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First Comes Marriage

By:Mary Balogh

First Comes Marriage





Mary Balogh





A Dell Book





PROLOGUE



WARREN Hall in Hampshire, principal country seat for generations past of the Earls of Merton, was surrounded by a large, well-landscaped park, in one secluded corner of which there was a small chapel, used nowadays almost exclusively for family weddings, christenings, and funerals since there was a sizable church in the village nearby for regular worship. It was generally a picturesque spot, especially during spring and summer, when the trees were laden with leaves and blossoms and the grass was green and flowers bloomed wild in the hedgerows and tame in the beds flanking the path leading to the church doors.



But this was early February, too early in the year even for the first of the snowdrops and primroses. And today it was raining. A chill wind tossed the bare branches of the trees against a leaden sky. It was the sort of day on which sensible folk remained indoors unless pressing business forced them out.



The man standing in the churchyard appeared to feel neither the cold nor the rain nor the call of the indoors. Nor was he admiring the scenery. He was holding his tall hat in one hand, and his dark, longish hair was plastered to his head and forehead. Water ran in rivulets down his face and neck to be absorbed by the fabric of his long black riding coat. Everything about him was black, in fact, except his face, and even that was dark-complexioned and quite un-English.



Given his surroundings, he looked somewhat sinister.



He was a young man, tall, long-limbed, lithe. His face was too rugged to be called handsome—it was long and narrow with high cheekbones and very dark eyes and a nose that had at some point in his life been broken and not set perfectly straight. The expression on his face was stern and forbidding. He was tapping a riding crop against his thigh.



If there had been any strangers close by, they would surely have given him a wide berth.



But there was no one, only his horse, which was grazing untethered nearby, apparently as oblivious to the cold and rain as its master.



He was standing at the foot of one particular grave—the newest, though a winter’s frost and wind had ob-scoured the freshness of its turned soil and given it a look little different from the others around it. Except that the gray headstone still looked very new.



The man’s eyes were fixed on the second to last line of the inscription—“Aged Sixteen Years.” And then beneath it, “Rest in Peace.”



“He has found the man he was looking for, Jon,” he said softly to the headstone. “And the odd thing is that you would have been delighted, would you not? You would have been happy and excited. You would have demanded to meet him, to befriend him, to love him. But no one thought to look for him until after you were dead.”



The headstone offered no reply, and the corners of the man’s mouth lifted in an expression that was more grimace than smile.



“You loved indiscriminately,” he said. “You even loved me. Especially me.”



He looked broodingly at the slight mound of earth beneath the headstone and thought of his brother buried six feet under it.



They had celebrated Jon’s sixteenth birthday, the two of them, with all his favorite foods, including custard tarts and fruitcake, and with his favorite card games and a vigorous game of hide-and-seek that had continued for two whole hours until Jon had been exhausted and helpless with laughter—a fact that had made him ridiculously easy to find when it was his turn to hide. An hour later he had beamed up happily from beneath the covers of his bed before his brother blew out the candle and withdrew to his own room.



“Thank you for a lovely birthday party, Con,” he had said in his newly deep voice, whose words and expression sounded incongruously childish. “It was the best ever.”



It was something he said every year.



“I love you, Con,” he had said as his brother bent over the candle. “I love you more than anyone else in the whole wide world. I love you forever and ever. Amen.” He had giggled at the old joke. “Can we play again tomorrow?”



But when his brother had gone into his room the following morning to tease him about sleeping late now that he was sixteen and almost an old man, he had found Jon cold. He had been dead for several hours.



It had been a devastating shock.



But not really a surprise.



Children like Jon, the physician had warned their father soon after his birth, did not usually live much beyond their twelfth year. The child had had a large head and features that were flat and looked strangely mongoloid. He had been plump and ungainly. He had been slow to learn all the basic skills most children absorbed easily in early infancy. He had been slow-minded, though not by any means stupid.

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