A portrait from the period
that I think looks like Diana, Countess of Arradale.
False starts to Winter Fire
Prologue -- An invitation to the revels
In early December, the Year of Our Lord 1763, George III, young king of England, announced that for the last ball of the year, all must wear white. Diana, Marchioness of Rothgar decided this was an excellent opportunity to wear her five-month-old wedding dress again. Not many married in pure white, but she and her husband had done so for their own special reasons, and she would wear it every day, were it practical.
She descended the stairs of Malloren House, wide silken skirts raised just high enough for elegant safety. Candlelight sparkled off the diamonds added to the gown for this event. Inappropriate for a summer, country wedding, but for court... well, for court a certain glitter was required. She was, after all, not only Marchioness of Rothgar but Countess of Arradale in her own right.
Diana gave thanks for Malloren efficiency, which provided not only the crackling fire in the hall fireplace, but a number of imported Dutch stove around the house. They were pretty in their ceramic tiles, but practical in their warmth. Her summer gown, light as air and held out from her legs by cane hoops, offered no warmth at all. Beneath it, court required fine silk stockings and delicate shoes and definitely no extra quilted or flannel layers.
She would survive. Born and raised in Yorkshire, she was hardy by nature, and the coach would be warmed by hot bricks. For the transitions, she had her her velvet cloak, which was lined with ermine. Once in St. James' Palace she would probably do better than those who had dressed more warmly. The crowds would turn it into a hot-house.
Yes, she would survive, and it was worth it to wear the dress again. In many ways the gown was plain, but the delicate flowers scattered all over the silk were made of seed pearls and embroidery, and the lace that edged the low bodice and flowed out at the elbow-length sleeves was the finest Valenciennes.
For tonight, the heels of her shoes were covered with silver and set with diamonds, and her husband had presented his Christmas gift early -- a grand diamond parure of necklace, bracelets, and pins.
She glanced smiling at the fire and flame at her wrists, where each bracelet was clasped in white gold engraved with a D and B, entwined. Diana and Bey. Bey for Beowulf, the name given him by his father, who was obsessed with the Anglo-Saxons. The name only his family used.
To the world he was Rothgar. Or sometimes the Dark Marquess. Or even l'eminence noire, the dark power behind the throne.
Her heart already pattered because in moments she would be with him. They had, after all, been apart since rising dealing with the complex arrangements necessary before leaving London for Christmas.
It was always the same, however, this bubbling joy when their orbits met, after even a short separation. The fact that they might have failed in this, failed to find the way to be together, sometimes made her shudder by day and move closer to him in the night.
But tomorrow they left for Rothgar Abbey and the Christmas season, and heaven. There would still be duties. The Malloren Christmas hospitality was famous. Noble guests were invited, and all the domestics and local people would expect their due. But she and he would be free of court and Parliament, and of the busy, trivial comings and goings of London. They would, perhaps, have whole days simply in one another's company. Days to talk, read, ride, fence, and make love....
He wasn't waiting for her in the hall, but she guessed where he would be. There was always some small task waiting if the world was to be kept spinning smoothly. She turned toward the back of the house, where the offices of the Malloren empire resided.
Most of the work done there was financial and administrative, but for one of the most powerful magnates in England, court and politics intertwined with everything. Once, she had not realized that, but she had learned and thus created her own, similar arrangement for her own estates.
She was determined to bring her properties to the same power and prosperity as the Malloren ones.
A liveried footman stood outside the door to the inner sanctum, Bey's own office, ready for any order. He opened the door and Diana entered, compressing her hoops so they would not brush the jamb. This door was designed for men, and for business, not for female court wear.
Bey was behind the desk, writing, and like her he was wearing his white wedding finery. Like hers, his hair was powdered white for court. Since fashion and protocol dictated it, he was as painted as she, face pale, lips red, a patch high on one cheek.
She knew he found such things useful as well as necessary. Elegant beauty distracted from his strength of body, mind, and will, just as her feminity distracted from hers. Once she had fought to change people's impression of her, but now she used the illusion to her advantage and had come to love doing so.
She flipped open her white lace fan sprinkled with diamonds and slowly waved it before her face.
He looked up and smiled as he rose, eyes lit by a sudden fire that she knew must be in her own. A vision of possible love, hot and wild amid all their white purity, made her halt and catch her breath.
Made her touch her fan to her lips in a way that indicated yes.
He raised his brows, smile deepening, and she noticed that Carruthers, his secretary, was there, waiting patiently for the document Bey was about to sign.
Ah well -- a brush of the fan near the eyes to signal regret -- there was a special razor-edged pleasure in waiting. The thought, the taste, of him would torment her throughout the evening, and be entirely satisfied when they returned home. And it would be the same for him. She would make sure of it.
Bey looked back at the paper, signed it, and handed it to Carruthers. Carruthers folded it, then dripped hot wax and pressed the Malloren seal to hold it closed.
"Will that be all, my lord?"
"Yes, thank you," Bey said. "You leave for Sussex tomorrow?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Then I wish you all joy of the season."
Diana watched him shake hands with the man who had been his administrative attendant for over ten years, and to some extent a friend.
When Carruthers left, would they have time...?
Perhaps it was Bey's wedding clothes and the memory they carried. But no. It was simply Bey -- tall, lean, sure and graceful in his movements, thoughtful and generous to all, though many would not believe it.
He turned and came toward her.
She was vaguely aware of Carruthers bowing out of the room, but her entire attention was on the most wonderful man she had ever met, whom she had won by fighting the dragons left by his mother's tragedy.
"Urgent last minute business?" she asked as they joined hands, as he raised hers to kiss. She kissed his in turn, noticing that he'd left off his ruby signet, but still wore a touch of color -- the sapphire ring she had given him. She, too, wore only one ornate ring tonight -- the outrageously enormous diamond he had given her on their betrothal.
"Urgent last minute whim," he said in answer to her meaningless question. "I have invited the Trayce family to our Christmas revels."
That focused her wits. The Trayces were his mother's family, who had been estranged from the Mallorens for over thirty years. "Life has become too peaceful for you?"
"Can life be peaceful with a canker in the middle? Blood relatives should not be so cold, and this is the season of peace and good will."
Family meant a great deal to him, but she'd not thought that extended to the Trayces. She hated to see him headed for disappointment. "Forgive me, love, but do you think they will come?"
"With a Malloren, are not all things possible?"
He used his unofficial motto, but she countered it as she had once before with a tart reminder. "You have not yet taken flight."
"No?" he asked, with a look that made her blush. "Not even metaphorically speaking? We two have dared to aim for the sun and have survived." He kissed her right hand again. "I must try, Diana. It's time to bury the past."
She suddenly understood. "Ashart."
It was a name that could easily sound like a curse, and without meaning to, she said it that way. Bey's cousin, the Marquess of Ashart was over ten years his junior, but head of the Trayce family. He was just the sort to stir Bey's protective instincts.
But she was sure there was nothing Ashart wanted less.
Since coming south she had occasionally encountered Ashart at court or other social occasions, but only when such meetings were unavoidable. To begin with, it had been he who avoided her. She had tried to be warm, but Ashart had made it clear that there could never be anything more than icy civility between them. That he and the Mallorens were eternal enemies.
"Ashart," Bey agreed. "I wouldn't say that I wasted my life by living under the shadow of my mother's death. And," he added thoughtfully, "if things had been different, I would not have waited for you. Looked at in that light, all has been perfect. But it offends me to think of another life in the shadows."
She shook her head. "Is it not enough that you've steered your own family to safe harbors, Bey? He will not welcome your interference."
"Interference?" He led her toward the door. "I have merely invited him and my other relatives to Rothgar Abbey for Christmas."
"Merely!" Then a thought stopped her. "'Struth, don't say you've invited the dowager, too."
He opened the door and urged her through and on past the impassive footman. "But of course. It would give an unfortunate appearance to invite some and not all. Especially my own grandmother."
They had arrived back at the paneled hall. She turned to him, absentmindedly cooperating as her maid placed her hooded velvet cloak around her shoulders. "From what I have heard about the Dowager Marchioness of Ashart, she would not add to Christmas cheer."
"Perhaps it is our duty to enliven her life."
"'Struth!" she said again, fastening her cloak as the maid raised the hood carefully over her arranged hair. "Didn't you say you were looking forward to leading a quiet life now?"
He took her hand and led her toward the door. "All is relative, is it not?"
She groaned at that pun and felt grateful to be heading toward the relatively minor perils of the Court of St. James.
But as their coach rolled off, escorted by outriders bearing flambeaux against the night, and pistols and swords against other perils, she worried. If Bey worked continuously to keep the world turning smoothly, she worked to keep him free of shadows.
If none of the Trayce family came, would that hurt him?
If any of them did, would it create turmoil and strife in their home during their first Christmas?
To read another failed start, click here.
Winter Fire's publication date was October 28th, 2003.
To read the published opening of Winter Fire, click here.
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