The Virgin Who Vindicated Lord Darlington - Anna Bradley


White Friars Dock, London

April, 1779

Cecilia Gilchrist was the second.

Lady Amanda Clifford could no longer recall what had brought her to the docks that day. It was, she would later reflect, one of those peculiar cases where fate, generally content to let one stumble blindly along, had deigned, for good or for ill, to put her directly in the way of her destiny.

Face to face, as it were.

At the time, she’d been of the mind fate had done Cecilia Gilchrist a good turn, throwing the child into Lady Amanda’s path as she’d done. It wasn’t until later she came to understand it had been quite the other way around.

Cecilia Gilchrist, who’d been mudlarking in the Thames that day, had had the great good luck to find a guinea buried in the filth. For a grimy little waif like Cecilia Gilchrist it was a fortune, the gold coin clutched in her fist the difference between starvation and salvation.

But fortunes were as fickle a business as fate, both being apt to turn catastrophic in the blink of an eye, or the flip of a golden guinea.

Thus it was with Cecilia Gilchrist. No sooner had she wrapped her thin fingers around her salvation than her luck turned. When Lady Amanda came upon the child, she’d been set upon by a horde of rioting street urchins, a veritable mob of diminutive rabble-rousers, all of them pleased to pummel her into a bloody pulp in order to snatch the guinea from her fist.

Lady Clifford’s servant, Daniel Brixton, a man indifferent to fate and fortune alike, made quick work of deciding both. He tossed aside a half-dozen of the miniature ruffians, seized the scrawny, mud-streaked waif at the center of the melee, and deposited her on the gray velvet seat of Lady Amanda’s carriage.

Lady Amanda could no more recall what she’d said to the child that day than she could recall what errand had taken her to the docks—likely something about the tediousness of the masses, the capriciousness of fate, or the wickedness of children—but she recalled with perfect clarity Cecilia Gilchrist’s response.

She said, “They’re hungry.”

Not a trace of resentment in that childish voice. No bitterness. No judgment.

They’re hungry. That was all.

Lady Amanda Clifford would still hear the echo of that sweet voice decades later, a reminder of how easy it was—how unforgivably, criminally easy—to overlook a precious flicker of gold hidden in an ocean of mud.

Chapter One

Edenbridge, Kent

February, 1795

If the day had been a less pleasant one, or the Marquess of Darlington a less striking gentleman, Cecilia Gilchrist might have concluded at once that he was a murderer.

As it happened, the first time she laid eyes on Lord Darlington was one of those mild, sunny days, so rare in February, and his lordship showed to great advantage in his smart blue coat and flawlessly polished Hessians. To be fair, he’d been quite a distance away from her that day, and she’d been safely concealed behind one of Hyde Park’s more extravagant shrubs at the time.

But proximity to a man suspected of murdering his wife being, alas, what it was, Cecilia came to quite a different conclusion upon her second meeting with Lord Darlington.

That day began auspiciously enough. The stagecoach made good time from London, and Edenbridge, home to Darlington Castle, seemed the last place a villain might be tempted to commit a murder. It was as lovely a little village as Kent could boast, with its row of squat timber-framed buildings with cheerful flower boxes in every window. The boxes were empty now, it being wintertime, but the prospect of cheerful flowers was enough to reassure Cecilia.

Surely there could be no question of a marquess committing a heinous crime like murder in a village with such an abundance of flower boxes?

A pretty country hamlet, then, with its own sweet little river to the southeast, nestled in its own sweet little valley, and boasting a rather distinguished-looking church with its own stained-glass window. Cecilia’s companion on the stagecoach, a young lady named Molly who was about her age and who’d grown up in Edenbridge, told her the church was called St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s.

Two saints. Surely there could be no question of a marquess committing a heinous crime like murder in a village with two saints?

Edenbridge was a mere twenty-five miles from London, too, a half-day’s journey from Cecilia’s home at the Clifford School, and thus within easy reach of Daniel Brixton, Lady Clifford’s most trusted servant, and the biggest man Cecilia had ever seen.

Should anything go