‘“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’—Of Truth, Sir Francis Bacon
June 2, 1780
All of London was ablaze. As Rebecca Edderle stared out of the window of her bedroom, she watched the haze of smoke become heavier and flames leap from buildings as the mob smashed their way into Soho. She couldn’t see the rioters, but she could trace their path of destruction by the acrid smoke rising from the fires as they were ignited. Though a pair of armed guards patrolled the gates in front of the Edderle home, Rebecca wasn’t concerned the mob would come any closer to her home. They had done their damage and were now moving away from Mayfair.
She turned to her husband, Davis, unnaturally peaceful in his bed. But for the bruises and cuts on his face, he might have been asleep. He was not sleeping, though; he was unconscious. “For the better,” the doctor had said. “Otherwise he might not stand the pain.”
Davis had been awake when his carriage returned home, too early for Parliament to have been dismissed. Rebecca barely noticed his shocked and blood-stained colleague, Lord Dalgliesh, who helped carry Davis inside. She was focused on her husband. The blood on Lord Dalgliesh was Davis’. She discovered this once he was settled in a bed, moaning softly. A frightening wound bled profusely from somewhere under his dark blonde hair.
It took the strength of two men to pull Davis’ dislocated shoulder back into place. The doctor believed that some of his ribs were cracked, but not broken. It was the head wound that he was most worried about, though he wouldn’t concern Rebecca with the particulars. She was Davis’ wife, but like many doctors, he believed women were too fragile to deal with medical truths. Davis could die of his injuries or he could survive with permanent damage. The doctor didn’t trust that the beautiful Lady Edderle would not become a quivering mess when he needed her to direct her husband’s care. So he said nothing more than that sleep was the best treatment for Davis.
Rebecca walked to Davis’ bedside. She absent-mindedly petted his beloved Springer spaniel, Cicero, who waited vigil with her. She wanted to lie with Davis, take him in her arms and absorb his pain. But she sat next to him and held his hand instead, wishing his fingers would wrap around hers as they used to. She’d forgotten how big Davis’ hands were. She’d forgotten much about how Davis felt; it had been so long since they had touched each other with tenderness.
She sighed in weariness. Dalgliesh was too traumatized to answer her questions: How? Why? Who would do this? She remembered at lunch, Davis suggesting the ladies and children remain indoors because of some “picketers” that were expected at Westminster. But surely the rioters would have recognized the seal on Davis’ carriage. He was respected by his peers and the press for his fairness, his concern for the poor. And if the mob was upset about the repeal of the Penal Laws, it made no sense to target the Lord Edderle; his position was of tolerance, but he remained a faithful Anglican.
Davis’ eyes moved slightly behind his lids, but the doctor had left for his supper so she couldn’t ask what it meant. Still, it was the first conscious motion she had seen in him since his shoulder was set.
“Davis,” she whispered very softly, her lips close to his ear. “Don’t leave me, Davis. I can’t lose you again.”
He didn’t respond. She laid his hand gently on her lips and kissed it.
To marry well was Rebecca Newland’s goal. Her mother had prepped her from a young age on what she needed to be to attract the right husband. Rebecca spent her life becoming that woman. She was delightful, attractive and wealthy and she was pursued by many men. But she had not cultivated herself into the ideal mate to marry just anyone. She wanted a title.
So she danced and charmed, promised, but never delivered and became the perfect partner for the elusive man she sought. On a visit to her cousin’s home in London, Rebecca found him shortly before her twentieth birthday.
Davis Edderle would have slipped away to a card game, but his sister brought over to him the most striking woman at the party. Her dark hair was curled and stylish, though not as outlandish as some of the other women. She was beautifully dressed in a peacock blue embroidered gown that complemented her vibrant, flushed cheeks. He had watched her while she danced, impressed with her confidence and skill.
“Davis, darling, I want you to meet Miss Rebecca Newland. She is visiting her cousin, Lady Martha Toles, for the Season.” Johanna said.
Davis graciously took Rebecca’s hand to kiss it. She knew that this was a planned introduction, no matter how spontaneous everyone pretended. Davis’ father was the Third Baron Edderle with an estate in Swinstoke, Hampshire. When he died Davis would inherit the estate and become the Fourth Baron of Swinstoke. He was already an MP and a rising star for the Tories. From a distance, Davis was obviously handsome. Up close, he was even more splendid, tall and square-jawed, with a cleft and hint of a dimple in his smile. She was surprised and delighted at the unfamiliar flutter in her stomach when his lips touched her palm.
“Delighted to meet you.” He bowed politely and dropped her hand gently.
“You might remember Rebecca’s brother, Tristan Newland. He was at Trinity also,” Johanna continued pointedly.
“Of course, I do,” he nodded. “He was a few years behind me, I believe, a pleasant young man. I am not surprised that Tristan’s sister is so lovely and such an accomplished dancer.” Davis’ dimples deepened into a more genuine smile.
“Do you dance, Mr. Edderle?” Rebecca asked. “I don’t recall seeing you out on the floor.”
He laughed, a little self-consciously. “I’m afraid that I’m not as graceful as you.”
“Nonsense!” Johanna exclaimed. “Davis is a wonderful dancer; I think he is more interested in his cards this evening. Or he was,” she teased.
Rebecca smiled up at him. “I adore cards,” she said, “but I prefer dancing more.”
Davis was charmed. “Then may I have this dance?”
Johanna knew that Davis and Rebecca would make a glorious couple. All she’d had to do was make sure that they were in the same room and, with a little nudge, they would find each other. Davis’ education was complete, the Tour done and Father wheezing his final breaths. She knew he was ready to settle down. Rebecca was suggested by Lady Martha, a life-long friend of Johanna’s.
“Her mother is lovely. Her father, though, was an awful man,” Martha Toles confided. “I doubt he had any real desire to see Rebecca married. He was quite controlling.” Johanna was empathetic.
She introduced herself to Rebecca at the first ball of the Season. By the end of the evening, she knew that she had met the next Lady Edderle. Moreover, she honestly believed that Rebecca could make Davis happy.
The couple danced twice then Rebecca suggested she accompany Davis to his card game as his “good luck charm”, cleverly keeping him close.
Despite her exhaustion, Johanna was up with Davis the next morning. “Well?” she asked, pouring a cup of coffee for herself and refreshing Davis’ cup.
He laid aside his paper and smiled. “You were right. She is delightful.” Johanna took a sip of coffee, satisfied, but not triumphant. “I told her I would see her this evening.”
She could tell there was more. “And?”
“And I sent a bouquet this morning. Or was that too forward?” he teased.
Now Johanna didn’t hide her elation. “That was perfect. So you do like her?”
“She is different,” he answered with a curious look in his eyes. “She’s not ‘seasoned’ in that way that can be so off-putting. I believe she’s genuine.”
“And she is hungry to marry, but not starved.” Johanna commented.
“That’s an odd way to put it,” he said.
“I don’t mean that critically or unkindly,” she added quickly.
“No, I understand. I’ve just never heard of this ‘pursuit’ for a husband spoken so honestly,” he chuckled.
Johanna sipped her coffee lost in thought. “She reminds me somewhat of…” She stopped.
“Yes, she seems to have the same sweetness as Mother,” Davis finished.
Ava Edderle had been gone for 12 years, but the pain was as acute as though it were only 12 days. Everything changed when she died, for her, for Davis and poor Colin. “She would approve of Rebecca,” Johanna said firmly.
“Yes, she would.” He stood and kissed Johanna on the forehead. “I must leave for Westminster now; I’ll be home before six.”
In Martha Tole’s house in Belgravia, Rebecca had finished telling her mother of the previous evening’s events when the butler brought in a large bouquet of lilies. “They’re from Mr. Edderle,” Rebecca exclaimed.
“I believe you made a memorable first impression,” Sarah said.
“He says that he will be at the Duke of Richmond’s ball this evening, Mother! You will be going also, won’t you?”
“I will. Someone will need to keep any eye on Susanne.”
Rebecca’s smile twitched for a moment as she sorted out the flowers. “I’m sure she will be on her best behavior,” she remarked, only half sure she believed herself.
Sarah gently stroked her daughter’s soft curls, her earlier delight absent. “Susanne is not a child anymore. And I will impress upon her the importance of making a gentle appearance, if only for your sake.”
“I am sure she will be on her best behavior,” Rebecca repeated.
For the Duke of Richmond’s ball, Rebecca wore an ivory brocade sackback gown. Panniers were going out of style (Thank the Lord, she thought), though her stays uncomfortably guaranteed perfect posture. Martha’s maid dressed her hair in pearls and one of Davis’ lilies. She had been a proud peacock the night before, demanding everyone’s attention. Tonight, she would be a demure flower for the enjoyment of only one.
As she entered the ballroom on Tristan’s arm, Rebecca scanned the room in search of Davis. He was conversing with a splendidly dressed woman. When his eyes met hers, he smiled in recognition.
“I believe that he was waiting for you,” Tristan said as Davis walked toward them.
Rebecca’s heart actually skipped a beat at the sight of Davis; he was even more handsome than the night before. She could easily read the disappointment in the woman when he left her for Rebecca. It took him a minute to navigate the crowded ballroom. Tristan automatically offered Rebecca’s hand to Davis and if the men spoke, she was not aware of what was said. Davis maneuvered her onto the dance floor with the assurance of a man in charge.
“I see you received the flowers I sent,” he said.
She touched the lily in her hair. “Yes, thank you. I sent a note.”
“It’s probably sitting on my desk.”
“How did you know that lilies are my favorite?” she asked. It was true, though if he had sent marigolds they would have been her favorite as well.
“Last night I watched you walk up to a bouquet of lilies and inhale them as if they were your life’s breath.” Her eyes widened at the seduction of his words. He paused for a beat then added with a tantalizing grin, “And Lady Martha told me when I asked.”
Rebecca laughed self-consciously. “Mr. Edderle, you amuse me. For a moment I thought you were serious.”
They were not paired at supper. Through the courses, she glanced his way. She felt a twinge of envy when she saw him paying close attention to his dinner companion; but then their eyes met and he subtly lifted his wine glass to her before taking a sip.
After supper, he mentioned that the Duke of Richmond had recently acquired a van Dyck and would she like to see it. She tried to think of who van Dyck was, then remembered, “Flemish painter.” But she had already answered, “Of course.”
“I’m not a fan of his,” Davis said. “I prefer the Italians. A little less stuffy. But I suppose I should see it if only to the complement the Duke on his extraordinary taste.”
Rebecca didn’t know what a van Dyck looked like or how it might compare to an Italian painting, but she nodded in agreement.
Davis saw the couple in the shadows before Rebecca did. He gently tried to steer her away. But the man stepped into the light when he heard them, turning his back to adjust his clothing. The woman giggled and pushed at his back, then stepped into the light, pulling her bodice back in place. Rebecca froze in recognition.
“Rebecca!” her sister Susanne drunkenly greeted her. She tugged on the shirt of the man who was trying to escape. “You should meet my friend, Paul.”
“Peter,” the man corrected.
“Peter,” Susanne slurred. Peter was a groom. Rebecca didn’t know what was more embarrassing: her intoxicated sister or her choice in paramour.
Davis quietly but firmly said to the young man, “I’m sure that Lord Hargrave would be disappointed to find his carriage unattended.”
“Yes sir,” the groom apologized, exiting as quickly as he could.
Susanne pouted a little then turned to Rebecca and said, “Pity; he was a nice boy.”
Rebecca swallowed hard and said pleasantly to Davis, “Mr. Edderle, this is my sister, Susanne Newland. Susanne, Mr. Edderle.”
Mr. Edderle. Oh no, Susanne thought. She flushed and tripped on her curtsy, distressed that she had embarrassed her sister. “I’m sorry, Mr. Edderle,” she stammered suddenly on the verge tears.
But Davis offered his other arm before she fell and said to Rebecca, “Your sister isn’t feeling well. Perhaps we should escort her home.” Before she could answer, he added, “Johanna and I intended to visit Lady Toles tomorrow. Will you be there?” And just like that, everything was back to normal.
Rebecca did not show her disappointment at her night ending so suddenly. “Yes,” she replied, pasting on her familiar smile. “I would enjoy seeing you again. Thank you for your offer,” she said in a stronger voice, “But Tristan can escort us home.”
Davis kissed her hand. “Goodnight, then. Johanna and I will see you tomorrow afternoon.”
Susanne. She refused to do anything the proper way. She had been Father’s favorite and he forgave her everything. He encouraged her to reject her mother’s instruction on proper behavior and for years she regarded these lessons as a waste of time. She knew how to attract men without her mother’s help. Susanne did what she pleased no matter the consequences to herself or others. It was the same selfishness her father practiced, but the results for Susanne were more devastating. There was talk, rumors about her that found their way to London. As children, Tristan and Rebecca had to tolerate her careless attitude. Now that she was an adult and Father was gone, they were impatient for the damage she caused their name.
In the carriage ride back to Martha’s home, Tristan was too angry and Rebecca too dejected to speak. But Sarah made up for them.
“Drunk! Like some bar wench! Do you have any idea how you’ve made your sister look?”
Maybe it was the drink or genuine remorse, but Susanne was upset. “I’m sorry, Mother! I was having fun and…”
“And, and, and! Always excuses with you! You may not care about your reputation, but Rebecca has worked too hard for you to wreck her chances for a decent marriage!”
Tristan finally spoke. “Father may have forgiven your escapades, but I’m the man of the house now and I will not allow you to act so common.”
His words stung. She hadn’t meant to become intoxicated; she hadn’t meant to slip away with a servant (“A servant!” Sarah had exclaimed in horror). But the young man-Peter? Paul? Whomever? He was so lovely and his kisses so warm. It wasn’t as though any of the Lords would have paid her any mind in the light of the ballroom. Only in the shadows.
Typical Susanne, Rebecca thought as the carriage became quiet. Susanne was sniffling in a corner, the tongue-lashing over. Rebecca had never understood why Henry Newland favored Susanne over her. Rebecca always obeyed her father, always looked to him for his approval. She was gentle and quiet, just as a woman was expected to be. But Henry Newland had been a bully and Rebecca could not understand that it wasn’t she that he despised, just everyone in general.
Now that Sarah was a widow, she just wanted her daughters to be married so that she could have the quiet life she desired. With Rebecca, it would happen; with Susanne, who knew?
Susanne woke very late in the morning, her stomach churning from the hangover. She didn’t remember much about the ride home except for Rebecca’s silence. Everyone had been so excited that Mr. Edderle appeared to be courting Rebecca. Now Susanne had a vague memory of Rebecca’s shocked face as she stood next to Mr. Edderle while Susanne adjusted her cleavage. What had she done?
But when she finally dressed and came downstairs, no one spoke of the night before. She tried to hide in her embroidery. There was much ado about something that much she could tell, but no one bothered to fill in the details. Then, after lunch, a carriage pulled up to the house and a woman alighted.
“Rebecca,” Martha whispered as she peeked out of the window. “Johanna’s here, but she’s alone.”
Rebecca wouldn’t let her disappointment show. She quickly smiled and said brightly, “I’m sure he has a good reason.”
Tristan turned sharply to Susanne then said to Rebecca, “I believe that Mother and I will leave you two. Come along, Susanne.”
“I can’t wait to get to know you better,” Johanna said, taking Rebecca’s hands as she entered the parlor. “Davis had to leave for home to settle some business matters, but he asked me to give you his regards and this.” She handed Rebecca a letter and turned her attention to Martha, giving Rebecca an opportunity to read it.
“Dear Miss Newland, I very much enjoyed our time together. I regret that I am unable to join my sister today; however, my father has called me home. I should be returning to London in a fortnight. I look forward to becoming better acquainted with you then. Sincerely, Davis Edderle.”
Rebecca felt like she could breathe for the first time since that awful moment the night before. Mr. Edderle was too much of a gentleman to blame Rebecca for her sister’s behavior. And in two weeks, he would see her again.
Davis could have taken his carriage home, but he preferred to ride. He loved the freedom to race to his destination like a highwayman eluding the constable. He was uncomfortable in the coach, bumping in ruts, at the mercy of other coaches and wagons. After years of riding from London, he was familiar with shortcuts that got him off the road and into the fields he preferred. There was always the danger of his horse, tripping on a rabbit hole, but how, he reasoned, was that any safer than a rutty road?
Then too there was the anonymity of riding. He could be anyone. As the heir to the Edderle barony, St. Clare’s Abbey, and all its other holdings, he was privileged and felt guilty for resenting the demands that came with it. He had pragmatically chosen to run for a seat in the House of Commons, the better to prepare himself for his future service in the House of Lords. Still, he resented the familiarity of those who presumed to know him because of his rank.
This included every daughter of a noble who sought his favor in the hopes of marriage. And though he knew that he would not have been introduced to Rebecca Newland had she not been a suitable candidate for marriage, he was genuinely attracted. It wasn’t her beauty, or her wealth, or her cleverness. It was intangible and he’d only felt it once before.
The visit home was not a dodge. His father was dying and Davis needed to oversee the transition from father to son. By the time he left, Davis had accomplished his duties. He’d said a prayer at his mother’s grave, authorized the necessary repairs to the east wing, and told his father that he would be marrying soon. William Edderle asked only one question: “Do you love her?”
Davis smiled wryly at the question. He knew there was more behind the question, buried in layers of bitterness. “No,” he answered.
“Hm,” he grunted. “That’s good. Be a friend to your wife, but don’t be her lover.”
Davis thought about his father’s advice as he rode back to London. He wanted to be in love with his wife. He wanted the marriage his parents had before his mother died and his father changed.
When Davis saw Rebecca again, he thought “She is a blushing flower.” Her cheeks were as pink as her dress and the roses in her hair. Her eyes and hair were the same deep brown, almost black. The combination was exotic, yet still soft and feminine. He had prepared himself to be pragmatic, open to finding Rebecca’s faults, but he was as stirred by her as when they’d first met.
Over the next month, he was assured that he’d made the right decision. In May, Davis arranged to meet with Tristan at the Newland’s home in Tundle. He didn’t really know Tristan, but Tristan knew of him. The Edderle family was nobility and Davis’ future had been mapped for him from the day he was born. The Newlands were gentry. Tristan inherited his father’s much smaller estate and the shoe mill that maintained it. He was rich, but was careful with money. At Trinity, Davis’ schoolmates were not and so they didn’t travel in the same circles. Davis wasn’t seeking a dowry, only permission, and it was he that promised a yearly allowance for both Rebecca and her mother.
For Rebecca’s twentieth birthday in June, Davis decided to celebrate the engagement and her birthday on the same evening with a lavish party. As a gesture of goodwill to his future family, he encouraged Johanna to work with Susanne in the planning of the party. Johanna wasn’t fond of Susanne, but agreed to his suggestion. Susanne for her part tried very hard to contain her natural exuberance when Davis was present.
The only invitation that Davis was adamant about was for his best friend, Michael Brooks, who he hadn’t seen in months.
“Who is Michael Brooks?” Susanne asked while she and Johanna addressed the invitations.
“Who is Michael Brooks?” Johanna repeated. “Oh,” she sighed, “How to answer that question?”
Michael was the most fascinating person Davis and Johanna had ever met. He was reckless and exciting. He had no shortage of sycophants, male and female, desperate for the luster he gave their dreary lives.
He and Davis met when they shared a room at Harrow. They were 13 and away from home for the first time. It was the only thing they had in common. While Davis left behind a family he truly adored, Michael’s father was a selfish man who cared more about gambling than his son. His mother had disappeared years before. He had an older, illegitimate half-brother who lived in Ireland, a leftover reminder of an affair with a parlor maid.
Michael was raised by the servants of Elysian Fields, the Brooks’ ancestral home, after his nurse quit. She adored Michael and didn’t want to leave, but grew tired from fighting off the advances of his lecherous father. Her name was Celia and Michael would always remember her with fondness. Not so the other servants who took advantage of the absent Earl and cared little for Michael’s needs.
Michael seemed more worldly and mature than any of the other boys at Harrow. Davis was in awe of his roommate despite the fact that he was taller, more athletic, and the better student.
Nevertheless the boys depended on each other as they navigated those first years away from home. But their friendship was solidified when they were 15 and Davis’ mother, Ava, died suddenly. She was healthy at Christmas; but in February, Davis received a letter from his father. His mother was dead and Davis was to remain at school until the end of the term as she was already buried. Later he would see for himself how his mother’s death broke his father, turning him into a bitter stranger. Davis became an orphan when his mother died.
It was Michael who kept Davis from going mad. Michael knew Ava from his visits to St. Clare’s on holiday. He knew her devotion to her children and to their friends; after Celia, Ava was the closest to a mother Michael had ever known. When he saw the letter on the bed next to Davis and Davis’ blank stare, he wrapped his arms around him and held him until Davis could cry no more. Michael became his protector, his confidante and his best friend. Michael was used to losing people; Davis was not.
When Michael turned 16, the old Earl, Michael’s father, decided to celebrate the occasion by hiring each boy his own prostitute. “It is a coming of age tradition in the Brooks family,” his father told Davis.
Davis was horrified at the thought, but Michael took it as just another deviant step toward adulthood. He’d already lost his virginity to a kitchen maid when he was 13, though his father didn’t know it. Chances were his father wouldn’t have cared much except that then he would have had to come up with a novel birthday gift.
The maid was new and only 16 herself. While looking for his cat, Mrs. Puff, he spied her in one of the outbuildings with a stable hand. The noise of his steps must have alerted the girl whose eyes flew open and locked onto Michael. The stable hand was unaware of anyone but her. Michael quietly hid, watching the couple while she watched him. When they were finished, the stable hand left quickly, but the girl lingered behind only barely covering herself. The time passed agonizingly slow, but after a few minutes, when she was sure that the stable hand had gone, she called to Michael.
“You’re not in trouble. I won’t hurt you,” she said. Her voice was friendly and Michael hesitated only a moment before coming out of the shadows. “Come and sit by me,” she said, patting at the spot next to her.
Her skin had such a rosy glow. It was really the first thing he noticed as he came closer. Not her breasts, not her hair, not the area between her thighs that she casually draped over with her skirt.
Michael had always been a handsome boy with thick black curls and deep brown eyes. His beauty now was a hint of what was to come as he grew older. Many of the young girls who worked at Elysian Fields were aware of Michael, but also knew his father’s temper and weren’t willing to risk his wrath or their jobs for a little sex.
This girl was new and didn’t really care. To her, kitchen jobs were easy enough to find and she might as well enjoy a few perks.
“I won’t bite, I promise” she said. Michael sat beside her, his knees pulled up to his chest. “My name’s Jane. You’re Michael, aren’t you?” He nodded, wanting desperately to look at her, but afraid she was teasing him and would laugh if she realized that he had an erection.
But she didn’t laugh. She touched his arm gently and he relaxed enough to follow her lead. She kissed him on the lips, so softly at first that it felt like a whisper. When he became fully aware of what was happening, he let her remove his trousers and guide him inside of her. He didn’t last as long as the stable hand, but she didn’t seem to mind.
Jane taught him of the many pleasures a woman could give a man. She also taught him of the pleasure he could give a woman. It was an incredibly useful education. She never slept with the stable hand again that summer and when Michael left for Harrow at the end of the summer, she let him go easily.
By the time he was 16, Michael was well-versed in sexual pleasure. He looked forward to a visit with a professional as an opportunity for something new.
Davis, though, was still a virgin and looked at women as a species to be adored from afar. Though the prostitute the old Earl hired was young and pretty, he couldn’t help but feel a little sad at the prospect. She tried to draw him out, but Davis was quiet, wanting desperately to be finished so he could leave. Later, when Michael questioned him about the experience, he tried to pretend he’d been as excited as his friend. But Michael knew him too well. “It gets better each time,” he encouraged. Davis hoped so. As the years went by, he continued to hope so, but since his interludes were usually with working girls, he began to think that what he was missing, what he needed to make it meaningful was for it to be with someone he loved.