Excerpt from Falling Stars

Wiltshire, England
11 December 1818

If a man could sleep through the racket of early morning London, Marcus Greyson told himself, he could certainly sleep through the noise of lively children.  He pulled the pillow over his head, but he could heart it all the same: shrill voices and the thumping of little feet up and down the corridors. Even in the intervals of silence, he was waiting, braced for the next outburst of shrieks and thumps.

With an oath, he flung the pillow aside and dragged himself out of bed. He had slept only three hours. That, evidently, was all the sleep he was going to get. A glance at the window told him morning was well advanced—a winter morn so crisply bright it made his eyes ache.

Despite his grogginess, Marcus washed and dressed quickly, while his mind ran over a dozen possible excuses he could give his elder brother and sister-in-law for turning up in the dead of night. Julius and Penelope probably still weren’t aware he was here.

They had all been asleep when he’d come. He had simply let himself in with his own key, and gone up to the room they always kept ready for him. While they’d be delighted Marcus had changed his mind about spending Christmas at Greymarch, they were sure to wonder about his bizarre traveling schedule.

He gave his thick mane of tawny hair the usual slapdash brushing, and pulled on his coat. Since he didn’t have a reasonable explanation, he might as well give an unreasonable one, so ludicrous they’d be too busy laughing to ask any more.

He opened the door and stepped into the hall just as a matched pair of fair-haired little girls came barreling round the corner. One neatly dodged and shot past. The other tripped over his foot.

Marcus caught her before she hit the floor and briskly set her back on her feet. As he met her dazed blue stare, he inhaled sharply. He knew those eyes ... no, it was impossible.

“Delia! Livy!” came a feminine voice from the stairway.

His head swung toward the sound.

“Yes, Mama,” the little girl called out. “We’re just going to the schoolroom.” Flashing Marcus a grin, she darted down the hall.

“Not before we have a discussion, young ladies.”

Even while his mind denied, disbelieved, his senses recognized, and stirred.

The voice’s owner came round the corner, then stopped dead.

All else stopped, too—his heart and breath—as though they’d collided physically. The impact sent him reeling into the past.

He had met her in summer, but hers was winter’s beauty. Her hair was pale sunlight framing the snowy purity of her skin, and there was winter, too, in her eyes, clear, ice-blue. Christina.

He regained his breath and managed a bow. “Mrs. Travers.”

“Mr. ... Greyson.” The fingers of her left hand curled and uncurled against the grey woolen gown. No wedding ring. When had Arthur Travers died? Some two or three years ago?

“I was not ... “ Her full mouth formed a tight smile. “I was unaware you were here. Penelope said—that is, no one mentioned your arrival.”

That low voice with its trace of huskiness ... so like a caress ...  He pulled his wandering mind back.

“They couldn’t have known,” he said. “I arrived late last night. A spur-of-the-moment decision.” His heart was beating too fast—because he was taken aback, Marcus told himself. He knew she and Penny still corresponded, but from all he’d heard, Christina hadn’t left Cumbria since she was married. He hadn’t been told she’d be here, and couldn’t possibly have expected it.

He backed away a step. She did, too.

“How  ... pleased Julius will be,” she said. “And Penelope. And of course, the boys. They’ve boasted of their uncle to the twins.”

“The little girls,” he said tautly. “Yours, obviously.”

She nodded. “Delia and Livy.” Her ice blue gaze melted a fraction. “Seven years old last month. And dreadful hoydens, as you’ve probably noticed. I hope their noise didn’t wake you.”

Seven years old. That seemed impossible. But it had been ten years since he’d last seen her, and she’d married soon thereafter—a mere three months thereafter, he recalled, with a sting of bitterness that startled him. He retreated another pace.

“The children didn’t disturb me at all,” he lied. “I was just going down to breakfast.”

“Then I mustn’t keep you.”

She moved past him, a breath of scent teasing in her wake. Lavender.

He’d known many other women who wore lavender. The scent should have conjured recent memories. Instead, as he stood in the passage listening to her light step fade, the scene opening in his mind rose from a decade ago.

It had been late May, a fortnight before Julius’s wedding, and the first group of houseguests had arrived. Julius was taking them on a tour of Greymarch, and he’d nagged Marcus into going along.

Though acutely aware of Penny’s beautiful friend, Marcus had kept his distance. He detested prim and proper Society, and above all loathed its featherbrained misses, with their virginal white gowns and twittering voices and mincing, mannered ways The males weren’t much better: a lot of complacent hypocrites among whom not a single original thought could be found.

While the guest explored the old gatehouse—the Greysons’ Picturesque Ruin, Julius called it—Marcus had gritted his teeth and kept his mouth shut, resolved for Julius’s sake to endure boredom and frustration in silence. Marcus had been leaning against a fir tree, softly whistling the melody of a bawdy song, when Penny’s friend had shyly approached.

What is the song?” Christina had asked in that foggy, beckoning voice.

He had carefully avoided looking at her, because he’d seen what happened to other men who did. In less than twenty-four hours, this eighteen-year-old girl with her platinum hair and silver-blue eyes had effortlessly turned every unattached male at Greymarch into a dithering imbecile.

Marcus had looked at the gatehouse, the rocks, the trees, and the blue, cloudless sky—anywhere but at her—while he answered acidly that the melody was beneath the notice of good little girls because its composter wasn’t anyone genteel like Haydn or even Rossini.

“Oh,” she’d said. “And she was backing away—as he’d believed he wanted—when the spring breeze carried the lavender scent to his nostrils. It had swirled into his brain—and, dizzy, he’d looked down and watched her face slowly turning to profile, her eyes downcast so that the long lashes almost brushed her cheek. He’d watched her soft mouth turn downward ever so slightly, then saw his hand reaching to touch her muslin sleeve, while he heard his voice gentling as he said, “Shall I whistle Rossini instead?”

She had turned back, lifting doubtful blue eyes to his. Then, in the space from one heartbeat to the next, the moment of her silver-blue gaze sweeping up to meet his, he’d tumbled headlong into love ... and two weeks later, into heartbreak.

Marcus recoiled from the memory as though it had been a physical blow. The present swung back sharply into focus.

Christina Travers was nothing to him, he told himself as he headed for the stairs. He’d scarcely thought of her in years. Young men fell in love every day, and had their hearts broken, or else they got their hearts’ desire and wed. Some lived happily ever after—as Julius had—but more often they existed with their wives in a state of stultifying boredom or endless quarrel.

Christina had wed wealth and comfort—as she’d been reared to do, Marcus was well aware. According to gossip, she’d lived in virtual seclusion in the Lake District ever since, while he’d spent seven of the last ten years abroad. Had he encountered her in the interim, today’s meeting wouldn’t have disconcerted him. His strong physical reaction and his mind’s reversion to the past were confused responses to the unexpected ... and to her beauty, of course. He wouldn’t have imagined she could grow more lovely.

Naturally he wouldn’t. The last time he’d seen her, he had been a callow youth of four-and-twenty who believed Christina was the most beautiful girl in all the world. He’d believed a great many foolish things, once.