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The Promise Rose

The Promise Rose by Joan Vincent
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When Lady Barry danced with a masked gentleman at Raneleagh Gardens, she felt a surprising tingle of pleasure. This was no stranger, but the now Earl of Prideau, who had broken his pledge of love. Lady Barry was struggling to free her late husband’s estate from his debts, and now attempts were made on her stepson’s life. Was Prideau the villain, or would he solve the mystery? Georgian Romance by Joan Vincent; originally published by Avalon

Belgrave House; February 2003
ISBN 9781610846875
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Promise Rose
Author: Joan Vincent
 
Excerpt

1748

The two young ladies on the garden path walked as closely together as the wide hip hoops beneath their Watteau-style gowns permitted.  Their huge sleeve bows dancing a minuet to their whispered confidences.  Near a small pool at the end of the garden they rested upon a stone bench, shaded from the afternoon sun by a huge beech tree, ancient as the estate upon which it stood.

“Oh, Glenna,” Barry tisked as one of her friend’s burnished gold curls sprang free from its pin and bobbed free beneath the delicate lace morning cap.  She refastened the lock, then carefully ran a hand over her own dark brown hair, meticulously dressed in close, tight curls. 

“What is a loose curl?” Glenna laughed, her bright blue eyes sparkling.  “Must you be so very serious about everything?” she chided her friend.  “Mr. McDowell is not so grim.”  She paused, and then clapped her hands in delight.  “If he and I happen to be alone this evening, I must contrive for a curl to fall free so he can pin it for me.”

“You would not!” gasped Barry.  She blushed fiercely.  “Why he—he could take advantage of the moment and—and kiss you.” 

“Oh, I do hope so,” Glenna sighed.  “Barry, you needn’t look so shocked—he and I are to be wed.”

Both young ladies giggled nervously.

Glenna studied her companion curiously.  “Have you truly never been kissed?”

“You know I have not been in society as much as you,” Barry said, her brown eyes darkening in reflection.  “Father does not often call me home from school.  I do thank you for having me come home with you so often.”

“After you saved me from that horrid Mrs. Mumpkin?  Such a nasty scolding and all over a little mouse.  How was I to know she would take such a fright?  I could do no less for you.  We shall always be friends.  When Mr. McDowell and I are wed you shall come often to visit.”

“Do you ‘care’ for him?”

“I suppose I must, since we are to be wed.  Mother says it does not matter.  She insists marriage is so much more agreeable when one’s affections are not involved,” Glenna prattled.  “But let us speak of you.  What of Prideau?”  She watched Barry’s cheeks turn a soft rose red.  “Ah, you do care for him then.  You must allow him to walk with you in the gardens this evening.”

“I do not think he is interested in that way.  He only likes to discuss Mr. Pelham’s programs with me and speak of his work.  He intends to enter the Commons.”  Barry raised her eyes from the pool’s glossy surface.

“I cannot believe that is all,” Glenna assured her.  “He watches you whenever he thinks no one may notice it.”  She grimaced, and then shrugged.  “Prideau would be far too serious for me.  But, well, you seem well matched.  I shall speak—”

“Oh, Glenna,” Barry protested, taking her hand.  “You would not, could not be so forward.  I could never forgive you.  There is not hope that such as I can attract Prideau.”

“Melloncourt,” chirped Glenna.  She laughed gaily at Barry’s consternation.  “Lady Melloncourt.  Don’t you remember?  The scandal two years ago.  Well, there were those who said she had no looks and no dowry, but still she wed a duke.  You are vastly more handsome.”  Glenna took in Barry’s statuesque height, the clear, rose-petal complexion and luxurious chestnut curls.  “If only you did not persist in being such a bluestocking.  Mrs. Montague might be pleased to hear that you read such things as Swift and Pope, and that you speak of their work with understanding, but really, Barry, that is what deters any man from approaching you.  You know I have not a single feather to fly with for a brain and I am to be wed to Mr. McDowell.”

Barry rose to continue their walk, saying nothing.  The truth of Glenna’s words was too well verified by her lack of suitors.  Even had there been many, she was wise enough to know that as the daughter of a minor gentry family of merely adequate means her chances of a “good” match were small.  But Prideau had shown a lack of concern for such matters and hope had tenaciously woven a tentacle about her heart.

* * * *

Barry released a soft, lengthy sigh as she watched the graceful curtsies of a rainbow of satin and silk gowns in the movements of the stately minuet.  She had escaped Glenna’s latest effort, the elderly Lord Gromley, a widower from the Cotswolds who had brightened visibly when introduced to the young but serious-minded miss.

It was very warm in the ballroom, and Barry fanned her face, wishing she had not consented to wear the heavy satin gown Glenna had brought to her chamber that afternoon.  Glancing down at the much-furbelowed golden skirt draped over the wide whalebone hoop, however, she smiled.  It was an exquisite gown and she did feel beautiful.  If only it were not the elderly gentlemen who noted it, she thought.  Her eyes flickered across the company of dancers, seeking a tall, thin gentleman with a quiet, subdued presence.

At the sound of a voice at her side, Barry started; then, seeing it was Prideau, smiled.  “Yes?”

“It is quite warm, what with the candles and the great crowd.  That is, I was wondering if you might wish a walk in the gardens.”  He hurried his words, suddenly nervous.  “Near the lantern light, of course,” he added hastily when she hesitated.

“Why, yes.  That would be pleasant.”  Barry took his arm, a tremor running through her under his warm smile, the gentle appeal of his dark eyes.

They walked silently for a pace, moving away from the other strollers.  Barry glanced at him and wondered at his lack of words, for they usually conversed freely.

“May I ask you a question of a most personal nature?” Prideau blurted.

His simple earnestness struck her heart a fatal blow.  “If you wish.”  

“Has anyone—has your father been approached—that is, are you promised in marriage?”  His firm lips tightened, bracing for the reply

Barry’s cheeks paled.  “No,” she breathed, her heart hammering in her ears.

“I see,” he said with a sigh of relief, then pressed her to walk forward, taking the time to choose his words carefully as they moved beyond the veranda.  “I am but two and twenty, far too young to wed,” Prideau gravely told her.  “But I believe the selection of one’s lifelong companion to be a most serious matter.  Do you believe arranged marriages, such as that of Miss Adden and Mr. McDowell, are for the best?”

“I—I had not thought on it,” she stammered, trying to puzzle his meaning.  “It is the usual manner of betrothal and both seem pleased.”

“But is the mutual enhancement of families, their security, the only goal of marriage?”  His eyes darkened, his somber demeanor intensified.

Barry frowned.  She struggled to defend Glenna’s choice and yet answer honestly.

“I mean no insult to your friend,” Prideau assured her.  “But to my thinking, happiness in one’s choice of wife or husband should never rest on an assessment of his or her worldly possessions.”

Prideau gazed at the tall beauty, bathed in the pale moonlight gleamed.  The young man drew a deep breath.  “I am but a second son and, as such, have little to offer.  In a month I must go to visit my father’s lands in the American colonies.  I may be gone for some time, a year, perhaps even longer.  But while there, I hope to advance myself.”  An intense hope shone in his eyes.  He took her hands in his.  “Do I dare too much to hope that—could we not exchange letters during this time?” 

She had not dared to hope that he cared for her.  “It would be an honor,” Barry breathed.

“If I can manage it, I shall visit your home before I go.  I would not want your father to think ill of my forwardness in speaking to you.”

“I am certain he shall not, but it would not matter,” she assured him, the knowledge of his feelings emboldening her.

The stubborn rise of her chin brought a smile to his lips.  “May I use your given name?”

Barry leaned forward to catch the softly spoken words.  Her closeness proved too much for the young man’s resolution.  His arms slipped about her, his lips closed gently on hers.  They parted slowly, gazing in wonder at each other.  After a long moment, Prideau spoke.  “This shall be our pledge.  It shall not be broken by time or distance,” he murmured.

“As you say it,” Barry said, wishing to laugh and cry at the same time, for she saw all he wished to say in his eyes even as he read a like reply in hers.

Raising her hand to his lips, he kissed it lightly then drew her to him.  “I have never said this to anyone before.  “I love you.”

“And I—I love you,” she answered shyly, raising her face to receive his kiss.

Moments later Prideau reluctantly pulled back, his gaze lingering on her face, then he turned, placed her hand upon his arm and glanced about.  “We must return to the ballroom,” he said regretfully.

On the veranda elderly Lord Gromley stood frowning into the dimly lit night.  He watched the young couple slowly returning, an aura of happiness surrounding them as it had not done before.  He resolved to act at once.

* * * *

“Barry!  Barry?  Why are you hiding here?” Glenna scolded, entering an arbor she and her friend frequented.  “Mother’s seamstress wishes to give your gown for the wedding a fitting.”  She paused.  “Have you—are you crying?”  Glenna hurried to her.

Barry wiped away her tears with her kerchief and stood.  “It is—nothing.”  An object fell from the folds of her skirt.

“What a beautiful rose,” Glenna said, retrieving it.  “A red rose, la rose d’amour.”  She arched a brow teasingly.  “Prideau?”  A squeal of delight escaped at Barry’s nod.  “Oh, do tell me what has happened.”

“Four days ago—the night of the ball, we went for a walk in the garden.  He asked if we might exchange missives while he is in America,” Barry reluctantly told her.  Her color rose.  “He repeated his request when you left us alone on the picnic yesterday.”

“Is he to call on your father before he leaves?”

“He spoke of visiting my home but we did not speak of marriage—not directly.  There has been so little time.”  Barry blinked back tears, reached out, and gently took the rose from Glenna’s hand, cradling it tenderly.

“A walk in the garden,” Barry murmured.  “A magic moment during a picnic.  And now there is no time.”  Her face began to crumble.  “He has been summoned home—departed this morning.”  A tear fell on the fragile rose petals.  “A maid brought this to me,” she caressed the rose, “with a note that he would come the next time I was given such a rose.  That he would then be free to speak its—message.”

Glenna blinked several times then beamed.  “Oh, my.  I never would have believed it of Prideau.”

“I can hardly credit that he loves me.”

Seeing the wonder shine in Barry’s eyes, her deep vulnerability, Glenna wished to caution her.  “You must remember that men are rather strange creatures.  Mother says they often say things they do not mean—and that is true.  Two months ago Mr. Retrand was swearing his undying devotion to me and now he is betrothed to another.”

“But Prideau did mean it,” Barry returned vehemently.  “My heart will break if he did not.  It will.”


Chapter 1

London   1760

The cold wind in the London street cleared the haze from Barry’s mind.  Anger at her dead husband’s barrister’s petty nastiness was only one emotion clamoring among many.  The estate was far deeper in debt than she could imagine.  How am I to save the estate for my stepson, Patrick and his sister Pamela?

An unruly team in the street reared and lashed out at their traces.  The angry driver whipped them down, causing one to neigh in anger and pain.

A squall of snow swept past and instead of the carriage and pair Barry saw huntsmen racing through the Cotswold countryside, her portly husband in the lead.  Then the hedge, the higher stone wall behind it.  The snap of bone as his hunter failed to make the jump.  Its shrill cry as it went down.  Then her husband, lying on the ground, unreasonably still, confusion reigning all about.

The carriage moved on; the scene vanished as quickly as it had appeared, but not the dread it evoked.  Death—so precipitate, so perturbing, so permanent.  Once again it had taken all and left her to manage with only her pride.

The shops along Queen Street went unnoticed as scenes from her past parleyed with the future.  Has it only been five years since Father died? she asked herself.  Then, like now, she had faced a barrister who had spoken the sinister words “debts” and “sale,” but at least he had been kind. 

Did this new barrister’s malice spring from believing she had married Gromley only for his money?

Well, Barry questioned, isn’t he correct?

What choice did you have? An inner voice asked bitterly.  The panic, the horrible indecision of those days came back with crushing force.

Six years before her father’s death she had refused her only marriage proposal and had never encouraged like-minded men.  With his demise she faced penury, and there was but one moral means of survival.  For three years Barry had had her pride daily buffeted and bruised by the niggling demands of an aged cousin who never failed to remind her of the gratitude owed.

A chance encounter with the elderly Lord Gromley, her rejected suitor, had renewed his interest.  Barry no longer found him the elderly, gouty nuisance of her naïve youth.  The drudgery of her days had transformed him into a gentleman who carried his sixty years well.  His renewed offer of marriage brought on a practical and painfully realistic assessment of her future.  She had reluctantly consented.

Gromley had proven no worse than most husbands.  Barry alone knew the price she paid for surrendering her dreams.  Hiding her bruised spirit, she learned to take joy in her home. Her young stepson attempted to make her welcome which cushioned his sister’s continuing resentment.

Barry shook herself from her reverie.  Whatever am I to do?   Her eyes clouded with tears.  She bumped into a man who bobbed his head, a leering smile on his lips.

Gathering her skirts, Barry ran forward heedlessly.  Her hurried steps carried her towards the river.  She did not falter even when splashed with mud and water by passing coaches in the evening twilight.  Only when winded by her run did Barry slow her steps. 

She blinked back half-frozen tears of despair.  Before her stood the new Westminster Bridge, the Thames River blending with the sky in the deepening dusk.  Walking slowly across it, she halted near its center.  Chunks of ice danced amidst the flotsam in the river below, beckoning her while the icy wind whispered its deadly promises.  She clutched the stone edge.  Anxiety, pain, betrayal, skittered in her mind like water wraiths.

Why go on?  Why?  The children—

Unheard, a bell-like voice ordered a stylish landau to halt near Barry.  Bright blue eyes peered at her from the window.

What will you do? Barry demanded of herself.  Patrick needs me—trusts me.  A great sob escaped her.  If only there was someone to turn to—someone she could trust.

Barry jerked away when a hand gingerly touched her shoulder.  Her eyes widened in disbelief at the sight of the diminutive form before her—a vision from her past.

Pushing back the white ermine edged hood of her cloak, Glenna McDowell shook her burnished curls.  “Barry, how delightful to see you!”

Barry’s knees grew suddenly weak and she fell to the street in a dead faint.

* * * *

Barry fumbled to push the pungent hartshorne away.

“That is better,” a soft voice belled happily.  “Drink this,” it said, pressing a cup against her lips.

A fiery liquid burned a path down Barry’s throat.  She spluttered, forced her eyes open, and attempted to rise.

“I do think you think you had best remain lying down for a time,” Glenna admonished her old friend.

Surrendering to the surprisingly strong pressure of the dainty hands against her shoulders, Barry relaxed against the pillows of the settee and struggled for coherent thought.

“Much better.”  Glenna smiled.  “I have ordered some broth for you.  That will help dispel the chill.”

Chill.  The word sent icy needles stabbing through Barry’s hands and feet.  How long had I walked in the bitter cold?  Where am I?  Her eyes ran over the sumptuous room with its silk damask drapery, velvet-covered furniture, and roaring fire.  “Where are we?” she managed at last.

“At my town house in Hanover Square.  Oh, Tabu, bring the broth here.”  She turned to the small figure who was silently entering the chamber.

Barry’s eyes widened at the sight of the small, young African, a red and yellow striped turban atop his head and a red suit snugly fitting his sturdy form.

“I’ll take it, Tabu.”  Glenna reached for the bowl and spoon on the silver tray he carried.  She daintily placed a spoonful of broth in her friend’s gaping mouth.  “Now swallow.”  She laughed, dismissing the page with a nod.  Continuing the spoonfuls as rapidly as Barry could swallow, she said, “When we have you properly warmed you will tell me how I came to find you on Westminster Bridge.”  Her tone was light but concern clouded her features.

Only after dutifully finishing the last ounce was Barry permitted to speak.  “I was walking—I forgot where I was going,” she said.  Then cocking a wary brow, she studied Glenna.  “How did you know it was I?”

“It has been many years, has it not?  Twelve since I was wed.  Six since our last letters crossed paths if I recollect correctly,” she ended, a hint of guilt lacing her voice. 

“Do not fret,” Barry assured her.  “It was as much my neglect as yours.  We just—changed.  Drifted into different worlds.”  She shrugged.  “You still have not said how you knew it was I.”

“For that,” Glenna waved a hand negligently.  “It was your walk.  You need not look so disbelieving.  I saw this figure from my carriage who reminded me of my dear friend Barry,” she said soothingly, seeing the other’s dismay.  “What is wrong?”

Barry sought to distract her.  “Mr. McDowell?  Is he at home?”

“In Scotland as he wished.”  A shadow flitted across Glenna’s features.  “He died three years past.”

“Were you happy?”

Glenna forced a laugh.  “What an odd question.”  Barry’s intensity prodded her to continue.  “He was a dear, kind man.  I mourned his passing until I realized he meant me to continue as before.  You can see,” she motioned to the chamber’s furnishings, “he left me comfortably settled.  Yes, Mr. McDowell was a good kind man.”  She smiled at pleasant memories before returning to her original question.  “But what of you all these years?”

“There is not much to tell.”  Barry shrugged, looking from Glenna to the fire.  “Father died five years ago and my husband last year.”

“You did marry then?”  Her surprise showed.  “I thought—”

Barry hastened to interrupt her.  “Lord Gromley was my husband.  We were wed three years past.”

“He offered for you a second time?”  Glenna studied the other closely.  “I had heard he had wed someone less than half his age but hand no idea—”

“There was no reason for you to surmise it was I.  We had a quiet wedding at my cousin’s home.

“And was your marriage happy?”

Barry looked away.  “It was not unhappy.  My stepson, Patrick is a joy.”  She frowned.  “His sister Pamela drives me to distraction at times and when she learns—” she halted, felt a blush creep up her face.

“What is it, Barry?” Glenna said gently.  “You know you can trust me.”

“I do need to tell someone.”  Barry said and blurted out her recent discovery of Gromley’s many gambling debts.  “I have come to London to see what could be done,” she ended.

“Then you shall stay with me while you get matters settled.”  Glenna paused.  “And your stepchildren also.”

“Thank you,” Barry said, relief that one problem was solved.  “But Pamela, my stepdaughter, is staying with an aunt and Patrick is at school.  They are not to return to Gromley Hall until I write when I am to return.”

“Then you are my guest,” Glenna said adamantly.  She looked at Barry tentatively.  “There was a rumor after Gromley’s death that his widow was to remarry.  Do not glare at me so.  England is full of women forced to starve, become mistresses, or remarry.  Even I was traded for a parcel of land,” she said laughing too brightly.

Reaching for Glenna’s hand and giving it a squeeze, Barry said, “I am not to remarry.  And I am very tired.  Can you see to a chair for me?  I must return to the White Swan and fetch my bandbox before they sell it for the inn’s fee.”

“I will send my footman at once to take care of both matters.”  Glenna rose.  “We have much to chat about.  London was beginning to be dreadfully dull.”  She halted before the gilded double doors of the chamber.  “Rest.  I shall return soon,” she said and slipped through them.

Barry snuggled deeper beneath the coverlets and sighed.  It would be a relief not to worry, even for a short time.  She looked about the large chamber. 

A chill deeper than any caused by winter’s icy winds ran through her at sight of a vase on the sideboard.  She closed her eyes with a mental curse against her weakness.  After all these years, the sight of a blood-red rose, of this one innocently posing on the sideboard, should not cause such deep pain.

* * * *

“You must learn not to stare so,” Glenna McDowell admonished Barry early one morning during the first week of her stay.  “One would think you had never seen a page.”

“In truth, I have seen very few.”  Barry took her gaze from the small, sturdy figure of Tabu, who had remained impervious to her inspection. 

“You worry too much about others, Barry.  It always was your worst failing,” Glenna told her.  “He is not unhappy. 

“From what you have told me there is but one person you should be concerned about at the moment.  There, I have made you frown,” she admonished herself.  “And that will never do. 

“Tabu, see that my coach is brought to the door.  We must be off to do our shopping.    It is only three days before the ball,” she reminded Barry.

“I cannot part with even a guinea until I—”

“Don’t worry.  I know the most reasonable seamstresses.”  She gave an expressive wink.  “One gown will do no harm and a vast amount of good.  Come.”  Her eyes twinkled an impish appeal.

The years roll away swiftly under that gaze.  Glenna had not changed in the least.  Mischief was still her ally.  Certain she should not, Barry said, “If the cost is—reasonable.”

* * * *

“And that gold velvet, Barry.  I always said you looked best in gold, especially with that dark mane of yours.”

“But I can scarcely breathe,” Barry objected as the seamstress tugged the last button of the gown over its loop.

“Breathe?  My dear, a slim figure is more essential.  Breathing? It is—superfluous.”  She shrugged nonchalantly.  “You have but to look in the mirror to see a tight corset is worth the discomfort.  All London shall be agog wondering who you are.” 

Barry heard mischief echoing.  “Glenna, none of your plotting.”  Further words were prevented by the seamstress fastening a golden silk ruffle about her throat.

At her startled expression, Glenna smiled reassuringly. “It is the height of fashion.  At least it will be when we find the proper accessories and a peruke.  Or do you prefer to powder your own hair?  Never mind.

“We shall take the gown,” she instructed the beaming seamstress, who seemed far too accustomed to her friend’s ways for Barry’s comfort.  “And the hoops and petticoats, of course.  Send it all to my house by tomorrow.”

The small wave of purchases began to swell, and continued to sweep Barry along as the morning progressed.  Returning to 21 Hanover Square with barely a corner of the coach left for them, she was certain they were about to drown her.

“Please see that these boxes are placed in Lady Gromley’s chambers,” Glenna instructed her stolid butler as Tabu and the footmen struggled beneath the mound of bandboxes.  “And have tea brought to the salon.

“Come along, Barry.  There is much we must discuss.”

“I most certainly agree,” Barry answered vehemently.

Glenna judged the moment ripe for silence.  With delaying ceremony she carefully sat and straightened the ruching on her embroidered stomacher while her friend paced before her.

Clenching her hands, Barry halted before her.  “Every last purchase must be sent back,” she began.  “I know you mean to pay for them and I cannot consent to it.”

“My dear Barry, you have been in the country too long.  One never pays a bill at the time of purchase.  It would be too—common.  No, in London a dun is sent after a reasonable period to assure that one is satisfied.  You would insult the shopkeepers by doing it differently. 

“The bills will be given to you the moment they arrive.  I will swear by Prime Minister Pitt’s oath,” she ended primly.

The guileless look did not reassure Barry, but she knew not how to combat the sensible argument.  “But they must be far too expensive for me,” she began anew.

“Nonsense.  The whole sum cannot be more than a mere—Ł5,” Glenna’s voice rose hopefully at naming the amount, warning Barry is was far too little.

“Truly?” she snorted.

“Barry, do you not remember our childhood?  Did I ever lead you astray or tell you a falsehood?”  Her seriousness faltered.  “Never mind answering that,” she laughed.  “We have far more serious matters to attend.

“When was the last time you danced?  Do you know a gavotte from a gigue?”  She hopped up and grabbed Barry’s hand.  “It would be a sure wager you do not.”  She wagged a finger accusingly.  “You must recall the minuet, though.  It has not altered that much since you last danced.”  The corners of Glenna’s mouth twitched into a half frown.  “We shall begin lessons at once.”

“But,” Barry objected hesitantly, puzzling at her friend’s near-hypnotic hold.

“Well?”  Glenna tapped her foot impatiently.

The reasons for objecting to attending the ball that had been teeming in her mind just moments escaped Barry.  A reluctant smile curved her lips.  It was clear Glenna was determined and it was not likely that even the Almighty could sway her. 

“Oh, Glenna.”  Barry laughed freely for the first time in months.  She feigned horror.  “Of course I cannot disgrace you by mistaking a musette for a gigue.  How appalling that would be.” 

Glenna’s laughter belled lightly.  Ah, she thought, breathing an inner sigh of relief, much of the old Barry is still there.  It will need but a little coaxing to lure her back to her former nature.  A smile hid the thought.  “I am so relieved you see what is important.”

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9781610846875