Everything in Regina’s life had always gone according to plan. She’d been born on March fourteenth, exactly as the physician and midwife had predicted. Since then, her sole purpose had been to become an accomplished lady. She’d been educated in a manner befitting the daughter of a British peer. And so, it was not surprising that she could play the pianoforte, embroider monograms on handkerchiefs, converse in French, and dance as if floating on air.
Her life was as it should be, as it had been designed to be, and she had no illusions about the duty that would one day be required of her. As a female, she would have to make the best possible match. Love would not factor into this eventuality since her marriage would without doubt be one of convenience.
Her parents had spent the last eighteen years preparing her for this. And yet her father, Charles Berkly, Earl of Hedgewick, still managed to surprise her when he interrupted tea one afternoon to inform her that she and the Marquess of Stokes were to be married.
The very next day.
By special license.
Apprehensive and slightly dazed, Regina told herself that all would be well. Her father had made a magnificent match – one that would elevate not only her but her entire family. She trusted him to have her best interests at heart, so she did not think to protest the hasty union or to remind her father that she and Stokes had never met. Instead, she breathed a sigh of relief when he described the marquess as a handsome youth with a fondness for poetry and music. She imagined herself enjoying his company, of entertaining him in the evenings with music and song, and of giving him children as duty required. She convinced herself that in time, love would blossom between them and that they would be happy together.
But when Stokes arrived that same evening for an introductory dinner, and was shown into the parlor by Plath, the butler, Regina realized that everything she’d imagined was but an illusion. Instead, she was expected to walk into hell and live there.
The resolve required to maintain her composure as Stokes approached her, to drop into an elegant curtsy and not run screaming from the room, was extraordinarily difficult. Like sitting still while a swarm of bees tried to sting you. But she now understood why she’d never met the marquess before and why she had to marry him faster than she could blink. Most likely, her father hoped to complete the task before she realized she was marrying a child.
Even though it was rather difficult not to notice such a thing, considering Stokes’s appearance. He had the typical rounded features of a young adolescent with a lanky body to match. Regina supposed he could be fifteen, if she were lucky, but rather feared he might be much younger than that. His face was regrettably covered in pimples of varying sizes, though this was the least problematic aspect since he would likely be rid of those within a few years. Of greater concern was his difficult gait, which suited an aging old man much better. And when he extended his hand to Regina, the stiff rigidity forcing his fingers to curl at odd angles was more than she could bear.
With a gasp, she looked up, only to be met by pain in his eyes. The heartbeats thumping fast inside her slowed, easing a path toward sympathetic understanding. He did not want this marriage any more than she did.
So Regina smiled. Not because she was pleased on either of their behalves, but because it was what Stokes deserved. However difficult this situation was for her, surely it must be worse for him, not only because he was so much younger but because he probably thought she would spurn him.
“It is a pleasure to finally meet you, my lord,” she said as she placed her hand in his.
Behind him, his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Windham, looked on with a mixture of hopefulness and concern.
“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Stokes told her politely. He gave her hand a gentle pull and she let him create the appearance of helping her rise. “Perhaps the two of us can take a turn about the room together before we’re called in for dinner?”
“I’d like that,” Regina said. She deliberately avoided looking over at her brother Marcus, whose glower she could feel as acutely as the heat emanating from the fireplace. He would undoubtedly have some choice words with their parents later, but for now, Regina believed the best policy would be to make the most of an already difficult situation.
So she placed her hand lightly on the arm Stokes offered and forced her steps to match his as they moved toward the far end of the room.
They reached the bay window looking out on the dusky garden and drew to a halt. Giving her a sideways glance, Stokes spoke in a low whisper. “I am sorry about all of this. When my parents told me of their intention to see me wed, I did my best to dissuade them. But Papa is determined to secure the lineage of his title and with the undeniable progression of my illness, he sees Hedgewick’s offer as the only hope of doing so.”
His comment caused numerous issues to poke and prod at Regina’s mind, like how her father had apparently started all of this by approaching Windham. And the idea that she would have to lie with him tomorrow after the wedding.
Forcing all her aversions to this aside, she chose to get to know this boy whose life must be unbearably difficult, and asked, “Do the physicians know what it is that ails you?”
He inhaled deeply, as if this subject required additional strength. “They say it is primary asthenic gout.” He looked at her directly. “Incurable, by all accounts.”
“I am sorry.” It was all she could think to say even though she knew it was not enough.
“Apparently, it is rare in children, which makes me special according to some physicians.” He gave a low snort. “I must say I’ve never felt so myself.”
Regina winced. The physicians were idiots if they believed that Stokes would find comfort in such a notion. “How long have you suffered like this?”
“The symptoms began five years ago and have been progressing since.”
Hoping he wouldn’t detect the pity she felt for him, she casually asked, “And how old are you now, if you do not mind my asking.”
“Fourteen.” The edge of his mouth lifted and for a second she caught a glimpse of the fun-loving boy he might have been if he’d been granted good health. “It is the age of consent for a boy, provided his parents approve.”
Regina nodded. The duke and duchess were hoping to marry him off as expediently as possible before he got worse and lost his chance completely.
Determined to put a positive spin on the situation, Regina said, “You’re probably the most eligible bachelor I’ve ever met. A pity you’re going to be squandered on an old woman like me.”
He grinned with what appeared to be genuine amusement. “I doubt there’s a woman in all of England as beautiful as you.”
She nudged him slightly while giving him a sly smile. “Top points for charm and for not inquiring about my age.”
Affecting a debonair look, he said, “No proper gentleman would ever think to do so.”
“I am eighteen,” Regina confessed with a chuckle.
“And entirely wasted on me.”
Regret flickered in his eyes and Regina’s heart squeezed painfully in response. “Don’t say that. You and I—”
“Have no hope of happiness.” His blunt statement, as obviously simple as it was, jarred Regina’s soul.
“Don’t say that,” she whispered.
“Why not?” He gave her a quizzical look. “It is the truth, when you think of it.” When she said nothing in response to this, he added, “My illness will not kill me for at least a couple of decades.”
With a gulp, she met his gaze head on. “I should hope not.”
“You say that now, but as I deteriorate with time, you will regret being my wife, just as much as I will regret ruining your life.”
Regina stared at him and as she did so, it occurred to her that she had to find a way to save them both. Perhaps they could have the marriage annulled immediately after? It was an option, though not a very good one when she considered the vicar who would be conducting the ceremony. He ought not be able to do so unless she and Stokes gave their consent. And yet, it was becoming increasingly clear that they would be pronounced husband and wife no matter what they said or did. Their parents were powerful people. What chance did she and a child stand against their determined wills?
Fear started to drip through Regina like freezing rain. “I’ll find a way out of this,” she assured him.
He raised an eyebrow. “How?”
“I don’t know.” Short of running away…
Her nerves tightened in response to that thought. It went against the obligation instilled in her since childhood. It felt wrong and disobedient and…wonderfully freeing, all things considered.
Swallowing, she glanced sideways. Assembled on the sofa and in the armchairs were their family members, all watching with syrupy smiles painted on their faces.
Except for Marcus, who looked rather grim. His eyebrows were drawn together, one partially obscured by a dark blonde lock of hair. Jaw tight, he appeared to be holding a great deal of anger in check. If she were to flee, she would miss him the most, which was something she contemplated a great deal as the evening wore on.
When the time eventually came for Stokes and his parents to depart, he stepped close enough to Regina so he could whisper next to her ear, “Time is running out.” He leaned back and gave her the sort of sad smile that quickened her pulse with the knowledge that only she had the power to act.
“We shall see you again in the morning,” Lord Windham said as if they were preparing to start a joint venture together, which Regina supposed they were, in a way.
Hedgewick smiled with the satisfaction of a lion who’d just caught a fat gazelle. “Eight o’clock sharp.” He smiled again and bowed toward Lady Windham. A few more parting words were spoken and then Stokes was helped down the front steps of Hedgewick House and into the awaiting carriage. The front door closed with a deep thud and Regina expelled a long breath.
“Well,” Hedgewick said, turning about so he could regard his family. “That went rather splendidly I’d say.”
“The Windhams are delightful people,” Louise said in support of her husband. “Very proper and most elegantly attired.”
Marcus stared at them both as if they’d just performed a series of cartwheels. “Are you serious?” Apparently he’d decided the time had come to speak up. “That is all you have to say?”
“What else is there?” Louise asked her son in that timid voice that had always been so comforting and soothing. Now it just sounded weak and devoid of character. Like tepid tea.
“I don’t know,” Marcus clipped in an acrid tone that warned Regina of the argument to come. “How about the fact that you’re planning to foist Regina off on a decrepit child?”
Hedgewick’s eyes darkened to storm cloud grey. “Your sister is going to be a duchess one day.”
“At what cost?” Marcus asked. He swung around to face Regina. “You cannot go through with this. I won’t permit it.”
“You. Won’t. Permit. It?” Hedgewick’s voice trembled while fine flecks of spittle flew from his mouth. His face had turned beet red. Leaning forward, he glared at his son. “Perhaps if you were head of this family you’d have a say in the matter. But you don’t.” He turned his attention on Regina whose skin began to prick in response to his anger. She’d never seen him like this. He’d always been loving and kind. “Everything has been arranged, so the wedding will proceed as planned.” Leaning back, he puffed out an agitated breath through his nose. “I suggest you get some sleep now so you can be well-rested and ready.”
“Yes, Papa,” she obediently murmured while Marcus gave her a stupefied look of concern. Pretending to be agreeable seemed like the simplest option while coming to terms with the fact that not even her brother was able to sway her father’s decision.
“I do not understand you,” Marcus told her moments later when both of their parents had retired. “You cannot seriously want this for yourself.”
“Stokes isn’t so terrible.” She started up the stairs while Marcus trailed behind. “He and I will get along well with each other, I think.”
“But he’s…I mean…how will you…” His words were blown away on a heavy sigh of frustration.
“I have always known that I would marry for convenience. This isn’t much different than the women who have to marry men thrice their age.”
“It’s different in the sense that Stokes might stay alive for some time yet.”
“Good God,” Regina gasped as she halted halfway up the steps and glanced back at her brother. “I should certainly hope so.”
Marcus lifted one shoulder. “Forgive me. That comment was in bad taste. I just wish you could marry the man of your choosing and not be a pawn in whatever it is Papa’s trying to achieve.”
“You think there’s more to his wanting this marriage than social status alone?”
“Considering how angered he was by my mere suggestion that you not go through with the wedding, I’d say so. But I cannot imagine what it might be.”
Regina pondered this as she resumed her progress. When she reached her bedchamber, she paused. “I love you dearly, Marcus. You know that, right?”
Tilting his head, he gave her an odd look. “Of course.”
She forced a smile. “Good.” She pressed down the handle and opened the door. Telling her brother she might not be there by morning would be a mistake. He’d only want to help her escape and thus implicate himself in her disappearance, which was something she could not allow. Besides, she still wasn’t sure she’d go through with it.
“I love you too,” he told her gently, and she was glad for the darkness because it stopped him from seeing the tears in her eyes. “Sleep well.”
Echoing his parting words, she entered her bedchamber, closed the door and leaned against it. Could she really run away? Her parents would not expect it, which would make the task so much easier. This was a benefit to being the dutiful daughter, the proper young lady who never strayed from protocol and always behaved with decorum. She could simply walk out the front door and vanish.
Glancing at the white lace gown hanging from a hook on the wall, Regina allowed the idea of running away to capture her imagination more fully. She’d worn the dress when she’d made her debut at the Coventry ball three months earlier. It had been altered slightly this afternoon by a maid tasked with turning it into her wedding dress. In Regina’s opinion, too much lace and silk netting had been added, but she supposed it would do. She stepped forward and touched the fabric, letting it slide between her fingers. The bonnet she would wear sat on her dressing table, with additional silk netting sewn onto the brim to create a frothy ruffle that descended toward the back where it fell away in a big voluminous tail.
Regina allowed a sad chuckle. She would look like a cake in this.
Her brow puckered even as she pulled the gown into her arms and pressed it against her chest. What would life be like for her if she married Stokes? It wasn’t as if she loved some other man. And yet, the realization that they wouldn’t dance with each other or ride together or enjoy the sort of active life that was meant for people their age was a blow. Instead, they would live like old people, imprisoned in some large manor somewhere.
She laughed bitterly. What good would her title do her then? What solace would she find in having done her duty when even Stokes had made it clear that he had no desire to marry? Indeed his features had softened with gratitude when she’d said she would find a solution. But could she go through with it? She clutched her dress tighter. If she sought refuge with friends her father would find her. The inevitable would only be delayed. So where would she go?
She pondered these questions for hours while pacing her bedchamber floor, until she was sure she must have worn out the sheen. Each question left her more indecisive and unsure than the last. At some point during the night, she’d put on her wedding gown and matching bonnet for no other purpose than to confirm how ridiculous she would look. She still wore it now as the darkness began to recede to the corners of her room. Dawn was breaking and she’d soon lose her chance to leave.
Could she be brave and do the unexpected? Could she face the unknown alone?
“I have to,” she murmured. It was time to put herself first for a change. Only then would she stand a chance of building the sort of future she wished for – a future she hadn’t even known she wanted until today. But the truth was that she dreamed of falling in love and of being loved in return. She longed for compatibility with a man strong and healthy enough to be her partner for life.
Glancing at her cheval glass, she considered the woman reflected back and made her decision. “I have to save myself and Stokes from misery.”
But first, she had to get changed.
So she reached for the end of the ribbons that held her bonnet in place and prepared to give them a pull when the sound of an upstairs door closing caused her to pause. The servants were already rising. There wasn’t any more time.
Giving a resolute nod, she abandoned the thought of putting on a more practical dress, eased her bedchamber door open and stopped to listen. The clock in the hall chimed five. Soon the maids would start cleaning the downstairs rooms.
With this in mind, Regina stepped into the hallway and headed toward the stairs. Descending them on her tiptoes, she made her way into the foyer. No one was about yet. The front door was right there. Unguarded.
Regina moved toward it, unbolted the lock, and opened the door to cool morning air. Mist sat low in the street, concealing most of the buildings. Heart pounding, she glanced back over her shoulder once before stepping outside, closing the door behind her, and breaking into a run.
She wasn’t sure where she was going exactly, but she had to get out of Mayfair before someone saw her and forced her to go back home. The wrath she would face there would likely surpass what her father had shown toward Marcus last night.
Turning onto Piccadilly, she raced toward a side street and almost skidded into it in her haste to escape the clatter of hooves from a carriage somewhere behind her. This was madness. Good God, what was she thinking? Perhaps she ought to go back before anyone realized she was missing. But her feet didn’t slow, they just kept going as if propelled by the part of her brain that refused to accept what her parents were doing. Why would they force such a hasty wedding upon her or Stokes? Why was her father so unrelenting? It was almost as if this match mattered more to him than she did.
Regina’s chest tightened against the air being forced in and out of her lungs. She had no idea where she was now, she reflected as her slippers struck the pavement with increasing speed. The streets and buildings were unfamiliar, though still somewhat respectable.
Something clanged behind her, causing her to dart down a street to her left where she almost smashed into a man. He staggered sideways, his hand briefly touching her elbow as she swerved around him.
“Looking for a groom?” His drunken voice turned to lewd laughter. “I’ll help you out!”
Ignoring him, Regina continued on her way with increased determination. The silk netting and lace billowing out around her merged with the thickening fog in a ghostly effect. Three streets later, her toe caught an uneven spot on the ground and she tripped, stumbling forward with a gasp. Her arms cartwheeled as she made a desperate attempt to maintain her balance. But her body was angled too far forward, and her speed only added momentum to the fall that now seemed inevitable.
Until her entire front connected with something warm and wonderfully solid that instantly stopped her descent. An arm came around her, bracing her against the person who’d caught her, and Regina instinctively started to struggle.
“What the devil?” a masculine voice muttered. “Be still, damn it!
Regina gasped and looked up at the man who now held her.
A pair of coffee-colored eyes stared down into hers with mesmerizing intensity. Raven locks protruded at haphazard angles from beneath the brim of a velvet top hat. Expressive eyebrows drew together in wonder, puckering a prominent forehead and drawing Regina’s attention toward the man’s nose. It was elegantly shaped in a chiseled straight line that slanted toward a neatly trimmed moustache. The dense hair hovered above a wide mouth that presently smirked at her with what could only be described as lethal amusement.
Recognizing him from all the sketches she’d seen in the newspapers over the years, she blurted the first thing that came to her mind. “I know who you are.” Carlton Guthrie’s notoriety was such that not knowing who he was would have been impossible. His smirk became more pronounced as the edge of his mouth curled upward. “You’re the Scoundrel of St. Giles.”