RAVENSWOOD SERIES, BOOK 1
The handsome and charismatic Earl of Stratton, Caleb Ware, has been exposed to the ton for his clandestine affairs—by his own son.
As a child, Devlin Ware thought his family stood for all that was right and good in the world. They were kind, gracious, and shared the beauty of Ravenswood, their grand country estate, by hosting lavish parties for the entire countryside. But at twenty-two, he discovered his whole world was an elaborate illusion, and when Devlin publicly called his family to account for it, he was exiled as a traitor.
So be it. He enlisted in the fight against Napoleon and didn’t look back for six years. But now his father is dead, the Ware family is broken, and as the heir he is being called home. It’s only when Gwyneth Rhys—the woman he loved and then lost after his family banished him—holds out her hand to help him that he is able make the difficult journey and try to piece together his fractured family.
It is Gwyneth’s loyalty, patience, and love that he needs. But is Devlin’s war-hardened heart even capable of offering her love in return?
Considered all in all, Ravenswood was surely one of the loveliest of great estates in all England. Or so those who lived within its influence believed quite firmly, most of them not having seen many or even any of the others.
And it was a happy place.
The Earl of Stratton and his family did not hoard either the house or the park for their exclusive use and pleasure. They did not keep it even just for other members of the Ware family who lived nearby or for the countess’s family, the Greenfields. No. The Wares of Ravenswood Hall were generous on a far wider scale with what was theirs. There were public days, two each week, often more during the summer, when the gates stood open and anyone was welcome to cross the bridge over the river and enjoy all the park had to offer, though it was understood without ever having to be stated or written down and posted on a board outside the gates that the family ought to be accorded some privacy close to the house. The family shared even the house and its immediate environs, however, on numerous occasions, some of them annual events. There was always a party for the children of the neighborhood on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, for example, and a supper and ball for the adults on Boxing Day. There was a picnic by the lake following a wildly popular treasure hunt on Valentine’s Day, weather permitting. The weather did not always permit in the middle of February, of course, but even when it did not the festivities were not canceled, Rather, they were moved indoors, where all four wings of the hall were called into use for the treasure hunt, and everyone was herded into a couple of adjoining reception rooms in the west wing afterward for tea.
Village assemblies were often held in the ballroom since the assembly rooms above the village inn could become so crowded when everyone attended—as everyone often did—that it was virtually impossible to dance. School events such as plays and achievement days were frequently held at the hall since the schoolroom was not large enough to accommodate unlimited numbers of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in any great comfort.
The event that was always most eagerly anticipated each year, however, was the grand fete that was held on the last Saturday of July. It was a day-long affair. It began in the middle of the morning with a prayer by the vicar, songs by the young people’s choir, and dances about the maypole performed by a group of young persons who gathered together once a fortnight all year long to learn new formations and to practice the steps. The maypole was always hoisted for the occasion on the lake side of the front lawn.
The opening ceremonies were followed by an outdoor luncheon and an afternoon of activities for everyone. There were contests for people of all ages and interests, from lace making for the women to log splitting for the men to races for the children, to name but a few. There were stalls at which one could spend one’s hard-earned money upon garish frivolities and sweetmeats and a faint chance to win a prize by hurling balls or darts at supposedly fixed objects, which had an annoying habit of moving or bending as soon as they were touched. There were always a fortune teller, a portrait painter, and one or two new attractions each year. Last year there had been a juggler, who had not dropped any of his colored batons or whirling plates or flaming torches even once. There was the presentation of prize ribbons to the winners by the countess and a hearty shake of the hand by the earl. And then there was the lavish picnic meal by the lake while an orchestra played spirited tunes from the island pavilion and everyone declared they were still full from luncheon—and then devoured everything in sight because anything made by the Ravenswood cook really was too delicious to be resisted.
And that was not even the end of the day’s festivities.
After eating their fill, those who lived close by dashed home to wash and change into evening finery while those who did not retired to guest chambers assigned to them in order to get ready for the evening ball and—yes—a late supper. Those who had young children and no one at home to look after them were not doomed to miss all the fun. Nurses and maids who had volunteered for the task—and a generous monetary reward for their services—looked after the children in the nursery and put the babies and infants to sleep, sometimes two or even three to a bed or cot, while their parents frolicked.
Eager anticipation of the fete always grew for weeks beforehand. Many kept an anxious eye upon the western sky for days in advance, as though it were possible to will the arrival of good weather for the occasion. And perhaps it was possible, for almost no one could remember a time when the whole thing had been washed out by rain—a remarkable record when one considered the notorious unpredictability of English summers.
* * * * *
The anticipation had begun this year. The Countess of Stratton, who was always exclusively in charge of the fete, was already busy planning it with her large staff of helpers—which included her children but not her husband. The Earl of Stratton generally stayed well out of his wife’s way since the organizing of social events was a woman’s work—or so she always reminded him whenever he did interfere with her plans, like this year, for example, when he had suggested impulsively to some of his neighbors at the village tavern one evening that they introduce something new to the fete this year in the form of a few boxing matches for the men to watch and even compete in.
Although his suggestion had been loudly cheered and toasted with mugs of ale, the countess was more than a little dismayed when her husband arrived home and broached the subject with her. She vetoed the idea without any discussion. There would almost certainly be blood, she pointed out to him, and that was not something anyone would want to cope with on a fete day. Besides, a boxing contest would draw away all the men and leave all the women to entertain themselves and their children.
The women would not be amused.
“Really, Caleb,” she said, shaking her head, though she smiled at his exaggeratedly chastened expression. “Please leave everything concerning the fete to me.”
Which he did happily enough, though there were going to be a few disappointed men in and about the village. He could watch boxing mills to his heart’s content throughout the spring months each year, of course. Many of the other men could not.
One person who was waiting with more eagerness than usual for the Ravenswood fete was Gwyneth Rhys, daughter of Sir Ifor and Lady Rhys. A gentleman of Welsh birth and upbringing, Sir Ifor had inherited his title, land, and fortune from an uncle who had never married. Even though at the time Sir Ifor had owned land in Wales too, he had had a beloved younger brother with no land of his own and a growing young family to feed. With the full knowledge and agreement of his wife, Sir Ifor had sold his land and home to his brother for five guineas and moved to England with his wife and Idris, his infant son. The following year Gwyneth had been born.
Gwyneth had turned eighteen just after Easter this year. She was no longer a girl but a woman, and her thoughts had turned inevitably toward her future—toward romance and love and matrimony, that was. Not that she had not thought of those things before, of course. Like most of her female friends, she had dreamed of boys and happily-ever-after since she was twelve, maybe even younger. But there was a difference now. She was eighteen, and everyone would fully expect her to be seriously contemplating courtship and marriage. The young men she knew, and there were quite a few hereabouts, had begun to eye her with increased interest, just as she was eyeing them. Last summer, even though she had been only seventeen at the time, a few young neighbors and friends of her uncle and aunt and cousins in Wales had begun to look upon her with an interest they had not shown to any marked degree before. She had looked back with an answering awareness that they were no longer boys but young men. Attractive young men in some cases.
There was one problem though. Or perhaps two.
One of those young men was Nicholas Ware, the Earl of Stratton’s second son, who was just a year older than she. He was truly gorgeous to look upon, though she had fully noticed it only recently. Before then he had been merely her very best friend. He was good-natured and sociable and a huge favorite with all her friends, some of whom claimed to suffer heart palpitations if he should merely happen to glance their way. He was not a flirt, however, and was perhaps not even aware of the effect he was having upon the young female population of their neighborhood.
Nicholas had been Gwyneth’s friend for as far back as she could remember. Closer, in fact, than most of her female friends, who as children and growing girls had not been free to come visiting whenever they wished and, even when they did come, had been expected to remain in the drawing room with the adults or at least to stay somewhere within their sight while behaving with ladylike decorum. Nicholas had come riding over to Cartref frequently, and it was for Gwyneth’s company he came. They had spent hours and days of their childhood chasing each other and playing hide and seek among the trees and skipping rope and tumbling and climbing trees and chasing sheep—though that last was strictly forbidden and earned them a scolding if they were caught. They had talked and laughed endlessly and occasionally squabbled. She had ridden with him, at first on her pony while a groom hovered close by, and then on her horse, neatly seated on the sidesaddle she despised, or bareback and astride whenever she could avoid the scrutiny of that same groom.
As they grew older, Nicholas had still come when he was not away at school. They had talked and talked, sitting up in a tree if it was a summer day, shut up in the parlor on colder days. She had told him about the freedom she always enjoyed when she was in Wales, running along the wide sandy beaches with her cousins and their friends, climbing the cliff faces, even swimming in the sea and diving beneath the foam of the waves. He complained to her of the tedium of school and the tyranny of the masters there and the bullying of the older boys, whom he delighted in defying. He even told her about the girls he and his friends would see occasionally despite the cloister-like nature of the school, and of sneaking out occasionally to meet them—only to be disappointed by their giggling silliness.
Gwyneth’s female friends were envious of her, for the gorgeous Nicholas Ware had eyes for no one but her. Yet to Gwyneth he felt a little like Idris did. Like a brother, that was, except more so. She tried sometimes to see him as her friends did and succeeded for a few moments. He was handsome and vibrant with life. Quite the stuff of romantic dreams, in fact. But then it was as though her eyes refocused and all she saw was Nick, her friend.
It was actually a little annoying.
He usually chose to sit beside her rather than anyone else at neighborhood parties and concerts, perhaps because conversation with each other never required any effort, or because they shared the same sense of humor. He always asked her first of anyone else to dance with him at the assemblies—once she was deemed old enough to dance at them at all, that was. They could often amuse themselves for hours on a chilly or a wet day, singing duets while she played the spinet or the harp in the parlor. Occasionally her father came in to make a suggestion, the most common being that a duet was made to be sung together, in harmony with each other, not attacked as though they were in a competition to see who could finish first.
Sometimes she and Nicholas sang together at social gatherings during which all or most of the guests were expected to share their talents, however meager. And the suspicion gradually grew in Gwyneth’s mind that perhaps the two of them were being looked upon as a couple, as potential marriage partners, even though Nicholas would be going away soon to begin his military career. The realization was a bit disturbing because the perception was not true. Moreover, it was actually damaging, for other potential suitors might be keeping their distance from her.
Specifically Devlin Ware, Viscount Mountford. Eldest son of the Earl of Stratton. Eldest legitimate son, that was. Nicholas’s brother. With whom she had been deeply, hopelessly, passionately in love all her life, or since she was eleven or twelve anyway.
Unfortunately, he did not even know she existed.
He was four years older than she. That had seemed a very wide gap of time when she was a child. He had come to Cartref almost as often as Nicholas had, but he had come to spend time with Idris, his best friend. She had been about as visible to him in those days as a spider on the wall. Perhaps less so. But she had loved his visits anyway, except when he and Idris had gone off alone somewhere together. More often, though, she had been able to sit quietly in a corner, her head bent over some busy work, while they talked—about books and school and music and religion. Devlin had been a serious, earnest boy, quite unlike his younger brother, but she had loved to listen to him. He had had firm opinions and the knowledge to back them up. He had also, though, listened attentively to opposing ideas and sometimes acknowledged their merit. Not many people were like that. Most people, when they were apparently listening to an opposing argument, were really just waiting for the moment when they could jump back in to reassert their opinion. Very few people listened.
The age gap had seemed to narrow as she grew older, though she was still invisible to Devlin Ware. Not that she had done much to make herself seen, for she had started to feel uncharacteristically awkward and shy when he came. He was so serious minded and intelligent and mature, and he had the title and would own the whole of Ravenswood one day. And in her eyes he was gorgeous, though in a quieter sort of way than Nicholas or his father. Indeed, whenever other people talked about the Ware men, it was always of those two they spoke of with most admiration. Most people seemed not to have noticed Devlin’s good looks, perhaps because he did not have the outgoing personality to go with them.
Gwyneth’s stomach had started to tie itself into uncomfortable knots whenever he came to Cartref, and she had continued to hide in a dark corner or behind her mother lest he notice her and not like what he saw. Not that he would look. He never had. If anyone had asked him, he might well have said that there were just three members of the Rhys family—her father and her mother and Idris. Though that was surely an exaggeration.
As she grew older, she had wanted desperately for Devlin Ware to notice her, yet she did all in her power to see that it did not happen. Sometimes the hardest person in this world to understand was oneself, she had thought in exasperation. For it was most unlike her to hide, to cower, to be unsure of herself, to behave like a chastened mouse. Most unlike.
Finally, though, he had noticed her. It had happened last year when she had been behaving most like herself. Their paths had almost crossed while they were both out riding—separately. She had been about to turn up onto the line of hills that divided her father’s land from his, and he had been on his way down. She had been riding alone—Nicholas had still been away at school. She had also been riding astride, as she had been allowed to do after she promised her mother and father one day when she was thirteen that she would never venture beyond their own property while so clad or so scandalously unaccompanied by a responsible male.
“The English are far more straitlaced than the Welsh, Gwyn,” her father had said. “In some ways anyway. But since we are living here, you must try not to offend anyone unnecessarily and find yourself being called a hoyden.”
“I despise that word, Ifor,” his wife had said. “It is applied exclusively to girls. Have you noticed? I know a few wild boys, and people generally think none the worse of them—boys will be boys. I have never heard any of them called hoydens. But listen to your dad anyway, Gwyn. He gives good advice. Most of the time.”
Gwyneth had been wearing breeches that day—also allowed on their own land though her mother was beginning to make rumbling sounds of disapproval—and she had been hatless. Her hair had been streaming loose behind her in a tangled mass. She had not bothered to braid it or even tie it back before she left home. The whole episode had been unfortunate. She had told herself it was quite safe and unexceptionable to ride up over the hills, which were sort of her father’s even if they were sort of the Earl of Stratton’s too. She was not sure anyone had ever actually surveyed the hills to discover where the boundary line lay. Right down the center of the track? It seemed unlikely.
He had drawn rein when he was still some distance from her—Devlin, Viscount Mountford, that was—while she had felt every inch of herself blush, a reaction she had disguised by throwing back her head and staring defiantly back at him since there had been nowhere she could literally hide. His eyes had swept over her from tousled head to booted feet in the stirrups, and he had nodded curtly and unsmilingly.
“Gwyneth,” he had said by way of greeting—he had not even paid her the courtesy of addressing her as Miss Rhys, even though she had been seventeen at the time. “I believe I will pretend this has not happened.”
And he had turned his horse’s head and ridden away back toward Ravenswood, leaving her to her own thoughts. Well, at least he saw me today, no matter what he pretends to the contrary. And at least he does know I exist. He even knows my name. They had not been particularly consoling thoughts. He had not looked disgusted or angry or startled or…anything. He had not questioned or scolded or said or done anything that would have given her an excuse to flare up at him. She flared anyway. What business of Devlin Ware, Viscount Mountford’s, was it what she did or how she looked on her father’s own land?
I believe I will pretend this has not happened.
How dared he! And what a very stuffy thing to say.
He was not in any way like his father or his brother. He was lean and dark-haired and dour of countenance. Though dour was an unfair word to use. He did not glower or frown or display open ill-humor. He was serious of countenance, then. And good looking, even if no one else had noticed. He had very regular, finely chiseled features and blue, blue eyes. He did not make anything much of those eyes, it was true. He was not a man who smiled often, though he was not dour. His eyes were gorgeous. He was gorgeous.
He was a conscientious worker. He had apparently excelled at school—Idris had attended the same one, though he had been a class ahead of Devlin. He had studied hard at Oxford too, while Idris had apparently played hard, with predictable results academically. Her brother had scraped through his final exams while Viscount Mountford had flown through his. Now he worked on the estate, alongside his elder half brother, who was their father’s steward. Most young men of his social rank—or so she had overheard her father remark to her mother—were busy sowing wild oats at this stage of their lives. Though Idris was not. He was as devoted to their farm as Devlin was to his father’s land. It was no wonder they were friends.
Gwyneth was not sure why she loved Devlin so passionately. Some people might call him dull, though admittedly she had not heard anyone go that far. But he was indeed very different from Nicholas and his father and even young Owen. Those three had a lively charm and charisma that appeared to be quite lacking in him.
It did not matter to Gwyneth. She loved Nicholas. But she was in love with Devlin Ware.
She had been for a long time. It was an infatuation she really must shake off now that she was grown up, however, for it was time to experience attraction and flirtation and courtship and marriage with someone who was also attracted to her. She knew a few men who were—or would be if they knew she and Nicholas were not a couple.
What better place to turn her attention toward her future life than the Ravenswood fete, which everyone from miles around attended, including every young, single male? She would even have a new dress for the occasion. Her mother had been urging her to have Mrs. Proctor, the village dressmaker, make one for her, and she had finally agreed. Something…pink, she had decided, though it was a color she usually avoided as being too daintily feminine for her vivid dark coloring. There was no chance of attracting Devlin’s notice when she had not done so all her life. And her friendship with Nicholas was leading nowhere except to more of the same—which was very pleasant, but a woman needed more than friendship from a man after her eighteenth birthday. She needed romance and love and a husband and a home of her own and happily-ever-after.
She would look around with serious intent at the fete. Perhaps, if the opportunity presented itself, she would do a bit of flirting and see if she could feel a spark of romantic interest in someone who was not Devlin Ware.
Who, after all, would want to be in love with someone like him? Or married to him? Where would be the sunshine and the laughter? The passion? Such thoughts were pointless, of course, for she would want to be married to him. But it was time to be realistic. Time to step out into the world and cast old dreams aside.
Gwyneth sighed and went in search of her mother.