Cornwall, Fall 1759
Alyson Hampton clung to the masculine hand holding hers as she gazed over the choppy sea. Standing on the bluff, she let the wind off the water blow her black cloud of hair over her shoulders. Her eyes reflected the silver gleam of overcast skies.
A vague smile tugged at her lips under the familiar admiration of the man watching her. The desire that had caught them both by surprise a few months ago blossomed into a strong urge that was difficult to fight.
Alyson loved the natural cowlick that normally cascaded golden hair upon Alan’s noble brow. She wished he had not bothered with the formality of his powdered wig today. She had not yet developed the temerity to mention her distaste for his wig, however, so she merely smiled as he drew his hand through her hair.
“You are so lovely, you shame the skies for not smiling upon you,” he murmured.
Her lips parted at this nonsensical statement, and she turned her attention back again to the choppy sea. Watching her long-legged spaniel puppy dancing after some creature at the cliff’s edge, she abruptly frowned.
“Peabody! Heel!” She spoke sharply, urgently, so unlike her usual tones that both man and beast stared in astonishment.
The puppy bounded happily toward her, and Alyson relaxed. Returning to her normal absent-minded state, she scratched the dog’s head before allowing Alan to lead her away from the windy bluff.
As they walked away, a cascade of pebbles fell from the ridge where the puppy had been standing. The soggy mud slid after the falling pebbles, and a moment later the tuft of grass where the dog had been disappeared in a rumble of mud and stone to the sea below.
Alan caught his breath in shock. Alyson serenely picked a late wildflower. He expelled his breath and grinned. “Is that an example of that Scots second sight the servants claim you possess?”
Alyson glanced at him with surprise; then, noting his mocking grin, she laughed. Picking up the skirts of her apron and gown, she raced him down the hill to the sanctuary of a rolling valley where they were hidden from all sight of the house.
Alan caught up with her in a few long strides, pulling her into his arms as soon as the shadow of the hill hid them. His lips found hers, and in a few brief seconds their laughter melted into whispered sighs.
Remembering that day with a happy flush, Alyson leaned over the upstairs balustrade to scan the majestic hall below. Boughs of evergreen and ropes of holly looped and spiraled down the polished wood of the staircase and throughout the hall. Tantalizing smells wafted up from the kitchen, and whispered conversations and giggles echoed from the far corners of the house. Excitement raced through her as she noted the footman opening the door.
He was here! Heart pumping, she stepped back into the shadows of the upper hall. She knew Alan’s formidable parents would precede him, and they would not approve of her forwardness in racing to greet their son.
She curled up on the backless sofa at the top of the stairs and listened to the deep male voices carrying up to her. That one was Alan’s, and she smiled as she imagined him swinging off his heavy greatcoat and handing it to the footman. He would be wearing his formal wig, a short, dignified one unlike his father’s old-fashioned full-bottomed one. He would have on his new green frock coat with the buff cuffs turned back and held with gold buttons. She couldn’t decide what vest he would wear, but it would look dashing against the starched lace of his shirt and the gold chain of his watch. When she tried to imagine the rest of his attire, her cheeks grew warm.
She was eighteen-years old and had never been out of Cornwall in her life. Alan Tremaine was the only young gentleman of her acquaintance. She had no business knowing about a man’s breeches and what was under them, but she had heard enough from hushed conversations in the kitchen to know there was some marvelous secret to it. She felt every confidence that Alan would be the one to teach her all his secrets. Perhaps this very night he would seek her out. It had been so long since she had seen him. She had never known time could go so slowly until he went to London.
Her grandfather’s greeting rose from the drafty magnificence of the hall, and Alyson leapt to her feet to find occupation in the second-floor salon. The earl would be accompanying his guests up the stairs shortly. He would not like to find her hovering in the dark like a common maidservant.
Alyson knew Lady Tremaine considered her no better than the earl’s bastard granddaughter, but Alyson shrugged off her foolishness. She was aware her father had never married her mother in the church, but the romantic tragedy of their lives overshadowed the whispered labels people applied behind her back. In Scotland, formal vows weren’t necessary.
Besides that, her father’s father had married her mother’s mother, and it seemed to her that made everything perfectly legitimate, particularly since she had never known her parents. An only son, her father had perished at sea, and her mother had died of consumption within a year of her birth. Her grandparents were the only parents she had ever known.
Sadness crept into her heart as she watched her grandfather enter the salon. Since her grandmother’s death two years ago, the earl had grown old. He moved slowly, and the tired lines in his aristocratic face grew deeper with each passing day. But he carried his tall, lanky frame proudly erect, and his smile of pride upon seeing Alyson warmed her all the way to the bone.
She rose and curtsied, blithely casting a laughing gaze to Alan and ignoring Lady Tremaine’s frown. He looked harassed as his mother launched into a monologue of the tribulations of their sojourn in the city, and his father headed for the brandy decanter. Alyson drifted back to the settee and dreamed of Alan’s kisses while she waited for him to find an excuse to leave the room with her. Surely he must be as eager as she to renew their sweet exchanges.
Accustomed to allowing the conversation to flow unheeded around her, it took some time before Alyson grasped the subject under discussion. She caught it then only because Alan suddenly looked guilty and turned to pour a drink from the decanter for himself. Frowning, Alyson tried to tune in to Lady Tremaine’s incessant chatter.
“It should be an excellent match. She has impeccable breeding, and her dowry is every bit as significant as her older sister’s. They seem well-suited. Alan scarcely left her side during the entire visit. They’ve not decided on a wedding date yet. Of course, they’ll reside here most of the year, where dear Alan will help his father in the management . . .”
Alyson didn’t hear the rest. A hammer seemed to be battering at her heart, chipping it into little pieces. Surely she had not heard aright. Her grandfather was always accusing her of not hearing one word in two, and he was quite likely right. She had misheard Lady Tremaine’s lengthy monologue. Alan could not be marrying another. His kisses had promised her.