Faith accepted a plain golden band from Joshua Darlington in a small ceremony two weeks after Grace's visit to Winterton. Charles gave the bride away in lieu of her late father and performed his duties admirably well, while her mother spent much of the time in tears over the thought that one of her daughters was wed at last.

The marriage itself was not widely celebrated, although most of the village attended the church service. Few of the guests were invited to Morcroft Hall for the modest meal served afterwards, for Joshua did not request the presence of any members of the Darlington family save his two children, and Emilia declined to include anyone other than her daughters, sister and niece.

Overall, then, it was a subdued occasion but in truth, Faith was grateful for her mother's reluctance to entertain. Knowing as she did that her marriage was for merely for appearances, it was hard enough to perpetuate the myth that she and Joshua were passionately in love to her close family without having to consider everyone else.

Not that Faith felt that she was adequately deceiving those close to her about the nature of her true feelings towards Joshua. Hope already knew the truth, and she suspected Grace was well on the way to discovering it. Charity, meanwhile, was unlikely to care enough to even wonder about it; her recent thoughts appeared to have been occupied with the idea of Grace marrying Sir Ashford instead of her. Perhaps Emilia truly believed that it was a love match, but then she had spent little time discussing marriage with Faith before the wedding, preferring to concentrate on her other daughter's forthcoming nuptials.

Following the meal, Faith and Joshua departed for his home in the finer of his two carriages. Mrs Darlington, with the blessing of her new husband, had arranged for the children to remain at Morcroft Hall overnight to give at least the illusion of eagerness on the part of the newly-married couple to have some time alone. On their arrival at Somerville House they were formally welcomed by an aging butler whom Faith did not remember from her previous visit, and then she followed her husband into the same reception room where they had brokered their agreement. There had, she noted, been no attempt to redecorate prior to her arrival – the room was as shabby as it had been on her first sight.

Joshua lifted a bottle of champagne from the ice-filled silver stand which had been placed in the room prior to their arrival. As Faith watched, he popped it open and filled the two crystal flutes on the table, before retrieving the cork from where it had fallen.

"Here," he said with a laconic smile as he handed it to her, "a token of your wedding day. I know women are sentimental about such things."

"Thank you," she replied primly, laying the cork down on the table, "but you will find that I am not in the least sentimental." She lifted her glass to his lips and drank before meeting his gaze steadily. "If I were sentimental in any way, I would not have married you in such a businesslike manner."

"That is true," Joshua said lightly, touching his glass to hers before downing most of the bubbling liquid in one swallow, "but then your sister Hope would not have the opportunity to please her sentimental side."

"Actually," Faith said, emboldened by the alcohol as it rushed straight to her head, "it seemed your contribution was not particularly required; the balance still outstanding for Hope's hand was supplied by another and I have no doubt he would also have paid more than your share if necessary."

"I see," her husband said laughingly, and she wondered at the source of his amusement. He had certainly not taken offence at her sharp rebuttal, as she had intended he should. "And yet here we are, married as planned."

"Indeed," she agreed. "And now that we are married, I do not believe it is fair for you to laugh at me without at least explaining why."

Joshua's smile grew larger. "I was merely wondering if perhaps all of those who described you to me as 'meek' and 'unquestioningly obedient' have mistaken you for someone else. You have certainly never behaved in such a fashion in my company," he said.

Faith drained the glass and set it down on the small end table rather more violently than she had intended. It burned to hear herself described in such unflattering terms, even if her new husband seemed to doubt their accuracy. "I behave as your attitude requires," she stated. "Now, I would like to be shown to my rooms, assuming you have no objections?"

"Of course," Joshua said. "Your belongings arrived yesterday and I have already had your trunks taken upstairs. I will call your maid now and she will assist you in any way necessary."

She stopped in the act of removing her hat to look at him quizzically. "I have a maid?" she said. "I did not expect you to engage a personal attendant for me; after all in reality I am to be little more than a servant myself."

Her husband shrugged. "I have hired a number of domestic staff in the last month, so one more was of little consequence. Certainly her wages will not bankrupt me, or rather us; you must have no fear of that happening. But I have heard it said that most ladies find such help indispensable, and therefore I took the liberty of engaging a young woman on your behalf. She is a plain but pleasant girl and this is her first employment; I doubt she will cause you any trouble but I ask you to inform me if that is not the case," he filled their glasses a second time and held hers out. "And please, try to refrain from referring to yourself as a servant in future, for I fancy it will not sit well with those in our employ. Remember our agreement, Faith. As far as all but we are concerned, ours is a real marriage."

"Of course, I apologise," Faith said, taking a sip for her glass to hide her confusion. "I was merely surprised."

He waved away her apology. "Should you need me for any reason, I will be in the library." With that he walked out of the room, leaving Faith standing utterly bewildered in the very centre of the floor, still clutching her glass.

All at once she was afraid of marriage and all that it entailed. She knew that Joshua would not even attempt to renege on any of the terms and conditions they had imposed – for example, she had no fear that he would arrive at her bedchamber demanding admittance, for a gentleman's word was his bond - but the consideration he had indirectly paid her by hiring a maid was beyond even her most optimistic expectations. Faith was used to having the help of a number of women when it came to preparing herself to face the day. Grace generally laced her corsets and Hope braided her hair, and she had worried about how she would cope without their aid. Her marriage had separated the sisters irreversibly. Could she survive without them?

At the sound of knuckles softly grazing the door, Faith turned to see who had entered the room. "Mrs Darlington," a petite girl dressed in a pale grey dress with a white apron addressed her after dropping into a respectful courtesy. "I'm Isabel, your maid. Would you please follow me?"

Carefully setting down her glass this time, Faith did as she was bid, throwing off her unpleasant thoughts as she walked. Isabel led the way up the marble staircase and on reaching the landing turned left, taking her mistress down a darkened corridor.

"I apologise, Mrs Darlington, but I've not yet had time to light the lamps in your rooms," Isabel said as she lifted a small hand lantern from the top of a bookcase. "You weren't expected for another two hours, see."

Faith realised that the meagreness of the celebration had not only surprised the villagers, but her husband's staff as well. "Dinner did not last as long as expected," she offered, feeling the need to explain.

Isabel accepted her words with a nod. "These are your rooms, here." She pushed open the thick mahogany door on her left and then stood back to let Faith enter.

The chamber was large if a little sterile, was Faith's first thought. There was no furniture in the room save for a large bed missing its drapes and the small cabinet at its side. Sheets had been hung over the windows in place of curtains and like all the other parts of the house Faith had seen, it was badly in need of fresh wallpaper and a coat of paint. The parquet beneath her feet desperately needed to be polished and there was dust everywhere. However, she knew immediately that after a little attention, the room would be more than adequate for her needs.

"Your dressing room's through there," Isabel said, pointing to a door to the right. "I unpacked some of your trunks when they arrived but there's no space left in the armoire; I told Mr Darlington and he said that he'd arrange for another to be purchased forthwith."

She stumbled over some of the words and her anxious look told Faith that her new maid was in need of reassurance. Her manners were perhaps unpolished but she seemed pleasant enough, and Faith thought that she would definitely come to appreciate Isabel's company.

"Thank you, Isabel," she said with a smile. "That is very helpful of you."

The girl beamed. "Now then, would you like anything else?"

Faith shook her head. "Not for the moment. Perhaps you could return in an hour to help me prepare for bed?" Despite their early arrival at Somerville House it was later than Faith had expected, and after the activities of the day she was exhausted.

"Of course, Mrs Darlington, I'll light the lamps and then I'll be off," Isabel said, and her slight blush told Faith that her maid thought she had entirely different reasons for wishing to retire early, which brought a flush to her own cheeks. "And there's a bell there on the table if you need me. Just give it a ring."

Once she was alone, Faith wandered into the dressing room and appraised herself in the ornate mirror on the wall. If she had expected to look different after becoming a wife and stepmother she was disappointed, for the face she saw staring back at her looked exactly the same as it had that morning. But the apprehension she had felt earlier was gone, and she felt no disappointment at the way her life had turned out. Rather, the fact that she had a husband now was far more than she had come think possible over the last few years.

She looked down the ring Joshua had placed on her finger. He was a good man, she knew. His manner could be abrupt at times and occasionally she felt as if he was laughing at her, but he cared for his children and had also been considerate towards her feelings. He had not revealed their dealings with Mr Stevenson to anyone, he had agreed to her terms with little argument, and he had hired Isabel. In return, she resolved that she would do her best to be a good, obedient wife.

Although she would be careful not to be too obedient, she thought with a small smile as she lifted her chin to gaze thoughtfully at her reflection, and she would certainly not be unquestionably so. In the past, she conceded, she had perhaps been overpowered by the feeling of failure that her mother had instilled in her for an early age, but that would stop now. Faith Morcroft was gone, and Faith Darlington would not accept such undue criticism without a fight.

When Isabel returned, she removed the pins from Faith's hair and brushed it out carefully, then started to help her out of her gown.

"This is a beautiful dress, Mrs Darlington," she said as she smoothed it out before storing it carefully in the armoire. "The fabric is wonderful. I've never seen anything like it."

"Thank you," Faith replied. "It was a gift from my sisters, for today."

She had been touched when Grace had approached her and explained that she, Hope and Charity had decided to purchase a dress on her behalf. She suspected that Charity had not been as willing as Grace claimed she was, but she had still thanked them all profusely. The only problem had been on the day they had actually visited the dressmaker in Bilton to choose a suitable gown.

On hearing of her sisters' kind offer, Faith's thoughts had flown to the blue gown she had so often admired in the window of the premises. However when they reached the shop she noticed immediately that it was no longer prominently displayed, and when queried Mrs Wilson could only say that it had been sold some time previously. Indeed, following that conversation Grace had remembered that it had not been there the day she purchased the red dress she wore to dinner at Winterton.

Faith had been careful not to let her disappointment show. Instead she had enthused over all of the dresses Mrs Wilson offered to her for scrutiny and finally selected a mauve gown of French silk, one which would be suitable for repeated everyday use. A gown which she could only wear once was not an expense that Faith could afford, although it was becoming increasingly fashionable to choose a special dress for one's wedding.

"Could you fetch my nightgown please, Isabel?" Faith asked after her corset had been unlaced and she had removed her stockings. "I have a new one, it is-"

"Pale pink with white lace, I saw it yesterday," Isabel offered eagerly. She disappeared into the dressing room and then reappeared with the garment in her hands. "It's the loveliest thing I ever saw."

Faith smiled. "Leave it on the bed, put out the lamps, and then you may go. I will not require you again this evening; however I would be pleased if you would come to me at eight tomorrow morning." She hoped that it was not too early a time for a woman to rise on the first morning of her marriage, but she did not know what else to say.

"Yes, Mrs Darlington," Isabel said.

Working methodically, her maid extinguished most of the lights and turned down the bedclothes, and she was about to leave when a thought struck Faith.

"Isabel, can you tell me which…that is, where…Mr Darlington's rooms are?" she stammered, feeling herself flush hotly again. She was grateful that Isabel did not turn around to see her burning cheeks.

"Mr Darlington's chamber is the door directly opposite yours, and the children's rooms are situated further down the corridor, near to the guest rooms. The other wing houses the staff quarters and more guest rooms. It's an awfully big house, Mrs Darlington, and I thought I'd never find my way round it."

"It is indeed," Faith agreed. "Thank you, Isabel. Sleep well."

She waited until the sound of Isabel's footsteps had faded before she finished getting undressed. She pulled the nightgown – her mother's wedding present - quickly over her head and climbed under the sheets. Before leaning over to put out the candle, she took a last look around her new surroundings.

"Things could be worse," she decided aloud. She snuffed out the light. "Goodnight, Faith Darlington." For the first night since she had entered into her agreement with Mr Darlington, she enjoyed an undisturbed night of sleep.

Faith was soon to discover that life as a wife was very busy indeed. Joshua was frequently called away and in his absence he authorised her to decorate the house in any way she pleased.

"I actually spent little time here until the past few months; most of the time I dealt with business from my townhouse in London," he had explained over breakfast one morning. "Then when I did visit I had no inclination to have my precious rest hours disrupted by tradesmen and the like. However, as I now intend this to be my permanent family home, there seems no reason to delay any longer."

He had folded his newspaper and placed it by his plate, looking at Faith seriously as she helped Eleanor to drink her milk. She turned her head towards him to meet his eyes.

"I will trust your judgement as to colours and furnishings; I imagine you have far better knowledge than I of what is fashionable. All I ask is that the result is comfortable and pleasing to the eye. My accountant in Bilton has been instructed to deal with the resultant bills, so please have them addressed to him. I would caution you against over-extravagance, but I believe that would be construed by you as more of an insult than an instruction."

"Indeed it would," she confirmed, and he smiled.

"I thought so," he replied dryly, and then stood. "I must go to London today to complete an investment, and I shall remain there overnight. I will return tomorrow in time for dinner."

"We shall see you then," Faith nodded.

She watched as he bent over Eleanor to kiss her cheek and then ruffled William's hair in passing before leaving without further ceremony. Both children watched the door close behind him and then turned back to look at Faith. Eleanor's bottom lip was quivering and William's violet eyes were suspiciously bright, and she knew if she was ever going to win them over then this was a key moment.

"Well," she said with a brightness she did not feel, clapping her hands. "What shall we do today?"

Faith's first act as head of the household was to seek out the head gardener and instruct him to turn the overgrown wilderness visible from all windows of the house into a beautiful paradise, one filled with sweet-smelling flowers to be enjoyed and fresh herbs to be utilised by their new cook.

As a keen horticulturalist she wanted to choose many of the plants herself, and the head gardener soon came to recognise her skill in the area. Over the following days they would enjoy many conversations about the best place to site the roses, the clematis and the wildflowers Faith wanted, and she also had no difficulty in convincing him to leave three small patches unplanted. One was for her own use while Eleanor and William were placed in charge of the other two, and the following day was the first of many occasions on which Joshua returned to his house to find his wife and children covered in mud and happily digging away.

Once the dead and dying trees surrounding the grounds had been cleared and the remaining greenery adequately thinned to allow some light through the thick canopy, Faith turned her attention towards the interior of the house. A week of solid cleaning from skirting board to ceiling removed every last trace of dust, even from the highest chandeliers. The marble and parquet floors were polished to a high shine and carpets laid or replaced where she thought it necessary. Every room was repapered and painted and new furniture was ordered. Heavy, high-quality fabric straight from France was transformed by one of London's specialist seamstresses into curtains, and matching cushions were trimmed with the same gold cord as the sashes.

Faith tried to help with the manual labour where she could, but more often or not she found herself chased from the room by the staff, who thought it highly unusual that the lady of the house would wish to dirty her hands. She also began to school Eleanor in the art of reading and writing during the hours William was taking lessons with her tutor and quickly established that the young girl was very bright. She had certainly picked up some of the more fruitful language used by the tradesmen visiting the house, and Faith had to act quickly to stop such distasteful words becoming a permanent part of Eleanor's vocabulary.

Her loving care also resulted in both children being more properly attired than previously. She began to understand why Joshua had found it difficult to keep them tidy, for although they were good children at heart they were forever getting into mischief, and as his frequent trips testified he was a very busy man with little time to spend with them. However now that she was in their lives, their hair was always neatly trimmed and brushed, and their clothes were more easily kept clean and smart. As a result of her influence, their manners and general conduct also improved, and it was not long before Joshua realised that his decision to take Faith Morcroft as his wife had been a very clever one indeed.

"You have a beautiful home, Faith," Grace told her sister as they took tea in the formerly dark-and-dingy but now light-and-airy parlour one day. William was in the garden helping McManus to clear some weeds and Eleanor had been settled down for her afternoon nap. Charity was also visiting but had been excused on the pretence of needing to powder her nose. Faith and Grace both knew that really she wanted to be able to look around and confirm that her eldest sister had married well for herself.

"Thank you," Faith said with a satisfied smile as she surveyed the fruits of her labour. "I am greatly relieved that Joshua was willing to employ so much help; I shudder to think about the nightmare I would have faced otherwise."

"He sounds like a good man," Grace conceded, unknowingly echoing the thoughts of her sister on her wedding day. She examined Faith over the top of her teacup. "But are you happy, darling?"

"I am content, yes," Faith allowed. "The children are wonderful, and I have much to occupy my time which is good, because you know how I abhor idleness."

"And your husband is also wonderful, of course?"

"Of course," she said lightly. "Although he has been unable to spend much time here recently. Apparently he has some pressing engagements elsewhere, but what they are exactly I do not know."

"You must miss him," Grace said, replacing her cup and saucer on the tray and watching her sister carefully.

Looking down into her teacup, Faith could feel Grace's eyes on her but she was not prepared to meet them yet. She cleared her throat while she considered what next to say. As always, the truth emerged as the best option in her opinion.

"Grace, you must have realised that my marriage was not a true joining of hearts," she said at last.

"I have long suspected as much, yes," was all that her sister said, but Faith could tell from her tone that there was much more she wished to say.

She sighed. "You may as well tell me everything on your mind," she said.

There was an answering sigh from Grace. "I do not mean to criticise your marriage, Faith. It was your own decision to make and it is your own affair. I have always trusted your judgement in the past and I will continue to do so now. All I want is your assurance that you are happy with the path you have taken."

At that, Faith did look up to find her sister's brown eyes filled with concern. Slowly, she nodded her head.

"I am happy," she said simply. "I know that this is not a life which everyone would choose, but it suits me."

"Then I will say no more about it, you have my word," Grace said. "I must confess, though, that the scenario troubles me."

Faith laughed. "The idea of marriage has always troubled you, dearest," she pointed out.

"True," Grace nodded, "but now I have a more specific fear in mind."

"Which is?" Faith asked, lifting the teapot to refill her sister's cup. "You must tell me what ails you, Grace. A problem shared seems much less bothersome, in my opinion."

Grace added milk to her tea and began to stir the hot brown liquid thoughtfully. "It is the idea of marrying the wrong man which troubles me now, I think. Not that I think Mr Darlington is the wrong man for you, Faith. No, I worry more about my situation than yours. Perhaps you are correct; perhaps passion and love are not the most important things."

"I have never said that passion and love are not important," Faith replied. "What I do think is that sometimes other factors must take precedence." She smiled. "But then if you believed as I did, you would have agreed to marry Frank to first time he proposed to you."

"Dear Frank," Grace said with a smile, "I should have accepted his proposal after all. I would not find myself in such a quandary now if I had." She laid down her spoon. "I talk of Mr Mackenzie-Smith and Sir Ashford, of course."

"Of course," Faith confirmed. "I assume you feel that you would choose to marry one for passion, but if it was position you sought, then only the other would suffice."

"Sir Ashford is a prominent politician, and you know as well as I what a stir his arrival in Bilton caused. And he is a gentleman who deserves to be admired," Grace said. "He is intelligent and kind and I like him a great deal."

"And he is rich," Faith added impishly. "But you think yourself in love with his friend?"

She was surprised when Grace's cheeks coloured because she was not used to seeing her forthright sister blush. "I do not know. Not for certain," she said hastily. "He is handsome though, and charming, and I think of him often." She gave her sister a small smile. "And never have I cared that he does not have Sir Ashford's wealth."

"It is a beginning, then," Faith concluded. She was happy for her sister, for although Frank Metcalfe was one of the most pleasant men of her acquaintance, she thought that either of the gentlemen from London would be a far better match for Grace.

"Yes, I think so," Grace acknowledged almost shyly. "But his recent behaviour has been so odd, and I am so confused."

"Well, men are strange creatures generally," Faith said with the knowledge of one whom is wife to such a person, even if she is not a proper wife in the true sense of the word.

"Strange they may be," Charity interjected as she walked back into the room, "but I do not understand how anyone could think Mr Mackenzie-Smith more worthy than Sir Ashford!"

Her sisters shared a smile.

"No, dearest, I do not expect that you would," Faith said gently as Grace rolled her eyes. "But then, women can be just as peculiar as men when it comes to love."

Not, Faith thought as Charity changed the subject and began to detail exactly which of Faith's new possessions were her favourites, that she would know about that.