Sir Herbert Backman, Baronet, had no idea why he was so attracted to lighthouses. All Bertie knew was that, from a child, he had been enchanted by the entire idea of lighthouses—the way they pierced the horizon, pristinely white and emphatic. Perhaps it was the contrast of safety and order versus energy and confusion that appealed to him.
Visiting the Portland bill Lighthouse atop these jagged cliffs required leaving behind a cheerful house party of close friends that was not precisely nearby. Bundled in his many-caped greatcoat and wearing his tall beaver hat, Bertie stood upon the Portland bill, gazing at the blustery scene below. Why did such a calm, even-tempered person such as himself love a good storm, crashing seas, and jagged cliffs?
When people met Bertie at first, they always mistook him for a dangerous black-haired rogue. He had that kind of face—an imposing nose, haughty eyebrows, and high cheekbones. But his worst fault was only diffidence. Sometimes he did not warm up to people for years. He especially did not warm up to women. If one had known the mother who had lacerated his soul with her own bitterness that was easy enough to understand.
With care, he placed his Hessian boots upon the rocky path down to the beach. The locals had told him there were caves below reputed to be used by smugglers, so of course they were worth a look.
The stones rolled beneath his feet, almost causing him to lose his footing. Here and there were sturdy low-lying succulents that made their homes in rocky places, but nothing to grab onto in case of a fall. Stopping halfway to orient himself, Bertie looked down at the beach again.
There he saw the shrouded figure of a woman pacing the sands. As she wore a heavy, hooded cloak, it was impossible to tell whether she was young or old. He hesitated. He was not in the mood to form a new acquaintance, and as she had apparently come out alone, maybe she felt the same. Bertie waited until she had rounded the point and then continued his descent.
On the beach, waves rushed to their destruction, foaming at his feet. Not wishing disaster upon his shiny Hessians, he turned toward the cliffs, seeking the reputed caves. Heading south, he found them at the base of a craggy pinnacle standing straight up from the beach.
Dangerous place this will be at high tide.
What he really needed was a torch or a lantern. Just inside the tunnel opening was a hump of charred driftwood—evidence of a fire having been lit.
“You ought not to go in there, sir,” a low but distinctly feminine voice warned him. “Not without a torch and a guide.”
Turning, he saw the hooded figure standing just outside the entrance, framed by crashing surf. Feeling like a lad who had been caught out snooping, he stepped away from the cave toward her.
For some reason he could not have explained, the lady seemed a tragic figure. Her face beneath the hood was in shadow. As he moved further out into the diffused light of a sun blocked by an overcast sky, Bertie sought to make out her features.
Her face was heart-shaped with high cheekbones, a full mouth, and a small pointed chin. Eyes downcast, she refused to look at him.
“It sounds as though you’ve been here before,” he said, gentling his voice, afraid he might startle her.
Sea-green eyes fringed with thick, long lashes looked up at him then. Their clarity made them appear innocent, and yet something about the way she studied him gave him the impression she could see into his soul.
All at once, he felt as though he were falling from a great height. His heart thumped so loudly he could hear it in his ears. Their gazes locked and the two of them stood silent. The ocean crashed in the background.
This is no shy miss. She is full woman.
Finally, he spoke, offering her a short bow. “Sir Herbert Backman. I’m at the Oaks, Portisham. House party. I cannot resist lighthouses or smugglers’ dens.”
A brief smile showed and was gone in an instant. “Who can?”
“Don’t suppose anyone uses them now,” he said.
She contradicted him. “Oh. They are in use. Our local mystery, actually. I am determined to solve it.” Some anxiety furrowed her brow. “We had best make our escape before the tide comes in.” Turning her back, she walked swiftly away.
He stood rooted to the spot. He still saw her outline in the cave entrance, like the imprint of a lightning flash in the gloom. She had left too quickly. He was not ready to end their conversation. The moment was vital somehow, and Bertie felt off balance. Such feelings had never overtaken him before.
Was this desire, this sudden longing for completeness? Was this what his friends Tony and Beau had experienced upon meeting Virginia and Penelope?
Was he not to know even her name?
Bertie watched her recede from him, climbing up the path, holding up the hem of her cloak and moving with a strange heaviness, as though she carried a burden.
What’s amiss? What brought her down to the beach today? Ten to one, she’s distraught.
Normally possessing the empathy of a wooden door, he wondered what was wrong in her life. She looked sad. He longed to solve the mystery of her.
And there had been that curious sensation of falling. . . It was suddenly imperative that he find out who she was and what dispirited her so. Perhaps Virginia would know her identity.
* * *
Bertie returned to The Oaks, the large Tudor home of Lord Ogletree. It sat just outside Portisham on an estate that ran sheep in the rolling hills beyond the small town. It was idyllic, even in the winter.
He found his friend Tony, Viscount Strangeways, with his wife, Virginia, in the sitting room playing cards with his other friend Beau, Viscount Wellingham, and Beau’s wife, Penelope. His friends were opposites—Tony being dark and Beau blond.
Virginia, a tall lady with level dark eyebrows that lent earnestness to her face, answered his inquiry about the woman on the shore. “I’ve spent only a little time here, Bertie.” Her uncle owned the estate. “I don’t remember anyone of that description being at the wedding, though. She sounds rather extraordinary. How peculiar that she didn’t give you her name.”
“I’ve never known you to be so taken with a female, old fellow,” said Tony. Turning to his wife, he said, “Perhaps your uncle would know her, darling.”
But Lord Ogletree could not help him, either.
“Are you certain she was a lady, not a servant?” the stout man asked, settling back in a leather armchair, his feet on a hassock as he filled his pipe.
Bertie answered, “Certain. Her cloak was velvet, and the clasp was gold filigree.”
Lord Ogletree pondered, fingering his pocket watch. “I suppose she could be staying at Fortuneswell House, though it is usually empty at this time of year. It’s only one of the marquess’s holdings.”
“Marquess?” Bertie repeated, his inexplicable hopes dimming. A marquess’s relation could have no time for a mere baronet. Perhaps that is why she walked off without giving her name after he introduced himself. Yet, somehow he doubted it.
“Marquess of Westbury,” Ogletree elaborated. “His principal seat is in Somerset, but he sometimes visits here in the summer. I have never known him to be here in the winter, though.”
“Westbury,” mused Tony. “I’ve met his son, Redmayne. He’s not the sort to mingle with minor members of the nobility.”
Tony was a wealthy, well-thought-of viscount. If the marquess had no time for a viscount, he would certainly give a baronet short shrift. Bertie sighed.
His other friend, Wellingham, indulged his odd sense of humor by impersonating a dandy. Today, he was arrayed in a suit of lime green. He rose from the card table and clapped Bertie on the shoulder. “How about some billiards?”
His wife, Penelope, spoke up, “Not until you pay up, my lord. You owe me two shillings and sixpence.” The petite blonde woman had a reputation as a card sharp, which was totally at odds with her petite form and gentle demeanor. It had always amused Bertie considerably.
Beau paid up, and they left the ladies playing cards with Lord Ogletree.
This was their first house party together since Tony’s wedding in December. It was customary for them to meet in January, but though the three men continued to enjoy each other’s company, things were not the same between them. During the last year, both of his friends had married for love. While Bertie approved of their wives, he knew his friends’ principal loyalties now lay with them. That knowledge left him lonely.
He had known Tony since their days at Eton, and Beau had joined them at Oxford. For the last ten years, they had formed a tight triumvirate.
They were an oddly assorted trio, bound by those loyalties that can only be cemented over years at public school and university. Though it would come as a great surprise to London society, Bertie was a fervent Egyptologist. He lectured frequently at Oxford which lay twenty miles from his estate. The ton knew him only as a fashionable member of the Corinthian sporting set. A scholar at heart, he spent most of the year at his estate, surrounded by artifacts and steeped in Egyptian mysteries. For years, he had come to Town only during the Season to spend time with his two friends.
Beau was with the Foreign Office, and Tony ran his estate and horse breeding operation in Kent. Beau’s wife preferred their country estate to Town, so they spent as much time as the Foreign Office allowed in Somerset. And when the war with America ended, Tony and Virginia would be off to her country for an extended visit.
As though following his thoughts, Beau said, “We must find you a wife, Bertie.”
He forced a laugh. “I won’t be getting leg-shackled anytime soon. I have all the family I need in Marianne and the twins.”
“A sister is not the same as a wife,” Tony told him. “I never would have believed it myself, but marriage to the right woman is exceedingly comfortable, as well as stimulating. Virginia keeps me on my toes, but she is also in my corner, come what may.”
He couldn’t imagine altering his life in such ways as his friends had because of a woman. Contrary to what Tony averred, marriage seemed anything but comfortable. To his quiet irritation, he lost at billiards.
* * *
During the night, the mysterious lady from the beach visited Bertie in his dreams. He was walking along the shore and saw her atop the cliff, running, a red cape streaming out behind her. Suddenly, she was falling. Terror clamped his chest. He ran, and she fell into his arms. Her face was blurred with tears, and he kissed her. . .
He woke, still feeling her close in his arms, warm and familiar like home. Reluctantly, he let the feeling go and came full awake. Getting out of bed, he went to the mantel where Tony had placed a decanter of whiskey. He lit a candle and poured a short drink, taking it over by the window. Bertie pulled back the drapes and looked out into the clear night. The full moon shone, imparting a ghostly hue to the landscape. She was out there somewhere, asleep, unaware of his strange longing.
What was he to do about these feelings? They were unusual enough to make him uncomfortable and eager at the same time. This wasn’t like him at all. From his indelible experiences as a child he had come to view the fair sex (aside from his sister) as manipulative, shallow, and great disturbers of his peace. Of course, Virginia and Penelope did not appear to be that way, but one could never really tell, could one? How Tony and Beau would rib him!
His drink finished, he extinguished the candle and climbed back into bed, only to lie awake reliving the scene on the beach. It was a devil of a thing, this obsession. Perhaps tomorrow he could ride over to Fortuneswell, just to somehow ascertain whether that was where she was staying.
* * *
The following day dawned crystal clear as sometimes happened in the winter. Bertie itched for a ride. His friends hadn’t come down, so he sought out the stables and said good morning to Hermes, his chestnut stallion. Once he was in the saddle, he could not restrain himself from riding out and following the signposts to Fortuneswell. Was his mystery woman staying in the Marquess of Westbury’s home?
When he had arrived at the town, it provided yet another stunning scene atop cliffs which dropped to the waters of Portland Harbor. Stopping at the Lion, a welcome-looking pub, he ordered a cup of hot cider to warm himself. The other denizens of the hostelry appeared to be locals joined in a game of darts. There was one gentlemanly fellow reading a newspaper before the fire.
Bertie approached the man. “Pardon me. Can you tell me the road to Fortuneswell House?”
The man, who appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties, was fine as fivepence in a gray morning coat, striped trousers, and gray and black striped cravat. “Who is inquiring?”
In answer, Bertie bowed slightly. “Sir Herbert Backman.”
The man’s nostrils flared with what appeared to be distaste. “There is no one at home, sir, so I can save you the journey.” He turned back to his newspaper.
It had been many years since Bertie had suffered a snub. Turning away abruptly, he wondered if the man had even told him the truth. Tossing off his cider, he returned outside to Hermes. Some force still compelled him to find the house. He inquired of the stable lad, “Which is the road to Fortuneswell House?”