Genre: Victorian Romance
Book 1 in the Gypsy Legacy Series
One promise, two pendants…love that was destined to be.
Lady Christina Kenton’s life is turned upside down when her gypsy great-grandmother gives her a pendant, along with a deathbed request—Tina must promise to marry only the man wearing its mate. But Tina cannot bring herself to make the promise, for her late stepfather has already pledged her hand to his long-absent heir.
Jay Collings, now the Marquis of Thanet, returns to England after an eighteen-year absence to honor a promise to a gypsy who once aided him, only to discover he must break his vow in order to secure his inheritance. The last thing he wants is a wife chosen by the father he despised.
Tina’s gentle strength touches Jay in ways no other woman has. And, unknown to them both, she holds the key to Jay’s promise and his inheritance. But just as their fragile relationship begins to take root, the legacy of her gypsy blood brings danger to their doorstep.
Jay and Tina’s destinies may be entwined—but will they live long enough to fulfill them.
The outskirts of London
The brightly painted wagon moved slowly by the light of the full moon. At the reins, a gypsy, her face lined with age, hummed softly to herself as the horse plodded on. Only a little farther to go. She’d left the last town’s fair later than expected, but she had many coins to show for her day’s work of telling fortunes.
The scent of wildflowers filled the air. Summer was upon them and nature was eager to show off. An owl hooted in the distance, but otherwise all was quiet. As the vardo negotiated a bend, the horse slowed and nickered, then came to a stop. Snapping the reins was met with a disdainful toss of the horse’s mane. The animal refused to budge. Resigned, the gypsy clambered down to find out what was wrong.
Sprawled in the road was a young man. His clothing was torn and he lay face down at such an odd angle, that, at first, she thought him dead. The horse nudged him and he groaned. Moving quickly back to the wagon, she lifted a small skin of water from the seat, then approached and dropped down beside him. Running practiced hands over him, she found a large lump on the side of his head, and a few skinned knuckles. He’d obviously put up a fight, but she couldn’t immediately tell whether anything might be broken.
Turning him over, she found herself looking at a youth of perhaps seventeen with dark hair and brows. Dried blood was smeared along the side of his face and around his mouth, but it didn’t look as though his nose had been broken. Using the water and her scarf, she cleaned his face. A deserted road was no place to be at this time of night, and she debated whether to leave him there with her water skin. She couldn’t lift him without help, but if he awoke, he might be able to walk to the nearest village for assistance.
Just as she decided to leave him, he stirred and opened his eyes. Dark eyes regarded her warily and she scooted backward a short distance. Sitting up slowly, he looked around in confusion.
“Was ye in a fight?” she asked.
He turned his head sharply and she could see that he immediately regretted the sudden movement. Pain flared in his eyes and he inhaled sharply.
“Here, here,” she said gently. “Don’t go making yourself worse, lad.”
The boy looked over at her. “Where am I? And who are you?”
“Well, you be on the road to Lunnin,” she answered. “Is that where you be headed?”
He nodded slowly, the movement obviously causing him pain, then started to stand. She hurried to his side to help him.
“’Tis good,” she said. “Nothing broken. Come, Nona will help.”
“Nona? Is that your name?”
She nodded. “Come,” she said again. “Can’t stay on the road too long. Camp not far.” She appraised him for long moments, taking his measure, then commented, “Many years will go by before you pass this way again but you will return. It is your destiny.” He seemed not to hear her and she allowed him to lean on her as they moved slowly toward her wagon. “Tomorrow, Nona will take you to Lunnin.”
My father must be squirming in his grave!
Andrew James Collings, Jay to his family and friends, raised his glass in mock salute to the empty room, then downed the potent whiskey in one swallow. At the unpardonable hour of three o’clock in the afternoon, he was nearly drunk, but he didn’t care.
He never thought he would set foot in this house again, yet memories assailed him the moment he had. It had taken the solicitor almost four years to track him down to inform him of his father’s death. He’d heard a rumor about his brother’s death, but paid scant attention to it except to briefly register that, if it was true, he was now his father’s heir. Returning to find out that it was, and that his father had also died in the interim thereby making him the eighth Marquis of Thanet, had shaken him.
Now, he surveyed the library of Thane House as he poured himself another drink and smiled.
The library had changed. The last time he’d been in this room the drapes and carpet had not been royal blue. The overstuffed, wingback chairs sitting before the fireplace and the large oak desk had not been upholstered in wine red velvet. What hadn’t changed was the smell of beeswax used to clean all the surfaces to a bright shine, the dreary paintings of the English countryside displayed on the walls between the oak floor to ceiling bookshelves, and the location of the whisky decanter on the sideboard.
Crossing the thick Aubusson carpet to the window, he pushed aside the velvet drapes and stared out across a nearly deserted London square at the houses standing sentinel over the small patch of green in the center without seeing any of it. A hackney went by, but he was lost in the past.
He was the ungovernable one. How often had he heard that? Wild. Reckless. Uncontrollable. Destined to end badly. First his governess, then his tutor, had said so. He’d heard it all before he was sixteen—before he left his home for what he thought was the last time.
Eighteen years. Eighteen long, lonely years. He hadn’t been idle—he’d managed to amass a fortune in that time, building a shipping concern and traveling extensively, but he missed England. If it hadn’t been for Brand, he might have lost his purpose long ago.
Now, he’d returned—but to what? He was not the same headstrong youth who’d slipped away in the night. He had come back a man and his father would never know, not that he would have cared.
The door to the library opened and in strolled Brand. His friend and business partner always made people look twice. He was as tall as Jay, but thin and wiry, often giving the impression of a half-starved adolescent. His light hair and pale skin only contributed to the impression of fragility, causing most people to underestimate him on first acquaintance. But he had become a master fighter in the Orient and Jay had been thankful for his skills more than once during their partnership.
“Not bad,” Brand commented now. “You’ve done well, my lord.”
Jay grinned. “Well, that’s a relief. I thought perhaps my humble home wouldn’t measure up to your standards.”
“Considering I have no standards, that wouldn’t be too hard,” Brand returned. Dropping into one of the wingback chairs before the desk, violet-colored eyes watched Jay keenly from beneath a thatch of straw-colored hair. “Now what?”
Jay knew not to prevaricate. Brand understood him better than anyone. Although six years his junior, Brand had a perceptiveness about him that gave one the impression that he could see right through any half-truths. “I don’t know. I suppose we wait to see what the solicitor has to say when he arrives. I sent a note asking him to come ’round as soon as possible. I suppose we will get to the bottom of this then.”
Brand nodded and said no more.
“Then we get to the bottom of your problem.”
Brand looked up. “Perhaps we should see what the solicitor has to say before we delve into my problems. One set of problems at a time.”
They lapsed into silence once more, the crackle of the fire the only sound in what was quickly becoming a suffocatingly interminable wait. Jay moved from the window to the desk, aware of Brand’s eyes following him as he prowled the room. He wasn’t staggeringly drunk yet, that might come later—after the meeting with the solicitor.
He also wasn’t sure he wanted to be here. There were too many ghosts for him to be comfortable. He half expected his father to come into the room any minute and demand to know what he wanted, why he was back. Returning to the desk, he settled his long, lean frame into the soft leather chair and leaned back, closing his eyes. He heard Brand rise and move to the sideboard. The clink of crystal told him Brand was pouring himself a drink, but Jay was oblivious to it as another memory assaulted him.
He was in the library at Collingswood, one of the family’s estates, standing stiffly before his father’s desk while his father berated him yet again. This time it was over the unauthorized riding of his father’s prize stallion. But, it could have been over any number of things—from being too friendly with the servants to being sent down from school to playing some prank on his brother, Aaron. Of course, some of the pranks had been somewhat dangerous and, with the invincibility of youth, he never thought they’d do much damage. Unfortunately, his father often disagreed.
His mouth twisted at the recollection. Although only two years separated Aaron and him, they had not been close. Their temperaments were too different. As children they were opposites: Aaron seemingly timid and self-effacing while Jay was daring and reckless. But, there was a side to Aaron their father never saw—a devious side that only Jay had seen, and often been the victim of, which was why he was standing defiantly before his father’s desk being called to account for something he hadn’t done.
“Why?” his father demanded, his dark eyes snapping furiously. “You’re just fortunate no harm came to him. But, why would you do something so foolish?”
“I told you, Papa, that I didn’t…”
His father cut him off with a furious oath. “Bloody hell, I saw you. Don’t lie to me, boy!” his father thundered. “If you cannot be honest about your misdeeds, then you are no son of mine!”
Goaded beyond sense and with the recklessness of a sixteen-year-old, Jay replied hotly, “Perhaps I’m not.” Then, before his father had the chance to reply, he turned and bolted from the room.
As he ascended the staircase to his room, he’d heard his father roar, “You won’t be when I’m done with you!”
He hadn’t cared. He’d walked away from Collingswood that same night and never looked back.
Perhaps, that long ago argument was about to come true, he thought wryly. Maybe the solicitor would tell him that he really wasn’t the Marquis of Thanet after all. That some quirk in the law allowed his father to disinherit him and pass the title to some long lost relative. The relative would have to be very “long lost” since Jay knew his father had been an only child, as had his grandfather before him. They would have had to trace the line back at least three generations, then back down again before they found another male heir. The title had originally come from France, but he knew there were no Thanets in the line still to be found there.
A knock on the door roused him from his thoughts. “Come!”
It was the butler, Keyes, to inform him that he had a visitor. “A Mr. Strate, milord.”
Jay nodded. The solicitor. “Show him in.” He was impatient to get the interview over with.
Mr. Derrick Strate was a slight man with a balding pate. A bit on the rumpled side, he reminded one of an absent-minded uncle, until you looked into his pale blue eyes and noted the keen intelligence that shone forth.
“Ah, my lord. A great pleasure to finally meet you.” He nearly tripped over his words. “I must say that I’m glad you are finally here. I came as soon as I could, as time is running out. Another two months and disaster might have struck.”
Pleasingly intoxicated only moments before, Jay was suddenly stone cold sober as the solicitor’s words sunk in. Introducing the solicitor to Brand, Jay bade him sit in the other chair in front of the desk.
“What kind of disaster?” he inquired in a deceptively mild voice.
Mr. Strate rummaged in his battered satchel for a few moments and came up with a sheaf of papers. “Ah, yes. Here they are,” he muttered to himself. Then, putting the papers on the desk and pushing them toward Jay, he said, “I think that everything is in order. The top document is your father’s will. You might want to read that first.”
Jay picked up the papers warily. He thought he was prepared for anything—until he saw the contents of the will. As he read his anger grew. The wily bastard had managed to trap him after all. Flipping through the rest of the stack, he found the other document referred to. Reading it through, he could feel the beginning of a fine rage. When he finished and looked up at the solicitor, the man flinched.
“Well?” he ground out. He didn’t trust himself to say more.
“I tried to talk him out of it, my lord, but he was adamant.” Shifting nervously in his chair, Mr. Strate continued. “He insisted that it was the only way to ensure that you took your responsibilities seriously. Having never met you, my lord, I could not gainsay his opinion.”
“I see.” Jay glared at the solicitor. “So, tell me about my betrothed,” he demanded in a tightly controlled voice, ignoring his partner’s sharp intake of breath.
The solicitor visibly relaxed. “She is a wonderful young lady. Lady Christina is, I believe, two-and-twenty years of age and currently resides in the dower house at Thane Park.”
“What does she look like?”
“Pardon, my lord?”
“Is she a hag? Does she limp? Is there something wrong with her that my father saw fit to foist her on me instead of society?”
“I do not believe so, my lord.”
“Would you say she was comely?”
“I—I believe so, my lord.”
“What color is her hair?”
“Black, my lord.”
“I’m not sure, my lord. Blue, I think. Lady Carolyn’s eyes are blue, as were her mother’s.”
“Your sister, my lord. She lives with Lady Christina.”
“I see. And how old is my…sister?”
“I believe she is fifteen or sixteen, my lord.”
Jay ran a hand over his eyes. Good God! Saddled with a wife and sister. Could it get worse?
“The earl is four-and-twenty, I believe.”
Jay’s head snapped up. “Earl?” he asked. “What earl?”
“The Earl of Wynton. He is Lady Christina’s brother, my lord. You will find a complete explanation in the documents before you.” The solicitor cleared his throat and continued. “You are his guardian until he reaches the age of five-and-twenty.”
“Guardian? Me? To an earl, no less.” Jay leaned his head against the back of the chair, resisting the urge to laugh, and closed his eyes. After a moment, he returned his gaze to the solicitor and sighed, “I suppose you’d better just tell me everything.”
“Everything, my lord?”
“Yes. Let’s start with a sister I didn’t know existed.”
“Ah, yes, I see.”
“I’m sure you don’t, but enlighten me, if you will.”
“You were not acquainted with the late marchioness?”
Jay shook his head. “Not unless you are referring to my mother.”
It was the solicitor’s turn to shake his head. “Lady Thanet was a recent widow when she met your father. Her husband had been the youngest son of the Earl of Wynton. Major Kenton—Kenton is the family name of the Earls of Wynton—was in India when his father and two older brothers died. As I understand it, the family was very unhappy with his choice of brides, but since he was not expected to ever inherit, they tolerated her. When the Major was posted to India, taking his wife with him, I don’t think the family ever expected to see him again. I am not aware of the particulars, but the major, or rather, the earl, died during the voyage back to England, leaving a four year old daughter, Lady Christina, and his six-year-old son, Jonathan, as the new earl. He did, however, leave his widow a will of sorts, and a letter asking your father to act as the boy’s guardian and trustee of his estate until he was twenty-five. By the time I became involved with the family, your father had married Lady Wynton and your sister, Lady Carolyn, also called Felicia, was nearly five years old.”
The solicitor paused, cleared his throat, then continued.
“As you may know, our firm has handled estate matters for the marquisate through at least three generations. When my own father died, I took over the responsibility. However, my first contact with the late marquis came when I was sent for and requested to draw up a betrothal contract between Lady Christina and your brother, Viscount Collings.” He paused again, as if waiting for a reaction. When none came, he continued. “When your brother died five years later, I was instructed to substitute your name on the betrothal contract. You might be interested in knowing that your stepmother was not at all in agreement with that course of action and, had your father not mentioned it in his will, I would have followed her instructions and destroyed the contract after his death. However, I could not. Therefore, the reason for this near disaster.”
“Does she know?”
The solicitor blinked. “Does who know, my lord?”
“My betrothed. Lady Christina,” Jay ground out patiently. “Is she aware of the contents of the will?”
Mr. Strate considered this question for a moment. “I do not know, my lord. Certainly Lady Thanet knew, for she and I discussed it at length after your father’s death, but whether or not she told her daughter of the contents, I have no idea. And, your father instructed me specifically not to reveal the contents of his will to anyone but his widow.”
“I see. And the earl? Where is he?”
“He is at Oxford, my lord. He is apparently quite a serious student.”
“I see. Is there anything else I should know?”
Mr. Strate was silent for a moment, drawing his thin eyebrows together in a slight frown. “I do not think so—except that you have less than two months to fulfill the terms of your father’s will. Your father passed away on July 29th, 1856.”
Mr. Strate began to rise. “Well, then, will that be all, my lord?”
Jay eyed him uncertainly. What was he to do now? Then something struck him.
“You said that Lady Christina and my sister were living in the dower house?” The man nodded. “Is the main house closed up, then?”
“I don’t believe so, although it may have only a small staff. Your steward, a Mr. Roderick Milton, has rooms in the house.”
“And the earl? What of his estate?”
“A Mr. Lyon of Lyon and Mayer handles that estate. I believe that the earl receives a quarterly allowance through them. Mr. Lyon would, I assume, be happy to answer any inquiries. A quarterly allowance is also sent to Lady Christina through your steward. Lady Christina has, understandably, not been happy about that arrangement. A full accounting of the amounts is contained in those documents as well.” He nodded toward the stack of paper resting in front of Jay.
Jay nodded. “Very good, then. Thank you for all your help.” Jay rose to his feet, signaling the end of the interview.
Once he was gone, Jay sank into the chair behind the desk and put his head in his hands. What was he to do now? His father had effectively put him in a corner and he didn’t know whether to laugh at the old man’s audacity, or curse him for the debacle he had created. His father wouldn’t have known about the gypsy, so he had arranged matters the way he wanted them to be.
“So what do we do now?” Brand broke into his thoughts.
Jay slanted him a glance. “Aren’t you the least bit curious?”
Brand grinned good-naturedly, showing white, even teeth. “Of course, I am, but I am sure you’ll tell me when you calm down a little. I’m sure the solicitor flinched more than once.”
Jay stared off across the spacious room. He hadn’t planned on anything so complicated interfering with his life. And he certainly hadn’t planned on taking a wife until he was ready to. Until he found the right one. The one he was supposed to find. Perhaps he should let it go. After all, the title meant little to him. He’d never aspired to it. In fact, never expected to come into it. And what about your sister? a small voice asked him. Don’t you even want to meet her?
There was the rub. After being answerable only to himself for the last eighteen years and not having to watch out for anyone except Brand occasionally, suddenly he was responsible for a younger sister, an earl, and betrothed to the earl’s sister. What a tangle.
“My father revised his will shortly before he died. Probably because I never responded to any of the summons he sent during the year after Aaron’s death, he decided that I was uninterested in my heritage. He had no way of knowing that I never received any of them. I suppose the will is written in the normal way, except for the last paragraph. In that one he nullifies everything left to me unless I honor the betrothal contract drawn up between myself and Lady Christina Kenton before the fifth anniversary of his death. If I don’t, or refuse, then Lady Christina—not my sister, mind you, but Lady Christina—inherits everything.”
His restlessness got the better of him and he paused to stand and cross the burgundy carpet to the sideboard. Pouring himself another drink, he turned to Brand and continued.
“What he has effectively done is disown me. The only way back into the family is to marry the woman he has chosen. I suspect that if he could have, he would have left her his title as well.”
Brand whistled. “He thought of everything, didn’t he?”
Jay took a sip of his drink, resisting the urge to gulp it down and pour another one. “He probably thought he did. He obviously didn’t consider what might happen if I refused to marry her and fought the will in court.” Jay was silent for another moment, before adding, “It’s just fortunate that I’m not already married—something else he obviously didn’t think of.”
Brand grinned. “That widow in Charleston nearly snared you, didn’t she?”
Jay grimaced at the reminder of an episode he’d rather forget.
“But why leave everything to Lady Christina and not your sister?” Brand asked.
Jay shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe because my sister is so young, he assumed that Lady Christina and her brother would take care of her. And he didn’t leave her penniless—a substantial dowry is allotted for.” He pursed his lips for a moment. “Then again, perhaps he assumed that Lady Christina would need the extensive lands and fortune behind her in order to marry well after waiting for me all these years. Twenty-two isn’t really so old, though. Makes me wonder what she’s really like.”
“I suppose you’ll just have to go and find out, won’t you?”
Jay smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Raising his glass in a mock salute, a beam of sunlight caught the amber liquid, making it glow.
“I suppose I shall…eventually.”