All Dressed in White
Book 2 of the Brides of Belgravia Series
When an act of quiet violence leaves country beauty Tessa St. Croix pregnant and abandoned, she fears disinheritance from her wealthy parents. To the rescue comes the self-made man of Joseph Chance, a shipping merchant in the market for a society wife. If Tessa can charm Mr. Chance into marrying her, the baby may be passed off as his own and Tessa can forget her disgrace and that terrible night. It’s a perfect plan until Tessa finds herself falling in love with the smart, handsome Joseph Chance and consumed with guilt about her lie of omission. She manages the wedding ceremony but cannot go through with their wedding night without a confession.
Joseph Chance thought he’d met the perfect girl from the perfect family and was destined, finally, for a perfect life—until his new wife informs him that she is carrying another man’s child. Devastated and betrayed, Joseph rejects everything he thought he knew about the new Mrs. Chance. Her weeks of affection and devotion now seem calculating and disingenuous, and her professed love was clearly a lie. He’s too much of a gentleman to divorce her, but he stashes her with her friends in a townhome in Belgravia and leaves the country, nursing his feelings of betrayal.
When a shipping deal goes bad on his first return trip to London, Joseph Chance is forced to seek out his estranged wife and the baby who now bears his name. To his surprise, Tessa is nothing like the conniving strategist he had painted in his memory. Again and again, he finds himself cautiously returning to Belgravia to unravel the mystery of the stranger who is also his wife. Can he tell the difference between curiosity and unexpected desire?
Tessa, meanwhile, has been strengthened by motherhood and life in London. But is it strength enough to forgive Joseph’s bitterness and melt his cautious, guarded heart?
All Dressed in White
Book 2 of the Brides of Belgravia Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
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All Dressed in White
. . . . . .
Tessa St. Croix was not a natural-born liar.
She was a charmer, perhaps. A flirt. A minx-y, chattery coquette. A reckless taker of risks. But a liar? A natural liar?
Not particularly. Not smoothly or boldly or effectively. Not without feeling as if the acid of the lie was burning a hole through the underside of her heart and her spirit was slowly leaking out.
Lying was a challenge for Tessa, perhaps because of her parents, who had always given her everything her heart desired, and her four brothers, who had doted on her since birth. Hers was a charmed existence, simple and expected and fun. On what occasion did she have to lie, considering all this?
The lies (or rather the failed lies) began in the October of 1830, when a trio of marriages swept the village of Pixham in Surrey like a crisp autumn wind. Tessa was one of three local girls, all friends, all with dowries well over £10,000, who sprinted down the aisle in less than six weeks’ time.
“And married to who?” the gossips had asked. Because the men rode into Pixham, bold as you please, made the acquaintance of Tessa and her friends, and before anyone could say, “And from where do you hail, sir?” they were betrothed to the girls, then married, then . . . gone.
The girls’ immediate removal from Surrey was perhaps the most alarming bit. The brides were uprooted after their weddings and installed in a townhome in London, in the posh new neighborhood of Belgravia, while the three grooms sailed out of the country. The friends made a life for themselves together in London, the so-called Brides of Belgravia, while the men pursued a foreign venture that promised to make them richer than their wildest dreams.
The first girl to marry and leave Surrey was Miss Sabine Noble, Pixham’s great beauty. Sabine had always been sharp-tongued and proud and in the scheme of things, her hasty marriage caused the least alarm. It was said that she had not been the same since her father died, and when a domineering uncle moved in to look after Sabine and her mother, no one expected her to remain in Surrey for long.
The next friend to marry was Lady Wilhelmina Hunnicut, the daughter of Pixham’s highest-ranking peer. As such, Lady Willow married the only titled gentleman of the lot, an earl from Yorkshire, with a castle and ancient ruins and mines of coal. Despite the speed of their union, a young earl marrying the daughter of a peer was not so very odd, after all.
But the last of the friends to marry was our own failed liar, Miss Tessa St. Croix, and the gossips of Surrey struggled with the whys and hows of this marriage for years to come.
Some said Tessa had grown weary of courting country gentlemen, of their hunting and horses and dogs. Some said she cast one glance on her handsome groom-to-be and fell in love at first sight. Others said her father influenced the match, because the young man she married was a London shipping merchant with grand plans, and Tessa’s father was a lucrative shareholder in the West India Docks.
But the real reason Tessa St. Croix married a man she barely knew (and the reason the gossips would never learn) was that she was ten weeks pregnant on the day she walked down the aisle.
Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say Tessa assumed she was ten weeks pregnant. Ten weeks was her most prudent guess. In truth, she was vague about the date. Vagueness was, in fact, the pervading view of her pregnancy overall. She could no more understand the schedule of her changing body than she could explain how the pregnancy came about. One moment she had been up against a tree, kissing Captain Neil Marking, handsome and charming and newly garrisoned in Surrey; and in the next, her skirts were hitched up and the kiss had gone sloppy and toothy and she was trying to find the breath to cry out.
By the time she found her voice, it had been altogether too late. The captain was beyond hearing. Her attempts to push him away were as futile as pushing away the tree. Five minutes later, he had whispered what a good girl she had been and how happy she had made him.
The irony of those affirmations had been Tessa’s clearest memory. Because six weeks later, when she sought him out to inform him of the baby, he had said the opposite.
“You’re a very bad girl, aren’t you?” he said. “And I’m very disappointed. Why, you’re just like all the other very bad, very disappointing girls, Miss St. Croix.”
After that, he had bowed briskly, backed away carelessly, and softly closed the door in her face. Three days later, his regiment left Surrey for the Isle of Wight.
In Tessa’s estimation, the conception of the child plus Captain Marking’s rejection had taken, all told, ten minutes. In the months that followed, as Tessa’s petite body had swelled into pregnancy, she could not really say what had happened—not during that strange mix of fear and shame against the tree, and not in the cold, breathless shock of the garrison stoop.
The only thing she knew for sure was that the man she married two months later was not the father of baby, and that he knew nothing of her condition.
And that had felt like a very great shame—a larger shame, perhaps, than the troubling predicament of the captain and the tree and the baby. It was a shame because she had ended up liking her new husband, Mr. Joseph Chance, very much.
The notion that Mr. Chance might want Tessa and another man’s baby had not even crossed her mind. In this, Captain Marking had taught her the lesson she would never forget. No one, Tessa thought, could know of her pregnancy. Not Joseph Chance, not her parents, not the doctor who had been summoned to treat the unexplained nausea that plagued the early days. And so she endeavored to lie. And if Tessa had been able to sustain the lie of her unborn baby—if she were a natural-born liar—her new husband never would have known.
But Tessa St. Croix was not a natural-born liar.
. . . . . .
The first time Joseph Chance saw Tessa St. Croix, he was leaning against the fence post across from Gibson’s Mercantile, trying to guess which young woman coming and going was his future potential wife.
His business partner Cassin had provided her name, and his other partner Jon Stoker had learned her schedule for the day. This included delivering flowers to sick villagers, some errand to do with a church piano, and ribbon procurement in Gibson’s shop. It was an innocuous list, virtuous even, but Joseph elected to view it as matronly and boring and expected to see a short, spotted spinster with flat feet and a limp.
He missed her arrival to the mercantile by ten minutes, and now he had no choice but to wait. The delay grated, as his trip to Surrey had amounted to little more than awkward failure, and there was so much real work to be done in London.
They’d come to Surrey at the prompting of an advertisement that promised “a modest fortune” in finance capital for their next import venture.
“Wealthy investor seeks suitable candidates for dispersal of modest fortune,” the advert, posted on the docks in Blackwall, had read.
But when they sought out the “wealthy investor” in Surrey, they had discovered it was not one man—not a man at all—but three young women. And the “modest fortune” was their dowries.
Joseph had no interest in marrying for money—hell, he had no interest in marrying at all, not at the moment—but after traveling all this way, he’d grown curious. Before they returned to London, Joseph would have one quick look. His partners, Cassin and Stoker, had done the same.
It was impossible, of course, to watch a young woman emerge from a shop and know whether or not he might marry her, but certainly he could know whether he could absolutely not marry her. That is, he could quickly rule her out, which he absolutely intended to do. Just one quick look, that’s all it would take.
“Pray do not punish her, Mr. Gibson. She is only doing her job.”
Joseph looked up. A woman’s voice spilled from the open shop door followed by musical laughter. Not the polite tinkling of mild amusement, but an honest-to-God laugh, full-bodied, surprise and delight spun together. Joseph shoved off the fence post.
The shop door was vacant except for a large cat. The animal marched into the sunlight with a rodent in her mouth. Behind the cat came a corpulent shopkeeper, light on his feet despite his size, with a broom held high. The laughter persisted from inside the shop, more of a giggle now, and then Tessa St. Croix stepped into the bright light of the Autumn sun.
She wore a pink dress and red bonnet, and her arms were laden with parcels. Joseph stepped towards her as if someone had called his name. He stared. The sunshine was suddenly too bright and he shielded his eyes.
Her laughter had stopped but her face was lit with a relaxed smile. She watched the cat disappear around a corner. The shopkeeper grumbled and waved his broom. She made some comment, laughing again. The older man turned away and applied the broom to his stoop.
Joseph forgot his position of anonymity and walked to the edge of the road. All thoughts of boredom and matrons fled. He was . . . riveted. This girl was like an actress, bathed in light, standing on a stage. The combination of the bright dress and the easy smile and the stack of parcels cast her in the role of Village Beauty. No, Gentleman’s Daughter. Damsel. Fair Maiden.
She had creamy, fair skin, carefully protected by the brim of her bonnet and high gloves. Her eyes were light—summer blue—with blond hair, two smooth braids looping like thick yellow ropes.
The pink of her dress was almost too sweet, and the crimson ribbons were a garish contrast, and yet somehow it was the prettiest dress and bonnet Joseph had ever seen. She looked like a confection. A birthday present. She looked like something Joseph had not expected but that he suddenly wanted very much.
Joseph glanced down at his own rumpled suit and dusty boots. He’d brought a change of clothes, of course, a fine suit—they’d planned to meet a proper investor in Surrey—but when the investment came to nothing, he had not bothered. He swore in his head. Of all the times to look like a plowman. Cassie and Stoker teased him about his Italian barber and expensive tailor, and yet look at him now.
The bell on the shop door jingled again, and the shopkeeper retreated inside. He and the girl were alone with only the road between them. Joseph swallowed hard. He swiped his hat from his head, and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. He considered and rejected ten different greetings. He wondered if she might greet him. Could anyone so radiant on the outside, he wondered, be tedious or petty or simple within? The answer, of course, was absolutely.
The likelihood of radiant beauty and tedium or pettiness or simplicity was quite high.
Even so, Joseph’s heart raced. He said nothing, he watched her look up and down the street. Finally, she turned her head, and their eyes locked.
Her smile was instantaneous, an open, guileless, authentically happy smile. The smile of someone who had just found something she’d been looking for.
“Hello!” she called cheerfully. Her voice was confident but casual. She sounded very much at home, comfortable in the sunny street, in her bright dress, in the role as greeter of the mute man who gawked at her from the center of the street.
“Hello,” Joseph finally said.
He should also say how do you do? he thought. Gallantry was as important to him as fine clothes and good boots. He should introduce himself. He should take her parcels. Instead he stared silently, barely breathing, waiting to see what she would do next.
“I seem to have misplaced my brothers,” she called and she laughed again. “They were meant to drive me home in our carriage. Clearly I spent too much time in Mr. Gibson’s shop.” She shrugged and the ribbons on her bonnet fluttered.
“May I assist you with your parcels?” he called. His plan to observe her from afar now seemed irrelevant.
“Oh, but I could not trouble you.” Her smile grew brighter. He began walking to her, crunching on the gravel of the road in long, sure strides. She watched him with what felt like anticipation. She watched him like someone waiting in line to meet the king. Joseph had experienced many reactions from women in his life, but no one had ever stared at him like that.
When he reached her, she said, “But I’ve not had the privilege of making your acquaintance, sir.”
Her face was even lovelier at close range. And she smelled like a flower. Every flower. She smelled like every flower and the very best flower.
“Are you, by chance, Miss Tessa St. Croix?” he said.
“But I am the very one,” she laughed, looking up at him. Joseph’s heart stopped.
He began to unburden her of her parcels, and she relinquished them easily, no suspicion or faux protest.
“But you’ll forgive me because I cannot say I know your name,” she said. “Or have we met?”
“No,” he said. He shook his head gravely. He felt suddenly, deeply serious. He shuffled the boxes. All at once, the weight of the moment seemed too important and life-changing to be cheerful.
“My name is Joseph Chance,” he said. “My partners and I have just arrived in Surrey from London. We are . . . responding to an advert.”
Her smile dissolved and she made a little gasp.
Yes, he thought. Gasp. That reaction seemed exactly, perfectly right. Whatever you do, please do not go.
He said, “My partner, the Earl of Cassin, has already spoken to your friend, I believe. Likewise, I could not resist seeking you out. Forgive me. There was meant to be a formal introduction, but . . .”
Slowly her smile changed. She looked . . . delighted. His name was familiar to her. She knew why he’d come. And her reaction was delight. His heart surged.
She said, “Mr. Joseph Chance. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. But are you . . . ?” She let the sentence trail off.
The next words were out of his mouth before he’d fully thought. “Your future husband,” he said.
“Are you, indeed?” she laughed. Her voice was a frothy combination of a gasp and smile and something else.
Falling back on years of practiced charm and manners, Joseph winked. He smiled down at her with what he knew to be a very popular smile. “Shall we discuss the advertisement while I help you locate these brothers?”
. . . . . .
The potential of Joseph Chance-Future Husband hinged on whether he would call to Berymede the next day. If he called, Tessa would allow herself to hope. If he did not, the momentum would be lost, the attraction they felt in Pixham would dissolve, and Tessa would . . .
Well, Tessa was not sure what she would do. The worst thing about Tessa St. Croix’s condition was the persistent, terrifying question, What am I to do?
She lay awake at night, heart pounding, and tried to second-guess what would happen if she did nothing at all, if the pregnancy became obvious and her family discovered what she had done.
Banishment immediately. Disinherited completely. Turned out with no way to provide for her baby or herself.
Such specific threats had never been made—who could have ever guessed she’d find herself in this situation—but Tessa knew. She knew in the same way she knew she would not survive a fall from a high cliff. She’d had a girlhood of stumbles to prove her mortality.
Only a harlot would find herself in this situation.
We would never recover from the shame.
A condition worse than death.
Not in this family.
She’d heard years of comments about village girls, cautionary tales of distant shamed cousins, reactions to certain young women brought around by her brothers. No one had to say the words; Tessa was well aware.
Purity had always been her parents’ highest goal for their only daughter, followed closely (and ironically) by allure. Tessa was meant to be a paragon of chastity and beauty, with no partial credit for beauty alone. What was beauty if she could not hold at bay the men she attracted? Beauty used in service to baser instincts was not beauty, it was craven. It was ruined.
Considering this, perhaps Tessa was more desperate than confident that Joseph Chance would call the morning after they met. Perhaps she willed it to happen. Really she had few other choices.
And anyway, he’d said he would. Calling had been his idea. Even so, they had only spoken for twenty breathless moments as they walked the high street of Pixham, looking for her brothers.
Although twenty minutes had been long enough.
On the walk from Gibson’s store to Alabaster’s Tea Emporium and back, they had established two very promising things: a mutual interest and a loose plan.
The plan was for Joseph to call on her and seek permission from her father for a courtship. Tessa had objected at first, insisting that she be the one to smooth the way with her parents, to make the introductions, to do the talking, but he refused. He would not be managed. He would approach her father formally and ask permission properly.
As to mutual interest, Tessa was so far and away more interested than ever she planned to be. Joseph Chance was a stranger who answered her friend’s advertisement, and she had long since reconciled herself to the certainty that any stranger elicited by the advert would be terrible. Old, tedious, and petty were three of the better assumptions held for any man solicited by the advertisement.
Instead, Joseph was clever but not silly, masculine but not arrogant, attentive but not oppressive or clingy. And he was so very handsome. The opposite of old and tedious. Young, golden, tall, with broad shoulders and long legs. He smiled and his eyes wrinkled at the edges. His hand swallowed hers, but not aggressively, not clinging. Gently, carefully. From a crowd of fifty men, even a hundred, she would have chosen him every time.
Joseph Chance was so superlative, she struggled to trust her good fortune. The advert needed only elicit a man desperate enough to marry her and then detached enough to sail away from her.
And yet this was the man who came to call? A strong, gentle Adonis who was not intimidated by her vibrant personality and whom she did not want to go?
As for his attraction to her, Joseph Chance stared at her like she was a pin on the globe, like the world spun around her.
As if handsome and clever and confident had not been enough.
When he turned up on Berymede’s front stoop by eleven o’clock the next morning, she thought only this: As if handsome and clever and confident had not been enough.
From her vantage point on the stairwell landing, Tessa found it difficult to separate gratitude from delight.
He swept inside, the consummate gentleman, greeting her parents with bows and handshakes. His attire and bearing were as fine as any of them had ever seen, even her mother, who made a study of the finery, and her brother Lucas, whose own meticulous tailoring and grooming was second to none. As promised, Joseph requested time alone with her father.
The door to the library closed, and Tessa shrank back, counting to ten. She listened, she said a quick prayer, she waited. Nothing. Silence. After five minutes, she slunk away.
In her room, the maid tried to distract her with various accessories—ribbons for her hair, a broach, a fan—but Tessa refused. She’d worn a pale dress, fawn-colored, with the barest hint of a golden thread. If yesterday’s pink dress had turned Joseph’s head, the gold dress of today was designed to make him unable to look away.
She’d held her breath while her maid buttoned her up, praying the gown still fit. Her middle thickened a little more each week. If the girl had noticed, she made no comment, thank God. Tessa and her friends had virtually no way to discover what to expect from the early stages of pregnancy. Sabine was an only child, and Willow had only older brothers. No one among their neighbors or families had welcomed a new baby for years. Pointed questions felt risky, like a suspicious level of interest, and so the three friends had simply guessed. Their best calculation put the baby’s arrival in late spring. The sooner Tessa found a husband, the better.
“Miss St. Croix?” Ten minutes after Joseph’s arrival, the Berymede butler knocked gently on her open door. “Your parents have summoned you to the garden, if you please. They are with the gentleman caller.”
“The garden?” Tessa repeated. The garden was her mother’s sanctuary, used almost exclusively for family gatherings or entertaining her closet friends. First-time callers were never invited to the garden.
And yet, Joseph Chance had been. He was seated beside her father and across from her mother in the autumn sunshine. He rose smoothly when he saw her.
“Miss St. Croix,” he said. His smile was mild but he shot her a knowing look. She felt a somersault in her chest.
“Mr. Chance,” she said.
Her mother would expect Tessa to be poised and aloof, a little unattainable. But she struggled not to stare.
If she’d found him handsome the day before, with dusty hat, rumpled hair, and wrinkled suit, today he really did look like a prince from a book. He wore snug-fitting buckskins and a blue coat of the finest wool. The pattern on his waistcoat brought out the blue in his eyes; his cravat looked as if it had been sculpted in marble.
Tessa blinked, recovered, and then smiled demurely. It was no secret how he’d earned his mother’s invitation to the garden. Appearances meant everything to Isobel St.Croix, and Joseph Chance’s appearance said two things: I matter, and You want me.
Yes, Tessa thought, I do want you.
“Ah, yes, here she is now,” her father called. “Tessa, you’ve finally stumbled upon a young man with some actual mettle and ambition. It’s about time, I daresay.” To Joseph he said, “No father should suffer the procession of worthless dandies who have paraded through my house.”
Tessa blushed. Had it really been a procession?
Her father asked her, “I understand you are in the acquaintance of this gentleman?”
“Indeed, I am, Papa,” she said, leaning down to kiss her mother’s proffered cheek. “We met yesterday. In the village. He has business with Lady Willow’s family.”
Joseph nodded smoothly, endorsing the fiction. Her first earnest lie, and she’d made him complicit. She told herself it was for the baby. Everything was for the baby.
“I do value fine horseflesh,” Joseph improvised, “but my primary business is importation of goods to England from around the world. This is the partnership I mentioned earlier. My associates and I are working on a new venture—in Barbadoes, no less—about which I am very hopeful.”
“The devil you say?” said Tessa’s father. “But did Tessa’s brothers tell you that we are shareholders in the West India Docks in London? I sit on the board, in fact. We see vessels from Barbadoes every week. But will you reveal the details of your venture?”
And then they were off, discussing ships and levies and imports. Joseph spoke confidently, his experience and intellect plainly clear, while her father asked pointed questions and nodded along. When her mother asked about imported silks, Joseph recited the names of fabrics and dyes and sellers from the Orient and then guessed at the source of the silk of Isobel St. Croix’s morning dress. While Tessa’s mother enthused her delight, Tessa smiled down into her cooling cup of tea.
You will never tell him.
The thought, previously hovering somewhere in the back of Tessa’s consciousness, now loomed fully formed in the front of her mind. The second lie.
Or was it less of a lie, and more an . . . omission?
For the baby.
He came, she reminded herself. And Maman and Papa like him, and I like him. If he will consent to marry me, I will give my body to him, and there is no reason to tell him that the baby does not belong to him.
She repeated again, You will never tell him. Her palms began to itch, but she ignored them. Never, not ever.
She could do this. She would do it.
“But would you two like to take a turn around the garden?” her mother trilled. Tessa looked up, nearly spilling her tea.
“A turn?” she asked.
Her mother narrowed her eyes. It was neither charming nor blithe to repeat questions like a parrot, and she knew better. From the earliest age, her mother had taught her the art of sparkling conversation, and Tessa was expected to use it. So very much had been expected of Tessa. So much.
“That is, I should be delighted,” she corrected. “If Mr. Chance is so inclined?”
“It would be a pleasure,” said Joseph. He rose and affected a small bow. While her parents smiled on, he collected her from her chair and asked her to choose a pathway. The Berymede gardens were a web of walks and hedges, the envy of the county. Tessa chose a winding path secluded by a wall of junipers, and they walked in silence until they were a safe distance on.
“Thank you for coming,” she said finally. She slid her hand to his and scooped it up. “Truly.”
He looked down at their joined hands and then up at her. “I hope there was no doubt,” he said.
She shook her head. He was steadfast, she’d seen that immediately. She’d known he would come. She thought about telling him how much his steadiness impressed her, but it was imprudent to gush. She must not do anything too much or too little. She must do everything exactly right.
She said, “Does it shock you that you answered an advert from a strange girl and yet we . . . seem to get on so well?”
“Define shock,” he teased.
“Oh, you know . . . speechless, wide-eyed, frozen. Shocked.” She lifted her eyes from the path to his profile. She wanted desperately to stare openly, to take inventory of each detail on his face.
“If I am those things, it is my reaction to you—not the random luck of a random advert.”
Another somersault in her chest.
“I am keenly susceptible to beautiful, charming women,” he said, “and you, Miss St. Croix, may just be the most beautiful and most charming girl I have ever had the unearned fortune of meeting. If anything, I am surprised that a girl as lovely as you should be forced to advertise for a husband.” He looked down at her with raised eyebrows. He waited.
Tessa nodded quickly. She and her friends had expected this. Her friends, however, assumed she would simply tell the him truth. He would receive her £15,000 dowry in exchange for accepting her pregnancy. It was meant to be a fair and open trade. She and Joseph would part ways after the wedding and rarely if ever, see each other again. This had been the arrangement struck by her friends and their convenient grooms.
But her friends had not been paired with Joseph Chance.
Joseph had the potential to be so much more than one half of an open trade; he had the potential to be a real husband. In every way. She wasn’t prepared to put that unbelievably lucky potential at risk, and talk of a baby could only scare him away. It had scared away Captain Marking. If her parents knew, it would horrify them—they would disown her. How much more ruthless would a near-stranger be?
“Oh, that,” she said. “Well, my friends are determined to move to London, you see; and I cannot bear to be left behind. My parents would never allow me to go alone. The three of us have been planning to make our lives in London together since we were girls. And now Willow has the opportunity for an apprenticeship and Sabine must escape her terrible uncle, so they will go for certain. I cannot be abandoned in the countryside while they . . . while they have all the fun.”
He considered this silently, and she added, “My family are lovely but they stifle me. With four older brothers, I shall always be viewed as a child. I’ve waited many years for an opportunity to be an adult person with a life beyond Surrey. Even so, the advert was . . . sort of . . . a lark for me honestly. And then you came along . . .”
There, she thought. I’ve said it.
And none of it was a lie, not really. If it was, it would be her third. Three lies. Tessa shut out the growing number.
Joseph continued to study her and she pressed, “So we are in . . . agreement?”
“In agreement . . .” he repeated. “Is that what we shall term our . . . ?”
He smiled in a way that caused Tessa’s insides to expand and resettle. She wanted to laugh and tease, to draw the moment out. She wanted a real courtship that allowed them to become truly acquainted. She wanted to fall in love. But her future was at stake, the future of her child. She stayed the course. She wanted to hear him say it.
“Our arrangement?” she provided. “My dowry goes to your venture. And your, er, proposal comes in exchange?”
He stopped walking and looked down at her.
“I’ll be honest with you, Miss St. Croix,” he began. “May I call you Tessa?”
“Absolutely,” she blurted. She cleared her throat. “That is, yes, please.”
“Tessa,” he repeated. “If I’m being truthful, I sought you out yesterday also on a lark . . .”
Tessa sighed. “Yes, we placed the advert on a lark, you answered on a lark, you sought me out on a lark. It’s all a great lark—”
“Until it’s no lark at all,” he cut in. Tessa held her breath.
He said, “That is, until I saw you. From that moment, I’ve scarcely been able to believe my incredibly good fortune. Was it a lark or was it . . . fate?”
She opened her mouth to speak but he cut her off. “I’ve not stopped thinking of you since the moment we parted in the village,” he said. “I am beguiled and dazzled by you.” He narrowed his eyes. “Does it alarm you to hear me say this?”
Slowly, as if in a daze, Tessa shook her head.
He continued, “Unless I am sorely mistaken, unless I cannot trust my unerring instincts—which are always right, by the way—yes, we are in agreement.”
Tessa closed her eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks.
“Should I take your closed eyes and tense expression to mean that you are quietly reconciling yourself to me?” he teased.
She laughed and blinked up at him. “No, no. Take them to mean that you have made me very happy.”
He nodded and turned again down the path, leading her along. The silence was charged with a playful, uncertain anticipation. Tessa cleared her throat and said, “Were you aware that practically no one outside the family is invited to my mother’s garden for tea? No one. Clearly my parents are impressed.”
“Is that so?” he said and whistled. “Honestly, I cannot believe I was admitted to the front door. Your home is lovely, by the way.”
Tessa glanced at the green, stately beauty of her mother’s gardens. She’d never cared less about Berymede. “Thank you,” she said, and she snuggled more tightly to him.
Joseph licked his lips. “I’m in trouble.”
“Why?” A shy smile.
“The expression on your face.”
“And what expression is that?”
He hesitated for a moment, and then he leaned in, so close Tessa could smell the musky scent of his soap. He whispered, “The suggestion that you would like to see more of me than my face.”
Tessa knew she should gasp, she should go rigid or pull away. Instead, she swayed closer. Her face hovered just inches from his; she looked up from beneath lowered lashes.
“Perhaps I do,” she whispered.
He swore then, a soft frustrated oath, and then swiped his lips across her mouth. Once, twice.
Tessa closed her eyes, allowing the feeling of what she wanted and what she needed to intertwine and wrap around her. She felt safe for the first time since the tree. Perhaps she had never felt so safe.
A bird called in the distance, and Joseph cleared his throat. He swore again. Before she had even opened her eyes, he was tugging her down the path.
“Miss St. Croix,” he began.
“Tessa,” she corrected.
“Tessa. There is one essential thing that I did not fully explain to your parents, but I will. First, I should like you to know.”
Oh, let us not reveal bald truths, Tessa thought, but she nodded.
“It was my intention to present myself as a gentleman today. To dress and speak like an educated man of means and breeding.”
Tessa nodded again. No description could be more accurate.
He went on, “In many ways—my house in London, my carriage, other trappings of dress and comportment—these all suggest that I am, indeed, a gentleman. But be aware . . .” and now he stopped walking and looked down at her “. . . that none of these are inherited possessions. They have been earned. By me. By my own hands—hard work, wits, and ambition.”
He paused, watching for some reaction. Tessa was confused. She shook her head.
He went on, “In fact I have very little family to speak of, and my start in life was very humble. Please . . .” he faltered again “. . . be aware. I alluded to your father that I was a self-made man but I did not tell him just how far I have made myself.”
“How far is that?” And now she was really intrigued—but also worried. Her parents would struggle with the notion of humble.
He stared out at the field beyond the garden. “I began life as a servant, Tessa.” He looked back, his blue eyes fast on hers. “I was . . . a serving boy, a footman, a groom, and valet all rolled into one. I served a man who would become an earl. My mother had been a lady’s maid to this man’s mother.”
“A servant,” Tessa repeated.
She was endeavoring to arrange her own marriage to a former servant.
My parents will never consent if they know, she thought.
If they know.
The heap of half truths continued to grow. Three? Four? Tessa felt herself begin to sweat. She looked again at the smooth wool of his jacket, the fine leather of his boots. His face was like that of an angel. He was as handsome as any man she’d ever met, and yet now she noticed a handful of marked distinctions. The strength of his build—the physicality in his movements, powerful and deliberate. There was no loll or lazy graze to his touch. When he brought her hand to his arm, he took it firmly, placed it securely. When he walked, he strode. When he looked, he stared.
He was not a blithe observer of life, he was an achiever. He came across as capable most of all, and she was shocked by how much this thrilled her.
It would not, however, thrill her parents.
“Are you alarmed?” he asked. “Does it put you off?”
She shook her head, not trusting her voice. “No. Not put off. I am impressed.” This was the truth, she was impressed. But her parents? Dear God.
She said, “But how did you . . . ?”
“How did I come up in the world? The story is not so riveting, I’m afraid. The earl for whom I worked saw some potential in me beyond servitude and hired tutors to educate me.”
“Of course he did,” she laughed. “What else would an earl do when faced with such potential?”
“Well, it was a sacrifice, because I was a valuable servant. You should see the polish I put on a pair of boots.”
His tone was light and teasing. He was so very confident, even about this. Especially about this.
She said, “Not only a servant but a skilled one.”
“I am nothing if not skilled.” Another wink.
Tessa felt her cheeks go hot. She’d known she would flirt with him today, but she had not anticipated how effectively he would reciprocate. She put a hand to her throat. He was . . . irresistible. Irresistible and totally unsuitable for her parents’ expectations.
“But the earl spared you as valet?” she prompted. She would hear it all and determine some way to frame it for her parents. Or conceal it.
“Before I was educated, one of my roles was as the earl’s . . . sort of . . . arms bearer, I suppose you’d call it.”
“He was a bit of an adventurer, and I worked in his service when he traveled abroad. While I was an excellent valet, I believe I was even handier in a fight. There were years in Greece when our lives were rougher than . . . well, than life in his London townhouse.”
Tessa was fascinated. A fighter in Greece? Yet another detail her parents need never know, but she herself would squirrel it away to savor when she was alone.
“In any event,” he went on, “when the earl insisted that I begin daily lessons, it became clear that my brain was the asset to pursue. One tutor turned to two, then three. The older I got, the more my household duties fell away. Eventually, the earl sacked me as servant and sent me to university instead.”
“Unbelievable,” Tessa whispered. “And then he sponsored you in your shipping venture.”
“Ah, no. Then I refused his financial support and became wholly self-sufficient. The shipping company I’ve built with my partners is the result of hard work, ambition, and instinct.”
“And my dowry,” she added. She couldn’t resist.
He laughed. “Yes, and your dowry.”
“From a servant to a gentleman,” she marveled..
“Well, from a servant to a man of means. We’ll leave it at that. You understand that I cannot conceal this from your parents, Tessa?”
“Actually . . .” she began. “Would you consider hedging this bit of your history? Holding back? Just until they become better acquainted with you? They are quite wrapped up in appearances and social expectations, I’m afraid.”
“Holding back until when?”
“Oh . . . until after we are safely married, to be sure.”
“You mean conceal it?”
“Well, I mean perhaps don’t raise it? That is, if no one asks.”
He stopped walking. “The parents of my wife-to-be can hardly be considered, ‘no one.’”
“Yes but some pieces of our potential union are too complicated to share, aren’t they? My parents shouldn’t know about the advert, for example. They shouldn’t know that my friends are marrying your partners. Excluding these fine details simply helps to ease the way. If we mean to succeed. If you want my dowry, and I want to get to London with my friends. If we want these things to happen post haste.”
Joseph considered this, his expression pained. He shook his head, struggling to reconcile himself to masking his history.
Tessa forged ahead, determined to convince him. “I am very taken by you, Joseph Chance. So very taken. I want you very much. I should be devastated if something as inconsequential as my parents’ obsession with rank got in the way of—. Well, if it got in the way.” In a day of half truths and outright lies, this was, perhaps, the boldest truth of all.
He smiled again and bent his head. Not taking his eyes from hers, he brushed another faint whisper of a kiss across her lips. “We won’t tell them yet,” he whispered.
Tessa’s closed and she tipped forward for another kiss.
Can this happen? she marveled. So easily? With a man I enjoy? Nay—a man by whom I am captivated? Can I have a father for this baby and a loving husband, just for me?
This kiss went deeper, and Tessa made a sighing noise. Joseph growled and gathered her up, kissing her in earnest. Tessa felt swept away.
I will not risk any part of it, she thought idly, swimming in the kiss. Not his disdain. Or his outrage. Or his leaving. I need only not tell him to make it work.
He will love me, he will love us both.
I shall not tell him, and the child will be his. And I will be his.
We. Are. Saved.