Extrait offert par Grace Burrowes :
The bullet whistled past Sebastian’s ear, coming within an inch of solving all of his problems, and half an inch of making a significant mess instead.
“Die, Goddamn you!” Lieutenant Lord Hector Pierpont fired his second shot, but rage apparently made the man careless. A venerable oak lost a few bare twigs to the field of honor.
“I shall die, bien sûr,” Sebastian said, a prayer as much as a promise. “But not today.”
He took aim on Pierpont’s lapel. An English officer to his very bones, Pierpont stood still, eyes closed, waiting for death to claim him. In the frosty air, his breath clouded before him in the same shallow pants that might have characterized postcoital exertion.
Such drama. Sebastian cocked his elbow and dealt another wound to the innocent oak branches. “And neither shall you die today. It was war, Pierpont. For the sake of your womenfolk, let it be over.”
Sebastian fired the second bullet overhead to punctuate that sentiment, also to ensure no loaded weapons remained within Pierpont’s ambit. When Pierpont opened his eyes, Sebastian gazed into loathing so intense as to confirm his lordship would rather be dead than suffer any more of Sebastian’s clemency or sermonizing.
Sebastian walked up to him and spoke quietly enough that the seconds could not hear. “You gave away nothing. What little scraps you threw me had long since reached the ears of French intelligence. Go home, kiss your wife, and give her more babies, but leave me and mine in peace. Next time, I will not delope, mon ami.”
He slapped Pierpont lightly on the cheek, a small, friendly reminder of other blows, and walked away.
“You are not fit to breathe the air of England, St. Clair.”
This merited a dismissive parting wave of Sebastian’s hand. Curses were mere bagatelles to a man who’d dealt in screams and nightmares for years. “Au revoir, Pierpont. My regards to your wife and daughters.”
The former captain and his missus were up to two. Charming little demoiselles with Pierpont’s dark eyes. Perhaps from their mother they might inherit some common sense and humor.
That, from Captain Anderson, one of Pierpont’s seconds. Anderson was a twitchy, well-fed blond fellow with a luxurious mustache. Threaten the mustache, and Monsieur Bold Condescension would chirp out the location of his mother’s valuables like a horny nightingale in spring.
Michael Brodie snatched the pistol from Sebastian’s grasp, took Sebastian by the arm, and led him toward their horses. “You’ve had your fun, now come along like a good baron.”
“Insubordinate, you are. I thought the English were bad, but you Irish give the term realms of meaning Dr. Johnson never dreamed.”
“You are English, lest we forget the reason yon righteous arse wants to perforate your heart at thirty paces. Get on the horse, Baron, and I’m only half-Irish.”
A fact dear Michel had kept quiet until recently.
Sebastian pretended to test the tightness of Fable’s girth, but used the moment to study Pierpont, who was in conversation with his seconds. Pierpont was in good enough weight, and he was angry—furious—but not insane with it. Nothing about his complexion or his eyes suggested habitual drunkenness, and he had two small, adorable daughters who needed their papa’s love and adoration.
Maybe today’s little exchange would allow them to have it.
“You fret, Michel, and one wants to strike you for it. The English are violent with their servants, non? Perhaps today I will be English after all.”
“The French were violent with the entire Continent, best as I recall, and bits of Africa and the high seas into the bargain. You ought not to begrudge the English some violence with their help from time to time. Keeps us on our toes.”
Michael climbed aboard his bay, and Sebastian swung up on Fable.
Burnished red eyebrows lowered into a predictable scowl. “You would have to ride a white horse,” Michael groused. “Might as well paint a target on your back and send a boy ahead to warn all and sundry the Traitor Baron approaches.”
Sebastian nudged his horse forward.
“Fable was black as the Pit when he was born. I cannot help what my horse decides to do with his hair. That is between him and his God. Stop looking over your shoulder, Michel. Pierpont was an officer. He will not shoot me in the back, and he will not blame you for sparing all others the burden of seconding me.”
Michael took one more look over his shoulder—both the Irish half of him and the Scottish half were well endowed with contrariness.
“How many duels does that make, your lordship? Four? Five? One of these honorable former officers will put paid to your existence, and where will Lady Freddy be, then? Think on that the next time you’re costing me and Fable our beauty sleep.”
He took out a flask and imbibed a hefty swallow, suggesting his nerves were truly in bad repair.
“I am sorry.” Such flaccid words Sebastian offered, but sincere. “You should not worry about my early outings. These men do not want to kill me any more than I wanted to kill them.”
Michael knew better than to offer his flask. “You didn’t kill them, that’s the problem. What you did was worse, and even if they don’t want to kill you—which questionable conclusion we can attribute to your woefully generous complement of Gallic arrogance—the rest of England, along with a few loyal Scots, some bored Welshmen, and six days a week, an occasional sober Irishman, would rather you died. I’m in the employ of a dead man.”
“Melodrama does not become you.” Sebastian cued Fable into a canter, lest Michael point out that melodrama, becoming or not, had long enjoyed respect as a socially acceptable means of exposing painful and inconvenient truths.
In Millicent Danforth’s experience, the elderly, like most stripes of human being, came in two varieties: fearful and brave. Her grandmother had been fearful, asking incessantly for tisanes or tea, for cosseting and humoring. Like a small child, Grandmother had wanted distracting from the inevitability of her own demise.
By contrast, Lady Frederica, Baroness St. Clair, viewed her eventual death as a diversion. She would threaten the help with it, lament it gently with her many friends, and use it as an excuse for very blunt speech indeed.
“You are to be a companion, not a nursemaid. You will not vex me with your presence when I attend my correspondence after breakfast. You will appear at my side when I take the landau out for a turn in the park. Shall you write this down?”
Milly returned her prospective employer’s beady-eyed glower calmly.
“I will not bother you after breakfast unless you ask it of me. I will join you when you take the air in the park. I believe I can recall that much, my lady. What will my other duties involve?”
She asked because Mr. Loomis at the agency had been spotty on the details, except for the need to show up at an unseemly early hour for this interview.
“A companion—you keep Lady St. Clair company!” he’d barked. “Step, fetch, soothe, entertain. Now, be off with you!”
The way he’d smoothed his wisp of suspiciously dark hair over his pate suggested more would be involved, a great deal more. Perhaps her ladyship tippled, gambled, or neglected to pay the trades—all to be managed by a companion whom the baroness might also forget to regularly compensate.
“You will dine with me in the evening and assist me to endure the company of my rascal of a nephew if he deigns to join us. What, I ask you, is so enticing about a rare beefsteak and an undercooked potato with a side of gossip? I can provide that here as well as a superior cellar, but no, the boy must away to his flower-lovers’ club. Never mind, though. He’s well-mannered enough that he won’t terrorize you—or no more than I will. Are you sure you don’t need to write any of this down?”
Yes, Milly was quite sure. “I gather you are a list maker, my lady?”
Blue eyes lit up as her ladyship reached for the teapot.
“Yes! I am never so happy as when I’m organizing. I should have been a general, the late baron used to say. Do you enjoy the opera? One hopes you do, because nothing is more unendurable than the opera if one hasn’t a taste for it.”
Her ladyship chattered on about London openings she’d attended, who had conducted them, and what she had thought of the score, the sets, the crowd in attendance, and the various solos, duets, and ensemble numbers. Her diatribe was like a conversational stiff wind, banging the windows open all at once, setting curtains flapping, papers flying, and lapdogs barking.
“You’re not drinking your tea, Miss Danforth.”
“I am attending your ladyship’s recitation of my duties.”
The baroness clinked her teacup down on its saucer. “You were estimating the value of this tea service. Jasperware is more practical, but it’s so heavy. I prefer the Sevres, and Sebastian likes it too.”
Sebastian might well be a follower. Milly had stolen a moment while waiting for this audience to glance over the cards sitting in a crystal bowl on the sideboard in the front hall. Her ladyship’s social life was quite lively, and by no means were her callers all female.
“The service is pretty,” Milly observed, though it was more than pretty, and perfectly suited to the pastel and sunshine of her ladyship’s breakfast parlor. They were using the older style of Sevres, more easily broken, but also impressively hued. Her ladyship’s service boasted brilliant pink roses, soft green foliage, and gold trim over a white glaze. “Meissen or Dresden aren’t as decorative, though they are sturdier.”
The baroness used silver tongs to put a flaky golden croissant on a plate. “So you are a lady fallen on hard times?”
She was a lady who’d blundered. Paid companions did not need to know that fifteen years ago, Sevres was made without kaolin, fired at a lower temperature, and capable of taking a wider and more bold palette of hues as a result.
“My mother was a lady fallen on hard times. I am a poor relation who would make her own way rather than burden my cousins any further.”
“Kicked you out, did they?” Her ladyship’s tone suggested she did not approve of such cousins. “Or perhaps they realized that underneath all that red hair, you’re quite pretty, though brown eyes are not quite the rage. One hopes you aren’t delicate?.”
She passed Milly the pastry and shifted the butter a few inches closer to Milly’s side of the table.
“I enjoy excellent health, thank you, your ladyship.” Excellent physical health, anyway. “And I prefer to call my hair auburn.”
The baroness snorted at that gambit, then poured herself more tea. “Will these cousins come around to plague you?”
They would have to bother to find her first. “I doubt it.”
“You wouldn’t be married to one of them, would you?”
Milly nearly choked on soft, buttery pastry. “I am not married.” For which she might someday be grateful.
“Then I will regularly scandalize your innocent ears and enjoy doing it. Eat up. When Sebastian gets back from his morning ride, he’ll go through that sideboard like a plague of locusts. If you prefer coffee, you’d best get your servings before he comes down in the morning. The man cannot abide tea in any form.”
“The plague of locusts has arrived.”
Milly’s head snapped around at the mocking baritone. She beheld…her opposite. Whereas she was female, short—petite when the occasion was polite—red-haired, and brown-eyed, the plague before her was male, tall, green-eyed, and sable-haired. The divergence didn’t stop there.
This fellow sauntered into the parlor, displaying a casual elegance about his riding attire that suggested time on the Continent. His tailoring was exquisite, but his movement was also so relaxed as to approach languid. The lace at his throat came within a whisker of being excessive, and the emerald winking from its snowy depths stayed barely on the acceptable side of ostentatious, for men seldom wore jewels during daylight hours, and certainly not for so mundane an undertaking as a hack in the park.
This biblical plague had…sartorial éclat.
Again, the opposite of Milly, who generally bustled through life, wore the plainest gowns she could get away with, and had never set foot outside London and the Home Counties.
“Aunt, you will observe the courtesies, please?”
This was the rascal of a nephew then, though as Milly endured his scrutiny, the term rascal struck her as incongruously affectionate for the specimen before her.
“Miss Millicent Danforth, may I make known to you my scamp of a nephew, Sebastian, Baron St. Clair. St. Clair, Miss Danforth—my new companion. You are not to terrorize her before she and I have negotiated terms.”
“Of course not. I terrorize your staff only after you’ve obligated them to a contract.”
If this was teasing, Milly did not regard it as humorous. Her ladyship, however, graced her nephew with a smile.
“Rotten boy. You may take your plate to the library, and read your newspapers in peace.”
His lordship, who was not a boy in any sense, bowed to Milly with a Continental flourish, bowed again over Lady St. Clair’s hand, tucked some newspapers under his arm, and strolled from the room.
“He’s been dueling again.” The baroness might have reported that her nephew had been dicing in the mews, her tone truculent rather than aghast. “They leave the poor boy no peace, those gallant buffoons old Arthur is so proud of.”
For all his smoothness, something about St. Clair had not sat exactly plumb, but then, what did it say about a man if he could face death at sunrise and appear completely unaffected by the time he downed his morning coffee?
“How can you tell he was dueling?” For ladies weren’t supposed to know of such things, much less small elderly ladies who lived for their correspondence and tattle.
“He’s sad. Dueling always makes him sad. Just when I think he’s making some progress, another one of these imbeciles finds a bit of courage, and off to some sheep meadow they go. I swear, if women ruled the world, it would be a damned sight better place. Have I shocked you?”
“Several times, my lady.”
“Excellent. Have another pastry.”
Milly munched away on a confection filled with chocolate crème—one could learn to appreciate such fare all too easily—while Lady St. Clair waxed enthusiastic about the affairs of Wellington—for who else could “old Arthur” be?—and his officers.
And still, something about the Baron St. Clair lodged in Milly’s awareness like a smudge on her spectacles. He was quite handsome—an embarrassment of handsome was his to command—but cold. His smile reached his eyes only when he beheld his elderly aunt.
Perhaps dueling had taxed his store of charm.
“…and the ladies très jolie, you know?” Lady St. Clair was saying. “Half the fellows in government claimed they needed to go to Paris to make peace, but the soiled doves of London went into a decline until the negotiations were complete. Making peace is lusty work, methinks.”
“I’m shocked yet again, my lady.” Though not by the baroness’s bawdy talk.
St. Clair—a baron and peer of the English realm—had spoken with a slight aristocratic French accent.
“Excellent. We shall get on famously, Miss Danforth, provided you aren’t one to quibble about terms.”
“I have not the luxury of quibbling, my lady.”
The baroness peered at her over a pretty teacup. “Truly odious cousins?”
“Very. And parsimonious in the extreme.”
“My condolences. Have another pastry.”
A properly commanded garrison relied on a variety of types of soldiers. In Sebastian’s experience, the ideal fortress housed mostly men of a common stripe, neither too good nor too evil, willing to take reasonable orders, and possessed of enough courage to endure the occasional battle.
They were the set pieces, announcing to all and sundry that a war was being prosecuted, and they deserved as decent conditions as their commander could arrange for them. The decent conditions minimized the chances of rebellion or petty sabotage, and maximized the possibility of loyalty and bravery.
Equally necessary to the proper functioning of any human dwelling place were the women. They were the more interesting of the foot soldiers, usually good for morale, diversion, clean laundry, cooking, and—in a manner that comforted in the midst of war—of maintaining the peace. To Sebastian’s way of thinking, they were also the intelligence officers most likely to pass along information that would allow him to sort out bad apples from good, and sheep from goats.
Though a few bad apples were utterly necessary. A few who enjoyed inflicting pain, a few who could be counted on to serve Mammon rather than France. The first group—the brutes—were useful for enforcing discipline and more useful as an example when they themselves had become undisciplined, which they invariably did.
The second small group—the born traitors—were invaluable for their ability to disseminate false information to the enemy, to start rumors among the troops, or to undermine the stability of the local populace. When Sebastian had come across such a one, he’d cultivated that resource carefully.
And now it was time to determine what manner of soldier Miss Danforth would be.
He found her not in the library, which had been the preferred haunt of Tante’s previous companions, but in the music room, arranging roses.
“Good morning, my lord.”
Four words, but they told him much. Her greeting was accompanied with a slight smile, not quite perfunctory, not quite warm, her tone had been halfway between dismissive and respectful.
She was accustomed to dealing with her social superiors and to dealing with men.
“Good morning, Miss Danforth. May I join you for a moment?” Because a proper interrogation was conducted with proper respect for the person questioned.
She glanced at the open door so smoothly it did not interrupt her attention to the roses. “Of course.”
And then she did not chatter, which was interesting. He was permitted to join her only because the proprieties were in place, and that told him worlds. “Those roses are quite pretty, if one enjoys the color red.”
Not by a frown or a pause did she show a reaction. She tucked a sprig of lavender between green foliage and surveyed the effect.
“I’ve never understood the allure of the rose,” she said. “They are pretty, as flowers go, but most have little scent, they make a mess all too soon, they have thorns, and people are always reading arcane significance into them. May I have those shears?”
He passed her the shears and took a seat on the piano bench a few feet away. He did this because an English baron would not likely ask a companion for permission to sit, but also because something about her recitation, the frankness and intelligence of it, appealed.
“The lavender is an unusual touch.”
Miss Danforth wrinkled her nose. She had classic bone structure about the brows, cheeks, and chin, the sort of looks that suggested outcrosses in her lineage. Scandinavian, Celtic, or Teutonic, based on her hair. The nose itself hinted of ancient Rome, though her coloring was too fair for that.
“The lavender isn’t working,” she pronounced, scrutinizing her bouquet. “Somebody left it as waste in the conservatory, though, and that is an abomination I cannot abide.”
He opened the lid of the piano and considered. Something innocuous and sweet. Music by which to lay bare a soul—her soul, for he hadn’t one to his name. “You cannot abide waste?”
“Not the waste of such a useful plant. The very scent of it quiets the mind. Lavender can soothe a wound, liven up a bland pudding, brighten a garden.”
She had good taste in flowers. Many knaves and whores did, as did some traitors. “Do you mind if I play?”
“Of course not, my lord.”
A slight misstep on his part. If he didn’t ask permission to sit, he probably ought not to ask permission to use his own piano. He started off with a few scales, mostly to draw his not entirely quiet mind from the scent of lavender and the sight of graceful female hands toying with flowers and greenery.
“Might I inquire as to your last position, Miss Danforth?”
She clipped off a few inches of a thorny rose stem. “I was companion to a pair of my aunts, my lord.”
Again she did not chatter. She was a woman who understood the proper tempo of an interrogation. Sebastian started up the keyboard again, this time in parallel sixths in the key of F major, the scale made a bit tricky by the nonsymmetric placement of the B flat.
“And what were your aunt’s names?”
“Millicent and Hyacinth Hathaway, my lord.”
“They dwelled here in London?” He kept to the small-talk tone that a wise prisoner knew signaled relentless patience rather than civility.
“Chelsea. The air is better.”
A single volunteered detail, which was a significant step. She was acknowledging that he was in pursuit of her truths. He abandoned the happy key of F major—Herr Beethoven called it the pastoral key—and switched to his personal favorite, A-flat minor. Because of the intermingling of black and white keys, this key required a deeper penetration of the hand into the keyboard, and more dexterity. He particularly preferred it after sunset.
“Why did you accept a position with my aunt, Miss Danforth? She is noted to be difficult under the best circumstances, even eccentric, according to the intolerant majority. Your days here will be trying, and your evenings no less so.”
Miss Danforth took a step away from her flowers. “The container is wrong.”
He brought the scale to a smooth conclusion, and though he knew it would not serve his investigation into her character, flicked a glance toward her bouquet. “I beg your pardon?”
“That…” She waved a small hand toward the vase, which was a cheerful, pastel urn sort of thing from Tante’s collection of Sevres. The scene depicted was some gallant fellow bowing over a simpering damsel’s hand. Courtly grace surrounded by gold trim and fleur-de-lis.
“It’s pretty enough.”
Sebastian was treated to the sort of look women bestowed on men too thick to see the obvious. This look was the same across every nationality he’d encountered, and every level of society, though it hadn’t been aimed at him by any save his aunt in years.
“What has pretty to do with anything?” Miss Danforth asked. “It’s a vase, of course it’s pretty. Also too tall, too busy, too elegant, too impressed with itself. If you would fetch me that jar?”
Some long-dormant gentlemanly habit had him rising—she was that good at balancing polite request with implied command—and crossing the room to reach above her head and fetch down a simple bisque container.
As if he were any footman, she did not move from his path, but busied herself with removing the flowers from the offending—and quite valuable—vase. When he presented her the jar, she smiled.
Too tall, too busy, too elegant, too impressed with itself.
Oh, she was quite good.
“My thanks, sir. This plain vessel will serve the flowers to much better advantage.” She hefted a substantial pitcher and filled the plain vessel with water.
His estimation of her rose yet more—and this was not a good thing—because of that smile. The smile was a coup de grâce, full of benevolence, understanding, and even sympathy for a titled lord who’d done a mere companion’s bidding without hesitation. His intent had been to dissect her like an orchid on the examining table.
Time to be about it. “You have not answered my question, Miss Danforth. Why choose a position with my aunt? The air in London is inferior, after all.”
Her shrug was as eloquent as any Gaul’s. “The wages are better in London, and your aunt is not confined to a sickroom. Her company will be lively, and her terms generous.”
That those terms could be generous was no small relief. “It wants organization—your bouquet.”
Why couldn’t she see this? He removed all the greenery and stems she’d tucked willy-nilly into the vase and started over. Greenery mostly, a few sprigs of lavender next.
“It wants to be pretty,” she countered. “It wants to have a pleasant scent.”
“Balance and proportion are pretty, grace and harmony of the colors are very pretty.”
He added roses next, here, here, and there. She was right about the scent, though—the lavender dominated, mixing with the scent of greenery. The roses were invisible to the nose.
He paused, the last rose in his hand. “You’re wearing lavender, Miss Danforth.”
“And you are making an English bouquet, all tidy and symmetric. I would expect…”
How lovely, to see her stumble over her words, to see her gaze shift to the single rose in his hand. “You would expect?”
“A more Continental approach, more free and loose, a bit off balance but more interesting for it.”
He could go on the offensive now, but he didn’t. “I am in an English household, and I am an English baron. I will have an English bouquet for my pleasure.”
She took the rose from him and considered his bouquet. “Here, I think.”
He’d reserved the longest stem for last, and she’d used it as the centerpiece of the arrangement, English-fashion.
“Very nice, Miss Danforth. Now where will you put it?”
Her scent was very nice too, mostly sweet lavender, reminding him all too powerfully of summers in Provence. An English baron in his English household ought not to be homesick for old monasteries and French sunshine. He leaned in and sniffed the delicate purple flowers anyway, right there in front of her.
“Your aunt wanted an arrangement for your piano. She said you play a great deal, and she wanted them where you could see them. Does that suit?”
“No, it does not.” The last thing he wanted was a reminder of his past when he came to the piano for solitude and solace. “Water and musical instruments are not a prudent combination.”
“Then you decide, my lord.” She passed him the vase, roses, lavender and all, and began tidying up the detritus of his design.
He set the bouquet aside and took a step closer, an impulse intended to intimidate a small, plain woman who did not understand with whom she tangled. He considered how best to acquaint her with her multiple errors in judgment.
“Blast!” She did not apologize for her oath, but brought the fourth finger of her left hand to her mouth.
She nodded and drew her damp finger from her mouth, frowning at it. “Roses are overrated, I tell you. No wonder we equate them with true love.”
Her comment, the scathing tone in which she’d delivered it, told him much. He wrapped his handkerchief around her finger, and thus had a means of ensuring she didn’t flounce off before he’d achieved his objective.
“The bleeding will stop momentarily, Miss Danforth.”
“I know that.”
Her composure was jeopardized by their proximity, which should have pleased Sebastian. The simplest form of intimidation was physical, though to use his sheer size and masculinity against her was unappealing.
Unsporting, to use the English term.
And yet, he did not step back or turn loose of her hand. “Who was he?”
She glowered at their joined hands, her loathing not quite hiding the hurt in her eyes.
“My cousin’s choice, one I’m far better off without.” Hurt was there in her words too.
“I will tell my aunt that should any gentlemen followers come calling on you, she is not to leave you alone with them, no matter what flattery or tricks they attempt, or how strongly she is tempted to matchmake, for matchmaking is one of her besetting sins.”
If Sebastian had been asked, he would have said the emotion in Miss Danforth’s brown eyes most closely resembled sorrow. “Thank you.”
The flattery and tricks that had gone before had been bad, then. Bad enough that she’d given up much in the way of a genteel lady’s comforts to find refuge in service. Englishmen were a disgraceful lot when their base urges beset them, which was to say, most of the time.
He unwrapped his handkerchief and inspected her hand. “You will live, I think. Keep the handkerchief. It is silk and has my initials on it. When your cousins come to call, you shall wave it around under their noses, and not too subtly, yes?”
Every person in a garrison, every mongrel dog and mouser in the stables, was the responsibility of the commanding officer. Sebastian had still not ascertained quite enough to let this soldier get back to her appointed duties.
“I will flourish it about indiscriminately, my lord. My thanks.”
He did not step back, but continued to study her. Her eyes were really quite pretty. “And if these cousins realize the mistake they’ve made? If this sorry choice of theirs comes to his senses and tries to woo you into his arms again?”
She did not step back either, and sorrow turned to dignified, ladylike rage—a fascinating transformation.
“That will not happen, my lord. In any case, I would not go. My fian—he made it plain that my shortcomings will not be overcome to his satisfaction, whereas your aunt offers me a decent wage and comfortable surrounds in exchange for my simple presence. For all her friends and callers, my lord, I think Lady St. Clair is lonely. One does not turn one’s back on a woman who can, however indirectly, admit she’s lonely.”
Quite the speech. Quite the speech from a woman who knew what it was to be abandoned by those who’d given her promises of constancy. He spent a moment pretending to examine the bouquet while he analyzed her words.
“Then you expect to be in Tante’s employ for some time?”
“She offered me employment when I badly need it, my lord, and has done so on little evidence other than my characters. I am in her debt. To toss aside her faith in me would be ungrateful, also foolish.”
She marched across to the piano, closing the cover over the keys and relieving Sebastian of her lavender scent.
“One admires your pragmatism, Miss Danforth. Perhaps the flowers should be set in the window. They will appreciate the light, and passersby can appreciate your bouquet.”
She liked that idea, or she liked any excuse to keep moving away from him. The sorry choice of a former fiancé sank further in Sebastian’s estimation. Englishmen knew nothing of how to appreciate women. Not one thing. Most Frenchmen knew all too much about the same topic, though.
Miss Danforth nudged the flowers to the center of a windowsill behind the piano. “Will that do?”
“Lovely. And send a footman to clean this up. I cannot be responsible for further injury to my aunt’s newest companion.” Though he’d injure her without hesitation if his judgment of her proved overly optimistic. “I will take my leave of you, Miss Danforth.”
He bowed, she curtsied, and as he left the room, she was tidying up the mess they’d created, despite his orders to the contrary.
No matter. He’d ascertained what manner of addition his aunt had brought into their household. Miss Danforth was the kind of soldier whose loyalty was earned, and once given, was not rescinded except for excellent cause. Had she been an English officer, she would have given her life to keep her troops safe.
Sebastian decided that for now, Miss Danforth would do. His next task was to head to the conservatory to see what fool had put lavender clippings in the trash.
Henri Anduvoir disliked English taverns, among many other aspects of “perfidious Albion.” He disliked the scent of raw fish, and England had so much coastline, the entire sorry country stank of fish, or manure, or some diabolical, dank, rotting combination of the two.
He disliked the growing bald patch at the top of his head, to the point that the last time a woman had remarked upon it, he’d slapped her into silence.
A small lapse of control, though the encounter had turned out pleasurably enough for them both.
He disliked the ubiquitous dish of the English common man, which paired an overcooked, dead fish of indistinguishable species and ample bones with an equally overcooked heap of dead potato. Not a sauce, not a spice to be found anywhere in the vicinity, unless excessive salt merited consideration.
Though decent ale was at least at hand to wash it down, which was fortunate, because no wine should be expected to bear such an insult.
When former Captain Lord Prentice Anderson came through the door, Henri had one more thing to dislike—the expression on mon capitaine’s face.
Anderson had been pressed into service for two reasons. First, while held at the château, he’d never laid eyes on Henri Anduvoir, and thus could make no inconvenient connections. Second, Anderson was not burdened with excesses of intellect, but could be counted on, like the loyal soldier he was, to follow orders.
Anderson had been cavalry, which meant he could also be counted on to move about and conduct himself with the subtlety of a horse. He stopped immediately inside the door, thereby announcing to all and sundry that a fellow had arrived who was not a regular patron. He glanced left; he glanced right. Nervously.
And then—may the merciful God have pity—Anderson put his hand up to his face and brushed his fingers over an overly groomed mustache, as if to say, “and don’t forget this aspect of the tall, blond, expensively dressed, gentleman stranger’s appearance, should any passing constable need a description.”
Amateurs were a trial beyond endurance. Henri took hearty swallow of his ale—Englishmen did not sip ale—and, as intended, the movement drew Anderson’s attention.
The captain did not go to the bar—of course, he did not—but rather, clomped straight over to Henri’s table, hung his hat and cape on the nearest hook—lest his exquisitely tailored riding ensemble also go unremarked—and scraped back a chair.
“I do not have good news.”
Henri offered the man a blazing, toothy smile. “Perhaps your not-good news can wait until the tavern wench has come trotting by?”
Another twitch of the glorious manly mustache, also a nod.
“The ale is surprisingly good,” Henri said as he caught the serving maid’s eye, lifted his tankard an inch, and jerked his chin toward Anderson. She moved off toward the bar, and Henri realized he’d erred. An Englishman would have bellowed, but then an Englishman would have sounded like an Englishman.
Anderson’s jaw firmed. “English ale is the best in the world.”
So subtle, this glossy English gelding. “Bien sûr, else I would not have come this distance to enjoy it.”
Anderson’s drink was put before him, and he spared the maid neither an appreciative look nor a thank you, lest he be mistaken for a relaxed swell—that was the English word—enjoying a casual tankard with an acquaintance.
“Pierpont missed. St. Clair deloped. Again.”
Bad news, indeed.
“Drink your ale, mon ami.” Because Pierpont had missed and because Anderson’s usefulness was not yet at an end, Henri made his tone consoling. “One did not expect success on the first or second attempt. Our governments are prepared to be patient.”
Anderson eyed his drink, which sported a head of foam only gradually receding from the rim.
“Then you need to find somebody else to assist you. The word in the clubs is that St. Clair has deloped three times, and outright refused to fight when the Duke of Mercia challenged him. He tells them all to go home to their womenfolk, and that the war is over.”
A conscience was a great complication in a subordinate, but then, Anderson in no way saw himself as Henri’s subordinate.
“You found it difficult, to see a man fire into the air when his life had been threatened, even when threatened by one who had a right to take that life. This does you credit, Captain. Nobody disputes that St. Clair has courage.”
The baron had rather too much courage, in fact, which Henri might have regretted, had he been interested in retrieving his conscience from the dusty confessionals of his long-distant boyhood.
Anderson relaxed fractionally and reached for his ale, then set it down untasted.
“It was difficult—bloody damned difficult, and St. Clair is right. The war is over, so you’d best find somebody other than me to aid you. I’ve agitated twice now for St. Clair’s victims to challenge him. If I second at another duel, my involvement will be too conspicuous.”
This flare of scruples was tedious, like a mistress who pretends she must be wooed and aroused as well as paid. Henri manufactured what he called his French Philosopher look. Soulful, understanding, wise, and sincere—it required tired brown eyes and a thin nose to be carried off properly. A graying beard would have been nice, but that had been sacrificed in the interests of anonymity.
“Your government selected you to work with me in this venture, Captain. My government chose me to see it through.” He considered a biblical allusion to removing this cup from his lips and rejected it—his objective was murder, not martyrdom. “We are patriots, we have that in common, and both England and France want to be rid of the embarrassment that is Monsieur le Baron St. Clair.”
Anderson scrubbed a hand over his face, tweaked the mustache, and peered at his drink.
“One more. I’ll see if I can talk one more former prisoner into calling him out, and I’ll find others to serve as seconds, but then, that’s it. To hell with England and France. If God wants St. Clair to survive five challenges and four duels, then who am I to question the verdict of the Almighty?”
A comfort, to know that at least the hand of God provoked an Englishman to humility.
“Then we will choose our next champion carefully,” Henri said. “There are eight candidates that we know of. Eight more officers who suffered abominably at St. Clair’s hands, eight men who will never sleep as well, or feel safe even in their lovers’ arms. Who among them do you think has the best aim, the steadiest nerves, and the greatest chance of ridding the world of the blight of St. Clair’s existence?”
Anderson took a prissy sip of his ale, but hadn’t waited quite long enough, because his mustache sported evidence of his libation. “Dirks or the other Scotsman, MacHugh.”
The Scots were bloodthirsty. Despite their propensity for drinking whiskey, this was something Henri admired about them. He attributed a pugnacious nature and tolerance for strong drink to having to share an island with the English.
He passed Anderson a plain linen handkerchief and tapped a finger above his own lips. As Anderson daintily blotted ale from his mustache, Henri sorted through options.
“Approach both Dirks and MacHugh and assess their receptivity. We can afford to be patient and careful, but not too patient.”
Henri tossed a few coins on the table, including a bit extra for the wench, and rose. He did not settle his greatcoat around his shoulders with a subtle flourish—that would be French of him—but rather, put his arms into the sleeves and left the coat hanging open, English fashion.
When he’d also tugged on his gloves, he clapped Anderson on the shoulder in a hearty parting gesture. Because remaining unnoticed in a foreign country started with walking in exact imitation of the locals, Henri strode out the door like he’d just spent time with a pretty, conscientious whore.
Which, in effect, he had.
“No matter how many times you glance at that door, I will catch you at it every time, and Tante will not join us.”
St. Clair’s voice was not exactly accusing. Milly regarded her breakfast companion over a plate of sinful lemon pastry and saw something in his eyes though. Humor? A challenge?
She lifted the pot—more old-fashioned Sevres. “Tea, my lord?”
“If you please.”
He had a way with silence, just as Aunt Mil had had. Milly poured but did not ask him how he preferred his tea. She set the pot down, went back to savoring her lemon tart, and did not glance at the door.
The lemon pastry was lovely—flaky crust cooked to an even, golden brown, the sweet, rich filling still warm. The very scent of it proclaimed wealth and ease; the taste of it comforted in ways the jingling of coins never could.
“What will you do with your morning, Miss Danforth? It appears we’re in for that most rare of English treats, the sunny day—or a sunny morning, at least. One doesn’t want to tempt the gods of English weather.”
He picked up a slice of bacon and tore off a bite with his teeth, appearing both savage and elegant even in so mundane an activity.
“If your lordship is going out, I thought I’d spend some time with the piano. Lady St. Clair said I might use the music room when she has no duties for me.”
The bacon was dispatched in about three bites. He paused with a forkful of eggs halfway to his mouth.
“She will not have use for you this morning. She is resting, and also plotting. Tonight is that bacchanal known as Lady Arbuthnot’s card party. Like witches, the coven gathers on the Tuesday nearest each full moon. They tell everybody they’re playing whist, but in truth they’re casting spells on fashionable bachelors for all their nieces and granddaughters.”
He was…teasing. Like any other nephew might tease about an elderly aunt upon whom he dotes.
“And has Lady St. Clair spared you from her magic, my lord? You would seem to qualify as a fashionable bachelor.”
The baron also qualified as titled, wealthy, handsome, and at a marriageable age without an heir to his name, which constituted a puzzle.
He held up another crispy, aromatic strip of bacon as if regarding a bottle of wine or a fine miniature.
“This is curious, now that you mention it. Aunt has powerful magic—she claims Gypsy blood on her dam side—and yet I sit before you unscathed by holy matrimony.” He bit off an inch of bacon and crunched it to bits. “Much like yourself.”
Milly took refuge in her pastry, because just possibly, that was a rebuke.
Very likely that was a rebuke.
He waved his fork with an elegant gesture of the wrist. “Who is your favorite composer?”
“You prefer a German over your native talent?”
Not “our” native talent. Perhaps that was why he was unmarried. He did not favor English beauties, and they did not favor him. He was large, dark, and French, after all.
Milly considered her lemon pastry. “Herr Beethoven’s music balances abundant technical talent with abundant passion. He’s not afraid to rage or laugh or grieve in his music, though one is told the man is stone deaf.”
She braced herself for another tease/rebuke/challenge, but St. Clair only twirled his teacup a quarter turn by its tiny handle.
“Well put. Would you like a few pages of the paper, Miss Danforth? The society pages, perhaps?”
He was neither teasing nor rebuking nor challenging, and yet his polite question was worse than if it had been all three.
“No thank you, my lord. Would you pass the jam pot, please?”
The question came out too brightly, and Milly endured a baronial perusal before he moved the raspberry jam closer to her plate. Raspberry symbolized remorse, and it was her favorite flavor of jam.
“I enjoy Beethoven as well,” St. Clair said, getting back to his eggs. “Though Clementi is a pleasure for the hands, and Mozart can be a wonderful confection for the ear. More tea, Miss Danforth?”
She wasn’t used to him, was the trouble. He seldom came down for breakfast and had accompanied his aunt on an evening outing only once in the two weeks since Milly had accepted this post. He’d joined them in the coach as far as Haymarket, seen them deposited at the theatre, then gone off on some gentlemanly errand and sent the coach back for them.
Which meant he’d walked home alone through the streets of London in the dead of night—or spent the night with his mistress.
He poured for her, set the teapot down, and added cream and sugar to her cup. “What else will you do with your liberty, Miss Danforth? One can play Beethoven for hours, of course, but a day is also livened by variety.”
Milly appreciated that making small talk with the paid companion was gallantry of a high order for a baron at his breakfast, so she mustered a response rather than commit the public eccentricity of applying raspberry jam to her lemon tart.
“If the day holds fair, I’ll likely walk in the park.”
“Take a footman, at least. Take Giles, in fact. He enjoys the park and is sent stepping and fetching all over Town the livelong day because he’s such a brute.”
Giles was a genial giant, and his company would be pleasant, but the idea that Milly merited such an escort was absurd.
Also…flattering. “Yes, my lord.”
He stirred her tea and set the spoon on the saucer, another nicety, done with both elegance and a casual ease.
“And if it rains, Miss Danforth? Will you let the footmen make you a blazing fire in the library, order a pot of chocolate, and curl up with one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels?”
His tone invited a confidence, and his green eyes were so grave as to invite all manner of nonsense. He was being French, for all he’d served her tea like an Englishman.
The image his words evoked, an image of an afternoon spent in a world of fictional adventure and happy endings, was painful nonetheless.
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“I might sketch, my lord. I also enjoy paper cutting, embroidery, and knitting.”
He downed his tea in one gulp, then shuddered. “Knitting. You are a paragon of domestic virtue, Miss Danforth, and as such, I pronounce you entitled to apply that jam to your tart. You’ve been staring at it with shameless longing, you know.”
No, she had not. She’d been thinking of an afternoon in the library with shameless longing. “Yes, my lord.”
Her response was the most innocuous ever manufactured on a pretty English morning, and yet, St. Clair narrowed his eyes at her.
“You have been good for Tante. She’s laughed more in the past fortnight than in the previous season. She flirts with the help, and she dwells less on me and my endless shortcomings, matrimonial or otherwise.” He came to an internal conclusion. “She worries less. I am in your debt, Miss Danforth.”
He was not an easy man to spend time with, but he knew how to give a sincere compliment. The occasion was so rare for Milly, a blush rose up, along with a pleasant warmth in her middle.
“Thank you, my lord. One wants to be useful in this life.” One also wanted a decent place to sleep and some food, too, and the St. Clair household provided that in generous abundance, along with a tidy bit of coin.
Aunt Hyacinth had been right. A good position could be far better than the crusts and criticism handed out among one’s own family.
“One does want to be useful.” He slid the jam pot closer to her plate and rose. “If you will excuse me, madam. Like my aunt, I have correspondence that demands my attention, though your company has been a delight.”
He might have bowed to her, but Milly was staring at the jam, trying to ignore his meaningless flattery. She heard him move off toward the door, and reached for the preserves.
He’d stopped by the door, a big, elegant man who could carry off lace at his throat and wrists even in riding attire.
“You must not begrudge yourself that rainy day in the library. Nobody can be a paragon all the time.”
And then he strode off, while Milly dipped her knife into the jam, and wished—and wished and wished and wished—she might someday have that afternoon with Mrs. Radcliffe.
Though Sebastian wished it were not so, another infernal duel was brewing. He could feel it, could sense it in the way the members of his club barely met his eye when he nodded to them across the reading room.
They would not speak to him if they could avoid it. That he even had membership was only because the Benevolent Society for the Furtherance of Agrarian Science had been too unsophisticated to realize that Sebastian St. Clair was the Traitor Baron himself. By the time they’d become aware of their blunder, Sebastian had made a contribution of un-ignorable proportions to their experimental farm out in Chelsea.
He’d spent those precious funds because a man needed the company of his fellows, even if it was silent, nervous company lured close with coin, and tacit acceptance of the fact that he was merely tolerated in their midst.
“Ah, there you are!” Tante came fluttering into his study without knocking, a gleam in her eyes Sebastian had learned to respect. “You look quite intellectual, St. Clair. Those spectacles are deceiving.”
“The spectacles are necessary if I’m to make sense of your figures, madam.” Years of figures that she’d kept meticulously in the absence of husband, son, nephew, or grandson.
She settled into a chair opposite his desk, a sparrow coming to light. “I wear them too, when I’m at my correspondence, but spectacles become no one. Will you accompany Miss Danforth and me to the Levien musicale?”
No, he would not. “When is it?”
“Next Tuesday. Tuesday evenings are when all the best events take place. I’m having some new gowns made up for Milly, and the woman adores music. There’s a pianist on offer, a single gentleman who’s the son of duke. I think he might do for your cousin Fern, or perhaps Ivy, though not Iris. The girl can’t carry a tune, tipsy or sober.”
God help the pianist. Tante would set loose an entire flowerbed of eligible young ladies on him before his recital was complete.
“I’m afraid I must attend a meeting at the club Tuesday evening. I’m trying to convince the members that peaches are worth investing in.”
They were not, particularly. Peaches liked a sheltered location, a good lot of sunshine, and a mild but discernible winter—exactly what half the valleys in Provence offered, but not quite the English climate.
“Peaches.” Aunt rose, a wealth of scorn in one word. “You would rather take up breeding peaches than pursue your own succession. The war is over, Sebastian. You’ve been pardoned for your errors, and life moves on. You were just a boy when the Corsican resumed his nonsense, and you can’t be held responsible for your family making an unfortunately timed visit to relatives in France.”
How did one breed a peach? Sebastian set that conundrum aside and prepared to deal with being The Despair of the House of St. Clair, as his aunt would no doubt term it in the next five minutes. Tante did not lack for accuracy in her scolds.
“I beg your pardon.”
The paid companion stood at the door, which would normally have been a pleasant sight. She diverted Tante from pestering Sebastian for the most part, and she was a pretty little thing in a not-very-English way.
“Miss Danforth, you must join us. Tante is preparing to deliver one of her more rousing sermons, and such eloquence deserves an audience.” Though Freddy would pull in her horns about the succession if a damsel were present—Sebastian hoped.
The young lady remained in the doorway, her hand on the jamb as if for support—which put Sebastian’s instincts on alert. Her mouth, a full, often-smiling mouth, was grim at the corners, and her eyes…
“Come, sit, Miss Danforth. You are upset.” Sebastian had no intention of being in the vicinity when her upset got the better of her. She would not appreciate him witnessing any loss of composure, and he would not like her for subjecting him to such a display. “I’ll find a footman to bring the teapot. I’m sure whatever troubles you, Tante will want to know of it.”
He escaped with all dispatch and closed the door behind him, sending the tweenie trotting down the steps for the ubiquitous pot of tea. Rather than a scepter and orb, King George ought to rule the empire with a teapot and sugar tongs.
Sebastian was about to call for his horse—the morning was pretty enough to inspire riding out both before and after breakfast—when Freddy emerged from the study.
“There you are. Summon the phaeton, Sebastian, and prepare to drive Miss Danforth to Chelsea.”
This was an order. Freddy enjoyed giving orders, but Sebastian could not oblige her.
“I’ll have the coach brought around instead, the weather being unpredictable. The press of business is such that—”
Tante advanced on him, hands on her hips. A line of Shakespeare flitted through his head, about the lady being small but fierce.
“She has lost her only friend, Sebastian. Miss Danforth’s aunt, her only supporter in this world, has gone to her reward, and the girl buried her other aunt only three months past. She is alone, but for what kindness we can show her.”
An aunt. Merde. It would be an aunt. “John Coachman knows the roads—”
She jabbed him in the sternum with a bony, surprisingly painful finger. “You are competent to get the girl to Chelsea. John Coachman’s gout is acting up, and the undercoachman takes a half day today, along with the footmen. Call. For. Your. Phaeton.”
Four more jabs right to the sternum. Sebastian had never had any call to jab a man in the breastbone before, but if he were still in the interrogation business, he would have added it to his repertoire of torments.
“Perhaps she should wait a day, Tante. Her composure will benefit from waiting a day.” And the undercoachman would be back from swilling his wages or spending them on a pretty little tart.
She smoothed a hand down the lace of his jabot. “Coward.”
“Such an endearment will surely addle my wits.” Though her epithet was not strictly fair, unless she referred to his unwillingness to take his own life.
“Please, Sebastian? She says if she doesn’t retrieve a few mementos from her aunt’s cottage, her cousins will sell them all, and there’s some elderly fellow who was sweet on the aunt. Milly is desperate to look in on him.”
Milly. He’d forgotten that was her name—put it from his mind the way he could put entire years of his life from his mind—and he was not a coward.
He was a dutiful nephew and a gentleman. In this case, it mattered not whether he was a French gentleman or an English gentleman. Either doomed him to surrender.
“Have a hamper packed for the bereaved old fellow—a bottle of spirits to ease his loss, a decent blanket against the winter cold, comestibles, sweets, that sort of thing—and tell Miss Danforth to be ready in half an hour.”
In half an hour, he hoped the English weather might oblige him for once and produce a steady downpour.
Alas, that hope, like most of Sebastian’s hopes to date, was not to be realized.
Milly did not want to tool out to Chelsea in the baron’s smart phaeton. She did not want to sit beside him in all his understated elegance, while she presented as the dowdy poor relation she was, an insult to the glorious, sunny day in her drab brown. Most of all, she did not want to risk her cousins catching sight of her.
The neighbors had not sent word of Aunt Hyacinth’s death until Milly had no chance of attending the services or the wake, which was likely a mercy, but one Milly bitterly resented.
“Do you have need of my handkerchief, Miss Danforth?”
The baron posed his softly accented question as he clucked the horses into a relaxed trot. His manner suggested that a few blocks past Grosvenor Square, they might turn into the park, their outing no more than a lark.
“I have my own, thank you.” Her reply was ungracious, but that too—like every one of her disgruntlements—was a symptom of the anger that so poorly disguised grief.
They trotted along in silence, until his lordship turned the vehicle south on Park Lane.
“I would be lost if Freddy were to abandon me for the celestial realm.” His tone was contemplative, as if he were only now acknowledging the truth he’d admitted. “I would have nobody to scold me, nobody to hold me accountable for my numerous small lapses, nobody to look upon me as if I were a particularly exquisite arrangement of roses, when I am nothing but a man who scratches and swears and wears his muddy boots into the parlor on occasion.”
For the baron, this was a speech, and also a bit of a eulogy for a woman not yet dead.
“She is formidable, your aunt. My aunt was too, but in a much quieter way.”
They both had been, Hyacinth and Millicent. They’d protected Milly as long as they could, and made the world think Milly was the one looking after them.
“When Aunt Millicent died, Aunt Hyacinth began planning my escape into service. I would have been prey for my cousins without Aunt chiding and encouraging and plotting.”
“You were named for your aunt?”
She was pleased he would remind her of this. “Yes. I have her red hair.”
“Auburn. I am certain your hair is auburn, in proper light. Tell me about your Aunt Hyacinth.” He was being kind, and the magnitude of Milly’s loss was such that all she could do was appreciate his compassion.
“I call her—I called her—Aunt Hy. Everybody did, and that was a shame. Hyacinth is a lovely name.”
Traffic was moving along, like it would not at the fashionable hour. The spring breeze brought the pungent scent of Tattersall’s. Life, as both aunts had said often, goes on.
“You do not want to talk about your loved one,” the baron said. “As if that somehow makes them more deceased. Soldiers do not reminisce about fallen comrades easily at first.”
She’d forgotten he’d served. Forgotten he would know a great deal about loss and about life going on.
“Aunt Mil loved laughter, Aunt Hy loved beauty. Ours was a happy household. Aunt Hy could hardly see toward the end—I felt like a traitor for leaving her—but she said she could still feel the beauty with her hands, still smell it with her nose, still taste it in a perfect cup of tea.”
“You did not feel like a traitor for leaving,” the baron said, slowing the team to let an enormous traveling coach lumber past. “You felt like an orphan, an angry orphan with no good choices and nobody whose guidance you could trust, because nobody had trod the path you faced. Your aunts had not been in service; they had not been married. They could suggest, but they could not know.”
As the phaeton rolled along the park’s pretty green perimeter, the most fashionable addresses in the world on their left, Milly realized the baron was speaking from experience.
She would rather talk of his experiences than her loss—much rather. “You felt that way. You’re English, and you ended up in the French army. You had to have felt that way.”
He wrinkled his grand nose, the gesture Gallic, and Milly’s observation clearly unwelcome. She expected he’d absorb himself in managing his horses, though he drove with the instinctive ease of a born whip.
“I was a boy when the Peace of Amiens came about, and my mother was mad to visit her relations in France. I spent the summer in Provence, at my grandparents’ chateau, and I had no concept that the Corsican and old George both were merely regrouping for another decade of war. When the truce ended, my father, of course, had to leave or face internment. Getting him out of the country was a difficult proposition. My mother would not leave me behind, but we could not safely travel with Papa. Very soon, we could not safely travel at all. Mother died that winter, without ever seeing her husband again. She was my first experience with the casualties of war, for I believe she died of a broken heart, not a simple ague.”
So he’d gone from being an English schoolboy, albeit a wellborn schoolboy, to a Frenchman’s grandson with inconvenient paternal antecedents, all in the course of a few bewildering months.
He steered the phaeton past Apsley House, that imposing edifice inhabited by no less personage than the first Duke of Wellington.
“Tell me more about these aunts,” St. Clair said. He did not so much as glance at the duke’s handsome residence. “Did they tipple? Did they flirt with the curate? The baroness would lose all heart had she no flirts.”
What to say? That Milly did indeed feel like an orphan—more of an orphan than ever? That she was frightened to be so alone, more frightened than she’d been since her own parents died? He’d listen to those sentiments, and he would not judge her for them.
St. Clair viewed the world with a surprising sense of compassion, and yet, despite her own need for silence, despite the lump in her throat, Milly launched into a spate of chattering about Aunt Hy’s flowers and Aunt Mil’s shortbread.
To spare him from his own thoughts of an orphaned, angry, bewildered past, she talked.
As Sebastian listened to Miss Danforth prattle on about quilting parties and old women who held “knitting meets” with their familiars, he wondered if Wellington himself might not be behind the recent series of duels.
Sebastian’s first year of repatriation had been calm enough. The worst he’d suffered had been scornful looks, the cut direct here and there, a smattering of snide asides—the very same fare served him during his initial months with the French Army. A few months ago, the tenor of the abuse had become more lethal, as if somebody important had gone down a list of post-war grudges and come to Sebastian’s name.
“I have not seen you knitting, Miss Danforth, for all that you claim to have won these knitting races.” Inane talk, this, but she was trying not to cry, and Sebastian would aid her as best he could.
“I knit at night now, when I can’t sleep. I do the piecework during the day, when the light is better.”
“I have seen the old sailors, sitting with their tankards, knitting away as if their hands belonged to somebody else. I have seen the old women, too, knitting while cannonballs flew over their heads. Knitting must be powerful medicine for the mind.”
“Why on earth would old women be knitting in the midst of cannon fire? Why would old women even be within hearing of cannon fire?”
Her indignation was a tonic. Every soul on earth ought to regard the combination of old women and cannon fire with outrage. The human race should go to bed each night praying to le bon Dieu such a tragedy never befell any of their members again.
Though it would, human nature being incorrigibly foolish.
“I commanded a small garrison in the mountains of southwestern France. For much of the war, we had little to do but serve as a place for troops going into Spain to eat and rest.” He told this lie smoothly, because he’d rehearsed it often in his mind, which made it no less mendacious. “Some officers brought their wives to the post, and we had our share of laundresses and cooks, the same as any army.”
Whores, most of them, and God bless them for it.
“I cannot fathom women in the midst of warfare.”
Miss Danforth looked less grim and peaked to contemplate this topic than to contemplate the loss of her aunts. Sebastian brought the phaeton to a halt in deference to a donkey disinclined to proceed into an intersection. The ragman at the beast’s head was cursing fluently, but in such a thick Cockney accent, Sebastian doubted Miss Danforth could comprehend it.
“Look around you, Miss Danforth. You see the strolling gentlemen, the shopboys, the tigers and grooms, the fellows milling about outside that tavern? Pretend they’re all gone—not a fellow left in sight. Now pretend your job is to kill the enemy, or be killed by her, day in and day out. How long do you think it would take for that combination, of warfare all around and not a single member of the opposite sex among you, to become untenable?”
The ragman lifted a whip from the cart’s seat and came around to brandish it at the donkey.
“War is untenable,” she said. “I cannot see how anybody stands to raise a weapon at somebody who has done them no wrong, much less pull the trigger.”
The whip came down on the beast’s shoulder, viciously hard, and Miss Danforth turned her head away. Had she not been beside him, Sebastian would have already been out of his vehicle. He passed her the reins, leapt down, and approached the donkey. The beast was tiny, its hide scarred and its tail matted with burrs. Outside the tavern on the corner—The Wild Hare—bets were being placed, probably over how many lashes it would take to get the animal moving or kill it.
The whip came up again.
At Sebastian’s question, the ragman lowered the whip and turned a puzzled frown over his shoulder. “Beg pardon, guv. I’ll have the beast moving directly, see if I don’t.”
He raised the whip again, but Sebastian forestalled the next blow by the simple expedient of snatching the whip from the man’s hand. “How much for the beast?”
Simon gestured for his tiger, and the boy came to heel quickly, no stranger to these encounters. Simon passed the lad the whip, because sometimes a man needed two fists on short notice.
“Yer want t’buy ’er?”
The ragman dressed to advertise his trade in an assemblage of fabrics that, had they been clean, would have been colorful enough for any tinker. Rheumy blue eyes turned crafty. “I’ve met your kind. You like to beat ’em, like to beat the wenches too.”
The donkey stood quietly, head hanging, while the gallery at the pub had gone silent.
“I do appreciate the necessity for the occasional display of violence,” Sebastian said, stroking a hand over the animal’s shaggy gray fur. “But I like my opponent to be able to fight back, not trussed up in harness, a bit in her mouth, and a whip in my hand.”
On the seat of the phaeton, Miss Danforth was perfectly composed. The team stood placidly in the traces, suggesting not even her hands conveyed nervousness.
Exorbitant for a beast broken in spirit, foundered, and underfed. Sebastian flicked a glance at the tiger, who produced the requisite funds. “You have two minutes to unhitch your cart.”
He climbed back into the phaeton, and before he could retrieve the reins, Miss Danforth signaled the team to walk on. His geldings—a young pair given to occasional fits and starts—moved off smoothly.
“You were discussing your aunts, Miss Danforth.” He came off sounding like a headmaster trying to restore decorum to a classroom overtaken by chaos.
“We were discussing the civilizing influence of women on men compelled to make war. If I hadn’t been here, you would have trounced that fellow, wouldn’t you? I would have liked to have seen that.”
He liked the sight of her, her posture the perfect, relaxed, graceful pose of a lady comfortable with the reins. Had her knitting aunts taught her how to drive? “You like seeing men behave like animals?”
“Of course not. I like seeing justice done. I like that very much. The donkey was afraid of the dogs hanging about the tavern.”
He thought of her cousins, who hadn’t had the decency to notify her of her aunt’s death. Oppressed and bloodthirsty were not the same thing. “Justice is a fine objective, bloody knuckles are not. Will you give me back the reins?”
She looked down at her hands in surprise, then over at him. “Must I?”
The smile she turned on him was complicated. Winsome, chagrinned, a bit sad, and entirely feminine. Were she French, she’d learn to use that smile, because it made her not beautiful—her coloring was too vivid to be beautiful—but alluring.
“No, you need not. My horses have decided they like you. This is a great compliment.”
He liked her. He liked that she hadn’t turned up sniffy because he’d threatened a ragman, discussed money in the street, and taken up for a homely jenny who was—to all appearances—merely exhausted and in want of courage.
Sebastian propped his foot on the fender and decided to make a clean breast of matters. “It is a failing of mine to interest myself in the fate of fractious animals. I will find the little beast work at the Chelsea farm if she can be made sound in body and spirit.”
Miss Danforth cooed to the horses, and they lifted to a spanking trot. “You get it from your aunt, then. I’m a fractious animal, and she’s found work for me.”
“You are not wearing driving gloves.” Miss Danforth was poor enough not to have a good second pair, and yet, Sebastian didn’t take the reins from her.
“Your geldings have velvet mouths. I was dreading this trip, but I’m enjoying it now. Aunt Hy would like that.”
Her smile was muted, but because he’d achieved a distraction from the near occasion of tears, Sebastian let her keep the reins and remained silent until they’d reached their objective less than an hour later.
Chelsea was little more than a village enjoying a spate of growth owing to its proximity to London, and yet, it was still a pretty village. Miss Danforth drove them down one of the quieter streets, to a tidy Tudor house set amid a riot of daffodils.
Sebastian saw many an Englishman’s dream in the snug, tidy cottage—many an Englishwoman’s too. “I am not cheered to think you left this for the stink and pretense of Mayfair.”
She gave him a look, suggesting his observation was unexpected. “I am not cheered to think of you watching over old women while cannonballs whizzed overhead. The key is around back.”
The cottage was more substantial that it appeared from the lane. Miss Danforth maneuvered the phaeton around back, where orderly gardens backed up to pastureland. When he’d set her down and tied up the geldings, she extracted a key from between two loose bricks and opened a back door.
She gestured him inside, which was a surprise. A man and an unmarried woman ought not to be in an empty house together, not according to the strangling list of proprieties adhered to by Polite Society.
“I am worried about Peter,” she said, taking off her bonnet and gloves. “The house might already have been let, and the next tenants are not likely to look kindly on him.”
A soldier learned to appreciate simple things—quiet, order, solitude, and cleanliness. The house offered these gifts in abundance. The kitchen was spotless and full of light from back windows overlooking the gardens. The copper-bottomed pots gleamed, the andirons were freshly blacked, the mullioned windows sparkled.
The curtains sported embroidered borders of pansies and morning glories, jewel-tone colors in riotous patterns. As Sebastian moved with Miss Danforth upward through the house, the same peaceful, pretty aesthetic prevailed.
“This is a happy house.” He could feel it, just as he’d felt the misery, pain, and despair in the cold stone walls of the château.
“My cousins could not understand how we could be happy here, three spinster ladies with only modest means. My aunt’s bequest is in here.”
He followed her into a bedroom, and knew immediately this was where Miss Danforth had slept.
Except in this house, she’d been Milly. She’d been loved, and confident of that love. Her ease showed in the way she moved through the rooms, sure of her destination and her place. She knelt before a bed covered by an elaborately embroidered counterpane, peacocks and doves, beauty and peace in a pattern of green, blue, white, and gold.
“This was to be my trousseau,” she said, dragging a trunk from under the bed. The bed was raised; nobody would have thought to consider the underspace as storage, and the trunk was not small.
She’d flaunted propriety in the interests of availing herself of Sebastina’s muscle—practical of her. “Is there more you would retrieve before we depart, Miss Danforth?”
“A few small things.”
“Then I will leave you to make your farewells.” He hefted the trunk to his shoulder, happy to depart before grieving sentiments could overtake pragmatism. The trunk smelled slightly of cedar and camphor, and was surprisingly light, suggesting her trousseau did not include much silver.
“I’ll be along soon, my lord.”
He left her sitting on the bed, alone in a pretty house that by rights should have come to her. This thought bothered him, because he was glad her cousins had cheated her out of her inheritance, for it meant his aunt had a cheerful, practical companion who was easy to look upon and competent with the reins.
The baron had hefted the trunk holding her trousseau as if it had been no more weighty than a wicker basket full of clean sheets. In his absence, Milly sat on the bed where she’d slept most every night of her adult life until recently, and inventoried her emotions.
The very exercise the baron had no doubt given her solitude to undertake.
She was in the grip of a sense of loss, but the loss had started two years ago when Aunt Mil had begun to fade. The aunts had known they were leaving Milly, and had done what they could to safeguard her future.
The house was just a house, as Aunt Hy had said. When the baron had escorted Milly up from the kitchen, the house had felt small and empty.
In addition to the feeling of loss was a sense of satisfaction, because the aunts’ plan was successfully implemented. Milly was safely ensconced in the employ of a Mayfair baroness, one who understood about dreadful cousins.
And Milly was relieved too, because even if those dreadful cousins should surprise her on the premises, his lordship would deal with them, as Lady St. Clair had no doubt intended.
St. Clair would not come back inside to retrieve her, either. His ease with difficult emotions meant Milly would not have to rush her farewells.
Though neither would she prolong them, because the final emotion Milly could not ignore was loneliness. She had been happy with the aunts, and she had been lonely.
She was lonely still.
“You can come out now.”
Nothing, not even a rustle. Perhaps Peter was downstairs, hiding from Alcorn and Frieda, who’d probably inspected the house before Hyacinth had been measured for her shroud.
Peter did not lack for the self-preservation instinct. “Peter Francis Danforth!”
Still nothing. Milly turned her steps down the hallway, to Hyacinth’s sitting room, and there she found her quarry in his customary spot in the window, as if waiting for the next quilting party when all and sundry would make their obeisance to him before the workbaskets were opened.
“There you are.”
He glowered up at her in feline indignation, flicking his great black tail as if to ask, “Where on earth have you been?”
“I came as soon as I could, and while I appreciate that you’ve maintained the order of the household, it’s time to go now. Aunt Hy wanted you to come with me. It’s the only thing she asked of me.”
Milly spoke not for the cat’s benefit, but for her own. She picked him up, surprised as always at his sheer weight. A cat so fluffy ought not to weigh so much. Predictably, he began a rumbling purr.
“You are a fraud, Peter Francis. You glower at the world, switching your tail and promising doom to all who cross you, and then you start that purr…”
Aunt Hy had claimed the purr helped her rheumatism. She’d sat with the cat in her lap, stroking his soft, dark fur for hours while Aunt Mil had read and Milly had done piecework.
“The baroness will love you,” Milly said around the lump in her throat. “But you’re mine now. And I’m yours. You may love her ladyship, too, but you’ll always be mine.”
She tucked the cat against her and walked through the house, looking neither left nor right. She’d slipped a bottle of Aunt Hy’s perfume in her skirt pocket, but left everything else as she’d found it, knowing Alcorn and Frieda would note anything substantially out of place.
When she passed through the back door, she set Peter down for a moment while she worked the key. On impulse, she slipped the key in her pocket too, then picked up the cat.
The baron had secured her trunk to the back of the phaeton and was lounging by his vehicle, the picture of a handsome man enjoying a pretty day in the country. He pushed away from the phaeton at the sight of Milly.
“That is a cat.” His tone was a combination of consternation and banked hostility.
“This is Peter. Peter Francis Danforth. He was Aunt Hy’s dearest friend, and if I don’t collect him, my cousins will banish him to the stables or worse.”
“I drove the length of the city to retrieve a cat. A black cat.”
“He is black.” Wonderfully, unrelievedly, marvelously black with piercing green eyes and plush, long fur. “He’s very friendly.”
That a cat was friendly was no particular recommendation. Milly should have said Peter caught a prodigious number of mice, except he’d never caught a mouse in his pampered life. As predators went, Peter was an utter failure.
The baron’s expression did not soften, and now—now when she could not reach a handkerchief because of the burden she held—Milly’s tears welled.
“I can find a home for him, if you insist, but the baroness assured me…” She could not find a home for this cat. He was lazy and friendly, two mortal sins for an animal who ought to survive by hunting. He was convinced dogs were his intended companions, after old women, children, and Mr. Hamilton down at The Boar’s Tail.
Milly brushed her cheek over Peter’s head. “I thought that’s why we brought the wicker hamper.”
Her voice had wobbled. She buried her nose in Peter’s rumbling warmth and wondered if the baron were susceptible to begging, because Milly could not lose this cat. She would sell her trousseau, face her cousins, pawn the little bottle of scent, give up her last links with the aunts—
A hand landed on her shoulder. “The error was mine. Of course your friend cannot be left alone in his grief. I take it he is old?”
St. Clair’s voice was gruff, and yet his hand on Milly’s shoulder was gentle. She ran her nose over Peter’s neck. “Five.”
“In his prime, then. He will make a lovely addition to Aunt’s sitting room, and soon have all her confidences.”
The baron moved off, taking the warmth of his hand with him. Milly watched while he removed a peculiar assortment of items from the wicker hamper: A thick wool blanket, a bottle of wine or spirits. A wrapped loaf of bread, a small wheel of cheese, a jar of preserves, a quarter ham in cloth.
He piled these offerings on the seat, and Milly realized the morning had passed. “Were we to picnic, then?”
Dark brows rose over unreadable green eyes. For a moment, the most distinct sound was Peter’s purring.
“Would you like to picnic, mademoiselle?”
Somebody sought in a methodical, determined manner to kill Sebastian, and yet, he had offered to picnic with a sad young lady on a gorgeous spring day. Because surviving the tender mercies of the French Army had absorbed his most callow years, he’d never made such an offer before.
Was one picnic in the English countryside too much to ask of an adulthood otherwise devoted to war and its aftermath?
“I would like a picnic,” Miss Danforth said. “Peter would like that as well.”
“Then the vote is unanimous. Have you a location in mind?”
Of course, she did. She had Sebastian turn the horses out in an overgrown paddock across the alley from the house. While the cat followed Miss Danforth around the yard, she picked a bouquet of daffodils and disappeared for a time up the lane. When she returned, she no longer carried the flowers.
Sebastian had spread their blanket in the spot she’d designated in the shade of the back gardens, a place not visible from the alley or the home of the one neighbor the property boasted.
“I would have gone with you, you know,” he informed his companion as she lowered herself to the blanket.
“You went to the churchyard, to pay your last respects. One wants to do this alone, and yet one should not have to.”
One, one, one. He was leaning toward his English side today, which was odd, because all of his funerals, including the many he’d presided over as any commanding officer might, had been in French.
Miss Danforth opened the hamper, which Sebastian had repacked as best he could.
“Aunt told me I was not to wallow in my grief. She was quite stern about that. I was to find a good position and make the most of it. We have no utensils.”
Sebastian withdrew his everyday knife from his left boot and presented the handle to her. Based on Miss Danforth’s expression, this was not comme il faut at a picnic.
A cessation of hostilities left a soldier hopelessly behindhand, though it had been some time since Sebastian had felt so very out of step with his surroundings. “Shall we retrieve napkins, forks, and such from the house?”
She examined his knife, a serviceable, bone-handled blade whose twin reposed against the small of Sebastian’s back. He kept his smallest throwing dagger in his right boot, that being the handiest location for quick retrieval.
“I’d rather not go back into the house, thank you.” She took the knife from his palm without touching his bare skin. “A knife is all we really need.”
“A knife is often sufficient for the moment.” Also silent, reusable, and capable of being hurled at one’s enemies as they retreated, with more accuracy than most small pistols afforded. “If you’ll pass me the bread?”
They managed sandwiches, and then came to another awkward moment over the Madeira.
“You must not go thirsty on my account, Miss Danforth. Drink from the bottle, and I will manage.” Though his morning coffee was but a memory, and the ride back would be dusty.
He’d been thirstier. He’d once gone nearly three days without much water, and the results had produced all manner of useful insights for a man whose business had been prying the truth from unlikely sources.
Miss Danforth considered the bottle, then her companion. One or the other must have found favor. “We’ll share.”
She tipped the bottle up and took a swallow of wine fortified with brandy. Even genteel elderly ladies might have such a drink on hand for chilly evenings and special occasions. Miss Danforth was not shy about enjoying her libation, her throat working as she took another swallow, then another.
Was she trying to drown her grief?
She wiped the lip of the bottle on her handkerchief before passing the drink to him. “It’s quite good. Very restorative.”
Abruptly, the moment shifted, at least for Sebastian. Miss Danforth’s tidy bun had slipped on their journey. A dusting of dark cat hair graced her otherwise spotless bodice, and she wore no gloves. Her lips were damp from the wine, and perhaps because she’d been crying earlier, her brown eyes were…luminous.
Sebastian took the bottle, wondering if there were ever a convenient time to be ambushed by lust. He drank deeply and passed the bottle back. “The cork is around here somewhere.” He’d seen the cat batting it about in fact.
She produced the cork, jammed it in the bottle, and then sank back, bracing her weight on her hands, turning her face up to the sun. “You are being very kind, my lord. I appreciate it.”
Sebastian did not want her gratitude. Of all the inexplicable, inconvenient impulses, he wanted his bare hands on her naked and possibly freckled breasts, alas for him. Such were the burdens of being half-French that the freckles had something to do with his unruly impulse.
“Do you think it’s such a trial for me, Miss Danforth, to enjoy the company of a pretty lady on a lovely day? Do you think bread, cheese, wine, and some viands cannot satisfy my appetite because some ancestor of mine survived a foolhardy charge into the enemy lines for his king centuries ago?”
Any subordinate under his command, any prisoner in his keeping would have known that soft tone presaged temper or worse.
Miss Danforth closed her eyes, making her complexion an offering to the sun. “You sound very English when you’re in a pet. Your consonants when you conversed with that ragman could have cleaved gems, and I know good and well I am not pretty.”
No, she was worse than pretty, as Sebastian had had occasion to conclude earlier; she was alluring. Her attractiveness came from slightly disheveled red hair—not auburn, not titian—eyes that slanted a bit, a complexion that bore a hint of porcelain roses, and a mouth…
Sebastian looked away. A commanding officer became very skilled at looking away. After a few years, it was nearly a reflex.
“A woman need not be blond and blue-eyed to appeal to a man’s aesthetic sensibilities. More wine?” Much less appeal to his ill-timed and completely illogical lust. The French side of him was overcome with hilarity at the expense of his dignity, while the English side tried to think of Aunt’s collection of Sevres bud vases.
“No, thank you. No more wine for me. Who was the last person you lost, my lord?”
Maybe she was unused to any spirits at all, or maybe she was trying to distract herself from her grief. Two feet beyond the blanket, the black cat stretched itself out to an enormous length, then curled up and commenced vibrating.
“Who was the last man you kissed, Miss Danforth?”
As an interrogator, he knew the value of a sneak attack, knew the value of a question lobbed at a flagging mind from an undefended angle. His inquiry, however, had emerged without any warning to him.
Her lips quirked; she did not open her eyes. “I kissed Peter. That is not an appropriate question, my lord.”
He shifted on the blanket, so he could undertake his folly properly. When he slid a hand into Miss Danforth’s hair, she opened her eyes, and up close, Sebastian could see flecks of gold in her irises.
“I cannot bear to talk of death, Miss Danforth. Not now.”
She regarded him, her expression putting him in mind of the cat. Unreadable, unafraid, unblinking. Something in her vibrated too, with intelligence, warmth, and feminine awareness.
He would never again picnic on a lovely day with a pretty girl, not because his death warrant had already been signed, but because the occasion provoked him to odd behaviors.
Sebastian leaned forward another inch. “No more talk of dying and grieving, no more tears and suffering. I cannot bear it. Do you hear me?”
Though when a grieving woman could not cry, she was a much more worrisome creature.
He kissed her, perhaps because he hadn’t cried since his mother’s funeral, but more likely because the unreadable depths of Miss Danforth’s chocolate-brown eyes shifted and became, if not warm, then at least curious.
For a kiss that bore more than a little anger on Sebastian’s part, the touch of Miss Danforth’s lips on his was sunlight-soft. She scooted closer, one of her hands wrapping around the back of his head, the other cradling his cheek.
She tasted of the wine, of sweetness, and a little of grief. He kissed the grief then nudged it aside by stroking his fingers over her cheek, her throat, her temple. Though she was a redhead, her hair was silky soft, and her skin…
No human female ought to have skin like that, warm and smooth, and a sheer pleasure for a man to drag his fingertips over. He wanted to taste her everywhere, and that he’d never have the chance was the only thing that made him ease out of the kiss.
“You are alive,” he growled. “Be grateful for that. Don’t tempt fate by questioning your good fortune, because one day it will be you who lies in some churchyard.”
Or on a muddy battlefield buzzing with flies, or at the bottom of some ravine in the freezing Pyrenees, or blown to bits when a cannonball hit the powder magazine by merest lucky—tragic, horrible, unendurable—chance.
“You are alive, too.” Miss Danforth was much better at scolding with a kiss than Sebastian would ever be. She pressed her mouth to his, all business, though her hand on his jaw was gentle.
Before he marshaled his wits to react, she took her mouth away and patted his cheek, putting him in mind of his recent meeting with young Pierpont.
“Have some more wine,” she said, and Sebastian did not argue. When he’d finished, he passed the bottle to her without wiping the lip, and she too, indulged in a healthy tot.
He was supposed to apologize for kissing her; he was sure of it in both the English and the French parts of his mind. He might as well apologize for the beautiful weather, for her aunt dying, for being a man, for Miss Danforth’s own glorious red hair. The kiss had been relatively chaste, at least compared with his thoughts.
The Frenchman in him decided he would not apologize for it.
Sebastian tossed the cat a few bits of ham, then wrapped the uneaten food in its cloths and stowed it behind seat of the carriage. The blanket went into the hamper followed by the cat, and in short order, the team was headed back to Town at a spanking trot.
And now—of course—the sky was sporting the sort of low, sulking clouds that would only gather more and more closely, until rain was inevitable.
“We’ll beat the weather,” Miss Danforth said as they reached Earl’s Court. “When a storm threatens, it clears the traffic, so you can make excellent time. Thank you for taking me, your lordship.”
He hadn’t taken her, though had they kissed much longer, he would have wanted to. That kiss hadn’t been entirely meant as a scold or a lecture. He was too out of practice with lust to know where desire ended and anger began.
Anger or loneliness. He barely knew the woman, which seemed to be the primary prerequisite for an erotic encounter in his life.
“You will not rail at me for taking liberties, Miss Danforth? I might have made the same point without molesting your person.”
In the basket, the enormous cat shifted, making the wicker creak. The damned beast probably understood every word of English spoken in its presence.
“I do not consider myself molested, my lord.”
How he hated the my-lording, and how he approved of her answer. In the distance, off to the south, thunder rumbled. He could not tell her that he was lonely, though the notion had strutted into his thoughts with the unapologetic confidence of a personal truth.
Not a very useful concept, loneliness.
“You never did answer my question, Miss Danforth.”
She smoothed her gloved hand over her skirts, a hand that Sebastian now knew bore freckles across the back. The gesture told him she recalled exactly which question he alluded to: Who was the last man she’d kissed?
“I hadn’t any answer. You were my first.”
Another rumble of thunder, though thunder on the right was supposed to bring good luck.
“I gave you your first kiss?” The notion pleased him inordinately, and confirmed his sense that the men of England were a troop of witless apes. No wonder their womenfolk were such a twitchy, high-strung lot. “How did I do?”
She smiled a patient, female smile. “You were awful.”
Ah, but that smile told a different story. “Perhaps in the future, you will provide me an opportunity to improve on my performance.”
He winked at her, to show he was teasing and could be trusted, utterly, and because the day had abruptly become much less about death, scoldings, and shoving aside bad memories.
She did not wink back, but neither did her smile fade entirely from her eyes until they reached home.
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