THE KENT HEIRESSby Roberta Gellis
Cerridwen Press May 7, '09
ISBN (Trade Paper) 9781419959110
Sabrina thought she loved Lord Elvan—until his blatant infidelities turned her heart to stone. Perce thought Sabrina was just his friend Philip’s little sister—until she fell in love with Elvan and he realized he wanted her for himself. It was too late for both when they met again at a ball in St. Petersburg and passion flared between them.
Annulment of her marriage was Sabrina’s one hope and her husband said he would consider it if she accompanied him on one more political mission. But in Portugal Elvan indulged himself in one affaire too many; the husband of this lady was insanely jealous. Not content with his revenge on Elvan and his wife, Dom Jose intended to kill Sabrina for not controlling her husband. When Perce returned to England and learned Sabrina had gone to Portugal with Elvan, he set out at once to protect her—and arrived just in time to become another target for Dom Jose.
Sabrina, Lady Elvan, pulled her rich cashmere shawl a little tighter over her bare white shoulders. Near the window it was cold, despite the roaring fire. She looked out on a sparkling fairyland. The new snow had melted just a little when the sun had come out during the day; now that it was gone again, a layer of ice had formed. It glittered as if the entire boulevard had been seeded with diamonds. The buildings across the way glittered, too. White on white—exquisite.
Beautiful, beautiful, her eyes told her. Ugly, ugly, her heart whispered. Everything in Russia was like that—an incredible dichotomy that drowned the senses and sickened the soul.
St. Petersburg looked like a city built by gods—wide streets, beautiful buildings. While other cities huddled in filthy, sloppy misery in winter, St. Petersburg glittered and sparkled in its covering of ice and snow. But Sabrina knew it hadn’t been built by gods; it had been built by slaves who died by the thousands from cold and hunger and beatings.
Slowly Sabrina turned away from the window and returned to her dressing table. She stared sightlessly into the glass, automatically hanging a complex necklace of sapphires and diamonds around her throat and pushing the hooks of the matching earrings into her ears.
But it was not her own elegant appearance that Sabrina saw. What appeared in the mirror was another scene entirely. She was looking again into the small drawing room, with its cozy grouping of sofa and chairs—right into the mirror behind. A few moments before that Sabrina had returned home from her scheduled round of morning visits, barely half an hour after leaving the house because she had forgotten her visiting cards. Having been told that Countess Maria Fedorovna Latuski was not at home, she had reached into her muff and found the card case missing. Then she remembered she had left it on the table in the small drawing room.
Sabrina shuddered. She had found the countess, instead of the cards, in the drawing room—found her in William’s arms. So shocked had Sabrina been that she stood mute and paralyzed. The high back of the sofa cut off her view of the couple from below the chest. Unable to believe, in that first half second, what the expression on her husband’s face and the movement of his body implied, Sabrina’s eyes had passed to the mirror behind them, which revealed a head-to-foot view.
Perhaps a low whimper of shame or rage had forced itself from Sabrina. The sound was not enough to disturb the countess, who had her head buried between William’s shoulder and neck and was gasping and trembling in the penultimate stage of her climax, but William’s eyes shot open. Sabrina wanted to shrink away. In the instant before her mind comprehended what she was seeing, she had been racked with all the shame, guilt, and embarrassment William must feel. And then she saw his expression. If her first shock had numbed her, this second turned her to stone.
William looked…irritated. He was annoyed—but apparently no more annoyed than if she had walked in on a delicate diplomatic negotiation or interrupted him when he was writing a difficult letter. There was no sign of guilt, or shame, or even embarrassment. No tinge of extra color rose in his cheeks. Without interrupting the thrusts of his hips, he freed one hand and gestured at Sabrina to go away.
She staggered out of the doorway as if the flick of his hand had thrust her backward physically. Blindly, without knowing what he did, she found her way upstairs to her own dressing room, shed her heavy furs, and sank into chair. Slowly the total deadness that had made her respond automatically to William’s gesture of command faded into indignation. How dare he? In her own drawing room! She had never suspected William of such crudity!
Such bad taste! And then Sabrina was shocked all over again, this time by her own sentiments. She should have been torn by pain and humiliation, burning with jealousy, frantic with grief. What she felt was the same kind of irritation—perhaps stronger, but essentially the same—as William had displayed. Again the first shock was followed by a stronger one. She did not love William any longer—if she ever had!
What was she to do? Now tears filled Sabrina’s eyes. She realized she did not want William, had not wanted him for a long time—not even in bed. Behind Sabrina the door opened. Without lifting her head, Sabrina said, “Go away!”
“Now, Sabrina,” William reproved sharply, “I know you are angry, but I cannot have you acting up in a silly way right now. Why the devil did you come home?”
Sabrina’s hands dropped. Her head snapped up, eyes and mouth open in astonishment. She had thought it was a servant who came in. It had not occurred to her that William would dare confront her.
“You are upset to no purpose,” William went on. “It was an accident. It meant nothing.”
“In my home? In my drawing room!” Sabrina gasped.
For the first time, William had the grace to look self-conscious. “I told you it was an accident,” He snapped. “I met her on the doorstep. It was impossible not to invite her in. I didn’t know, after all, that you weren’t home.”
“Don’t be a fool,” William snarled. “I have no time for your ‘finer feelings’. I’ve told you a hundred times already, this has nothing to do with you. I wouldn’t have bothered to talk to you about it, except that the political situation is particularly precarious. I cannot afford to have you pouting and sullen.”
“But you can afford to indulge your—your—”
“That has its political purpose, too,” William interrupted angrily. “Then, seeing Sabrina redden with rage, he added, “I didn’t mean things to go so far—I swear it. I tell you again, it was an accident.”
“One accident too many,” Sabrina spat. “I’m finished! I’m through with you!”
“This is no time for childish tantrums,” William shouted. “Will you allow your petty personal foibles—”
“Petty foibles!” Sabrina shrieked.
“Yes!” he screamed. “Petty! Petty! Infantile! There isn’t another woman in the world who wouldn’t have had the common sense and good manners to pretend she hadn’t stupidly walked in on what wasn’t her business. Instead of that, you’re prepared to add a completely irrelevant factor that may cause the collapse of the whole British mission here.”
“That’s a lie!” Sabrina cried. “You only say it to force me to condone your lecheries.” But her voice trembled uncertainly. Sabrina knew that there might be truth in what William said.
Of course, if William hadn’t started the flirtation, he wouldn’t have been placed in a situation where offense was possible. However, that thought was just a cynical flicker through Sabrina’s mind. Expecting William not to flirt was the same as expecting pigs to fly. Sabrina had come, at long last, to a willingness to admit to herself that she didn’t care with whom William went to bed so long as it wasn’t with her. She knew she had been furious only because he had not enough respect for her to be ashamed of being caught. And probably it was true that what happened had been an accident. Usually William was very discreet…although he had been growing more and more careless.
“So you must attend this ball, and you must behave toward me just as usual. Do you understand me, Sabrina?”
Obviously she had missed something while her mind had been busy. It didn’t matter Sabrina acknowledged that this was no time to stir up a hornet’s nest in the diplomatic community. She would, indeed, have to attend the ball and behave normally toward William. Her lips twisted as she realized it would not be at all difficult. It had been a very long time since she had displayed any overt sign of wifely affection. But she could not take the chance that there would be political repercussions if she refused to attend the ball, and in the end she agreed and William, satisfied, left her to make ready.
Now Sabrina was again staring into the mirror. No, it would be no trouble to behave as usual to William. Once her rage at the insult done her was past, she found she did not feel differently about him. Her eyes grew troubled. Was this William’s fault or her own? She focused on her own face, and the lips made a sardonic grimace. The fault was not there. Sabrina knew she was beautiful. Diamonds and sapphires sparkled in her hair, so pale a blond that William had called it “moonlight hair”. Her eyes were pale, too, and in spite of perfect features her face would have been without character, except for the fortunate accident that her brows and lashes were darker than her hair—an ash brown—and there was an odd ring of darker color around the circumference of her irises.
Sabrina leaned forward. Silly eyes. They tended to open very wide because the lids were thin, and that gave her an expression of slightly surprised innocence—or the less kind would say stupidity. The sardonic grimace deepened. It would have been much better if she were stupid. Life would have been sweeter, easier, happier. If she only were as stupid or innocent as she looked, she would either never have discovered what William really was or would have accepted it. But she was what she was, and now there was this ball to survive.
The sleigh door opened again, letting in a blast of air so frigid that it stung her eyes and nose. Hands reached out to help her down from the sleigh. Their own grooms handed William and Sabrina over to Czartoryski’s servants on the stairs and in another moment they were in a reception chamber being tenderly divested of their outer garments. Opposite were doors, either gorgeously or ostentatiously decorated, depending on one’s taste. Sabrina would have preferred less gold leaf and fewer convolutions in the carving, but ostentatious or not, they were beautiful. They were flung wide to show an impressive staircase. In winter the reception rooms on the upper floors were used because they were warmer, and it was necessary to use every possible device to conserve warmth. Although two fires blazed in the reception room, Sabrina had been very glad of the cashmere shawl that protected her bare shoulders and arms.
Once they entered the rooms above, Sabrina allowed the shawl to drop and rest in the crook of her elbows. She was, as always, dazzled for a moment by the brilliant lighting of the thousands of candles glittering back from crystal ornaments, from jewels that made her own look paltry, from rich fabrics embroidered in silver and gold, from the bright-colored, overdecorated walls and ceilings. She had noticed in the past that her pale eyes were more sensitive to light, particularly sudden changes from dark to bright, than were other people’s.
While she was still half-blind, she heard her husband utter a soft exclamation. He extricated his arm skillfully from her hand, which had been resting on it, and plunged into the crowd. Before he was completely swallowed up, Sabrina’s vision had cleared enough to catch sight of him making his way toward a short, dark-skinned man with small, bright eyes and a very high, aquiline nose. She could hear music coming from the ballroom beyond, but William was obviously not going directly there. Her first feeling was one of relief. At least her husband was not obviously pursuing the inamorata of the moment. Her next sensation was one of intense surprise. What was Prince General Bagration doing here?
His presence was quite startling. He was a firm believer in and supporter of Prince Marshal Kutuzov, whose plans had been ignored and superseded by the tsar, causing the defeat at Austerlitz. Furthermore, Prince Bagration was of volatile disposition, like many Georgians, and had been heard—or so rumor had hissed in Sabrina’s ear—to have said certain things about the tsar’s advisors that implied he would not, to say the least, court their company. In fact, Sabrina noticed, Prince Bagration did not look happy. Her eyes swept beyond him for a glimpse at the rest of the group, hoping to find an explanation of his presence in his companions. Instead, a most unladylike screech of joy and amazement was forced out of her.
Sabrina surged forward, elbowing people out of the way quite rudely. For a split second after she had shouted Philip’s friend’s name, she thought she might have been mistaken. What in the world would Percivale Moreton be doing standing attentively at General Bagration’s elbow? But Perce’s head had turned instantly at her call, and although he had missed seeing her in the crowd, she was certain it was he. She knew Perce almost as well as she knew her foster brother, Philip. Perce and Philip were inseparable childhood friends, and since Perce’s family lived in Cornwall, he had spent most of his short school holidays with Roger and Leonie at Stour Castle or Dymchurch House.
As soon as Sabrina began to move, Perce saw her. Pausing only to excuse himself to his companions, he worked his way toward her with as much determination as she was showing and hugged her as enthusiastically. Then he pushed her back a little to look at her.
“Brina, you’re breathtaking. How the devil did you work up that hard glitter?”
“It suited the weather,” she said.
She was smiling, but there must have been something in her voice that betrayed her. Perce knew her as well as she knew him, after all. She had been the “pesty little sister,” trailing along behind him and Philip, begging to be included in their games and excursions. Considering that she was seven years younger—and a girl—they had been generous. They had yielded to her entreaties often, too often for the safety of her clothing, the cleanliness of her person, or the proper development of the delicate sensibility expected of a young female of high breeding.
The smile died out of Perce’s eyes. As it did, Sabrina suddenly realized that he did not look quite right, either. There were dark shadows under his eyes, hollows in his cheeks, and lines around his mouth that she did not remember.
The anxious question came from both simultaneously, so that each had to laugh. Sabrina sighed and shrugged.
“A long story,” she said. “And you?”
Perce shrugged also. “Austerlitz,” he replied even more succinctly.
“Austerlitz?” Sabrina echoed “What were you doing there, in God’s name? What are you doing in Russia in the first place?”
“A long story,” Perce said, and they both laughed again. Sabrina looked around and saw Countess Latuski bearing down on her. Either the woman had no idea Sabrina had seen her with William or she was eager to force a confrontation. Sabrina took a firm grip on Perce’s hand. “Can you get away for a little while?”
He glanced quickly at Prince Bagration and saw him listening to William, who was talking eagerly. “Yes, but I can’t leave and I have to be where I can see when the prince moves.”
“We can go over to the window.” Sabrina nodded toward one of the huge double windows that formed six embrasures down the length of the room. Although they were partially covered by heavy swagged draperies, they leaked frigid air and people avoided the area.
“You’ll freeze,” Perce protested.
“I have my shawl,” Sabrina assured him, drawing it partially up over her shoulders as she spoke, but her eyes flashed toward the woman plainly trying to approach them. It was clear that Sabrina hoped to discourage her by moving away obviously.
Perce nodded and turned—but they had not been quick enough. The woman Sabrina was trying to avoid reached them and began to gush, delivering en route several invitations.
Perce bowed to their unwelcome companion with great grace, but his face had all the animation of a dead fish. “Honored, I’m sure,” he said in English.
The countess looked at him in surprise.
“He said he was honored, he was sure,” Sabrina translated literally, knowing that the meaningless English idiom came out as a cynical, veiled insult in French.
Perce continued to look utterly blank, as if his French were not good enough
to make him aware of just what Sabrina had said. The countess’s interest
in him diminished visibly.
Then Sabrina asked, again in English as if he would not understand French, “Will you be free to visit us for the next week or so?”
“I think so, but don’t count on it. I don’t know how long were supposed to stay in St. Petersburg—and if someone steps on Prince Bagration’s toes…”
All the while he spoke, Perce looked about as intelligent as a village idiot, his face empty, his eyes blank and glazed. Sabrina smiled with spurious regret at Countess Latuski.
“I will be much occupied showing Lord Kevern the city,” she said. “I fear this may cut into my engagements. Perhaps if he finds other amusements… I will write and let you know.”
The countess now had the option of clearly asking Sabrina to bring Perce to the functions to which she had invited her or of leaving them rapidly. Apparently she decided the latter was the better of the two options. Again Sabrina was not sure whether this decision was a retreat in fear of a more open rebuff or whether Perce’s seeming dullness and bad French had put her off. Maria Fedorovna made some quick excuse about seeing someone waving to her and left them. Sabrina and Perce exchanged a single glance of understanding and continued their interrupted attempt to find a modicum of privacy.
As they reached the window and took refuge partly behind and partly alongside the heavy swag of drapery, Sabrina chuckled. “I love it when you go blank like that, Perce,” she confessed. “You look like a cross between a dead fish and the village idiot. It’s enough to discourage the most violent lord-sucker and toady alive.”
“Was that what she was?” Perce asked doubtfully.
The brief haunted expression of indecision and dislike that he had seen when Sabrina noticed Countess Latuski coming toward them had given him the impression that she was more than just a social nuisance. He had put his back to the window so that Sabrina was sheltered from the worst of the draft. He did it out of habit, quite unaware of the protective gesture born of years of blocking drafts from his much-loved mother and sisters, who to his mind, were most inadequately clad in their thin muslins or silks.
The shock of seeing so dearly familiar a person had brought back to Sabrina all the happiness of the years when Perce was another “brother”. Then the countess’s intrusion into those memories had brought into horrible clarity the ugly happening of that day and the equally ugly choice she was now to make, with the knowledge that whichever path she chose would lead inevitably to unhappiness. Now the little act of consideration, Perce’s obvious desire to spare her any discomfort, even the small one of being chilly, demolished any barrier of pride Sabrina might have erected around her misery.
“No,” she said, “that isn’t all she is. She’s the woman to whom William was making love in my drawing room this morning. The trouble is, I don’t know whether she is unaware that I saw them or whether her sudden passion for me is to force my tacit acceptance of the affair—and I’m not sure I care. Then there’s this other stupid tie-in with the tsar’s mistress, Maria Naryshkin—they’re friends—so that I don’t dare openly spit in her face. On top of that, I’ve just discovered that I—I don’t care with whom William goes to bed, so long as it isn’t me! I don’t love him anymore, Perce. I don’t want to be his wife. I don’t want to bear his children.”
Perce had opened his mouth in shock at Sabrina’s first disclosure, but hadn’t interrupted her. “My God, how long has this been going on?” he asked in an odd voice.
Sabrina looked up at him, but his face had gone blank again. Even she could not read anything that fishlike stare. She shuddered. “For two years. I can stop him. I have in the past. But—but it isn’t worth it to me. Oh, Perce, I made a dreadful mistake. I’m not jealous—really I’m not. It’s—this is what’s so awful—that William isn’t worth the effort to keep him.”
Perce’s lips moved, but he didn’t seem to be able to find his voice or the words he wanted to say. Tears sprang into Sabrina’s eyes. If Perce reacted this way merely to the confession that she didn’t love her husband or want to keep him, how would the rest of the world react to an annulment or divorce? Resentment followed despair.
“You haven’t heard the worst yet,” she snapped. “I’m considering an annulment or divorce. Do you think that’s a good idea?
“Don’t!” Perce sounded as if someone had him by the throat. “Don’t ask me! I’m the last… For God’s sake, Brina, I’m in love with you! You can’t talk to me about this!”
Sabrina recoiled as if she had been struck in the face. It was almost as bad as if Philip had made sexual advances to her when she had brought him a broken toy to fix. She had expected sympathy, concern, grave counsel. What she really hoped for, of course, was a big brother to dry her tears and pat her back and show her her doll all mended. That her adult mind knew quite well broken marriages could not be mended like broken toys was irrelevant. Her heart had a childlike corner that had infinite faith in her big brothers’ abilities to mend anything.
“I’m sorry—” Perce began, but Sabrina had already turned and fled.
He stood watching her disappear into the crowd, calling himself ten times a fool. He hadn’t meant to say it. He knew Sabrina had classed him with Philip. He was neuter gender to her, a safe friend. Now, he had destroyed that, destroyed her faith in him, and probably blackened himself with William’s soot. She would think of him as just another predatory male eager to prey on any attractive, unhappy wife.
But he hadn’t known! His confession of love had been a result of shock, of a sudden brief vision of heaven within his grasp. He had never guessed there was any trouble between Sabrina and her husband. Philip hadn’t said a word. Well, why should he? And it was possible Philip didn’t know, either. Sabrina might have been afraid to say anything to Philip, who was rather prone to impetuous behavior. She could have feared that Philip would try to mend Elvan’s ways with a horsewhip or a pistol.
I never know anything at the right time, Perce thought bitterly. He winced, thinking what a shock his announcement must have been to Sabrina. Ugly, disgusting, to profess love to woman who was already hurt by her husband’s betrayal—as if the confession of her injury had somehow cheapened her, had incited him to instant lust. It must seem like that, he thought sickly. What else could she believe, when she must have been even more unaware of his past desire for her than he was of her dissatisfaction with her husband?