Home > An Affair at Stonecliffe (Stonecliffe #1)

An Affair at Stonecliffe (Stonecliffe #1)
Author: Candace Camp

 

PROLOGUE


   NOELLE GAZED DOWN at the sleeping baby. How were they to live?

   At first she had been too numb to think, moving through the past few days in a dazed state, unable to believe that this was real. Adam was too young, too full of life to die. Why had he been so reckless? And why, dear God, why had she argued with him that night?

   She shivered. Their home was still and silent, empty of his laughter, his words, even his scowls or curses when his work went badly. Noelle wished she could return to her earlier befogged state. But this morning, as she had stood at his graveside, the Paris sky fittingly gray and drizzling, her heart had accepted what her mind refused to the past three days. Never again would she see her husband’s smile or feel the touch of his lips on hers.

   But she could not allow herself to sink into a morass of grief. She had a baby to care for. As she watched her child sleep, a fierce surge of protectiveness rose in her. She must face the harsh truths, the bitter reality, for Gil’s sake. There was no one to solve her problems—or even to give her advice.

   Adam’s artist friends? His models? They were all as penniless as she was. Her father was far away in Oxford, and in any case, he was an impoverished academic who could barely manage to support himself. Even less likely to help was Adam’s aristocratic father, who had been so opposed to Adam marrying “beneath him” that he cut his son out of his life.

   Noelle glanced around their flat, forcing herself to take stock of her situation. There was no money here. Noelle had used the pittance she had stashed away just to pay for Adam’s burial and the small headstone—and oh, how it hurt that a man of his artistry should have so little to mark his passing! The butcher refused to sell anything to her until she paid their bill. The wine merchant was already dunning them—that was what set off her argument with Adam and sent him storming out into the night. The flat itself was paid only through the end of the next week, and their landlord was a hard man who would not care that he was tossing a widow and a fatherless baby into the street.

   It was enough to make her dissolve into sobs, but Noelle had cried so much the last few days that she was utterly drained of tears, and in any case, it would do no good. Crying never solved anything. She must think of what to do. Madame Bissonet would take her back at the millinery where Noelle had worked before Gil was born. Noelle had been a good clerk as well as an excellent model for Madame’s hats, not to mention the added benefit of being able to converse with English customers.

   But how was she to work there—or anywhere—with a small baby? She could hardly carry an infant about the showroom with her or take time from making bonnets to feed and tend to him. Even if she could find a way to do so, the money she could earn would be very little. They had always lived on the stipend Adam’s family sent him despite his estrangement from them. Noelle’s salary had merely helped make ends meet when Adam’s extravagant spending sent them into dun territory. It wouldn’t be enough to live on. And she had no hope that the Rutherfords would continue to provide Adam’s much-disliked widow any aid after his death.

   She could sell Adam’s work. She looked across the room to where his easel stood by the window. Finished paintings crowded all around it—the fruit of his genius, the rich glimpses into his soul—some dark and stormy, others visions of stunning beauty, and all of them compelling. It made her heart ache to think of letting them go, but she would have to try to sell at least some of them. That would bring in enough to live for a while, but he had been able to sell too few of them in the past for her to think she would be able to reap any great sums. They were worth far more to her than they ever would be to someone else.

   Noelle turned away, going to the alcove that served as their bedroom, and began to take off the black dress she had worn to Adam’s funeral. Adam would have hated that; he had always said she was suited only for color. She had but one black dress. It was old and uncomfortably tight across her breasts, so full now since the baby was born. Tossing it onto the bed, she pulled on the bright silk wrapper Adam had bought her. It was far too extravagant, as were so many of the things that he bought, but it was soft and comfortably loose, and it made her feel closer to Adam.

   Taking an ornate box from the dresser, she sat down on the bed and opened it. The jewelry Adam had bought her was the most valuable asset she possessed. She began to pull out the pieces, laying them out on the bed beside her. The diamond earrings Adam had given her when Gil was born. Gold bangles. An enameled brooch. A jeweled hairpin that looked like a dragonfly. Pendants, earrings. That foolish narrow ruby-and-diamond tiara that Noelle would never attend anything formal enough to wear.

   Indeed, she would never wear most of them. She had protested time and again that Adam spent too much on jewels and clothes for her; it would have been far more useful for him to pay the rent. But Adam was the son of an earl, and he’d never completely adjusted to his new financial circumstances. He would complain about his lack of funds and call the monthly payment he received from England “blood money.” He would make periodic vows to follow a budget. But then he would see something he wanted, and he would buy it on the spot, without regard to the price.

   That first bracelet he’d given her, she had promptly handed back to him, saying heatedly that she was not the sort of girl to accept such a present from a man. She smiled to herself, stroking her finger over the delicate chain of sapphire flowers. Adam had kept it and presented it to her again after they married, smiling in that irresistible, mischievous way of his and saying he believed she could accept it now.

   Noelle swallowed the lump in her throat and fastened the bracelet on her wrist, holding her arm out to admire it. She pulled out the matching necklace that he’d given her on their first anniversary. Going to the mirror, she fastened it around her neck. She smoothed her finger over the delicate stones, remembering the way he looked as he gave it to her. Tears welled in her eyes.

   A thunderous knock sounded at the door, breaking into her reverie. Whirling, she ran for the door in the futile hope she might keep the visitor from waking the baby. But, naturally, Gil began to howl, his tiny face screwing up and turning red. In exasperation, she flung the door open.

   A tall, lean man stood outside her door, his strong-boned face set in a stony expression and his eyes the cold gray of a winter storm. His brown hair had no silver to it, but his fierceness gave him an authority that his age, and even his obvious peerage, didn’t.

   Noelle took an instinctive step back. The man’s eyes flicked down her and beyond to the cradle. “I believe your child is crying.”

   “Not until you started banging on the door.” Her temper flashed at his tone. Turning, Noelle scooped Gil up and held him against her chest, murmuring soothing noises. When she pivoted back to the door, she saw that the man had walked into the room uninvited and closed the door behind him. He stood there silently, his coolly assessing gaze roaming over the small living quarters.

   His eyes fell on the unmade bed, the contents of the jewelry box spread across it, and his lips lifted in a sneer. “Sorry to disturb you. I can see that you are deep in...um, sorrow.”

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