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Trentingham Manor, the South of England
August 1677

He’d forgotten about her.

Well, maybe he hadn’t quite forgotten about her, but he’d certainly put her out of his mind.

Well, maybe he hadn’t put her all the way out of his mind, but he’d banished all thoughts of her to the outskirts. She was only fourteen, after all. And Lord Randal Nesbitt was far too honorable to let a girl of fourteen anywhere near his…well, thoughts.

But it had been four years since they’d last met at Ford’s wedding. And now, Rand had just realized, Lady Lily Ashcroft must be eighteen.

A fetching, dark-haired, blue-eyed eighteen. A marriageable eighteen.

Marriageable? Having never really considered marriage in all of his twenty-three years, Rand found the notion jarring. Perhaps being in a chapel put ideas into a fellow’s head. Though truth be told, he hardly knew where he was or what was going on around him. All his awareness was focused on Lily standing beside him at the altar, her month-old niece cradled in her arms.

“Having now,” the priest continued, sounding distant to Rand though the man stood right in front of him, “in the name of these children, made these promises, wilt thou also on thy part take heed that these children learn the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and all other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul’s health?”

“I will, by God’s help,” Lily replied softly. Gently, gazing down at the babe she held close.

A smile curved Rand’s lips. In four years she had changed, of course. But her gentleness, that unfailing sweetness, hadn’t changed. Couldn’t have changed. It was what made her Lily.

Ford Chase, Rand’s friend—and father of the children in question—elbowed him in the ribs.

“Hmm?” Startled, Rand looked down at the month-old boy squirming in his own arms, its bald little head colored by the sun streaming through the chapel’s stained-glass windows. Ford’s son, he thought, surprised by a rush of tenderness. Rand’s godson…or at least the tiny fellow and his twin sister would soon be his godchildren, provided he made it through their baptism.

“I will,” he answered, echoing Lily’s words.

“By God’s help,” the priest prompted.

“By God’s help.”

A few titters rose from the crowd, but Rand ignored them, shifting on his feet. Sweet mercy, he felt as though he’d been standing for a week. Mass, and then a lesson, and now this ritual at the font—delivering a two-hour lecture at Oxford wasn’t nearly so exhausting. He suspected his knees were now permanently locked.

But even more than he wished to sit down, he couldn’t wait to speak to Lily. Never mind that she’d barely noticed him. He’d scurried into Trentingham’s grand, oak-paneled chapel at the last minute and had no chance to greet her before the ceremonies began.

The priest turned a page in his Book of Common Prayer. “Wilt thou take heed that these children, so soon as sufficiently instructed, be brought to the bishop to be confirmed by him?”

“I will.” Rand and Lily said the words together this time. Their voices, he thought, sounded good together.

“Name these children.”

The bundle in Rand’s arms chose then to begin wailing. “Marcus Cicero Chase,” Rand hollered over the squall.

“Rebecca Ashcroft Chase,” Lily said more softly and with a smile, even though the girl’s cries had joined her twin brother’s, seeming to fill the chapel all the way up to its sculpted Tudor ceiling.

Whoever would have thought such tiny creatures could make such a huge racket?

The priest scooped water into his hand, letting it trickle through his fingers. It ran in rivulets down the backs of the two babies’ heads and landed on the colorful glazed tile floor. “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” He made crosses on the children’s foreheads. “Amen.”

Amen. It was over. Well-wishers crowded close. Still holding his bawling godson, Rand turned to Lily.

She was gone.

How could she have disappeared so quickly? Using his height to advantage, he peered over heads. But she’d vanished.

Nearby, Ford held little Rebecca and spoke with an older gentleman Rand recognized. Or rather, Ford was shouting at the gentleman, since the Earl of Trentingham, Lily’s father, was hard of hearing.

Marveling that his friend looked so natural holding a baby, Rand jiggled little Marc uneasily. Rebecca had stopped crying, apparently content in Ford’s arms, but in Rand’s, her twin brother still howled.

Glancing around for help, Rand was relieved to see Ford’s wife, Violet, moving close. When she reached for her son, Rand offered a grateful smile. But then he found himself oddly reluctant to hand Marc over. Loud little thing though he was, he smelled good and had a soft, warm weight.

When Violet took him, Marc quieted immediately. Resisting the urge to run his fingers over that fuzzy little head, Rand crossed his arms and leaned on one of the intricate carved oak stalls. “I assume you chose his name, Marcus Cicero, for the philosopher.”

Violet bounced the babe in her arms, her brown curls bouncing along with him. She looked more motherly than Rand usually pictured her. Did children change people so much? “It was only fair,” she said. “Ford had the naming of our firstborn.”

“Nicky? Ah, Nicolas Copernicus,” Rand remembered. “Well, I suppose it’s a better choice than Ford’s other favorite scientist.”

“Galileo Galilei?” She laughed, her brown eyes sparkling behind her fancy gold -rimmed spectacles. “Yes, thank heaven Ford had already bestowed that name on his horse.”

“And Rebecca? Who is she named after?”

“No one. I just like it. And there’s never been a major female philosopher.”

“Yet,” Rand added, knowing Violet hoped to publish a philosophy book of her own someday.

“Yet,” she confirmed with a nod, clearly appreciating his support. She touched her husband’s arm, claiming his attention. “We’d best be heading home,” she said when he turned, “or our guests will arrive there before us.”

When Ford smiled at her, Violet’s return smile transformed her face. Perhaps she wasn’t as pretty as her sisters, Lily and Rose, but she was lovely in her own way. A way that was enhanced by her obvious delight in both the occasion and the magnificent purple gown she’d donned to celebrate it.

Moreover, she made Ford happy. A sort of happiness that glowed from his eyes whenever he looked at her. Through six years together at university, Rand had never seen anything close to that look on Ford’s face.

It was incredible how much his friend had changed.

Ford was still holding his new daughter, her tiny fist tangled in his hair. Giving in this time, Rand skimmed his fingers over Rebecca’s dark curls. “They’re so soft,” he murmured.

Violet nodded. “All babies are soft.”

“I wouldn’t know. I cannot remember holding a baby before.”

”Really?” She looked surprised to hear that. “Well, someday you’ll have babies of your own.”

“Perhaps,” he allowed. “I never say never. But should it happen, I can assure you it won’t be any time soon.”

Her laugh tinkled through the nearly empty chapel. “That’s always what a man says just before he falls in love.”

Ford rolled his eyes. “If you say so, my sweet.” He turned to his friend. “Now, come along—I want to show you the water closet I built. It’s much better than the ones imported from France.”

Rand smiled as he followed his friends out the door. Perhaps Ford hadn’t changed that much, after all.

“What?” Lily demanded as her friend Judith Carrington pulled her toward a carriage. “What’s so important you couldn’t wait until we got to Violet’s house to tell me? So important you nearly made me drop my niece, not to mention almost dislocated my arm dragging me out of there?”

Before climbing inside, Lily searched out her family in the crowd. Her father was easiest to spot, tall and trim with deep green eyes, his real hair still as jet-black as the periwig he wore for his grandchildren’s baptism. Mum and Rose were both dark-haired and statuesque. They looked elegant in their best satin gowns, her mother’s a gleaming gold and Rose’s a rich, shimmering blue. Lily waved to them, then pointed at Judith, signaling that she would ride with her friend.

The Ashcrofts were a handsome family, in truth. Looking at them, one would never guess they were so eccentric.

Mum waved back distractedly, holding her two-year-old grandson, Nicky, as she busily ushered guests out the door to their waiting transportation.

Feeling Judith’s hand on her back, Lily laughed and lifted her peach silk skirts to duck inside the carriage. “What?” she repeated.

“Oh, just this.” Even though they weren’t ready to leave, Judith pulled the door shut. Then she settled herself with a flounce. “I’m betrothed.”

“Betrothed?” Lily seized her friend’s hands. “As in you’re planning to wed?”

“Well, Mama is doing the planning. But it’s ever so exciting. Come October, I’m going to be a married woman. Can you believe it, Lily?”

“No, I cannot believe it,” she confessed, squeezing Judith’s fingers. The third of her friends to marry this year. Yesterday they’d been children; now suddenly they were supposed to be all grown-up. “Who will be your groom?”

“Lord Grenville. Didn’t your mother tell you she’d suggested he offer for my hand? Father says it’s a brilliant match.”

Grenville was wealthy, but thirty-five years old to Judith’s nineteen. “Do you love him?” Lily wondered aloud. She hoped so. Judith was plump and pretty, but even more important, she was genuinely nice. A good friend who deserved happiness.

“I barely know him. But Mama assures me we’ll grow to love each other—or get along tolerably, at least.” Her hands slipped out of Lily’s, moving to worry the embroidery on her turquoise underskirt. “It will all work out fine, I’m sure of it.”

“I’m sure of it, too,” Lily soothed, wishing she were as certain as she sounded. Lily’s parents had promised their daughters they could choose their own husbands, but she knew it didn’t work that way for most young women.

Her family was different. The Ashcroft motto—Interroga Conformationem, translated as Question Convention—said it all.

The Carringtons, on the other hand, were as conventional as roast goose on Christmas Day. Judith forced a smile and pushed back a lock of bright yellow hair that had escaped her careful coiffure. “Who was that gentleman who stood as godfather?”

Lily sat back. “One of Ford’s old friends. Lord Randal Nesbitt.”

“Wouldn’t it be fun to be newly wedded together, have babies together?” Some of the color returned to Judith’s cheeks. “You should marry him.”

“Wherever did you get that idea?” Lily crossed her arms over the long, stiff stomacher that covered the laces on the front of her gown. “I barely know Rand.”

“Rand?” Judith repeated significantly, and Lily blushed to be caught using the over-familiar name. But somehow she’d always thought of him as Rand, though she’d never realized it before. How odd.

“So what if you barely know him,” Judith argued. “I hardly know Lord Grenville, either. And believe me, he doesn’t look at me the way Rand was looking at you.”

“Looking at me?” Lily echoed weakly. She’d hardly looked at him at all. She’d been focused on the cooing baby in her arms, her sister’s first daughter. Her first niece. Nicky was great fun, of course, but now she’d have a little girl to play house with, to fix her hair, to—

“Upon my word, he didn’t take his eyes off you the entire time.” Judith’s lips curved in an impish grin. “Watching him was more entertaining than the baptism.”

Lily felt her face heat and wondered if Judith could be right—if instead of watching the ceremony, everyone had been watching Rand watch her.

But surely that hadn’t been the case. Why would Rand be interested in her? The two of them had nothing in common. Her friend had seen something that wasn’t there. “You just have the wedding fever,” she said lightly, rubbing the back of her hand left hand. “Besides, if he’s interested in anyone, I’m sure it’s Rose. They share an interest in languages.”

“Ah,” Judith said with a tilt of her pert nose. “You know more about the fellow than you’re willing to admit.”

Ignoring that, Lily leaned to look out the window. But there was a long queue of carriages. They were going nowhere.

“Who’s that?” her friend asked, following her line of sight. “The girl in pink, coming out of the barn with your brother?”

“That’s Jewel, Ford’s niece. Rowan and she have been friends forever.”

“What sort of friends? And what do you suppose they were doing alone together in a barn?”

“Goodness, they’re but children of ten! Your mind is too much on romance these days. Knowing those two, they were probably planning a practical joke.”

“In a barn?”

Lily laughed at the expression on her friend’s face. “I doubt there’s an inch of Trentingham that hasn’t seen one or another of their schemes. And Lakefield, too.”

Judith looked likely to say more, but the door popped open and her mother poked her head in. “Were you leaving without me, dear?”

“Of course not, Mama.” Judith scooted over to make room. “We just came inside to talk.”

A large, jolly woman, Lady Carrington wedged herself beside her daughter and tucked in her voluminous coral skirts. Before her footman could shut the door, Lily’s striped cat nimbly leapt inside.

Lady Carrington sneezed. “Shoo!” she exclaimed, waving an elegant hand at the creature.

“Beatrix,” Lily said softly, “you cannot ride in this carriage.”

The cat gave her a hurt look before hopping out.

“Much better,” Judith’s mother said as the door shut. She turned to Lily. “This afternoon, I’m hoping your father will advise me about flowers for Judith’s wedding.”

The Earl of Trentingham was nothing if not an expert on flowers. “I’m certain Father will fancy being consulted,” Lily assured her.

The carriage began moving at last. “I’ve my heart set on yellow flowers,” Lady Carrington told Lily, “because Judith looks best in yellow. But she wants to be married in blue. What color will you wear for your wedding?”

“Blue is nice,” Lily said with a vague smile.

She wasn’t ready to think about weddings, and most certainly not her own.

Rose was a year older—her wedding had to come first.

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