descended the narrow stair a half hour later, her small valise in her hand, there was no sign of Gerald Carshin. There were only a truculent innkeeper proffering a bill, two sniggering postboys, and a round-eyed chambermaid wiping her hands in her apron. Diana refused to believe Gerald was gone.
Even when it was pointed out that a horse was missing from the stable, along with the gentleman’s valise from the hired chaise, Diana shook her head stubbornly. She sat down in the private parlor to await Gerald’s return, concentrating all her faculties on appearing unconcerned. But as the minutes ticked past, her certainty slowly ebbed, and after a while she was trembling under the realization that she had been abandoned far from her home. Papa had been right. He had said that Gerald wanted nothing but her money. She had thought that his willingness to marry her at seventeen proved otherwise, but she saw now that this wasn’t so. Gerald had simply not understood. Hadn’t she told him all the terms of her mother’s will? She thought she had, but her memory of their early meetings was blurred by a romantically golden haze. It hardly mattered now, in any case. Gerald was gone, and she must think what to do.
With shaking fingers Diana opened her reticule and counted the money she had managed to scrape together. Four pounds and seven shillings. It would never be enough to pay the postboys and the inn. She could give them what she had, but where would she go afterward, penniless? Tears started then, for her present plight and for the ruin of all her hopes and plans. Diana put her face in her hands and sobbed. It was thus that the innkeeper found her sometime later. He strode into the parlor with an impatient frown, but it faded when he saw Diana’s misery. “Here, now,” he said, “don’t take on so.” His words had no discernible effect, and he began to look uneasy. “Wait here a moment until I fetch my wife,” he added, backing quickly to the door.
Diana paid no heed. She scarcely heard. A short time later a small plump woman bustled into the room and stood before Diana with her hands on her hips. Her husband peered around the door, but the older woman motioned brusquely for him to shut it, leaving them alone. “Now, miss,” she said then, “crying will do you no good, though I can’t say as I blame you for it. An elopement, was it?” Diana cried harder. The woman nodded. “And your young man has changed his mind seemingly. Well, you’ve made a bad mistake, no denying that.” Still, the only response was sobs.
“Have you any money at all?” Diana struggled to control herself. She must make an effort to honor her obligations, however she felt. “F-four pounds,” she managed finally, holding out the reticule. The innkeeper’s wife took it and examined the contents. “Tch. The blackguard! He might have left you something more.” “He only cared about getting my money,” murmured Diana brokenly. The other’s eyes sharpened. “Indeed? Well, miss, my advice is to put him right out of your mind. He’s no good.
” Diana gazed at the carpet. “You should go back to your family,” added the woman. “They’ll stand by you and help scotch the scandal. You haven’t been away so very long, I wager.” Diana shuddered at the thought of her father. She couldn’t go back to face his contempt. Yet where else could she go? “Tom and me could advance you some money. Not for a private chaise, mind, but for the stage. You could send it back when you’re home again.” “W-would you?” She was amazed.
Something in the girl’s tear-drenched brown eyes made the landlady reach out and pat her shoulder. “You’ll be all right once you’re among your own people again,” she said. “But you’d best get ready. The stage comes at ten.” In an unthinking daze, Diana paid the postboys and dismissed them, gathered her meager luggage, and mounted the stage when it arrived. A young man sitting opposite tried to get up a conversation, but Diana didn’t even hear him. Her mind was spinning with the events of the past few days. As the miles went by, she recounted them again and again. Why had she not seen Gerald’s true colors sooner? Why had she allowed him to cajole her into an elopement? What was to become of her now? She was surely ruined forever through her own foolishness. How could she look anyone in the eye again after what she had done? Wrapped in these gloomy reflections, Diana was oblivious until the stage set her down at an inn near her home in Yorkshire.
And once there, she stood outside the inn’s door, her small valise beside her, afraid to reveal her presence. “Yes, miss, may I help you?” asked a voice, and the innkeeper appeared in the doorway. Diana tried to speak, and failed. “Did you want dinner?” he added impatiently. She could hear sounds from the taproom beyond. “Are you waiting for someone to fetch you? Will you come in?” “No,” she answered, her voice very low. “I…I am all right. Thank you.” She would walk home, she decided. The house was four miles away, but all other alternatives seemed worse.
“Wait a moment. Aren’t you the Gresham girl?” The man came out to survey her, and Diana flinched. “I’ve seen you with your father. They managed to get word to you, then, did they? There was some talk that Mrs. Samuels didn’t know where you’d gone.” Diana frowned. Mrs. Samuels was their housekeeper. What did she have to do with anything? “You’ll just be in time for the funeral. It’s tomorrow morning.
Was you wanting a gig to take you home?” “Funeral?” she echoed, her lips stiff. “Well, yes, miss. Your father…” Suddenly the innkeeper clapped a hand to his mouth. “You ain’t been told! My tongue’s run away with me, as usual. Beg your pardon, miss, I’m sure.” “But what has happened? Is my father…?” The man shook his head. “Passed away late yesterday, miss. And I’m that sorry to tell you. I reckon Mrs. Samuels meant to do it face to face.
” “But how?” Diana was dazed by this new disaster. “Carried off by an apoplexy, they say. A rare temper, Mr. Gresham had…er, that is, I’ve heard folk say so.” He had died of rage at her flight, thought Diana. Not only had she ruined herself, she had killed her father. With a small moan, she sank to the earth in a heap. The furor that followed did not reach her. Diana was bundled into a gig like a parcel and escorted home by a chambermaid and an ostler. Delivered to Mrs.
Samuels and somewhat revived with hot tea, Diana merely stared. Finally Mrs. Samuels said, “I told them you had gone to visit friends.” Diana choked, then replied, “But you knew… I left the note.” “I burned it.” “Why?” “It was none of their affair, prying busybodies.” The girl gazed at the spare, austere figure of the only mother she had ever known. Her own mother had died when Diana was two, but she had never felt that Mrs. Samuels cared for her. She did not even know her first name.
“You lied to protect me?” The housekeeper’s face did not soften, and she continued to stare straight ahead. “’Twas none of their affair,” she repeated. “I don’t hold with gossip.” “So no one knows where I went?” Mrs. Samuels shook her head. “No one asked, save the doctor. The neighbors haven’t taken the trouble to call.” And why should they? Diana’s father had had nothing but harsh words for them during his life. Part of the burden lifted from her soul. She still felt ashamed, but at least her shame was private.
“Are you home to stay?” asked Mrs. Samuels, her expression stony. “I…yes.” “And will you be wanting me to remain?” Diana stared at her, mystified. The woman had saved her, yet she seemed as devoid of warmth and emotion as ever. If she felt nothing, why had she bothered? What was she thinking? “Of course.” Mrs. Samuels nodded and turned away. “Mr. Gresham is in the front parlor.
The funeral is at eleven tomorrow.” She left the room with Diana’s valise. Diana hesitated, biting her lower lip. She walked slowly to the closed door of the front parlor, stepped back, then forward. She could not imagine her father dead; his presence had always pervaded this house. Her whole life had been turned upside down in a matter of days, and she was far from assimilating the change. She could not even imagine what it would be like now. Slowly her hand reached out and grasped the doorknob. She took a deep breath and opened the door.