Late Summer 1883
If there was a hell, then surely he was in it.
"Do sit still, Jack," whispered Annabelle, nudging him hard in the ribs.
Jack regarded his sister sullenly, struggling to reposition his enormous frame within the confines of the ancient pew. "We've been trapped in this godforsaken mausoleum for over an hour and the bloody wedding hasn't even started yet. The stench from these flowers is choking me, I'm ready to strangle the choir, and I've lost all feeling in my backside."
"That old man over there looks like he's dead." His brother Simon frowned.
Charlotte gave her siblings a mildly reproachful look. "I think the flowers are lovely," she countered softly. "Genevieve said the bride's mother, Mrs. John Henry Belford, designed the arrangements herself, stripping bare nearly every conservatory in England in the process. It must have cost a fortune."
"Roses and orange leaves were a good choice for the Gothic arches." Her sister Grace studied the four extraordinary floral arches that soared over the aisle, creating a magnificent canopy of blossoms beneath which the bride was to make her much-anticipated appearance. "And the fence of lily of the valley and mums at the altar rail is stunning."
"Jamie, go over to that old man and make certain he has a pulse," said Simon, still concerned for the elderly gentleman a few rows across who sat frozen with his eyes closed. "He may need a doctor."
"He's just asleep," his brother assured him. "I saw him scratch himself."
"Lucky bastard," muttered Jack.
"Jack!" Annabelle regarded him with exasperation, while Charlotte and Grace giggled beneath the brims of their enormous hats.
"Perhaps you should step outside for a moment and stretch your legs, Jack."
Haydon Kent, Marquess of Redmond, regarded his son from the next pew with equal measures of empathy and amusement. At sixty-one he had learned to endure many of the tedious social ordeals that his status demanded of him, but Jack could see he would have dearly loved to escape the suffocating church as well. "Given the funereal pace with which things have progressed, I'm sure you've got a few minutes before we get started here."
"Just make certain you return before the bridal party begins to walk down the aisle," added Genevieve. His mother smiled fondly at him. "No bride wants a wayward guest stumbling over her train as she enters the church."
The colossal organ above blasted the cavernous space once again as the sixty-member choir wearily rose.
"I'll just be outside." Not waiting for the protest that was sure to come from Annabelle, Jack escaped down the aisle, ignoring the disapproving glances of the women in the church and the mournfully envious stares of the men sweating profusely beside them.
The overwhelming stench of the thousands of blossoms within had seeped beyond the church doors and saturated the hot summer air outside, forcing Jack to seek refuge at the side of the ancient stone building. He loosened his necktie and inhaled a deep breath, ridding his lungs of the cloying sweetness.
What madness had possessed him to let his family persuade him to attend this ridiculous wedding? he wondered irritably. He scarcely knew the Duke of Whitcliffe, and he had never met Amelia Belford, the fabulously wealthy American heiress the aging duke had finally deigned to make his wife. If not for the fact that Jack was so anxious to see his family after having been away at sea for three months, he would never have agreed to endure what was turning out to be the most excruciating social torture of his thirty-six years. The lavishness with which the church had been decorated did not bode well for the festivities to come. Five hundred guests were invited to the duke's estate following the ceremony for three interminable days of entertainment. That had to be at the expense of the bride's parents, Jack decided, for it was well known that old Whitcliffe had been struggling to maintain his decrepit family estate for years. Today His Grace would gain a handsome fortune through his blushing bride's dowry. What the sweating guests inside were about to witness was purely a business transaction, with Miss Belford gaining the dubious prestige of an archaic title and Whitcliffe reaping riches that far surpassed any he might otherwise have hoped for in this lifetime or the next.
Jack withdrew a silver flask from inside his morning coat and swallowed a mouthful of whiskey. He didn't care how many spoiled, social-climbing heiresses elected to race across the ocean to set their hooks into some doughy, impoverished aristocrat with yellowing teeth and a pitifully receding hairline. All that he asked was that they show up for their own goddamn wedding before he died of asphyxiation and boredom.
"Dear God," a small voice suddenly whispered urgently from somewhere above him, "please don't let me be killed."
He looked up in astonishment to see a slender, ivory-stockinged leg hoisted over the gray stone balustrade of the balcony that ran along the side of the church. A snowy cloud of fabric followed it, wadded into such an enormous profusion of petticoats and skirts and lace that it entirely obliterated the wearer. The shapely leg fumbled about with the toe of its delicately fashioned shoe, frantically searching for a hold in the thick, woody vine that grew in a twisted green lattice up the gray stone wall. Having found a branch that seemed to suffice, the small foot tested it once, bending the dangerously makeshift step as it applied more weight. Then another leg swung over to join it, and a veritable snowstorm of bridal finery began to awkwardly creep down the leafy trellis.
All at once the vine began to give way. The frothy confection yelped with fright and crashed into the bushes below in an explosion of silk and leaves. His heart pounding, Jack sprinted toward the tangle of vines and lace, certain the foolish girl had snapped her neck.
"Mercy!" she exclaimed, sounding more breathless than broken. "That was a real cropper!" Her head bobbed up and she began to quickly extricate herself from the crushed bushes.
Relieved that she was not gravely injured and curious to see what she would do next, Jack quietly slipped behind a tree to watch her.
Unable to free herself from the trappings of her extravagant gown, she jerked mercilessly at the hand-stitched fabric, causing it to tear broadly. Finally she had rent it sufficiently that she was able to scramble out of the bushes. She balled up the cumbersome length of her tattered train and veil, then darted as quickly as her fashionable little shoes would permit over to the edge of the church wall. Cautiously, she peered around the front.
The choir had finished its hymn and the bishop was assuring the melting assemblage that the marriage ceremony was about to commence. Jack thought that unlikely, given that the bride had just hurled herself off a balcony and was in the process of making her escape. He watched her spy the long line of handsome carriages arranged down the laneway. The first of these was the bridal carriage, a gaudy affair of ebony and gold bedecked with fat satin ribbons and gigantic white flowers. Evidently deciding that it would be unseemly to flee from her groom in his wedding carriage, the bride raced toward the next available vehicle.
"Quick, drive away!" Amelia managed breathlessly as she scrambled inside, slamming the carriage door behind her. She glanced anxiously through the window to see if she was being followed. Then, remembering her manners, she graciously added to the driver, "Please."
A wizened little man with sleepy eyes and a scraggle of snowy hair turned and regarded her incredulously. "Here now, lass, what's this about?"
"Good afternoon, Miss Belford," said Jack, casually opening the door to the carriage. "A pleasant day for a ride, is it not?"
"Forgive me sir, but this carriage is already engaged." Amelia struggled to remain calm as she glanced nervously out the window to see if anyone else had noticed her escape. "I'm afraid you will have to find another one."
"The lass is wantin' me to drive away with her," the driver reported to Jack, sounding thoroughly rattled.
"Really, sir, I must insist that you find your own carriage," Amelia protested. "This one is already spoken for."
"Unfortunately, this is my own carriage," Jack informed her.
Amelia's heart sank. "Forgive me--I didn't know. In that case, I shall have to find another one."
She wadded up the voluminous trappings of her gown once more and scooted toward the door. Suddenly the mournful strains of the organ within the church stopped and agitated shouting rent the air.
"It would seem," Jack began, cocking his head toward the church, "someone has noticed the bride is missing."
The blood drained from her face, making her alarmingly pale. For a moment Jack feared she might actually faint.
Instead, she jerked off her emerald earrings and tossed them to him. "Will those combined with this necklace be enough for me to purchase this carriage from you?" she asked, unhooking the strand of diamonds around her neck.
Jack stared at her in astonishment.
"You may have this ring as well," she added, straining to pull an enormous ruby surrounded by a glittering halo of diamonds off her right hand. "Lord Whitcliffe said it had been in his family for generations. Of course I've been told that he has been forced to sell the most important Whitcliffe family jewels over the years to meet his debts, but I don't think he would have given it to me unless it was worth quite a bit. He is extremely concerned about appearances."
"I don't want Whitcliffe's ring," Jack protested, flustered.
Her expression fell. "You're right, of course--it doesn't really belong to me. But the necklace and earrings are mine," she vowed fervently. "My father gave them to me for my nineteenth birthday a few months ago. You may take them, sir, feeling absolutely confident that no one will ever come after you and challenge your--Quick, get in, they'll see you!" She grabbed him by his coat sleeve as people began to spill from the church shouting her name. "Hurry!"
Jack reluctantly climbed onto the seat opposite her and closed the door.
"Miss Belford," he began, adopting what he believed was his most reasonable tone, "you are clearly distraught and overcome with emotion. I'm sure that if you take a moment--"
"What is your name, sir?"
He regarded her in exasperation, aware that it would be scant minutes before someone decided to orchestrate a search of the carriages. "It's Jack," he told her. "Jack Kent."
"Tell me, Mr. Kent, have you ever been utterly, hopelessly trapped?"
Her eyes were wide and filled with emotion. They were the color of the sea, Jack realized as he studied her, the dark, unfathomable blue of the ocean when the sun sparkled like fallen stars upon its softly rippling waves. Long, smoky lashes veiled her upper lids, which on closer inspection were puffy and rimmed with scarlet, and crescent-shaped bruises of sleeplessness stained the delicate skin below. Her features were small and beautifully rendered, her complexion as fine as creamy silk, save for a playful splash of freckles that slipped across her nose, which Jack found disconcertingly charming. Her once artfully arranged hair was spilling in pale gold around her shoulders, a hopeless tangle of wayward pins, tattered veil, and bits of leaf. His runaway bride was tall, and her escapade down the wall suggested that she was fairly strong, but in that moment she seemed achingly small and fragile amidst the copious layers of her ruined bridal finery.
"Have you ever felt that you were about to be sentenced to a horrible existence you knew you could not bear," Amelia continued earnestly, "because the world wanted to imprison you simply because of who you were?"
His jaw tightened. The wounds of his past were buried beneath the years of Genevieve and Haydon's gentle care, but Miss Belford's words still cut him. Some wounds could never heal, he reflected bitterly, no matter how many years or how much money was layered in protective bandages over them.
For a moment Amelia feared she had offended him. A flash of anger had heated his gray gaze, and she noticed an almost imperceptible clenching of his jaw. There was a harsh wariness to the man before her that she had not encountered in any of the other scores of preening men she had met since arriving in England. His features were handsome but ruggedly cut, his tall physique lean and muscular, which was unlike the indulged softness she had come to expect from most of his peers. A jagged scar marred the darkly stubbled skin of his left cheek, and it seemed to have grown whiter as he considered her question. "Perhaps you have never known what it is to feel absolutely desperate," she continued, shrinking back from the window as dozens more people flowed from the church to join the search for her. Her maid was now standing on the balcony from which she had made her escape, and a crowd had gathered to point excitedly at the telltale broken vine and crushed bushes below. "So desperate that you would risk anything, and everything, just for the faint chance that maybe there was another life waiting for you somewhere, if only you could break free and find it."
Her eyes were luminous with a haunting mixture of frail hope and overwhelming fear. Jack cursed silently. He was not in the habit of rescuing runaway heiresses. He had only agreed to attend Whitcliffe's nuptials as a way of spending some brief time with his family before heading back to Scotland. There he would spend a quick day or two getting updated on the status of his shipping business before departing for Ceylon. He did not have time to get involved in Miss Belford's romantic dilemma, however unfortunate or compelling it might be. The only rational thing to do was to open the door at once and escort her out of the carriage and into the welcoming arms of her betrothed, who was no doubt currently overcome with concern for her welfare.
He stole a glance out the window. Amidst the crowd he now saw the imposing figure of Mr. John Henry Belford, her father, bellowing her name, whether with alarm or profound irritation Jack could not be sure. A heavily jeweled woman draped in pale peach silk trimmed with sable, which was utterly inappropriate given the blistering heat of the day, stood at his side, her face twisted into a mask of tightly affected calm. The bride's charming mother, he decided. And standing off to one side was pompous old Whitcliffe, his bulky, sagging form sweating in an ill-fitting wine-colored morning coat and trousers, his flaccid face nearly purple with apoplectic rage.
Perhaps her betrothed's arms were not so welcoming after all.
"I take it then, Miss Belford, that this match was not of your own choosing?" Jack ventured, not quite ready to abandon her to her fate.
Amelia shook her head miserably. "My mother was very determined that I marry an aristocrat of no lesser rank than a duke. But unfortunately there aren't that many dukes running about, and fewer still who are actually available for marriage. Lord Whitcliffe was the best she could find, and he was willing to take me on, despite the fact that he believes me to be common and foolish."
"He told you that?" Jack felt a sudden irrepressible urge to grab Whitcliffe by his almost nonexistent neck and choke an apology from him.
"I overheard him telling my father. At first I thought he was only saying it because he was trying to get my father to pay him more for the privilege of my marrying him. It may surprise you to learn, Mr. Kent, that for an American girl to marry an English lord costs quite a bit of money. But then Lord Whitcliffe cited some examples of what he called my 'crass and unseemly behavior,' and I knew he really did think that I was frightfully uncouth." She lowered her gaze and made a halfhearted attempt to straighten the torn cocoon of satin and silk surrounding her.
Jack thought of her scuttling down the side of the church in her wedding gown. Whitcliffe would have probably had a heart attack had he been witness to that particular escapade. He repressed the impulse to smile.
"If you won't sell your carriage to me, Mr. Kent, would you consider permitting me to hire it for a day or two?" Amelia persisted, hopefully. "I promise that I shall take very good care of it, and will send it back to you directly."
Jack avoided her imploring gaze. His family had exited the church and was standing in a cluster, searching the crowd for him. His three sisters looked extremely pretty in their elegant outfits, which had been designed by Grace. Each of his sisters was happily married to a man of her own choosing. Although Jack was familiar with the practice of arranged marriages, particularly amongst the nobility, Genevieve's gentle upbringing had always stressed the principles of independent thought and freedom of choice, and she had instilled those values in her children. The idea of Annabelle or Grace or his beloved Charlotte being offered up like prized lambs to be purchased by the highest bidder was utterly abhorrent.
"Mr. Kent?" Amelia's voice was strained.
A party of men was fanning out to search the carriages. Jack noticed Simon and Jamie making their way toward his vehicle. Genevieve had probably asked them to take a look inside, not to search for the missing bride, but to see if their wayward brother had taken refuge within and fallen asleep. The minute they discovered Miss Belford, the carriage would be swarmed. His determined little heiress would be hastily extracted and marched into the church to meet her fate with Whitcliffe, willing or not.
And there wouldn't be a damn thing he could do about it.
"Please, Mr. Kent," Amelia whispered.
She reached out and laid her hand upon his, beseeching him with her touch.
He stared at her hand in surprise. It felt cool and soft upon his skin, despite the sweltering heat of the day and the sudden closeness of the carriage. It was a small hand, made even slighter by the enormity of the ostentatious ring Whitcliffe had elected to bestow upon it. The fingers were slender and immaculately manicured, as one might have expected of a bride on her wedding day, and the skin was pale and silky smooth, indicating that it had spent much of its existence safely swaddled in expensive gloves. But it was the profusion of thin, scarlet scratches hatched across it that captivated his attention. They must have occurred during her fall, Jack realized, as she desperately struggled to cling to the vine before plummeting helplessly into the bushes below. He took her hand and slowly turned it over, only to discover a deeper cut slashed into the tender flesh of her palm. It oozed a thin stream of blood which had smeared his own skin.
She had asked him if he had ever known what it was to be hopelessly trapped. The bitter truth was, he did know all too well. Until he saw that ruby stain of blood marring his own skin, he had not understood how desperate she was.
And suddenly he remembered with piercing clarity how it felt to be alone and terrified.
"Oliver," he began, the steady calm of his voice belying the enormity of what he was about to do, "turn the carriage around and slowly drive away."
The driver's aged eyes widened in disbelief. "With her?"
"But--she's the bride!" Oliver protested, as if he thought that Jack must have overlooked that particular detail.
"I realize that."
"They'll come after us!"
"Only if they think that Miss Belford is hiding in the carriage," Jack countered. "As long as we drive slowly and give no cause for suspicion, I believe they will continue to search the surrounding area and the remaining carriages." His body tensed as Simon and Jamie drew near. "We have to go now, Oliver."
The old man hesitated barely a second, then obligingly snapped his whip lightly over the glossy black hindquarters of his horses. Jack leaned out the window as the carriage rolled forward, blocking his brothers' view of the distraught, rumpled bride hidden within.
"Too bad no one had the wit to check upon the bride earlier," he complained irritably. "I could have left for Scotland an hour ago." He pretended to stifle a yawn.
"You're not going home now, are you?" Simon looked disappointed.
"Miss Belford is certain to be found shortly," Jamie added. "She's probably just having an attack of nerves."
"I don't really give a damn," Jack replied, looking thoroughly bored. "I don't have time to stay for the celebrations anyway. I'm heading back to Inverness, and then I'm sailing for Ceylon. If you don't stay in England too long, I might see you before I leave. Tell Whitcliffe I'm sorry he lost his heiress," he added, waving to the rest of his family. "Maybe next time he should try to find a bride who isn't American--I understand they can be trouble."
With that he slouched wearily against his seat, folded his arms across his chest and closed his eyes. He didn't so much as look out the window as the carriage ambled down the shaded laneway, leaving the others to frantically continue their search for the elusive Miss Amelia Belford.