The rim of a huge orange sun was just disappearing behind the Dorset hills when Eva Schofield's elegant brougham drew up to the door of Crestwoods, her sister's secluded country estate. Lady Schofield, eager to impart some thrilling news to her sister, hurriedly heaved her ample frame from her seat, but she could not manage to climb down from the carriage without her coachman's assistance. Once her feet were planted on terra firma, however, her impatience lessened, and she paused to gaze up with admiration at the familiar house.
While she herself was a "town mouse," she fully understood why her sister insisted on living in the country. It was lovely here. The glow of the setting sun lit the tall, many-paned windows of the manor house with a translucent, reddish glow and made the gray stones gleam with warmth. The shrubs and foliage surrounding the entrance seemed, in their spring green, to be bursting into renewed life. Even the air was different from that which one breathed in town; it was crisp and clean, and spiced with a slight whiff of the ocean. No wonder, Lady Schofield thought, that her sister did not like to leave this lovely, peaceful place for London's noise, bustle and dirt.
Lady Schofield had taken only two steps toward the doorway when it flew open and the butler emerged. He looked startled. "Lady Schofield!" he exclaimed, bowing. "We were not expecting you. I trust there's nothing wrong with Miss Cicely!"
Lady Schofield took instant umbrage. "Quite the contrary, Clemson," she snapped, frowning at him in irritation. "Not that it's your place to inquire."
"I beg your pardon, your ladyship," Clemson apologized, but without perturbation. He knew that Lady Schofield's gruff manner, like a good-natured dog's bark, had no teeth.
She swept by him with her chin lifted in offended dignity, the angle of her head causing her high-crowned hat to fall forward over her forehead. "Humph! I've told my sister time and again that you don't know your place," she declared, pulling off the bonnet. "But of course she will never listen to me."
"Yes, my lady," the butler agreed blandly, hurrying up the steps after her.
Once inside the door, she thrust the enormous hat at him. "My sister is at her painting, I assume. In the library, as usual?"
"Yes, my lady. Will you wait while I announce you?"
"Nonsense! When have I ever had to be announced? I'll announce myself, if you please." She dismissed the fellow with a flip of her hand and strode off down the corridor.
Eva Schofield's younger sister, Cassandra, Lady Beringer, was standing before the library window, the last rays of the sun lighting the easel before her. At her right elbow was a small, scarred table on which were a number of pots of brushes, jars of solvents and an assortment of tubes of paint. And on a pedestal in front of her was an arrangement of fruit and crockery, evidently the subject of a still life. The artist, enveloped in a loose paint-stained smock, was dabbing away at her canvas, completely absorbed.
Lady Schofield paused in the doorway, smiling fondly at the picture her sister made as she stood silhouetted against the light, her fair hair haloed by the sun, and the planes of her face enhanced by the play of light and deep shade. It seemed to Lady Schofield that the scene itself was not unlike a painting--a Dutch masterwork, perhaps--with Cassie a chiaroscuro madonna.
Eva was greatly attached to her sister. Cassie was the closest relation Eva had left in the world, now that her beloved Schofield had passed to his reward. She and her deceased husband had not had children of their own, and being senior to her sister by eleven years, Eva lavished on Cassie (and on Cassie's daughter Cicely, too) all her motherly feelings. She and her sister even looked more like mother and daughter than sisters, Cassie being fair and youthfully slim, while Eva was dark and matronly. Only in their large, dark eyes were they at all alike.
Lady Schofield entered on tiptoe and came up behind her sister. "I like the lemon and the teapot well enough," she said, her head tilted critically, "but what's an hourglass doing standing there among them?"
Cassie whirled around. "Eva!" A look of delighted surprise brightened her dark eyes, but it was immediately supplanted by an expression of alarm. "Heavens, what's amiss? Oh, God! Is Cicely ill?"
"Of course not! You needn't look so terrified, you goose," her sister assured her. "I've not come with any bad news about your precious Cicely. In fact, I've the very best news in the world. She's made the catch of the season."
Lady Beringer sighed in relief before tossing aside her brush, wiping her hands on a paint-smeared cloth and throwing her arms round her sister's neck. "Dearest, how lovely of you to come all this way to tell me!"
The two sisters embraced warmly. Then Eva stepped back. "Heavens, Cassie, take off that dreadful smock before you cover me with smears!"
Cassie laughed and obeyed, dropping the offending garment on a chair. Then, smiling happily, she took her sister's arm. "So Cicely's made the catch of the season, eh?" she remarked as she led her sister to the door. "I'm not at all surprised. My Cicely is quite a catch herself. But you must be weary from your carriage ride. Let's go to the morning room and provide you with some good, hot tea."
"You are an unnatural mother," Lady Schofield declared as they strolled down the corridor. "One would expect you to be agog to learn the details of your daughter's triumph."
"I am agog, I assure you," Cassie laughed. "I can hardly wait to hear the news."
"Then I won't keep you in suspense. Cassie, my love, after only two months in my care, and as the result of my wise planning, my wide circle of friends and my prudent guidance, your daughter has managed to snare a veritable prize!"
This announcement coincided with their arrival at the morning room doorway. "Indeed?" Cassie inquired eagerly. "And who, may I ask, is this prize?'
Eva, grinning in triumph, stopped stock-still in the doorway and threw back her shoulders proudly. "None other than the Viscount Inglesby! What have you to say to that?"
"Inglesby? Inglesby?" Cassie wrinkled her brow in concentration as she stepped over the threshold and pulled the bell cord for Clemson. "I don't think I know--"
"I shouldn't be surprised if you don't, not having shown yourself in society for ages, but you should at least have heard of him." Lady Schofield swept into the room and deposited herself on an easy chair. "He's Jeremy Tate, scion of the Northumberland Tates. The name must mean something to you. Inglesby Park can't be more than fifteen miles from here. You might even have met him sometime or other in the past."
Cassie shook her head. "No, I don't think so. You know I don't go about much."
"You don't go about at all, that's the trouble. Well, that's neither here nor there. What's important is that the fellow is a charmer--polished, witty and quite handsome in a loose-limbed, lanky way. And what's more, my dear, he's a peer with two large estates and an income, they say, in the neighborhood of eighteen thousand!"
Cassie, overwhelmed by so impressive a description, sank down upon the chair opposite her sister. "I must say, that's a catch indeed. He sounds almost too good to be true."
Eva smiled with satisfaction. "Doesn't he? And to think that our Cicely managed to snare him when no other female's been able to do it in all these years."
"All these years? Cassie seemed suddenly to freeze. Her breath caught in her throat, and her expression became wary. "How old is he?"
Eva's smile froze, too, and she threw her sister a suspicious look. "Thirty-eight, I believe. Why?"
Cassie turned pale as a sheet. "Why, he's almost as old as I am!"
"A year younger. But what has that to say to anything?"
"Cicely is only eighteen! My God, Eva, you can't have permitted Cicely to become entangled with an older man! Not after knowing what I--!"
"Cassie, stop!" Eva fixed her sister with a forbidding look. "You mustn't think such things. Lord Inglesby is not Beringer. Just because your experience was dreadful is no reason to believe that Cicely's will be the same."
Cassie opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment Clemson appeared in the doorway with the tea trolley. The two sisters lapsed into awkward silence while the butler poured the tea. "A cucumber sandwich, your ladyship?" he asked Lady Schofield as he handed her a cup of the steaming brew.
She shook her head, too discomposed to speak. While Clemson continued to fiddle with the tea things, Eva stared at her sister in consternation. It had not occurred to her that Cassie would make a connection in her mind between Jeremy and the overbearing Lord Beringer, her deceased husband. There was not an iota of similarity between the two men, not that Eva could see.
Eva stirred her tea absently, her mind chewing on this unexpected problem. Why was Cassie still troubled by the memories of her marriage? True, that marriage had been a nightmare. Their father had forced her, when she was only seventeen, to wed a man twenty years her senior. Carleton Beringer had turned out to be arrogant and selfish, and for a dozen years poor Cassie had suffered who-knows-what dreadful experiences. She had not been able to speak of them--not then and not now.
But it was almost a decade since Beringer died, and Cassie was still hiding herself away here in the country, still avoiding society in general and male companionship in particular, and still turning pale at the memory of the man she'd wedded. Shouldn't the memories have receded by this time?
Cassie waited until Clemson withdrew and then instantly pulled herself to her feet. "I won't have it, Eva!" She spoke with a quiet firmness that Eva knew would be hard to shake. "I won't have Cicely forced into a marriage like mine."
But Eva, too, could be firm. "Forced? Who is forcing her?*' She put her cup down on the trolley with a clunk and glared up at her sister. "I care as much about your daughter as you do, my dear. And I won't have Cicely's life ruined because of your old memories!" She got to her feet and took her sister by her shoulders. "It's been almost a decade, my love, since Beringer's demise," she said in a gentler tone. "Isn't it time you put the past behind you?"
"How can I, when you tell me my daughter is entangling herself with a man twenty years her senior?" She shook off her sister's hold and turned away. 'Twenty years," she murmured in a voice that shook. "Exactly the same difference in age as between Carleton and me!"
"That number is an unfortunate coincidence. But it has no other significance. I give you my word that there's nothing about Jeremy Tate that is at all like Carleton Beringer. He is as kind and generous and good-natured as Carleton was selfish and ill-natured."
Cassie blinked at her sister, nonplussed. After a moment she began to pace about the room. "I don't know, Eva," she murmured worriedly. "Even if this Jeremy is the paragon you describe, I can't put aside the feeling that the age difference is too great."
"Your daughter loves this man. Truly! She is barely aware that there's a difference in their ages. He is the man of her dreams, I tell you! The circumstances are not at all the same as yours. You were coerced into wedlock against your will, but Cicely wishes it more than anything. If you refuse your permission, you will break the girl's heart."
"Will I? Oh, dear!" Cassie sank down on the chair again and twisted her fingers together nervously. "Are you sure it's not a case of puppy love?"
"Give your daughter credit for a little sense! She's no longer a child. She knows what she feels." Eva leaned back in her chair, satisfied that she'd weakened Cassie's resistance. "Wait till you see them together. Cicely's eyes positively shine when they look at him."
"Very well, then," Cassie said with a surrendering sigh, "give her my blessing." But her eyes--and her heart--remained troubled.
Eva reached out and took her hands. "Don't look like that, dearest. Everything will be fine, I promise you. Wait till you meet Jeremy. You're going to love him. Take my word."