Trentingham Manor, the South of EnglandAugust 1677
He'd forgotten about her.
Well, maybe he hadn't quite forgotten about her, but he'd certainly put her out of his mind.
Well, maybe he hadn't quite put her out of his mind, but he'd known she was only sixteen. And sixteen was too young, so, being the sort of man he was—an honorable one, or so he liked to think—he'd made a conscious decision not to pursue her.
For the four long years since their last meeting, whenever thoughts of Lily Ashcroft had sneaked into Lord Randal Nesbitt's head, he'd reminded himself she was only sixteen.
But now, Rand realized with a start, she must be twenty.
Focused as Rand was, the priest's voice, reciting the baptism service, barely penetrated his thoughts. Nor did the wiggling month-old child in Rand's arms. Instead of looking at the altar, he gazed at Lily standing beside him in her family's oak-paneled chapel, her sister's other twin baby held close.
Twenty. A lovely dark-haired, blue-eyed twenty. A marriageable twenty.
In all of Rand's twenty-eight years, he'd never really considered marriage, so the notion was jarring.
"Having now," the priest continued, "in the name of these children, made these promises, wilt thou also on thy part take heed that these children learn the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and all other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul's health?"
"I will, by God's help," Lily replied softly. Gently, gazing down at the babe in her arms.
Rand was unsurprised. In four years she had changed, of course. But her gentleness, that innate sweetness, hadn't changed. Couldn't have changed. It was what made her Lily.
Ford Chase, Rand's friend—and father of the children in question—elbowed him in the ribs.
"Hmm?" Startled, Rand looked down to the lad he was holding, its bald little head patterned with colors made by sun streaming through the chapel's stained-glass windows. Ford's child, he thought, surprised by a rush of tenderness. Rand's godchild…or at least the tiny babe and his twin sister would be his godchildren once they managed to get through this interminable service.
"I will," he answered, echoing Lily's words and vaguely wondering what he'd just agreed to.
"By God's help," the priest prompted.
"By God's help."
God help him get through this ritual. Mass, and then a lesson, and now this ceremony at the font—Rand felt like he'd been standing on his feet forever. Delivering a two-hour lecture at Oxford wasn't nearly this exhausting. He feared his knees were locked permanently.
He wanted this to be over. He wanted to talk to Lily. Never mind that she'd barely noticed him. He'd arrived at the last minute and had no chance to greet her before this rigmarole all began.
The priest turned a page in his Book of Common Prayer. "Wilt thou take heed that these children, so soon as sufficiently instructed, be brought to the bishop to be confirmed by him?"
"I will." Rand and Lily said the words together this time. Their voices, he thought, sounded good together.
"Name these children."
The child squirmed in Rand's arms, choosing then to begin wailing. "Marcus Cicero Chase," Rand bellowed over the cries.
"Rebecca Ashcroft Chase," Lily said more softly and with a smile, even though the girl's cry had joined her twin brother's, seeming to fill the chapel all the way up to its sculpted Tudor ceiling.
Whoever would have thought such small infants could make such a huge racket?
The priest rushed to finish, scooping water into his hand. It trickled through his fingers, running in rivulets down the backs of the two babies' heads and landing on the colorful glazed tile floor. "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." He muttered some more words and made crosses on the children's foreheads. "Amen."
Amen. It was over. Well-wishers crowded close. Still holding his squalling godson, Rand turned to Lily.
She was gone.
How could she have disappeared so quickly? Using his height to advantage, he peered over heads. But she'd vanished.
Nearby, Ford held tiny Rebecca and was chatting with an older man. Lily's father, if Rand remembered right. Or rather, Ford was shouting at the man, since the Earl of Trentingham was hard of hearing.
Marveling that his tall, masculine friend looked so comfortable holding an infant, Rand shifted little Marc uneasily. Rebecca had stopped crying, apparently content in Ford's arms, but in Rand's arms, her twin brother still howled.
Glancing around for help, Rand was relieved to see Ford's wife, Violet, moving close. When she reached for her son, Rand gave her a grateful smile. But then he found himself oddly reluctant to hand Marc over. The babe might be loud, but he smelled sweet and had a pleasant, warm weight.
When Violet took him, Marc quieted immediately. Resisting the urge to run his fingers over that fuzzy little head, Rand leaned a hand on one of the intricate carved oak stalls. "I assume you chose his name, Marcus Cicero, for the philosopher."
Violet bounced the lad in her arms, her brown curls bouncing along with him. She looked more motherly than Rand usually pictured her. Did children change people so much? "It was only fair," she said. "Ford had the naming of our firstborn."
"Nicky? Ah, Nicolas Copernicus," Rand remembered. "Well, I suppose it's a better name than Galileo Galilei."
"Ford's other scientific hero?" She laughed, her brown eyes sparkling with humor behind the spectacles Ford had made for her. "Even he wouldn't saddle a good English child with Galileo for a name."
"And Rebecca? Who is she named after?"
"No one. I just like it. And there's never been a major female philosopher."
"Yet," Rand added, knowing Violet hoped to publish a philosophy book of her own someday.
"Yet," she confirmed with a nod, clearly appreciating his support. She touched her husband's arm, claiming his attention. "We'd best be heading home," she said when he turned, "or our guests will arrive there before us."
When Ford smiled at her, Violet's return smile transformed her face. Perhaps she wasn't as beautiful as her sisters, Lily and Rose, but she was attractive in her own, unique way, and it had nothing to do with the magnificent purple gown she'd donned for the baptism.
Moreover, it was obvious she made Ford happy. A sort of happiness that glowed from his eyes whenever he looked at her. A sort of happiness neither Rand nor Ford had dreamed of back in the days they attended university together.
It was frightening how much the man had changed.
Ford still held his new daughter, her tiny fist tangled in his long brown hair. Unable to resist this time, Rand skimmed his fingers over Rebecca's dark curls. "So soft," he murmured.
Violet nodded. "All babies are soft."
"I haven't touched a baby since I was a very small child myself."
"Really?" She looked surprised to hear that. "Well, someday you'll have children of your own."
"Perhaps," he allowed. "My favorite truism is 'never say never.' But God willing, should it happen, it won't be too soon."
Her laugh tinkled through the nearly empty chapel. "We really must be going."
"Come along, Rand," Ford said. "I want to show you the water closet I built. It's much better than the ones imported from France."
A smile curved Rand's lips as he followed them out the door. It seemed his friend hadn't changed that much, after all.
"What?" Lily laughed as her friend Judith Carrington pulled her toward a carriage. "What's so important you couldn't wait until we got to Violet's house to tell me? So important you made me almost drop my niece, not to mention nearly dislocated my arm dragging me out of there?"
Before climbing inside, Lily waved at her parents and sister Rose, lest they think she'd abandoned them. Hers was a handsome family, she thought suddenly. Her father, Joseph, was tall and trim, his eyes a deep green, his real hair still as jet-black as the periwig he wore for his grandchildren's baptism. Mum and Rose were both dark-haired and statuesque. They looked elegant in their best satin gowns, Chrystabel's a gleaming gold and Rose's a rich, shimmering blue.
Looking at them, one would never guess they were so eccentric.
Her mother waved back distractedly, holding her two-year-old grandson, Nicky, as she busily ushered guests out the door to their waiting transportation.
Feeling Judith's hand on her back, Lily laughed again and lifted her peach silk skirts to duck inside the carriage. "What?" she repeated.
"Oh, just this." Even though they weren't ready to leave, Judith pulled the door shut. Then she settled herself with a flounce. "I'm betrothed."
"Betrothed?" Lily blinked at her friend. "As in you're planning to wed?"
"Well, Mama is doing the planning. But it's ever so exciting. Come October, I'm going to be a married woman. Can you believe it, Lily?"
"No, I cannot believe it." The third of her friends to marry this year. Yesterday they'd been children; now suddenly they were supposed to be all grown-up. "Who will be your groom?" Lily asked.
"Lord Grenville. Didn't your mother tell you she'd suggested he offer for my hand? Father says it's a brilliant match."
Grenville was wealthy, but thirty-five years old to Judith's twenty. "Do you love him?" Lily wondered aloud. She hoped so. Judith was plump and pretty, but even more important, she was genuinely nice. A good friend who deserved happiness.
"I barely know him. But Mama assures me we'll grow to love each other—or get along tolerably, at least." The excitement faded from Judith's blue eyes, replaced with a tinge of anxiety. Her fingers worried the embroidery on her aqua underskirt. "It will all work out fine, I'm sure of it."
"I'm sure of it, too," Lily soothed, reaching across to take her friend's cold, pale hand. She squeezed, wishing she were as certain as she sounded. Lily's parents had promised their daughters they could choose their own husbands, but she knew it didn't work that way for most young women.
Her family was different. The Ashcroft motto—Interroga Conformationem, translated as Question Convention—said it all.
The Carringtons, on the other hand, were as conventional as roast goose on Christmas Day. Judith forced a smile and pushed back a lock of bright yellow hair that had escaped her careful coiffure. "Who was that handsome man who stood as godfather?"
Lily sat back. "One of Ford's old friends. Lord Randal Nesbitt."
"Wouldn't it be fun to be newly wedded together, have babies together?" Some of the color returned to Judith's cheeks. "You should marry him."
"Wherever did you get that idea?" Lily crossed her arms over the long, stiff stomacher that covered the laces on the front of her gown. "I barely know Rand."
"Rand," Judith repeated significantly, making it clear she'd noticed Lily's familiar use of the name. "What does that matter? I hardly know Lord Grenville, either. And believe me, he doesn't look at me the way Rand was looking at you."
"Looking at me?" Lily echoed weakly. She'd hardly looked at him at all. She'd been focused on the cooing baby in her arms, her sister's first daughter. Her first niece. Nicky was great fun, of course, but now she'd have a little girl to play house with, to fix her hair, to—
"Lord, he didn't take his eyes off you the entire time." Judith's lips curved in an impish grin. "Watching him was certainly more entertaining than the baptism."
Lily felt her face heat and wondered if Judith could be right—if instead of watching the ceremony, everyone had been watching Rand watch her.
But surely that hadn't been the case. Why would Rand be interested in her? The two of them had nothing in common. Her friend had seen something that wasn't there. "You just have the wedding fever," she said lightly, rubbing the faint scars on the back of her hand. "Besides, if he's interested in anyone, I'm sure it's Rose. They share a passion for languages."
"Ah," Judith said with a smug tilt of her pert nose. "You know more about the man than you're willing to admit."
Ignoring that, Lily leaned to look out the window. But there was a long queue of carriages. They were going nowhere.
"Who's that?" her friend asked, following her line of sight. "The girl in pink, coming out of the barn with your brother?"
"That's Jewel, Ford's niece. Rowan and she have been friends forever."
"What sort of friends? And what do you suppose they were doing alone together in a barn?"
"Goodness, Rowan is only eleven and Jewel ten. Your mind is too much on romance these days. Knowing the two, they were probably planning a practical joke."
"In a barn?"
Lily laughed at the expression on her friend's face. "Over the years, there's hardly a building on either property they haven't used to stage a prank."
Judith looked likely to say more, but the door popped open and her mother poked her head in. "Were you leaving without me, dear?"
"Of course not, Mama." Judith scooted over to make room. "We just came inside to talk."
A large, jolly woman, Lady Carrington wedged herself beside her daughter and tucked in her voluminous salmon skirts. Before her footman could shut the door, Lily's striped cat nimbly leapt inside.
Lady Carrington sneezed. "Shoo!" she exclaimed, waving a manicured hand at the hapless feline.
"Beatrix," Lily said softly, "you cannot ride in this carriage."
The cat gave her a hurt look but leapt out.
"Much better," Judith's mother said as the door shut. She turned to Lily. "This afternoon, I'm hoping your father will advise me about flowers for Judith's wedding."
The Earl of Trentingham was nothing if not an expert on flowers. "I'm certain Father will fancy being consulted," Lily assured her.
The carriage began moving at last. "I've my heart set on yellow flowers," Lady Carrington told Lily, "because Judith looks best in yellow. But she wants to be married in blue. What color will you wear for your wedding?"
"Blue is nice," Lily said with a vague smile.
She wasn't ready to think about weddings, and most certainly not her own.
Rose was a year older—her wedding should come first.