The eldest son of the Earl of Standish and heir to his late father's holdings, Alexander Devize is summoned home to his duties in England. Waiting for him, he believes, is Diana Sherwood, the irrepressible beauty with whom he shared an unforgettable night of passion, a young woman he fully intends to marry. But Diana, lovelier and more headstrong than ever, has other intentions.
A soldier's daughter, Diana refuses to suffer the harsh world of being a soldier's wife and plans instead her coming out in London, ignoring the memories of wild and reckless Alex. Convinced she's found the proper, stable gentleman in Robert Welbourne, she pursues her course, unaware of a treachery building around heror of the unwavering devotion of a soldier willing to fight for all he's worth in a battle he must not lose.
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Perched high on the Berkshire downs, five miles north of Lambourn, Standish Court rose out of the mist before the eyes of Alexander Devize. He had not seen his home in over three years and the sight of the large, spreading redbrick building, built around a graveled courtyard, caused a sudden tightening in his stomach. When he left home three years ago, his father had been alive and in charge. Now Alex was the Earl of Standish and he wasn't quite sure he was ready to assume the huge responsibilities that came with his new position. The change from the chaos of the battlefield to the settled sprawling acres of Standish Court would take some getting used to.
He left his phaeton at the bottom of the shallow set of stairs that led to the front door and walked slowly upward. He raised the knocker and banged it three times.
The door was opened promptly by a burly young footman who looked at him politely. "Yes, sir. May I help you?"
Alex had opened his mouth to identify himself when an elderly voice from behind the footman said, "You stupid dolt. That's his lordship!"
Henrys, who had been butler to the Devizes for as long as Alex could remember, pushed the large footman out of his way and said in a quavering voice, "My lord, my lord, how wonderful it is to see you home!"
Alex took the old man's hand. "It's grand to be here, Henrys. I hope I don't give everyone too much of a shock."
"Not at all, my lord. Not at all. Her ladyship will be so glad to see you! She and Mrs. Sherwood are in the Yellow Drawing Room. Will you go to them or do you wish me to announce you?"
"I'll go along myself, Henrys." He gestured to the door. "My phaeton is waiting. Will you see that everything is taken care of?"
"Of course, my lord, I shall see to it immediately." Alex took off his hat uncovering his black curls, then walked slowly through the entrance hall. He went through the arch that Adam had created to replicate the Arch of Constantine in Rome and into the centerpiece of the whole house, a huge circular domed room lined with twenty Corinthian columns carved from a striking green-veined marble. The vast open floor was marble and on the walls were a series of grisaille panels depicting sacrificial and martial scenes.
Alex's father had designed the room to inspire awe and wonder from the onlooker, and it fulfilled that role admirably. Alex stood looking at it for a long moment, then he proceeded to the right, to the staircase that would take him to the second floor.
On the second floor he passed through the main drawing room, which had a magnificent plaster-work ceiling by Joseph Rose, an intricate Thomas Witty carpet which mirrored the ceiling's design, pale blue damask walls and Chippendale furniture, through the music room and into the smaller Yellow Drawing Room, which had windows looking out on the front and the west side of the house.
The two women were seated on matching Chinese-style sofas with a tea table set up between them. Both were holding fragile teacups in their hands. Alex focused on the woman with gray-blond hair drawn back into a smooth chignon, "Hello, Mama. I'm home."
Lady Standish looked at him and dropped her teacup on the Persian rug. "Alex? Good gracious, is that you?"
"Yes, it is Mama." He smiled. "I'm sorry to give you such a shock."
"You're home!" Lady Standish shrieked. She stood up and held out her arms. "You're home, you're home, you're home!"
He enveloped her in a giant hug. "Yes, I'm really home," he said. "You shouldn't be too surprised. You wrote me that I was needed." He kissed her soft cheek. "You smell good," he said.
"I thought you would come home by yourself last year, when your father died," she said a little accusingly.
"We were in the middle of the campaign to push the French out of Spain, Mama. We've done that now, and I felt that my usefulness was over. So here I am."
Lady Standish sighed. "Well, I won't reproach you any longer." She turned to the woman who was sitting on the other sofa. "Louisa, is it not wonderful that Alex has come home?"
Louisa Sherwood, his mother's cousin, nodded her head. "It's good to see you again, Alex. We've all missed you."
Lady Standish returned to her seat and said, "Ring the bell, Alex, and I'll have this tea stain cleared up. Would you like to join Louisa and me for tea? Or perhaps you would care for a glass of sherry?"
Alex smiled. "Tea would be fine, Mama." He sat in a fragile-looking Chinese-style chair that was near the two matching yellow sofas. "Having a quiet Sunday afternoon, are you?"
"Yes. The girls went out for a ride and they took the children with them, so we have some time to ourselves."
A footman came into the room. "Clarence," Lady Standish said, "bring more tea. And come back with something to rub out this tea stain."
"Yes, my lady," the footman replied.
As he left the room, Lady Standish turned eagerly to her son. "How grown-up you look, Alex.
You were a boy when last I saw you. Now you are a man."
"Yes, well, war will do that to a fellow, Mama," he returned soberly.
"I almost died when I heard you were wounded at Vitoria. I thought for sure you would come home to recuperate."
"It was nothing more than a flesh wound, Mama. I wrote you that. It healed very quickly."
The footman returned bearing a tray with more tea and an extra cup and saucer. While the footman rubbed at the carpet, Lady Standish poured her son some tea.
Alex accepted the cup and turned courteously to the other woman in the room. "How are you, Cousin Louisa? You are looking very well."
Louisa Sherwood was a very pretty woman and she smiled pleasantly at Alex. "I am very well, thank you, Alex."
Alex turned back to his mother. "Now, what is so pressing that you sent me such an urgent letter?"
Lady Standish's face became serious. "The estate has been solely in the hands of our estate manager for a year now, and I think it is time that someone oversees what he is doing. He tells me the cottages by the river need reroofing, but I do not like to authorize such an expenditure without your approval. There are several other things that need doing. It was time for you to come home, Alex."
Alex thought that his mother, who had been living at Standish Court all the while that he was away, should know more about the necessity of reroofing the cottages than he did, but he didn't say so. He merely nodded and took another sip of tea.
"We can also use your help in another area," Lady Standish said. "I am bringing out your sister this season, and Louisa's daughter, Diana, is to make her come-out with Sally." Sally was the family's pet name for Lady Sarah, Alex's eldest sister. "It will be much more pleasant for us to have a gentleman to escort us than to have to go places by ourselves."
Alex put his cup on the table closest to him. "Dee is twenty," he said. "Hasn't she already made a come-out?"
"Well, she has been 'out' in the neighborhood, certainly. And she has had her share of proposals. But she's refused them all, so I said that when I took Sally to London, Diana could come along."
"An incredibly generous offer that we deeply appreciate," Mrs. Sherwood said softly.
Lady Standish patted her cousin's hand. "I have never forgotten how kind Diana was to Sally the year that she was so ill. And I will be very happy to have your company."
The two women smiled mistily at each other. "So you are taking both Dee and Sally to London for the Season," Alex said. "Is this a husband-hunting expedition?" His voice was a little tense.
"Of course it is," Lady Standish returned.
"That's the whole reason for any young girl to make a come-out."
At this point, the door to the Yellow Drawing Room opened and a beautiful girl with coppery-gold curls and wearing a well-used riding habit came into the room. Alex's breath caught.
"I am sorry to have to tell you this, Cousin Amelia, but Maria fell off her pony and I'm afraid she may have broken her collarbone. She is asking for you. Will you come?"
Lady Standish got immediately to her feet. "Of course I will come. What happened?"
"A deer darted out on the trail and spooked Candy. Maria fell off. I am terribly sorry, Cousin Amelia. It all happened so quickly that there was nothing we could do."
"Have you sent for the doctor?" Lady Standish asked as she made for the door.
"Yes. I sent one of the grooms from the stable."
"Oh dear!" Lady Standish moaned. "What is it about that child that she is always in trouble?"
The door closed behind her.
Alex, who had stood up as soon as Diana entered, now said, "Hello, Dee. It's good to see you again."
The girl's dark brown eyes turned to him. Something flashed in their brilliant depths and then was gone. Her hand touched the back of the sofa. "Hello, Alex," she said. There was a pause. "Or should I call you 'your lordship'?"
He felt himself flush. "I will always be Alex to you. You know that."
She raised a perfect winged brow. "Do I?"
He felt his breathing coming faster than usual.
She had been beautiful at seventeen, but now, at twenty... "You should," he managed to say firmly.
She shrugged, a lissome movement of her slender shoulders. "It's good you've finally come home. Your mother has need of you. Standish Court is an enormous estate. You have responsibilities here."
The brown eyes that were looking at him were cold. He was not accustomed to having Diana look at him like that, and he set his mouth and said quietly, "I realize that. That's why I have come."
"The war is over anyway, is it not?" she said.
"Yes. The allies are ready to enter Paris, and Napoleon will be forced to sign an Act of Abdication one of these days."
Dismissing him from her attention, Diana turned to her mother. "I think I will go back to the stables and check on Candy, Mama. She didn't seem to take any harm, but I want to make sure."
"I'll go with you," Alex said quickly. "I'd like to see what horses you have. Monty is still here, isn't he?"
"Of course. In fact, I have been riding him, so he is in excellent condition."
He turned to Mrs. Sherwood. "Will you excuse us, ma'am?"
She looked from him to her daughter then back again to him. "Of course," she said after the briefest of pauses. "When you are done, return to our house, Diana. I want to finish fitting that new dress of yours."
"All right, Mama," Diana said, and the two young people went out the door.