“A man of business expects his home to be a haven of peace and well-ordered repose,” Worth Kettering informed his diplomatically silent butler. “And nothing aggravates this man of business like domestic upheaval, Lewis. Nothing. Not ranting clients, not crooked investment schemes, not fractious horses.”
Kettering took the proffered ribbon from Lewis.
“My housemaids are feuding, because the tweenie made sheep’s eyes at a footman fancied by the second upstairs chambermaid,” Kettering went on, lashing the ribbon around a stack of documents. “Cook has a megrim because the butcher’s boy has taken a fancy to the milkmaid. My valet is asking for yet more time off to visit his aged granny. I begin to suspect grandmamma has a penchant for the ponies, because her health only becomes tenuous during the race meets.”
Lewis supplied his finger, unasked, to hold the ribbon in place while Kettering fashioned a bow.
“And because the housemaids are running riot, my breakfast is late—and I’ve early appointments awaiting me at the office.”
“And your worship hates to be late,” Lewis muttered dolefully.
“I am not a worship, yours or otherwise.” Kettering turned his scowl on the venerable footman holding a freshly brushed top hat and pristine gloves. “Don’t dare encourage him, Means. Lewis’s immortal soul is imperiled enough without your corrupting example.”
“Duly noted, Mr. Kettering, sir.”
Lewis passed Kettering the morning post, which provoked yet more scowling.
“And now I see, as if my day had not begun on the most sour and insubordinate of notes, that my housekeeper is writing to me again. This cannot be good news, gentlemen. Wyeth always writes on the first, and that report was received a week ago.”
“Bad news it is, then,” Lewis said. “A tragedy, at least.”
Means surrendered the hat. “Perhaps a catastrophe or even a disaster, if I may be so bold. We can put the priest on alert, Mr. Kettering.”
“Laugh all you want, but you two sort out the warring parties under this roof. Our dear Mrs. Wyeth would never tolerate the mayhem that passes for management of my Town household.” Kettering stuffed his correspondence into a saddlebag. “And settle the maids down before I return tonight.”
Lewis bowed low. “Of course, your highness.”
Means followed suit. “Consider it done, Mr. Kettering, sir.”
“You’re both fired,” Kettering said, slapping his top hat on at an angle between jaunty and rakish. “That’s twice this week, and it’s only Wednesday.”
Lewis popped back up. “I’ll do better next week, your archangelness. Once a day is my goal.”
“Bother you both.”
Kettering banged out the door, grateful at least for a competent steward and tolerant butler. Lewis wasn’t more than twenty, but he had common sense to go with his excellent recall of documents and details. He’d do, if some female didn’t come along and distract him from a perfectly satisfying career in business.
Kettering swung up on his waiting gelding and considered again purchasing a coach well-sprung enough that a man might read and write as he traveled from place to place. By Kettering’s estimate, he wasted several hours a week trotting from office to house or house to office, time that could have been spent reviewing accounts or correspondence, checking figures—time spent checking figures appealed particularly—or considering investments.
Instead, he consigned himself to getting a little exercise—his commercial and domestic establishments were less than a mile apart—and doing so in the company of his horse, a generally obedient soul named Goliath.
Kettering passed his gelding into the keeping of a groom at the mews behind his office and handed the saddlebags to a junior clerk. The boy took off with his burden, and Kettering had the satisfaction of knowing his documents would be on his desk before his horse was unsaddled.
“Morning, Mr. Kettering,” Jones, his senior office clerk, chirped. Jones was off his high stool, a clutch of files in his hand as Kettering passed from the anterooms into the back of the house that served as his office. Because late nights were common enough, the bedroom upstairs was fitted out with the standard amenities. The ground floor held elegant parlors where the clients could sip tea and nibble crumpets, but most of the house was devoted to Kettering’s dearest mistress of long standing—business.
“Your first appointment, Tremaine St. Michael, sent word he’d have to reschedule,” Jones began, as they moved through the house. “He said he’ll wait until the Season’s over to try again, because mornings don’t suit.”
“When one is out swilling champagne until all hours, mornings don’t exist,” Kettering replied. “Who came after St. Michael? Darius Lindsey, I think.”
“Yes, sir. He’s usually punctual.”
“Younger sons generally are.” Kettering passed his gloves to Jones when that good fellow had stacked the files on the desk. “I’ll need some breakfast, Jones, my house being at the mercy of feuding domestics this morning. Please do not disturb me thereafter until Lindsey arrives. I didn’t get to read my personal correspondence while dining at home, and I will be in a pet until I’ve caught up. Strong China black wouldn’t go amiss. Thank you, Jones. Now, shoo.”
“I’m gone.” Jones bowed with a smile and disappeared.
Clerks were supposed to be quiet, quick, and adept at providing what was needed before it was needed. Jones had all three qualities and would soon have his journeyman’s letters as well. God be praised, he hadn’t yet been snabbled by some ambitious shopgirl looking for a settled and comfortable life, but it was only a matter of time. Shopgirls cost Kettering more articled clerks than every illness and evil known to the realm.
A tea tray with scones, jam, strawberries and butter appeared at Kettering’s elbow, brought in by a junior clerk, and silently placed on the desk.
Kettering peered at the tea and decided it could steep a bit while he read a letter or two. He pulled the one from his housekeeper off the top of the day’s stack and tried to push aside his sense of foreboding. Dear old Mrs. Wyeth had been hired sight unseen through the agencies a few years ago, and she’d been the soul of efficiency ever since. Once a month, she sent him her little reports. Once a month, Kettering told himself it was time he learned to rusticate again.
Wyeth was a sensible old thing. If she was writing on some date other than the first of the month, she’d have good reason. He slit the letter open, started reading, and promptly forgot about scones, butter, tea, appointments, and clients.
Jacaranda Wyeth had an abiding affection for her employer. She’d never even met the man, and yet, she would miss him when she turned in her notice at summer’s end.
Dear old Mr. Kettering toiled away month after month in London, and she often pictured him in his stuffy, damp quarters in the City, poring over arcane legal minutia. He’d likely become elderly before his time due to that damp—most solicitors were elderly, because it took so long to become one—and he’d squint, from having had to copy documents by the hour in bad light when he was just a boy. The poor dear no doubt suffered rheumatism in his knees, too, because the Inns at Court were notoriously difficult to heat and courts would sit even in the coldest months.
So she didn’t begrudge him his monthly report, but rather, delighted in tallying the house expenditures to the penny. Once, early in her tenure in his employ, she’d tallied her sums so they were purposely off by tuppence, and he’d discovered her error.
She’d particularly liked him for that, for his scrutiny meant he cared something for the home he never saw in Surrey. He paid attention, as Jacaranda herself paid attention, and she respected the trait on the rare occasion she found it in others.
And because she cared in some fashion for the man, she’d sent last week’s letter. Ladies and gentlemen didn’t correspond, but she wasn’t a lady. She was in service, and that meant reporting to her employer.
And when the school had contacted her, asking for his whereabouts, she’d had no reason not to tell them. The Offices of Worth Kettering were of some repute—she read the London papers and saw mention of same, always with respect. But, for some reason, the school hadn’t known he was that Worth Kettering, and she’d obliged by informing them of his direction in Town.
No doubt, they wanted a charitable donation. Any man who kept such a beautiful home without even visiting it had some means. Mrs. Wyeth also corresponded with Lewis, her counterpart in the Kettering town house, and knew Mr. Kettering was rearing a little niece. Perhaps the child was approaching school age, and the institution sought to solicit Kettering’s favor.
“I do not have a sister.” Kettering kept his voice civil only by effort, for memories of Moira were still painful. “The topic is sensitive, you see, because I had a sister. You will note the past tense.”
Mrs. Peese heaved herself to her feet. “And our condolences on your loss, but Yolanda was quite, quite clear that you are her brother. When I checked the files, the earl named you as his alternate in the event of an emergency. This constitutes an emergency.”
Was there any being on earth as difficult to enlighten as a veteran schoolmistress? “I do not have a sister living on this earth. How many times must I say it?”
Mrs. Peese reminded him of his mental picture of his housekeeper: iron-haired, well fed, full of energetic competence, and inflexible about dust, dirt, and the divine right of kings. He’d get nowhere with this woman using reason and probably less than nowhere using threats of force.
He bowed to the inevitable. “Why don’t I simply hire the young lady a coach and have her delivered to the head of our little family?” The preferred option, as far as Kettering was concerned.
“He’s left for Scotland, Mr. Kettering, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“For God’s sake, I am not aware of the earl’s holiday schedule!”
She folded her arms across an ample bosom. By her lights, Kettering had likely committed three mortal sings in one sentence: He’d raised his voice, taken the Lord’s name in vain, and disrespected a peer of the realm. God—Gads, rather.
You are a gentleman, he reminded himself. You are always a gentleman when dealing with ladies, clients, and children. Most ladies, in any case.
“Brother?” A coltish blonde stood in the doorway to Mrs. Peese’s office. “Do you denounce me out of ignorance or out of spite?”
“Who the dev—deuce?”
“Yolanda.” Mrs. Peese’s expression became long-suffering. “Child, please return to your room. Your brother and I will negotiate the terms of your departure.”
“Not if he has anything to say to it.”
The young lady advanced into the room, and Kettering knew a moment’s unease. On some level no man of business ever ignored, she upset him. She was in the last throes of adolescence and tallish—all the Ketterings were tall—and she had blond hair and blue eyes highly reminiscent of Moira’s coloring. This Yolanda person held out her hand, thrusting a signet ring with a unicorn crest under his nose.
Kettering knew better than to stare at that ring, or touch the matching one on his own left hand.
“Mrs. Peese, if you would excuse my… sister and me briefly?”
“The door is to remain open,” Mrs. Peese said. “And, Yolanda, Miss Snyder is across the hall in the guest parlor if you need her. I will be only a few minutes.”
Mrs. Peese inhaled through her nose at Kettering, a warning of some sort. He was male and, in her world, no doubt suspect on that ground alone, and then Kettering was alone with a very young female who bore an odd resemblance to… him.
“What is your scheme, young lady?”
In response, she began to recite the Kettering succession right from the first baron, a wily young fellow who’d turned Good Queen Bess’s head, or so the story went. And the girl had it right, generation by generation.
“So you studied the Kettering line, because our looks resemble yours.” Kettering took a seat and gestured for her to do the same. “That hardly makes you my sister. I’m what? Twenty years your senior?”
“Not quite sixteen. A portrait of your mother hangs over the mantel at Grampion Hall. Our father had it painted when our brother was a toddler, but it still hangs there, unless Hess has moved it.”
“Hessian, who has conveniently decamped for points north.”
She sat forward in her chair and held his gaze with an intensity ladies her age ought not to be capable of.
“In the painting, your mother wears a blue turban, like the girl in the Vermeer, and she has only one earring. The earring hangs on her right ear, but the left one as you face the portrait.”
“Anyone could describe that painting to you.” He’d forgotten about it, though her recitation brought the image to mind. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
Over years and years of dealing with the law and those who broke it, Kettering had a good instinct for who was telling a desperate lie and who was telling a desperate truth. For all his posturing, his instincts put this girl in the latter group.
“Hess has gone north,” Yolanda said. “He’s hunt mad and must be off shooting grouse until cubbing starts in September. No one matters to him more than his hunters and his hounds, and the library will smell of dog all winter.”
Kettering rose and began to pace, because this would have been true of the old earl as well—and Kettering had also forgotten about the odor of hounds in the colder months. “So you’re my sister and we’ve never met, and now the school has sent for me. What do you want?”
“Do you believe we’re related?”
“Not for a moment,” Kettering said, not that he would admit, in any case. “But you’ve neatly boxed me into the classic corner of having to prove something in the negative. Why summon me now, when I had no clue as to your existence?”
“Because you must get me out of here.”
“Must, Miss Yolanda?”
She fisted her hands and shot a look at the door, then turned pleading eyes on him. “Please… I have nowhere to go. Hess is off to his grouse moor, and Mrs. Peese does not run a charitable institution. My continued presence here would be untenably awkward for everybody.”
She dropped her head forward, and that was when Kettering saw what the unseasonably long sleeves of her dress had kept hidden: bandages around her left wrist. Thick, fresh bandages.
“Perhaps you’d walk with me in the back gardens?” He put the question neutrally, acutely aware that some functionary or other was listening to every word from across the hall. “The day is pleasantly warm, and I have more questions for you.”
She must have sensed he wasn’t taunting anymore. Without touching him, without taking his proffered arm or meeting his eyes, she led him through the French doors to the walkway outside the headmistress’s office.
He gestured away from the building and put her hand on his sleeve. “This way. Now, who are you really?”
“I’m your sister, Yolanda Kettering.”
“Yes. But his lordship became my guardian. I was in Papa’s will, and Hess has never questioned my paternity.”
“Now you’re Hess’s responsibility?”
“I am not legitimate,” she said through gritted teeth. “But I am acknowledged, and I am your half-sister. Assuming guardianship of me was the best way for Papa to secure my future.”
“So here you are, at one of the most exclusive boarding schools in the Midlands, and you developed a sudden urge to see your long-lost brother?”
She tugged the cuff of her sleeve down. “I don’t know you, sir, but my options were limited. They’re watching me all the time.”
“The teachers, the other girls, and if I try to escape again, they’ll peach on me, and then they’ll tell Hess, and I know what happens to people like me.”
“Dear girl, people who tell whopping lies are usually thrashed soundly and given a few days of bread, water, and Bible verses.”
“I’m not lying.”
“Prove it.” Kettering could feel himself getting sucked in, just as his late sister—his late full sister—had sucked him in, until it was too late, until he he’d been too far gone and his heart had held sway over his common sense.
“Your full name is Worth Reverence Kettering,” she said. “Your first pony was Arthur, a piebald Shetland you were given at age six. Your second was Bucephalus, whom you were given at age nine because Archie colicked, and your papa made you watch as he was put down. You told him you didn’t want another horse ever but got sick of walking everywhere by the end of that summer.”
“Ambergris,” she said, her head down as she walked beside him. “You rode him until you walked away from Kettering Hall at the age of seventeen, vowing never to return.”
“I didn’t vow to anybody who’d recall such folly.” He hadn’t even made that vow out loud. “You found my journals.”
She flashed him a smile, one that exposed a terrible, winsome beauty in the near offing. “You were a dramatic young fellow.”
“You’re still not my sister, but you’re in trouble here. Be honest with me now, and I might try to help you. Why do you need out of here so badly?”
“They’re kicking me out,” she said. “Some duke is thinking of putting his daughters here, and my unfortunate origins mean I’m de trop. If you can’t take me off Mrs. Peese’s hands, she might arrange for me to go to some sort of private sanitarium—the girls have been whispering about it all week.”
Whispering where they knew she could overhear, no doubt. The compassion of rich little girls hunting in a pack was a terrifying prospect, though Kettering didn’t believe for a moment the duke’s daughter was the sole explanation for the present situation.
“If a place like that gets hold of me,” Yolanda went on, “I’ll lose my reason in truth. In the alternative, if you walk out of here today, she might put me in a coach with Miss Snyder and deliver me to your doorstep tomorrow. She isn’t about to send Miss Snyder all the way to the West Riding merely to see me safely home.”
“Are your reasoning powers intact?”
“Not quite, but I’ll bear up long enough to impress your fraternal obligation upon you.”
She lifted her left hand to touch a single white rosebud, saw his eyes light on the bandages, and tucked her hand out of sight immediately.
“Pack your worldly goods,” Kettering said, “and be ready to leave this afternoon when my town coach arrives.”
“Mrs. Wyeth?” Simmons, the butler, tapped once on the open door of her private sitting room. He tottered in, wheezing and waving a piece of paper, his old-fashioned wig already askew and it not even nine of the clock. “The most extraordinary thing has happened. Most extraordinary!”
Jacaranda gestured to her little sofa. “Please have a seat, Mr. Simmons. You must not excite your heart.”
“Sound as the day I was born.” He thumped his bony chest with his fist, then more or less fell bottom first onto the sofa. This was his typical method of taking a seat, the referenced natal day being a good eighty years past. “Best ring for your hartshorn, dear lady. This might overset even you.”
A cat peeing in the servants’ hall was enough to overset Simmons, and Jacaranda had never owned a personal stock of hartshorn, not even the spring she’d made her come out.
“Have some tea, sir, and calm yourself.”
“We’re to be visited, Mrs. Wyeth.” He flourished the letter again. “Visited!”
She passed him his tea. “By whom?”
The vicar occasionally rattled out this way when he was in need of fresh air and a good game of chess. A weary traveler might stop at the kitchen door for a meal or a drink. They had visitors from time to time, of a sort.
“Himself!” Mr. Simmons waved the letter again. “Mr. K! In person! He’s coming to visit, and we’re to make ready the family rooms.”
News, indeed. Good news, in fact, for Jacaranda wanted at least one occasion of tending to her employer before she left Trysting. “We’re to ready all of the family rooms?”
“Here.” He passed her the letter, and she took it, but paused to hook a pair of reading spectacles to her ears.
“He says the family quarters.” She pursed her lips, for that was about all the missive said. Knowing the state of Simmons’s sight and the more significant of Simmons’s agendas, she read aloud.
“‘Ready the private family rooms, for I will be in residence starting the first of the week. Alert the staff and lay in appropriate stores for an extended stay.’”
“Well, my girl.” Simmons set down his teacup, having drained it in one swallow. “You’d best get busy.” He reached for one of the three tea cakes she’d set out on her own plate, revealing a second and no less familiar reason for disturbing her morning break.
“Busy, Mr. Simmons?”
“Preparing the rooms, dusting the bedrooms, cleaning the windows, turning the sheets, polishing the silver, whatever it is you do.”
“That’s all done regularly, Mr. Simmons. You know the routine here.”
He looked disgruntled, as if somebody had stolen his mug of grog.
“The andirons might need blacking,” she offered. “Though that falls to the footmen, and they are your province. I’ve no doubt you already have your fellows dusting the library and the estate office, cleaning the windows and sanding and beating those rugs?”
His bushy white brows beetled. “Of course, of course. Don’t suppose you could make me a list? In the excitement, a detail or two might slip from their lazy minds.”
She jotted him a list—in a large, printed hand—and made him finish another cup of tea before he tottered off with his list in hand.
She would miss even Simmons when she left Trysting. Simmons was a dear, and no doubt a contemporary of Kettering’s. Why else would such an otherwise modern estate sport an eighty-year-old butler?
The difficulty with having a household of elderly retainers was that one had to do many jobs without appearing to overstep the post for which one was hired. Noses got out of joint, if for example, Jacaranda pointed out to Cook that raspberries had a very short season and if not picked when ripe, the entire year’s opportunity for jam and pies was gone.
So one had to suggest the maids might enjoy a day outside and intimate that oneself might enjoy the outing as well, and then covertly keep a half-dozen giggling, romance-obsessed girls at the task of picking berries for hours on end.
Come winter, the raspberry jam would be worth the effort. At present, though, harvesting raspberries was a hot, buggy, thankless job, one that would tempt a devout Methodist out of her stays. And Jacaranda was neither devout nor Methodist, though on Sundays, she was known to be sociable in the churchyard.
“I think that’s the lot of it,” the oldest of the housemaids said. “We’re for a swim now, Mrs. Wyeth. You promised.”
“I did promise, but keep quiet. You know the fellows will try to peek.”
“So tell old Simmons to give the good-looking ones a half day.”
Millie flounced off, grinning, and Jacaranda let her go without a scold. The day was broiling, and the girls had picked a prodigious amount of fruit in a few hours. They’d done so, of course, because they’d been given an incentive for making haste.
With the maids off to splash about in the farm pond, Jacaranda hitched the pony grazing in the shade into the traces of the cart. She’d have to walk the little beast more than a mile to the manor house, a pony trot being a sure means of bruising fruit. Having been picked, the raspberries would be put up that afternoon, for even half a day in the pantry would see them mold.
So Jacaranda spent the afternoon pretending she enjoyed helping with the preserves, pretending her mother had always made a day of such things, when in truth her mother had ventured no closer to making jam than when she’d applied preserves to her perfectly toasted bread each morning.
“Mama knew a thing or two,” Jacaranda decided when the jam was made and she could finally take off her apron. Evening had fallen, the long, soft hours of gloaming when the sun had set but the earth held on to the light.
“Your back troubling ye?” Cook asked. She’d been in Surrey for decades, but the broad vowels of the north abided in her speech.
“A twinge,” Jacaranda allowed. “Putting up the fruit makes for long days.”
“Raspberries is the worst for spoiling,” Cook replied. “Good to have it done. Apples and pears is more forgiving. Even the cherries ain’t so finicky.”
“Fragile,” Jacaranda agreed. “But we’ll have preserves to put in everybody’s basket at Yule.”
“And shortbread.” The gleam in Cook’s eyes was particularly satisfied, because she’d conspired with Jacaranda to have their dairyman stagger the breeding of the heifers so they didn’t all freshen at once. Staggering the herd meant Mr. Morse didn’t get three months off with no milking, but it also meant the estate always had some fresh milk and butter without having to buy from the neighbors.
“Did I smell some shortbread baking this very morning?”
Cook’s wide face split into a smile. “That you did, in anticipation of the blessed event.”
“He isn’t supposed to arrive for another day or two,” Jacaranda said. “And the place hardly needed much attention to be ready to receive him.”
“Maybe not on your end.” Cook retrieved a plate of shortbread from the pantry. “I haven’t cooked for the Quality for going on five years. The larder needed attention, and I’ve yet to work out my menus past the first meal.”
Jacaranda accepted a piece of shortbread, only one, though Cook had cut pieces sized to appeal to hungry footmen, bless her. “I don’t suppose you’d show me what stores are on hand?”
“Put the kettle on, Mrs. Wyeth.” Cook popped a bite of shortbread into her mouth. “This might take a cup or two of tea.”
By the time Jacaranda had a week’s worth of summer menus planned with Cook, full darkness had fallen and bed beckoned. The moon was up, though, and rather than make the tired staff lug a tub and water up to her room, Jacaranda threw towels and soap into a wicker hamper, along with a dressing gown and summer-length chemise.
The pond nearest the house wasn’t merely ornamental. With a pump and an elaborate set of pipes, it served the stables, the laundry, and several other outbuildings. The pond was, however, relatively private, being ringed by tall hardwoods and fringed with rhododendrons on three sides.
On the fourth side was a grassy embankment, and there Jacaranda settled with her hamper. She’d done this before, usually on nights when she couldn’t sleep.
On nights without a moon.
On nights when dreams were something to avoid.
Tonight, tired as she was, sleep wasn’t yet close at hand. She wasn’t excited, but others at the house were excited over Mr. Kettering’s arrival. The excitement was like that of an unruly child—impossible to ignore. She’d swim off the aggravating vestiges of vicarious nerves, get clean, and enjoy a little privacy.
Her dress came off, then her shift, then sabots, leaving her standing naked in the moonlight and comfortable for the first time in a long, hot day. She dove in from the rock God had positioned for that purpose and made a long, slow circuit of the pond. It was more of a small lake and boasted enough depth at the center that the occasional lazy groom could be seen fishing from a small boat.
Lazy was not in Jacaranda Wyeth’s ken. When she’d done her laps, she put the soap to its intended use and prepared to leave the water.
Hoofbeats interrupted her consideration of the next day’s list of things to do.
Hoofbeats, coming up the driveway, at this time of night.
She was in the shallows before she realized the rider would come right past her end of the pond on his way to the stables. Probably a truant groom who’d stayed too long at the posting inn in Guildford.
She toweled off hastily and shrugged into her shift and wrapper, hoping the man’s guilty conscience and the befuddling effects of spirits might conspire to keep her from his notice.
And they might have, except the beast was apparently a town horse. To Jacaranda’s eye, the handsome gelding looked like that type whom squawking chickens, crossing sweepers, runaway drays, and rioting mobs wouldn’t deter from his appointed rounds, but a pale blanket spread on grass by moonlight had him dancing sideways.
“Everlasting Powers, horse, it won’t eat you.”
A splash, as some frog took cover underwater, might have suggested to the horse his master was flat-out lying. Either that, or the beast sensed the proximity of hay, water, and fellow horses.
“Damn and blast, Goliath, would you settle?”
Goliath settled, albeit restively.
“Around to the stables with you, beast, and at the walk if you know what’s good for you.” The beast must have known exactly that tone of voice and walked daintily on down the driveway.
Jacaranda blew out a breath of relief and folded her towel into the hamper. She knew of no riding horse in the stables named Goliath, and as large as the animal was, she would have recognized him.
Across the water, a groom banged down the stairs from the quarters over the carriage house, and a lantern sparked to life in the stable yard. Working quickly, Jacaranda began to plait her wet hair. Whoever had wakened the stables would likely quarter with the grooms at this hour, but she wasn’t about to be caught in dishabille. A gaggle of maids could safely appropriate the pond when the menfolk were occupied elsewhere, but the housekeeper swimming alone after dark would not do.
“You there,” a masculine baritone said from the shadows of the rhododendrons. “Explain what you’re doing on my land, and explain now.”
The tone of voice, imperious, vaguely threatening, definitely intimidating, arrived at Jacaranda’s brain before the content of the words did. What registered was that she was alone, barely dressed, after dark, outside, with a strange man. The shadow detached itself from the surrounding darkness and proved to be of considerable size. She opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
Her legs were not as unreliable. She would have pelted barefoot for the house, except the day before had been rainy, the bank was grassy, and the maids had slicked the grass down to mud with their frolicking.
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At the last instant before she toppled into the water, Jacaranda’s foot slipped. Instead of a graceful arc over the water, she tumbled and fell, pain exploding in her head as she hit the water with a great, ungainly splash.
“Breathe.” Kettering pushed dark, wet ropes of hair off the woman’s forehead and spoke more sharply. “Madam, I told you to breathe.”
She didn’t breathe, but she coughed and rolled to her side, bringing up water and yet more water. Then she shivered even as she tried to roll away from him.
“None of that, or you’ll be back in the pond, and I am not rescuing you a second time.” He eased his hold, his mind insisting she was well, despite the galloping of his heart.
“Rescuing me?” She scrambled to untangle herself from him, getting as far as a sitting position, her mouth working like an indignant fish’s. “Rescuing me, when you all but caused me to slip when I tried to depart your unwelcome company? I’ve never heard the like.”
Her pique was almost humorous, given that her nightgown was sopping wet and her curves and hollows tantalizingly obvious in the moonlight.
And yet, she had dignity, too. Damp, disheveled dignity, but dignity nonetheless.
“Madam, you panicked,” Kettering said, taking off his riding jacket. His coat was dusty, but he settled it over her shoulders in aid of her modesty, which was no doubt soon to start troubling her. “If I hadn’t hauled you out of the water, you’d be feeding the fishes as we speak.”
“I am an excellent swimmer,” she retorted, drawing herself up, though her throne was a grassy moonlit bank.
“I beg to differ.” He lifted his hand slowly and settled it on the side of her head. “You’re raising a bump the size of Northumbria. Nobody’s an excellent swimmer when they take a rap on the noggin like this.”
She touched her hand to the side of her head, and he took her fingers and gently guided them to the site of her injury.
He rose, and she gaped up at him. He wasn’t that tall. He knew of at least one man who was taller, several who were as tall, and still the gaping abraded his nerves. He extended a hand down and drew her to her feet.
“I must look a fright,” she said, but to him…
She was tall for a woman, wonderfully, endlessly, curvaceously tall. When dragging her from the water, only vague impressions had registered—some size, some female parts, not enough breathing. His coat had slipped from her shoulders as she rose, and he might as well have seen the woman in her considerable naked glory.
He picked up his coat and draped it over her shoulders again. “I’ll carry your effects, you keep the jacket, and we’ll find some ice for your bruise.”
“The ice stores are always low this time of year.”
“Then we’ll put the last of it to good use,” he said, gathering up her hamper. “Worth Kettering, by the way, at your service.”
She remained quiet as they moved along the garden paths toward the back of the house, and he wondered why she wouldn’t give him even one of her names.
She came up almost to his chin, a nice, kissable height, and she moved with a certain confident grace, though he kept their pace slow in deference to her injury. Best of all, she didn’t chatter. He could only hope she lived on one of the neighboring estates and enjoyed the status of merry widow.
Worth had a particular fondness for merry widows, and they for him, over the short term in any case. He was good for an interlude, a spontaneous passion of short duration—short being sometimes less than a half hour but invariably less than a week.
He’d studied on the matter and concluded women wanted more than a little rogering—that was the trouble. They wanted gestures, feelings, sentimental notes, bouquets, and passion, and he was utterly incapable of all but the passion.
He was so lost in a mental description of the follies resulting from females embroidering on passion—the notes and waltzes and flowers and whatnot—that he nearly didn’t notice when the lady at his side preceded him into the back hallway leading to the kitchens.
Sconces were still lit along the corridor, though, so he let her lead the way and used the time to marshal his sense and admire the confidence in her stride.
“You will please sit,” he instructed his companion.
Her lips thinned, but she plopped her wet self down at the long kitchen worktable, one that had been scarred and stained when Kettering had been a lad. He was pleased to note his initials had not been smoothed off the far corner in the years since his childhood.
“I suppose tea would be in order,” he decided, hands on hips. Thank a merciful God, there were coals on the hearth and a pot of water ready to swing over the heat. He quickly assembled the required accoutrements, aware of his guest watching him the whole while.
“Perhaps you’d better speak,” he suggested, “lest I get the impression a blow to the head has stolen your faculties. I’ll put some sustenance on a plate, if you don’t mind. The ride out from Town is damned long—pardon my language—and I didn’t intend to finish my journey with an impromptu rescue at sea.”
“You certainly make yourself at home in the kitchen,” the lady remarked, and her tone said clearly, she did not approve of his display of domesticity.
“I’m a bachelor.” He demonstrated his bachelor savoir faire by not leering at her as he spoke. “One learns to manage or one starves. Even the best staff is somewhat at a loss for how to cosset a man of my robust proportions.”
Her eyes drifted over him, calmly but thoroughly. He was as wet as she, and he didn’t mind the inspecting—inspecting was all part of the dance—but he did mind being ravenous.
“You’ll pardon me while I nip out to the icehouse to see if we can’t find something cold for your head.”
“That really won’t be necessary,” she said, starting to rise, only to sit right back down, her hand going to her temple.
He scowled mightily, because fainting on her part would be a damned nuisance for him. “Keep to your seat. There’s no such thing as a minor head wound, and I can’t have a guest neglected on my property.”
“I’m not a guest.”
He cut her off with a wave of his hand as he made for the back door. “Guest, trespasser, vagrant, tinker, what have you. You need ice.”
Jacaranda sat, refusing to shiver in the deserted kitchen and wondering if she could make it as far as her quarters unaided before Captain Charmless returned. This must be some arrogant young namesake of her employer, an opportunistic nephew thinking to sponge off the old gentleman for the summer’s visit. Perhaps an heir inspecting his expectations, for he kept using possessive pronouns—my, mine, and the like. She’d set him to rights when her head stopped throbbing and the room stopped expanding and contracting every time she moved.
The fellow wasn’t entirely without use, though. He came back into the kitchen bearing a bowl of chipped ice, an incongruously cheerful red-checkered towel over his shoulder.
“Plenty enough ice left for our purposes,” he said. “I’ll have to speak to Simmons about ordering some more. Hold still.”
That was all the warning he gave Jacaranda before he held a towel full of ice firmly to the side of her head. The pain of it caused her meager shortbread dinner to rebel and had her ears roaring again. When the roaring subsided, she was aware of the discomfort traveling even into her shoulder and of the way the ice against her wound made her head both freeze and burn at the same time.
“Woman, you will hold still. You’re in no condition to be delivering set-downs or lectures or whatever it is you’re planning to deliver. Soon, your head won’t hurt so badly, I promise.”
His voice was brusque, as he held the towel against her throbbing skull with one hand. With the other, he cradled her jaw, imprisoning her cheek against a washboard-firm stomach. His shirt was damp, of course, but through the dampness the heat of him warmed her jaw. She should have shot to her feet with the indignity of it.
Should have delivered a set-down wrapped in a lecture tied up with a sermon.
She leaned closer to his warmth.
“Better, hmm?” He took the towel away. “Bleeding has stopped, too, thank the Everlasting Powers. Could you hold this here?” He took her hand in his and anchored the towel to her scalp again. “I’ll fix us a spot of tea. You’re pale as a felon awaiting sentence.”
He moved off, and that was a relief. Jacaranda held the melting ice for as long as she could, but the cold penetrated her hand as effectively as it had her head, and her teeth were threatening to chatter. She distracted herself from the chill by watching Kettering bustle around the kitchen. For a big, rather wet man, he moved silently. He was in stocking feet—he must have left his footwear in the back hall for the Boots—breeches, waistcoat and shirt, and his clothing left nothing to the imagination.
This version of Worth Kettering wasn’t some retiring, scrawny functionary holed up at the Inns of Court with a flannel around his dear wattled neck. This fellow looked like he split wood, shod horses, and loaded sea-going vessels in his spare time.
His height was the first thing Jacaranda had noticed. Added to his height was his darkness: dark hair—particularly when wet, of course—and a burnished cast to his skin that suggested he frequently went without his hat—and shirt.
But beyond his appearance, he bore an energy that would have had Jacaranda scooting out of his path, if dignity would allow such a thing. Coupled with that energy was a brisk competence, which, at the moment, she appreciated.
“Drink.” He put a cup of tea before her, as if she were a recalcitrant denizen of the nursery.
“Oh, now…” He set the tea tray down and lowered his presuming self right beside her. “Settle your hackles, duchess. What self-respecting Englishwoman refuses a nice hot cup of tea?” He wrapped her hands around the cup, his own cradling hers on either side of the mug. “See? Feels good. Now, don’t be contrary when you know you’ll enjoy your tea.”
He took his hands away, having made his point, and Jacaranda’s inchoate chill was abruptly supplanted by a peculiar heat rising from her middle.
“You’re blushing,” Kettering informed her. “I’m charmed, but you’re still not drinking your tea, and until you have a sip, I can’t touch mine.”
She drank her tea, a cautious taste at first, but he was right: It was hot, strong and sweet, and the first cup of tea she’d ever had prepared by a man. The taste was disconcertingly good.
“Better, right?” He set his empty cup on the table. “I should have a housekeeper around here, and she might have something dry you could borrow. It’s dark out, thank the Deity. No one need see you in a servant’s attire if we wrap you in a dark cloak and take you home in a closed carriage.”
“I beg your pardon?” Servant’s attire?
“I’m rather fond of the old dear,” he went on, “and one doesn’t want to give offense to loyal retainers. She’s the closest thing to a decent female on the premises, unless you want me canvassing the neighbors for some clothes?”
“I will wear my own clothes, thank you very much.” She pushed her half-finished tea away and made to rise, but he’d boxed her in on the bench, and as soon as she made it to her feet, her head sounded a trumpet fanfare of pain that blared down her neck and even into her chest and arm.
“Perishing damned females, excuse the language,” he muttered while he gently tugged her back down beside him. “I don’t supposed you’re married, and that’s what all this misguided dignity is about? You will tell me now if some anxious husband must be dealt with—I insist on honesty from the women I rescue.”
She sank onto the bench, mortified to feel another flush—it was not a blush—accompanying the pounding in her skull. How busy her bodily responses were after such an insignificant bump on the head.
“Naughty girl,” he chided, his arm around her waist. He used his free hand to sweep her wet hair back over her shoulder, the better to mortify her by studying her wound.
“Now listen to me, duchess, because I am not at all accustomed to explaining myself.” He drew his hand over her hair again, as if to move it, except the entire damp curling mass of her former braid was lying back over her shoulder. Then he did it again. And again.
“My newly discovered baby sister is coming to join me here tomorrow—a schoolgirl, but at that dangerous, almost-hatched age, you know? Then, too, my niece will be coming along, and she’s a frightfully noticing little thing. I can’t put my housekeeper’s nose out of joint when I’ve all but ignored my own property for five years.”
Still that slow, beguiling caress continued over Jacaranda’s damp hair. “It’s a man’s right to ignore his possessions, but housekeepers are women, and they take on about such things. They get attached to their routines, and I’ve every intention of ignoring the place for another five years once I get these infernal girls sorted out. So we’ll not be upsetting my dear Mrs. Wyeth, hmm?”
Jacaranda lifted her head from his shoulder, having no idea how she’d assumed such a misbegotten posture.
“You are without doubt the most conceited, managing excuse for a grown man it has ever been my misfortune to share a pond with.”
His hand disappeared. “Be that as it may, you will not upset my housekeeper with airs and ingratitude, regardless of your mood, station, or dented noggin.”
“There’s no need for me to upset her,” Jacaranda shot back. “You’ve already done a thorough job of it.”
Worth’s midnight mermaid was scrambling his tired wits.
She was pretty, likely the source of the problem. He had a weakness for pretty women, though he’d learned long ago they had no weakness for him. The pretty ones fretted at the most inopportune times about whether their hair was mussed, and he, of course, liked to muss a lady’s hair. Then, too, pretty women were always looking past one’s shoulder to see who was watching and to whose more interesting, titled, or wealthy side they might flit.
Still, they were pretty, and beauty in a female could mesmerize him, despite common sense to the contrary.
The lady in his kitchen was a tad exotic, all her features and colors one detail away from perfection. Her eyes were not the fashionable blue. They were gentian, almost lavender, and so luminous as to look as though they belonged to some temple cat in human form. Her hair was not quite black, but on the curling ends looked sable to him, and it fell down her back in a cascade of curls and twists and flyaway strands that begged a man to plunge his hands into its depths.
Her hair looked in want of taming, and he liked that. She probably hated her hair, being female. He knew better.
But as he rose and mentally appreciated her too-generous mouth and somewhat Nordic nose, his solicitor’s brain also tried to assemble facts on a different level.
“You knew how much ice was on hand,” he said, treating her to a thoughtful scowl.
She scowled back. “You aren’t a little old fellow hunched over his desk at the Inns of Court.”
Whatever that meant. “You knew your way to my kitchen, without the least guidance.”
“I assumed you’d need a map. I took pity on an absentee landlord.”
“Absentee owner,” he shot back, his brain still unhappy with the logical conclusion.
“Absentee in any case.” Her humble bench might have been a throne for all the accusation in her glare.
“What is your name?” He softened his tone, in deference to another one of God’s impending nasty jokes. She might, were there a merciful God, be an acquaintance of his housekeeper’s, one used to the friendly cup of tea after services.
Which were held five miles away, if memory served.
“My name is Jacaranda Wyeth.”
“I don’t suppose your dear mama is in my employ? And what sort of name is Jacaranda?” And why was he doomed to deal with women who were unforthcoming regarding the simplest truths?
“I am in your employ, or I was as of recently.”
“You’re not quitting.” He used his best unruly-client voice. Settled ’em down instantly, though the effect on his little niece was less immediate with each application.
She tipped her chin up a mere but ominous quarter inch.
Damn and blast, she was magnificent. And troublesome.
The worst of his many weaknesses was for troublesome women.
“Drink your tea…” This earned him another quarter inch of chin raising. “Please, Mrs. Wyeth, lest it grow cold.”
But then the thought of warming her up, warming up all that magnificent Celtic temple cat beautiful exotic woman rippled across his imagination, and he had to sit down again.
Beside her unforthcoming self.
She drank her tea, proving even a joking God wasn’t without compassion, for Worth needed the time to think of cold eel pie, privy rats, and those unruly clients. They weren’t all the same degree of distasteful, because wrangling with clients could be enjoyable, as chess could be enjoyable.
“You are my housekeeper, then?”
“And you are my employer.” She pushed her mug away, and Worth refilled it and stirred in cream and sugar. A bachelor developed such habits, or he’d start looking about for a hostess.
“How came you to be in the pond at such an hour?”
“Today was long and hot,” she said, taking a sip of her tea. “A little dip spares the maids having to lug water and the footmen having to haul the tub.”
“Suppose it does. They’re all abed?”
“Carl will be on duty by the front door. He’s reliable, and we knew you might show up in advance of your coaches.”
“How did you know?”
“I am in correspondence with Lewis, who suggested you might not travel in the coach with the young ladies. Horseback is faster and likely preferable in all but wet weather.”
He did not have a weakness for managing women, no matter how tall, pretty or troublesome. Particularly not for managing, unforthcoming women—though she’d suffered a knock in head and hadn’t quite been deceitful.
“Can you call a maid to stay up with you? You might slip into a coma if we let you sleep through the night.”
“The blow to my temple didn’t render me nigh insensate, so much as the prospect of your unwanted attentions disconcerted me.”
He was silent for a moment, trying to find a different meaning for her words and failing.
“My attentions, as you call them, were in aid of preserving your life. If you seek to put period to your existence, you have my condolences. I’m still not letting you quit, though. Not until my little family sortie among the peasants is completed.”
“You have a very crude preoccupation with matters of class,” she informed him, finishing her tea. “But even you must understand I need my rest.”
He considered her, considered she was pale and wet and cold, and probably in need of a hot bath and some cosseting, else she would not be so sour-natured in the face of his consideration and concern.
But more than physical comforts, she probably wanted privacy.
“Come.” He rose and held out a hand. “I will escort you to your chambers and see you safely to bed. You can refine your insults and ingratitudes in lieu of sleep.”
She took his hand, but only after perusing it as if to examine him for scales, claws, or evidence of barnyard relatives.
She weaved a little when she gained her feet, which necessitated Worth putting an arm around her waist. That she permitted such behavior suggested she really wasn’t doing very well.
Which served her right.
The housekeeper had her own private parlor and sleeping chamber. Those hadn’t moved in the five years since Worth’s last visit, and Mrs. Wyeth let him escort her there without further comment. He decided not to be worried about her silence.
When they got to her door, he pushed it open, seeing no candle lit.
“This won’t do,” he muttered, propping her against the wall and taking down the lamp from the sconce. He lit a branch of candles in her parlor, enough that the room was minimally illuminated.
“Shall I light you a fire?”
“You shall not.” She stood by the door, his jacket closed about her in a two-handed grip.
“Then get you into bed. You’re one breeze away from the shivers.”
“You have my thanks for your efforts.” But, of course, she didn’t move.
“For God’s sake, woman, if I were going to take advantage, I’d have done so outside, in the dark, far from those who’d hear you scream, and well before you regained the use of your viper’s tongue.” He moved to the bedroom and lit a candle beside her bed.
Other solicitors referred to Worth Kettering as “a detail man.” The compliment was grudging, usually offered by somebody who wasn’t a detail man. Sloppiness was a deadly sin in a solicitor, as far as Worth was concerned, but he also understood that discipline took a man only so far toward cataloging every minute aspect of situation.
Beyond that point, an ability to perceive details was a God-given gift.
Jacaranda Wyeth’s little quarters revealed myriad details to him.
She was orderly, even in her privacy.
She liked pretty things, embroidered pillow cases, fresh flowers, a soft, quilted bedspread, lace curtains. Frilly, female things that belied the no-nonsense composure of her countenance.
He withdrew from the bedroom and found her still by the sitting room door, her teeth chattering.
“Get your wet things off. I’ll be back with some hot water for your ablutions, and a tray.”
He left her before she could insult him again, which meant he moved quickly, replacing the lamp on the sconce and heading for the kitchen. Putting together a tray of buttered bread, cheese, and raspberry jam took no time at all, neither did filling an ewer of hot water from the well on the range.
He didn’t knock on Mrs. Wyeth’s door, because his hands were full. He balanced the tray on his hip and pushed the door open to find the sitting room empty. The door to the bedroom was closed, so he put the tray on a low table—lacy runner, bouquet of violets in a crystal vase—and tapped on the bedroom door.
“Don’t you dare come in here.”
“I’ve brought you water and sustenance. I’m off to fetch a teapot. You’re quite welcome.”
He took the time to change into a dry dressing gown and pajama pants along the way, happy to find his trunks already waiting in his room. When he came back to Mrs. Wyeth’s suite with the tea tray and set it beside the food, she still hadn’t emerged.
“Either present yourself now or expect company in your bedroom, Mrs. Wyeth. I can’t have you falling and banging your head again.” He couldn’t shout, else he’d wake the house, and it wasn’t time for that maneuver in any case, because she opened the door, her wrapper having replaced his jacket.
But, still, she was cold. Her lips were blue, her teeth chattered, and her eyes had turned to chips of periwinkle ice, for her discomfort was no doubt all his fault.
“For God’s sake, come here.” He grasped her by one fine-boned wrist and pulled her into his embrace. “You will catch an ague with all this damned pride, pardon the language.” He scooped her up against his chest and settled with her on the sofa, her “d-d-don’t you d-d-dare” hissed right in his ear. He twitched an afghan down from the back of the sofa and draped it over her as she squirmed in his lap.
“Hush, woman. You’re cold, I’m warm, and a chill can be dangerous. Tolerate my proximity for five minutes, and I’ll leave you in peace.”
He ran his hand over her back, feeling the tremors of her shivering.
“Cuddle up, and hold your tongue,” he admonished. “You know you will otherwise crawl between cold sheets and fall asleep without getting warm. That misery can be avoided if you’ll simply—”
“I hate you.”
Then she subsided against him and didn’t even lecture him when he rested his chin on her damp hair.
“Of course you do, but might you care to enlighten a fellow as to why?”
She burrowed closer and remained silent, suggesting her body didn’t hate him.
“I have it.” He gathered her into a more snug embrace as another chill shuddered through her. “If I have to ask, I don’t deserve to have it explained to me.”
“But hardly original. One wants a little originality in a lady’s vituperations.”
She made a huffy noise against his chest, but at least she’d stopped shivering.
I must have hit my head harder than I thought.
Jacaranda gave up her verbal fencing with the wonderful heat source in whose arms she was nearly drowsing. There would be hell to pay for this folly tomorrow, and likely for the remaining weeks of her tenure in his employ, but Worth Kettering was wearing silk and flannel, he smelled like a fresh breeze through a cedar forest, and in his arms Jacaranda felt, at least for these moments, safe.
He was big, brusque, officious, and far too astute, but he was offering her—pushing on her, really—a comfort more seductive than wealth or chocolate.
How long had it been since she’d been held this way? Likely since infancy. In her childhood, her parents’ energies had been taken up with the younger children, particularly with pretty little Daisy who’d had weak lungs as a child.
And then Jacaranda had endured adolescence, along with the height, the nicknames, and the odd attentions from boys much older than she.
She shoved that thought and all the bewildered, shameful memories that went with it aside and rubbed her cheek against the silk of Mr. Kettering’s dressing gown.
He would have to wear silk.
“You’re falling asleep, Wyeth, my dear.”
Before she could struggle off his lap, he rose, easily, without grunting or straining or remarking on her size, and walked with her into her bedroom. He’d closed the window, probably in deference to the candle he’d lit by her bed, but it meant the room was free of drafts.
He set her on the edge of the bed, went around to the other side, and turned down the covers.
“Don’t suppose you’d invite me in to warm up your sheets?” He started stacking throw pillows on a chair, a man at ease in a lady’s bedroom. “No witty rejoinder, Wyeth? Shall I worry about you in truth?”
“I am speechless at your crude suggestions,” she managed. “Both my bedroom and sitting rooms doors have stout locks. Must I use them or have you acquired minimal notions of gentlemanly conduct at some point in your misspent youth?”
A housekeeper did not speak so disrespectfully to her employer, but he hadn’t been serious about joining her in bed—she hoped. He’d been offering an insult as a bracing conversational slap to one whose wits were wandering.
She could only return the favor—she was leaving his employ soon in any case.
“Many would agree with the misspent part,” he murmured, lifting back her covers. “Scoot in, my dear, or you’ll start shivering again, because your hair is still quite damp.” He frowned at that realization, the candlelight making him a displeased Bacchus. “Here.” He took off his dressing gown and laid it over her pillows. “Your pillows won’t take the wet.”
“That dressing gown is silk.” She lifted her legs to get under the covers, else he’d stand there bare-chested all night waiting for her. “I’ll ruin it.”
“It’s just cloth, and I can’t have you taking a chill. I thought we’d established that.”
To her horror, he sat down at her hip and brushed her hair back from her forehead, then turned her head gently with a thumb to her chin.
“This scrape might start bleeding again. Try to sleep on your right side.”
She obligingly shifted to her side—anything to make him go away.
“Good night, Wyeth.”
“Good night, Mr. Kettering.”
He rose and moved around the room, cracking her window a hair, blowing out the candle. She heard him moving in the other room, then felt the lovely weight of the afghan spread over her blankets. The light from the sitting room disappeared as he closed the bedroom door, and still she heard him, tidying up all the trays he’d brought in.
For nothing. She hadn’t eaten, hadn’t used the warm water, hadn’t had a final cup of tea.
But she did sleep.
While he did not.
“They’ll be forever in there.” Yolanda flopped back against the squabs and knew she was setting a bad example for her niece. Young ladies did not flop, and they did not gripe.
She had a niece, whom she hadn’t known about, just as her brother Worth hadn’t known about her. Having a niece was disorienting, when little Avery seemed more like a younger sister and Worth Kettering more like an uncle. A grouchy uncle.
“Wickie won’t tarry,” Avery said, in French. “She’s devoted to me and now she’ll be devoted to you too.”
“Miss Snyder has that honor,” Yolanda said, not unwilling to practice her French on a native speaker. “At least until Michaelmas term starts. I wonder how much Mr. Kettering paid her for the trouble of babysitting me for three months.”
“Uncle has pots of money.” Avery grinned as if Uncle had chocolates in his pockets. “Spending some on Miss Snyder won’t hurt him. She looks sad to me, or angry.”
“She’s nervous,” Yolanda said, switching to English. “She’s one of those mousy little women who toils away in thankless anonymity in the classroom, and thinks dithering over which new sampler to start is a significant decision.”
“Uncle thanks Mrs. Hartwick, but I don’t know that other word you used,” Avery said, peering out the window. “They’re coming now.”
“With food, thank the gods.”
“Uncle says that, thank the gods.”
Uncle this, and Uncle that. The little magpie worshipped the ground the man strutted around on. Yolanda had heard in great, dramatic detail in at least two and a half languages why Avery had reason to appreciate him. She’d been orphaned on the streets of Paris for almost a year when her mother died, but had memorized Worth’s direction and eventually been sent to her uncle.
A tale worthy of one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels, right down to the way Worth doted on his supposed niece.
Had he asked darling Amery for proof she was related to him?
Yolanda tucked into a savory, hot shepherd’s pie, silently admitting that her brother may not have believed her, but he’d taken her in, bribed Miss Snyder to chaperone, and now they were off to the country.
And he’d likely bribed the coaching inns along the way too, because the food was excellent, and the relief teams in harness in mere minutes.
“It’s good to see you eating, my dear.” Miss Snyder gave Yolanda a hesitant smile from the other bench. “And soon we’ll be at your brother’s estate and you can stretch your legs with little Avery here.”
She patted Yolanda’s knee and took a careful bite of her meaty pastry. Miss Snyder slowly, thoroughly chewed her bite, patted her lips with a serviette, then took another slow, small bite.
Another hour, the coachman had said. One more hour, not ten miles and they’d be free to get out of the coach.
Had it been more than that, Yolanda doubted anything in the world could have stopped her from running screaming down the road. Miss Snyder, mousy, anonymous, and whatever else could be said about her, at least chose her path in life. She could have been a governess, a laundress, a paid companion, or likely some lusty yeoman’s wife—she was by no means ugly—while Yolanda was reduced to begging a berth from a brother nigh twice her age.
An earl’s daughter with a small fortune in trust—though not a lady by title—and she’d had nowhere to go.
She chewed mechanically, lest the lump in her throat rise up and humiliate her before the brat and the mouse.
Had she anywhere else to go, anywhere else at all…
“She had nowhere else to go, you see,” Mr. Kettering. “May I top off your tea?”
“Was your upbringing so backward you believe an employer should be waiting on his staff?” Jacaranda’s tone was meant to be prim, condescending even, but what came through was the sheer puzzlement. She’d been given to understand a title hung not too distant on Mr. Kettering’s family tree, and here he was, dragooning her into breakfast tête-à-tête and pouring her tea.
“And you’ll take sugar with that, to sweeten your disposition,” he concluded, pushing the sugar bowl toward her. “My upbringing was the best that good coin and better tutors could pound into me, but my mother died when I was quite young and her civilizing influence was a sorely felt lack. Have another raspberry crepe.” He portioned one off his own plate and onto hers. “You’re too thin, Wyeth. Eat.” He sliced off a bite of the crepes remaining on his plate and gave every appearance of enjoying it.
Well. They were very good, the crepes, the omelet, the toast, all of it. The tea pot was kept piping hot under embroidered white linen, the room redolent with the scrumptious scents of a kitchen determined to make a good breakfast showing before a long absent master.
And when had anybody, anybody ever, accused Jacaranda Wyeth of being too thin?
“Better,” he said, when Jacaranda started on her crepes. “Back to Yolanda, if it won’t disturb your digestion?”
Rather then speak with her mouth full, Jacaranda made a small circle with her fork, and for some reason this had her host—her employer—smiling at her over her tea cup.
And, oh dear, that smile was sweet. He was a dark man, dark haired, dark complected, dark-voiced, but that smile was light itself, crinkling the corners of startlingly blue eyes, putting dimples on either side of his mouth, and conveying such warmth and affection for life Jacaranda had to look away.
Lewis had written that even ladies appreciated when Mr. Kettering handled their private business, and in that smile, Jacaranda saw part of the reason why. Mr. Kettering was, damn and blast him, tall, dark and handsome, and blessed with that smile as well.
Thank heavens her term of employment at Trysting would soon be up.
“Your sister seems a typical young lady to me,” Jacaranda said. “Your family hails from the north, do they not?”
“They do, what few of us there are,” Mr. Kettering replied. “My older brother has had the keeping of the girl, but he’s managed it by shuffling her from one exclusive boarding school to another and he’s lately seen to it she had a schoolmate’s house to go to on holidays and breaks.”
“I gather she will holiday with us here for the remainder of the summer?”
“Just so.” His first name was Worth, Jacaranda recalled, apropos of absolutely nothing. She’d never met a man named Worth before, much less Worth Reverence.
“What can I do to make her summer more pleasant?” Jacaranda asked. “There are a few young ladies in the area she might enjoy meeting.”
“Then you should take her to meet them.”
“Mr. Kettering, it might have escaped your shockingly egalitarian notice that I am your housekeeper, but your neighbors know my station. You will take your sister calling, not I.”
His tea cup was set down with a little “plink!” of… not surprise, but disgruntlement, perhaps.
“I hardly know my neighbors in these surrounds, dear lady. And between trying to keep up with my correspondence from Town, and seeing to my property here, I do not intend to make time.”
Jacaranda had seven brothers, and Mr. Kettering’s tone had effect of battle trumpets summoning an experienced battle mount.
“You’ve neglected the land for years, and it’s well enough managed in your absence,” Jacaranda shot back. “Your sister needs you and no one else can see to her in this regard.”
He closed his eyes and jerked back, as if he’d been painfully goosed in the chest.
“You don’t save your heavy guns, do you Wyeth?”
“I have not the least idea what you mean, sir, except for a general notion that siblings ought to know and care for each other. Family ought to. I can and will make an effort to befriend the girl, and I can take Avery to play with the neighbor’s children, provided you visit them first and send the requisite inquiring notes.”
“I have to visit before my niece can even take her damned doll calling on other children?”
“And you have to make the girls think you’ll enjoy it,” Jacaranda added just for spite. “I suggest you start with Squire Mullens immediately beyond the Miller’s tenant holding. He has six daughters.”
His eyes narrowed and Jacaranda found her crepe wasn’t merely good, it was delicious.
“I have a taken a viper to my bosom.” Mr. Kettering slathered butter on a piece of toast, then jam, then sliced it in half and put a triangle on Jacaranda’s plate. “Six daughters?”
“The Damuses have eight girls but only two are marriageable age.”
“We’ll start with the Damuses,” he decided. “You will join me for breakfast regularly. I’ll need your familiarity with the locals to plan the girls’ social calendar.” He bent to take a bite of his toast, while Jacaranda was sure he was hiding another smile.
He’d cornered her neatly, making her attendance at breakfast a show of consideration for the children, not an order.
“I will join you for breakfast.” She took another bite of crepes, so light they nearly levitated off of her fork. “And only breakfast.”
“Oh, fair enough, for the present. Now finish your crepe, Wyeth. I’ve notion to look at that bump on your head.”
“No need for that.” She took a bite of heaven and chewed carefully. Even crepes required some mastication and the effect was to pull on that region of her head still lightly throbbing.
“You’ve put every bite to the same side of your mouth, my dear. It’s paining you. Did you sleep well?”
“I did. I usually do.”
“I usually don’t,” he said, frowning at his tea cup.
“Perhaps the country air will agree with you.” She’d meant to say it maliciously, because he was so great a fool as to think correspondence from Town more important than a newly discovered sister.
“Intriguing thought. So what would a conscientious land owner do, were he facing my day?”
Papa had been nothing, if not conscientious about his acres, and Grey followed very much in Papa’s footsteps.
“A conscientious landowner would ride out. He might take his land steward, particularly after an absence, or take a few of his favorite hounds. He’d look in on his tenants, especially those with new babies or a recent loss.” Or he’d take his sons, and the house would, for a few short hours, be blessedly peaceful.
“I like babies.”
Oh, he would.
“Will my steward know of such things? Babies and departed grannies?”
“The Henderson’s lost a child this spring, a bad case of flu,” Jacaranda said pushing her plate away a few inches. “A little girl named Linda. I believe she was four and had always been sickly, but they’d got her through the winter and were hoping she’d turned a corner.”
He took a bite from the half crepe she’d left on her plate, chewed and arranged his fork and knife across the top of the plate. “And you want me to call on these people?”
“I’ll pack you a hamper. They’ve many mouths to feed.”
“I can’t ride over with a hamper on Goliath’s quarters.” He lifted his tea cup, examined the dregs, set it down. “Come with me?”
A request, not an order. “To call on a tenant, I can accompany you. Their wives will be glad of another woman to chat with.”
“You know their wives?”
“When your tenants have illness or particular needs they send to us here and we provide what aid we can. The English countryside remains a place where one’s neighbors are a source of aid, and course I know their wives.”
“So where else do I need to show the flag?”
“These calls, the first you’ve made in years, aren’t showing the flag.” She regarded him with some displeasure, for the crepes had been very good, while the company was vexing. To deal with this man, she’d need her strength. “These people labor for your enrichment. Their welfare should concern you.”
“It should,” he agreed easily enough, but Jacaranda had the sense his wheels were turning at a great rate mentally. “Let’s have a look at that knot on your head, hmm?” He rose and stood beside her chair, prepared to hold it for her, as if she were… a lady.
She did not fuss him for that, for something warned her he’d love nothing more than fussing right back while he stood over her, first thing in the day.
“Over by the window.” He drew her to her feet and tugged her by the wrist to the light pouring in the east-facing window. “Turn yourself, just…” He took her by the shoulders and positioned her to his liking. “Like that.”
When he stepped close, she got a fat whiff of delicious, clean man. He used some sort of shaving soap that made her want to lean closer and intoxicate her nose on his woodsy scent. And the scent had little spicy grace notes as well—even his scent held unplumbed depths.
“You must have a busy day of your own,” he suggested, carefully tilting her head in his big hands.
“Industry is its own reward.” But he had offered the gambit to distract Jacaranda from his fingers tunneling through her hair and that was decent of him, so she rallied her manners. “In truth, I have done as much preparation for your visit as I possibly can, but the house is always kept in readiness, so the burden of additional work is not great.”
“Then you might enjoy coming along with me on these tenant calls?” Gently, gently, Mr. Kettering moved his touch over the knot at her temple. “Hurts, doesn’t it?”
“A little.” While his touch was lovely.
“The bleeding did not resume,” he said, slipping his fingers from her hair, but not stepping back. “I’m glad you won’t mind showing me about the farms.”
He was smiling down at her again, pleased with himself, the lout.
“That’s not what I meant.” She was prepared to launch into a clarification, but he patted her arm.
“We’ll wait until after lunch, so I can fire off a few letters first, otherwise I’ll never be up to dandling babies and pinching grannies.”
“Please say you would never pinch a grandmother!”
Now he did step back, his eyes dancing.
“My dear Mrs. Wyeth, I would pinch a granny, but only because she pinched me first. I know a number of grannies who aren’t to be trusted in this regard. They’re a shameless lot, for the most part. Complete tarts. Shall we say one of the clock?”
“I’ll have luncheon moved up to noon,” she said, not taking the bait no matter how succulent, no matter how close to her nose he dangled it while looking the picture of masculine innocence. “In deference to the fact that they traveled for much of the day yesterday, I’ve planned luncheon as a picnic meal on the back lawn for your sister and your niece.”
“I’m dining on the ground with children, being pinched by grannies, and acquiring hounds, and you expect the country air to agree with me? You are a cruel woman, Jacaranda Wyeth. I’ll meet you at the coach house at one.”
“So how are you ladies settling in?” Worth put the question to his sister and his niece, who looked quite pleased to be eating outside, with bugs and breezes and not a table cloth in sight.
Avery, as was her habit, went chattering off in French, lightened by a dash of Italian, with the occasional foray into her expanding English vocabulary. The coach ride had been interminable, the horses were very grand, but not as grand as Goliath, the coach fare had been very good if difficult to tidily consume in a moving vehicle, and Miss Snyder had been as quiet as a moose.
“Mouse,” Yolanda corrected, smiling—the first time Worth had seen that expression on his sister’s face.
“What is the difference? Mouse, moose, you know I refer to a little creature for the cat to eat.”
“There is a difference,” Yolanda said. “Worth, have you pencil and paper?”
He passed over the contents of his breast pocket and Yolanda started scribbling.
“Where have you seen moose, Yolanda?” he asked, selecting a cold chicken leg to gnaw on.
“In books, unless you count Harolda Bigglesworth. Poor thing had a name like that and dimensions to match, but she was very merry.”
“Shall we invite her out to the country with us?” Worth had to admit the chicken was delicious, and with a napkin wrapped around one end, not so very messy.
“We shall not,” Yolanda said as she sketched. “She’s been engaged to some viscount since she was a child and association with the likes of me would not do.”
“Your brother is a perishing earl.” Worth waved his chicken leg for emphasis. “Why not associate with you?”
“Your moose,” Yolanda said, passing the sketch pad over to her niece. “He’s a grand fellow, nigh as big as Goliath and he lives in the Canadian woods.”
“My goodness, he looks like a cross between a cow and a deer, but what a nose he has!”
Worth peeked over Avery’s shoulder.
“You are talented,” Worth said. “Talent is worth money you know. I have a client who will make a tidy living painting portraits, a very tidy living. You should develop your art Yolanda.”
“Drawing is one thing they let you do,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
“They let you do?” Worth set aside the chicken bone, for he’d eaten every scrap of meat on it.
“When you’re on room restriction, at school, you can have your school supplies to entertain you, but only those, so I drew a great deal. Avery, will you eat every bite of that potato salad?”
Avery made Yolanda earn her salad by teaching her a half dozen German words. Yolanda made Avery try to copy the moose, with comic results. All in all, it was a pleasurable, nutritious way to pass an hour with his…. Family, out of doors. On that thought, Worth pushed back to sit on his heels.
“My dears, I must away to impersonate a country squire. If you like I can ask the neighbors if any ponies are going begging in the surrounds.”
“Oh, Uncle!” Avery’s jubilation at the prospect of a pony knew no linguistic bounds, but Yolanda merely smiled at her niece and toyed with a bite of cheese.
“Yolanda? What say you? Shall we find you a gallant steed so you can gallivant about the countryside and turn all the lads’ heads?”
Yolanda studied her cheese. “Good heavens, no thank you. I’ve heard riding can make a girl’s figure lopsided.”
“So we’ll teach you to drive,” Worth suggested, “or fit you out with a left-side saddle, and a right-side saddle and you can alternate.”
“That’s what I shall do,” Avery interjected. “And I shall ride with Uncle every day.”
Uncle drew a finger down her nose. “No you shall not. This is England, and it rains too frequently for that. Well, think about it, Yolanda. I must call upon the neighbors, many of whom are possessed of offspring whose acquaintance you should make. We’ll be here for months and I can’t have the two of you getting lonely.”
He got to his feet and made for the coach house, but the meal, surprisingly pleasant though it was, had left him more convinced than ever that Yolanda was hiding a great deal.
“Tell me about these Damuses,” Worth said as they tooled out of the coach yard. Goliath—trained to drive as well as ride, like any proper mount of his dimensions—was in the traces, which had required loosening the harness by a few holes in all directions.
“The Damuses are not an old local family,” Mrs. Wyeth said. “She was a Dacey and he’s the second son of a baronet in Dorset. Their holding was willed to him by a grandmother and she brought a good settlement to the union, so they prosper.”
“With twelve children, that’s not all they do. How about the Hendersons? Have they laprine inclinations?”
“In the nature of a rabbit, similar to kaprine, or lupine, in the nature of a goat, or a fox, you know?”
“My Latin is rusty. The Hendersons are a young couple who moved here from Dorset when their cousin left the property for London. They’ve three boys, now that Linda has passed on. The land is good, but they haven’t been farming it for long and it takes time to learn the way of a piece of a ground.”
What manner of housekeeper was brought up on Latin?
Worth turned Goliath onto the lane. “Ground is just there. What do you mean, learn the way of it?”
“This field tends to get boggy in spring, but only in the one corner, so you might plant that corner later. That field is perfect for oats, but doesn’t do quite such a good job with barley. A particular irrigation ditch is always the first to back up when the leaves come off in the fall. That sort of thing.”
“And how come you, a housekeeper, to know about that sort of thing?”
“I wasn’t always a housekeeper, Mr. Kettering. My father was responsible for a great many acres and land doesn’t farm itself.”
So her father was likely a steward to some lord. Worth hoarded up that information the way some of his clients hoarded their denarii and sesterces. “Suppose it doesn’t. What do the Hendersons do well?”
“Her people are Irish on her mother’s side, which is part of the reason they left their home county.”
“We’re superstitious about third generation Irish, are we?”
“I haven’t asked her for the particulars, but Mrs. Henderson can tat lace so delicate it hardly catches sunlight. Mr. Henderson has a magnificent sow by the name of William.”
“A sow named William, and my livelihood depends on such as these?”
“The boys named the pig, because she lets them ride her, so she’s in the way of a porcine charger.”
“I hope you don’t expect me to ride this great pig?”
“Don’t let me stop you, if that’s your inclination.”
He deserved that one, and it was worth the insult to know Wyeth was enjoying herself. “Goliath would never speak to me again if I rode a pig. Is there a marker for the child’s resting place?”
She was silent for a moment, and Worth was fairly certain he’d surprised her. He’d surprised himself, but he knew what it was to lose a family member, and to some people, a marker would be important.
“We’ll go by the church on the way over,” Wyeth said. “We can look.”
They found the grave, but no marker, and the curate intimated none had been ordered. Worth drew the man aside, made arrangements for something befitting a girl child, and tossed Wyeth back into the gig.
“How is it you know French, Wyeth?” He slapped the reins on Goliath’s shiny black rump before his housekeeper could remark his discussion with the curate.
“I had a good upbringing and French is not a difficult language.”
A steward’s daughter might have a good upbringing, her if father served the nobility. “Where did you have this good upbringing?”
Dorset, from whence the beleaguered Hendersons hailed. But from Worth’s observation, they did not know they were beleaguered. The lady of the house had a sadness in her eyes, but she was much loved by her beamish young spouse, and doted on her menfolk. Worth dutifully asked to see the magnificent pig, and while the boys rode it around the yard, inquired of Mr. Henderson if Mrs. Henderson might consider parting with some of the exquisite lace gracing their spotless cottage.
“Whyever would a grand fellow like yourself be in want of lace?”
“I’m not, personally, but I’m also not such a grand fellow that I’d pass up an opportunity to make a coin or two, you see. Lace like that is becoming scarce, and all the fine ladies in Town will pay dearly for flounces and ruffles and mantillas. I know shopkeepers who’d die for as much of that lace as they could get their grubby hands on.”
“So you’d buy the lace from Trudy?” Henderson was tall, rangy, blond and ruddy complected. He was also besotted with his Trudy, and appropriately protective of her.
“If you’re willing to part with it,” Worth said. “I would take a commission, for arranging the London end of things, but there’d be coin for you and yours as well.”
Henderson scrubbed a hand over his chin. “She’s proud of that lace. We’ve shown the boys how to tat a little too.”
“You know your lady best. Discuss it with her and send word of your decision. Seems a shame to keep work that fine a secret though, and I could use the coin.”
Henderson looked him up and down, from his brilliantly white cravat to his shiny riding boots and all the hand-tailored finery in between. “Takes a bit of the ready to trick yourself out like a swell.”
“More than a bit. Now, you’re a married fellow. What is the secret to politely prying two women apart when a man needs to be on his way?”
Henderson’s expression turned besotted. “Can’t be done. Trude gets to visiting in the churchyard too, and the boys have walked halfway home before I get her in the cart.”
“Don’t suppose that pig knows how to drive?”
“The boys are working on it. They want to be famous throughout the shire for training the realm’s first draft pig.”
Worth scratched the draft pig’s hairy chin, and took his housekeeper by the elbow to remove her from the Henderson’s front porch.
“Mrs. Henderon’s a genius with her lace, isn’t she?” he said when he’d handed the Wyeth up.
“Her whole family can do work like that, but it’s hard on the eyes. We’d best hurry. Looks like we’re in for a squall.”
“Goliath is the steady sort,” Worth assured her. “He’ll get us home safe and sound. What did you ladies talk about?”
“The usual.” She pulled her shawl closer. The temperature, which had been summery warm, was dropping as the breeze picked up. “The boys are growing, the crops are coming along, she misses her Linda, but may be carrying again already.”
“The fences were not in the best repair, and I suspect one corner of the cottage roof leaks.” Though Henderson hadn’t mentioned either problem.
“Your steward will have a list of tenant repairs for you,” Wyeth said, eyeing the sky. “A relatively short list, but he’ll want to show it to you before he spends any coin addressing it.”
“I know this steward you mention. He sends me reports each month almost as detailed as yours. Is the weather always so changeable here?”
“This is England, and we’re close to the water, so yes.”
It might have been Worth’s imagination—or wishful thinking—but it seemed to him she bundled a little closer to his side.
“Your bonnet might get a soaking,” he said. And she likely only had the one. “May we impose on a neighbor along the way to the manor?”
“The Hendersons are the closest tenants, and the church is kept locked on weekdays.”
“To prevent felons from taking refuge?”
She made no reply, and from the south came a long, low rumble of thunder.
Worth gestured with his chin, because his hands were on the reins. “A covered bridge, about half a mile ahead. We’ll make it.”
Goliath gave them his best bound-for-home trot, and a gust of fat rain drops spattered down, but they made the covered bridge before the heavens opened up. To Worth’s surprise, his housekeeper’s gloved hand was manacled around his arm when he drew the horse up in the middle of the bridge.
“You are pale as a winding sheet, Wyeth. Is your head paining you?” He set the brake, and wrapped the reins, unwilling to move until she loosened her grip.
She slipped her hands to her lap. “I hate to be out in storms. When I was a girl, I saw a tree struck by lightning, a lovely old oak I’d been playing in an hour earlier. It went up in flames and became this ugly, charred skeleton of a tree. My brothers thought it was wonderfully dramatic. I hated it.”
“Brothers can be the worst.” He climbed down and came around to her side of the gig. She sat still as a statute, clutching her shawl around her as if not a summer storm, but a winter gale approached. “Get you down, Wyeth. The weather must have its fifteen minutes, and Henderson said the corn can use the rain. Tell me more of these disgraceful brothers.”
He lifted her from the seat before she could protest, then she stood beside him looking pale and shivery while he untied her bonnet and set it on the seat.
“The one I’m closest to is Gray, and he’s a good brother,” she began. Worth settled his coat around her shoulders, thinking he liked the look of her in his clothes already, and this was only the second time he’d offered her his coat.
Fast work, even for him, though.
“Tell me about him,” Worth said, offering his arm. “I have a perfectly useless brother in the north, and we’ve him to thank for Yolanda’s charming presence.”
“She is charming,” Wyeth said, sails filling, but then a loud crack of thunder sounded right overhead and she hunched into him.
“Silly woman,” Worth murmured, but his arms went around her without him thinking about it, the same as they might have gone around Avery after a nightmare, and then the rain was too loud on the roof to permit conversation. She stayed like that, bundled against him, not quite shivering with cold, but twitchy with nerves. When the rain changed to hail, she tucked her nose against his neck and held onto him with gratifying tenacity, making no move to lecture or move off when Worth’s hand settled on the back of her head and stroked her hair.
He’d never quite appreciated the potential in rainy days before, nor the value of a horse who was blasé regarding the weather.
“I’m being ridiculous,” she said, when the rain slowed. “I can’t seem to let go of you, though.”
“You have a bad association with storms like this, and I’m at least good for keeping off the chill.” He rested his chin on her hair, which smelled wonderfully of roses. “Tell me about your brother.”
“He’s older than me. I love him dearly, but he’s become the head of the family, and that’s a difficult role when man has eight younger siblings and half-siblings.”
“And you’re the oldest girl?”
“How did you know?”
“How else would you instinctively know how to command a regiment, hmm?”
“My mama died after my younger sister was born. When my step-mama came along, and all the little ones appeared, I enjoyed being the big sister.”
Little ones didn’t simply appear. “I’ve always wished I came from a large family,” Worth said, keeping an ear on the rain. “I have a brother and now a sister extant. That’s it. And while my brother and I are estranged, my sister and I strangers.”
“Has your brother met Avery?”
“No. No, he has not, the wretch.”
“He didn’t tell you about Yolanda, did he?”
“Hard to say, because we don’t exactly correspond, though I’ve sent him an epistle over this folly with Yolanda. The storm is moving off.”
“I should move too.”
No, she should not. “Soon, my dear.”
But she’d eased her grip, so he let her take a step back, taking her warmth and a luscious abundance of female curves with her. Everlasting Powers, if he’d known his housekeeper was such a goddess, he’d have removed to the country years ago.
To do exactly what, he would not admit even to himself, but getting caught in storms with her was a delightful place to start.
“I’m much braver if I can remain indoors,” she said, moving off to pet his horse. “He’s a stalwart fellow. His name is Goliath?”
“He’s a big, stalwart fellow, so yes, he’s Goliath.”
“Some draft in his lineage?” She winced as thunder rumbled in the distance.
“On the dam side. Let’s watch the water rise.” He tugged her by the arm away from his horse and brought her to the upstream side of the bridge. “I have good memories of storms, of rafting down swollen streams immediately after, of seeing all my dams swept out to sea by a good downpour. As a boy, it was wonderful.”
“I think this is the appeal of sons for many men,” she said, taking a place along the rail beside him. “They talk of dynasty, and legacies and successions, but what sons really mean are more tree houses, dams, and forts in the attics.”
“How many brothers have you?”
“Seven, and one sister.”
“No doubt you and this sister are close?”
She peered down into the roiling water. “In a way. You’re being very kind.”
“How will I know whose pig to throw a saddle on if I let you come to harm in a storm, Wyeth? Besides, we aren’t enemies merely because we’re different genders.”
“Gender isn’t a detail, either.”
Her gender wasn’t a detail. “I like women, though, and not in the sense you’re about to accuse me of, or not exclusively that sense.” He turned, resting his elbows on the railing, while she kept to her stream-facing position.
“You like them because they cook and clean and sew?”
“I’ve hired men to do those things in my London household, I’ll have you know, but no. I like women because they don’t fight stupid duels over inebriated insults nobody can recall the next morning. Women don’t make rude noises in public or relieve themselves against any handy wall. You have seven brothers, Wyeth, I know now you cannot be shocked. I like women—honest women, that is—because they smell good, because they give us babies, because they… what?”
“You are prissy and old-fashioned.”
“You think because I’m such a large fellow I can’t be fastidious?” He let her have her smirk because it confirmed the weather was no longer unnerving her. “You think because I respect women for their inherent bravery I’m old-fashioned?”
“Bravery in what regard?”
“Leave childbearing to men and the race wouldn’t last a century. Leave childrearing to men, and all children would have to be born capable of cutting their own meat, washing their own nappies, and talking themselves out of nightmares—twenty times in a twenty-four hour period, and multiply that times the number of toddlers underfoot, then figure they’ll have to teach themselves how to do sums and read, for men hardly know themselves after three years of university.”
She gave him a funny, half-smiling perusal, then pushed off the rail.
“If we keep Goliath to the walk, we can likely find our way home now.”
“You don’t mind the occasional shower when we pass under a tree? I can send a closed carriage back for you.” But he didn’t want to. He wanted to settle her beside him on the gig again, and abruptly, the prospect of visiting his tenants shifted from drudgery to something approximating a pleasant duty.
Particularly if he could manage to dodge a few more storms in the process.
“Nonsense. The rain isn’t what unnerves me, and I won’t melt.”
He handed her up, having sense enough to keep to himself the thought of circumstances underwhich she might be proven wrong.
“How long before the baby moves?” As Elegy Hampton, Viscountess Rammel, put that question into words, her world became more a wonderful place—also more frightening.
She poured her guest another cold glass of lemonade but left her own drink untouched. Something as prosaic as a glass of lemonade did not belong in the same moment with Ellie’s question.
“A few weeks yet at least, closer to a few months probably,” Mrs. Holmes replied. “You’re not that far along, my dear, and every case is different.”
I am with child. The drowsiness, the delicate appetite—even the lemonade tasting a bit off—the sense of Ellie’s body being out of balance was not grief, but, rather, the very opposite of grief.
“Nine months seems like forever,” Ellie said. “I suppose it could be worse.” Horses took eleven months, poor things.
“Nine and a half months for most.” Mrs. Holmes’s expression was beatific, a serene complement to snow-white hair and periwinkle-blue eyes. “That last half-month can seem as long as the first nine. Perhaps it’s the Lord’s way of ensuring mothers start off schooled to patience.”
Oh, please, let’s not bring Him into the discussion. Ellie and the Lord had not enjoyed cordial relations of late. Though having a baby…
She wanted to cry and laugh. Oh, Dane. Thank you, damn you. Thank you.
“Patience has never been one of my strong suits,” Ellie allowed. Since her husband’s death, the very air had acquired an unhappy weight, making movement, breath, thought, everything a greater effort and solitude a particular torment.
Yet now, Ellie was impatient to have the sunny, serene morning room to herself.
“You’ll manage,” Mrs. Holmes assured her. “But Miss Ellie? You’ll forgive my bluntness if I suggest you occupy yourself with cheerful endeavors. Mourning must be given its due, but excessive fretting isn’t good for the baby.”
“Fretting?” Ellie had done nothing but fret since Dane’s death.
“I will help you bring this baby into the world, and a certain directness of speech should characterize our dealings,” Mrs. Holmes went on, though Dottie Holmes had never needed excuses for direct speech. “His lordship was a fine young man, and he should be mourned by his family, but you’re young, you were a good wife, and you’ve much of your life ahead of you.”
“I do mourn him,” Ellie said, hoping it was true, though the words had the same off flavor as the too-sweet, too-tart lemonade.
“Of course you do.” Mrs. Holmes patted Ellie’s hand with fingers made cool by the chilled glass. “Nobody doubts you were devoted to him, and now you must devote yourself to the child. His lordship has been gone nearly two months, and when you are here at home, you might consider putting off your blacks, going for the occasional easy hack around the property, and enjoying the condolence calls when they start up in earnest.”
How was she supposed to enjoy condolence calls, when the pleasure of even a glass of lemonade was in jeopardy? Ellie hadn’t been able to venture to the stables for nearly a month after Dane’s death, and she loved the very scent of the horse barn.
“You want me to ride when I’m carrying?”
“As long as your habits fit. Don’t take stupid risks, Miss Ellie, and stay active. You’ll carry better if you get fresh air, keep moving, and indulge yourself a bit.”
Dane had excelled at getting fresh air, staying in constant motion, and indulging himself—more than a bit.
“I hate black,” Ellie murmured, running her thumb down the side of her glass.
A lady ought not to hate anything, and the conduct of widows was supposed to put them only slightly lower than the angels.
Sad, angry angels.
“Black doesn’t flatter much of anybody,” Mrs. Holmes agreed, helping herself to a slice of lemon cake that, to Ellie, also had no appeal whatsoever. “Clearly, black for mourning was devised by men, who are much more at home in dark and forbidding colors. Have something to eat, dear, so I won’t be self-conscious about seconds myself.”
Thirds, at least.
“Of course.” Ellie put a slice of cake on her plate. I am having a baby. I am having a baby. I am having a…baby. Women died in childbirth all the time. “I’m to take exercise and sneak into half-mourning, and what else?”
“Your digestion may act up from time to time.” Mrs. Holmes nibbled her sweet complacently. “Your breasts might be sore. You’ve no doubt noticed a tendency to nap and heed nature’s call more frequently. That’s all normal. You’ll be losing your waist soon, if you haven’t noticed your dresses fitting more snugly already—your boots and slippers, too. Some lightheadedness isn’t unusual, but it passes.”
“I’ll go barefoot,” Ellie said, her hand going to her middle. Dane would have been horrified to hear her. In his way, he’d been a proper old thing—with her. “I went barefoot a great deal in summer as a child.”
“And you’ll have a child to love.” Mrs. Holmes beamed confidently. “A reminder of his lordship and the happiness of your marriage.”
Ellie already had a child to love, and what happiness she’d found in her marriage was of the tempered variety. Still, she hadn’t been entirely miserable, and Dane should not have fallen from his horse at the age of twenty-eight. He was—had been—a bruising rider.
When sober. He’d claimed he rode even better when drunk—and he’d been wrong. Ellie regretted his death, but even before his passing, she’d reconciled herself to missing him and missing what their marriage might have been.
She was having a baby, and above all else, Ellie wanted solitude to savor this realization. “Another glass of lemonade, Mrs. Holmes?”
“Not for me, my dear, but drink as much as you please, particularly in this heat.”
“I like summer.” Ellie especially enjoyed feeling wet grass between her toes first thing in the morning and leaving her windows open to let in the bird song. “I like the lighter clothing, the long days, and the soft breezes. I like the sturdy young beasts finding their confidence in the mild weather. The nights are rife with the scent of the flowers and fields, and the mornings are lovely.”
“You’re an expectant mother,” Mrs. Holmes replied around a mouthful of cake. “You should be in love with life.”
When had Ellie ever been in love with anything, or anybody? She rose, in part to get away from that question, but also to suggest—politely, of course—that the call should come to an end. “I’m a widow, too. Like you.”
“Some sixteen years now.” Mrs. Holmes touched her throat, where a lock of sandy hair had been cross-woven in an onyx mourning brooch. “Widowhood gets easier with time, Miss Ellie.”
“Does it?” Marriage certainly hadn’t become any easier with time. Ellie went to a window overlooking a back terrace in riot with potted pansies. Mourning was difficult for several reasons, unrelenting loneliness only part of it. A steady flame of anger illuminated Ellie’s days and nights, as did a rising tide of bewilderment. “Do the nights get easier?”
“Ah. This is difficult, because you are with child and young.”
“A pair of blessings, supposedly,” Ellie muttered, crossing her arms. One was supposed to keep such comments to oneself.
“The preachers would have us believe childbearing is a blessing, but the loneliness known to widows isn’t often under discussion in the pulpits on Sunday morning.”
Such loneliness was never under discussion on Sunday mornings. Ellie’s pastor had, of course, called upon her following the funeral. He’d dropped back to monthly calls now, the same schedule he’d been on before Dane’s death.
Ellie wasn’t about to discuss her nights with old Vicar Hughes.
“How do you cope?” Ellie asked, dropping her forehead to the window glass. Why hadn’t anybody opened the window when outside the day was so pleasant? “How do you reconcile yourself to years and decades of being alone? Dane and I weren’t especially close, but he was a husband. He was there, however infrequently.”
Though when he’d been home, Ellie had always felt some awkwardness, some sense that she wasn’t passionate enough, desirable enough, or maybe not feminine enough to meet his expectations.
They hadn’t talked about it. They’d talked about little, in fact.
The marriage bed had been mostly duty, but Dane had also dispensed a kind of casual, bluff affection when he’d been at Deerhaven, and Ellie missed his touch more than she could sometimes bear.
“You stay busy,” Mrs. Holmes said, “and you use discretion.”
Ellie whirled at that suggestion, but Mrs. Holmes was still placidly sipping her lemonade and nibbling her cake, the picture of grandmotherly complacency.
“You are scandalized,” Mrs. Holmes said, “which does you credit, but, my dear, would his lordship have been celibate while he grieved your passing?”
That didn’t deserve an answer, for nothing had come between Dane Eustace Hampton, Viscount Rammel, and his pleasures. Ellie paid the household bills and knew good and well that few of the fine snuff boxes, quizzing glasses, and rings Dane had purchased in five years of marriage were in her possession—or his.
Then too, Dane’s nickname hadn’t been Ram for nothing.
“How Dane would have consoled himself is of no moment. Gentlemen and ladies are held to different standards,” Ellie said.
“Widows are a different breed of lady. We are considered safe by the menfolk, because we’re experienced, discreet, grateful, and financially independent. You’ll find the mature bachelors in the neighborhood singularly attentive to your grief.”
Ellie was carrying a baby, and this conversation was not relevant to…anything. Though those attentive, mature bachelors might explain why Dottie Holmes enjoyed such unfailing good cheer.
“I’m breeding, Mrs. Holmes. What man would find that attractive?”
Mrs. Holmes gave an ungrandmotherly snort as she buttered a cinnamon-dusted scone. “Most of them. They can’t get you with child, can they?”
Cinnamon held inordinate appeal of a sudden, though the idea of bachelors leering at Ellie’s bodice…damn you, Dane. “But my condition isn’t common knowledge. I wasn’t sure myself until you told me just now.”
And if Ellie hadn’t missed her courses—she never missed her courses—the notion still would not have occurred to her.
Mrs. Holmes added an extra dab of butter to her scone. “You attributed odd symptoms to grieving, which does take a toll, of course, but you are most definitely in anticipation of a blessed event. I’m merely suggesting these early days are an excellent time to find solace in the arms of a discreet gentleman or two.”
Merciful Halifax. “Or two?”
“You need only be discreet.” Mrs. Holmes popped a bite of scone into her mouth while Ellie digested this very odd advice.
“Think of it this way, Miss Ellie: By leaving you with a baby to love and care for, his lordship also left you with a way to find some comfort without suffering consequences. Decent of him, one could say.”
“Shame on you, Dottie Holmes.” But Ellie hadn’t the knack of starchy propriety, and Mrs. Holmes was smiling as Ellie escorted her down the front terrace steps a few minutes later. “I do thank you for coming.”
“I’ll be back next month.” Mrs. Holmes pulled on her driving gloves as briskly as any four-in-hand coachy. “You must send for me if you have any distressing symptoms.”
“You’ll keep this to yourself?”
A blue-eyed gaze flicked over Ellie’s middle meaningfully. “Of course, though soon enough, the situation will be evident, my dear.” She climbed into her pony cart, clucked to the shaggy beast in the traces, and tooled off down the drive.
Leaving Ellie’s world forever changed.
“Is that the baby lady?” Eight-year-old Coriander came skipping down the steps, her eyes bright with interest—and her pinafore still clean, thank heavens.
Ellie held out a hand to her step-daughter. “She’s the midwife. She’s known me since I was your age. Were you eavesdropping?”
“Hiding,” Andy replied, taking Ellie’s hand and leading her back into the house. What did it say that the child must lead the adult indoors? For Ellie would have remained staring down that drive until nightfall.
As if she were expecting Dane to come cantering home, so she could tell him this happy news?
“You would have made me sit with my ankles crossed, back straight, and only one scone to console me,” Andy accused—accurately.
The child had her father’s blond good looks and his charm, which was fortunate. “I’d inflict such a dire fate on you and starch your pinafore until it crackled when you moved.”
Andy sniffed at a bowl of roses wilting on the sideboard, though even from a distance, Ellie could tell the scent would no longer be pleasant.
“You’re supposed to teach me manners, Mama.”
“You’re clearly in command of them, but, like me, you prefer theory to practice.” Also going without her shoes. “Speaking of practicing, what are you doing out of the schoolroom, young lady? Luncheon hasn’t even been served yet.”
“Mrs. Drawbaugh sent me down to ask if we might picnic for supper. She says the weather is fine and time out of doors makes me behave better.”
“She didn’t say that.” Minty and Andy had quietly decided time out of doors would do Ellie some good. The conspiracy of the schoolroom had grown only closer in recent weeks.
Andy grinned like the little girl she was. “I said it, and it’s as true for me as it is for you, so please say yes. Mrs. Drawbaugh likes to be outside, too.”
“Don’t bat those eyes at me, Coriander Eustace Brown,” Ellie remonstrated with mock severity. “The answer is yes, provided your schoolwork is done. If you dawdle on your exercises, Minty and I will enjoy nature without your company, while you have porridge in the nursery.”
“Not porridge!” Andy lapsed into melodramatic gagging. “Never say it! Poisoned by porridge!”
Ellie cut her off with a gentle swat on the backside and a hug. “Upstairs, and get your work done. I’ll expect a favorable report at supper.”
“Yes, Mama.” Andy paused just out of swatting and hugging range. “Why was the baby lady here?”
“She was paying a condolence call. People will start to do that, particularly when your papa has been gone three months.”
“I’m not as sad now. Why offer condolences three months later and not when Papa died?”
Because no matter when they were offered, the condolences did nothing to make the departed any less dead. Waiting three months gave a widow some time to adjust to that reality.
“Blessed if I know, but you’re stalling. Be off with you.”
Andy scampered up the steps two at a time, leaving Ellie to wonder why she’d lied to the girl about the baby, when honesty was something Ellie and Andy both valued very much.
* * *
“Rest, eat regularly, mind the drinking, and don’t forget to write.”
Darius Lindsey sounded more like a stern papa than a younger brother as he delivered his parting admonitions. He hugged Trent once, then swung up on a piebald gelding and cantered off into the building heat of the summer morning.
Trenton Lindsey—more properly, Viscount Amherst—stood outside the Crossbridge stables, already missing his brother and mentally searching for ways to put off, of all things, a damned condolence call.
“If I wait until later in the day, it will be even hotter, and I’ll be forced to swill tepid tea, while some puffy-eyed matron clutches her hanky and tries bravely to make small talk.”
Arthur’s gaze suggested commiseration, for he’d be denied his grassy paddock or breezy stall for the duration of that call.
Two weeks ago, Trent had been drifting from day to day in Town, a widower whom others would have said wasn’t coping well more than a year after his wife’s death. He’d spent his days and nights clutching the male version of the handkerchief, more commonly referred to as a brandy glass, though his difficulty hadn’t been grief per se.
Darius had, to put it gently, intervened in his older brother’s life.
“Darius is not a mile from our driveway, and I miss him already.”
Arthur, ever a sympathetic fellow, swished his tail.
Trent needed the damned mounting block to climb into the saddle, which was a sad commentary on his condition.
“Though how much sadder is it that I’ve written to the children only once?” The guilt of that mixed with a sense of abandonment at Darius’s parting to make the morning oppressive rather than pleasantly warm.
Arthur sniffed at Trent’s boot, which fit a damned sight more loosely than it should.
Trent passed the beast a lump of sugar. “Do not wipe your nose on my boot, sir. Even guilt can be viewed as progress when a man has stopped feeling anything.”
He arranged the curb and snaffle reins, pleased to note that his hands, after two weeks of regular meals and infrequent spirits, hardly shook at all.
In the interests of dawdling in the shade, Trent pointed the gelding toward the home wood, a great sprawling mess of trees, underbrush, bridle paths, and meandering streams. Small boys could spend entire summers in such a wood and never miss their beds. Of course, Trent was not a small boy.
Arthur’s ears pricked forward in the sun-dappled depths of the wood, drawing Trent’s thoughts away from shady hammocks and long, peaceful naps. He followed Arthur’s gaze and heard splashing from the largest pond on his property. Trent urged the gelding a few feet off the path and swung down from the saddle.
How he’d clamber aboard an eighteen-hand mount without a step was a puzzle for another time.
The horse obligingly cocked a hip and settled in to doze in the shade while Trent passed noiselessly through the brush. Another splash, then a female voice singing a folk tune—something about “green grow the rushes”—carried across the summer air.
The woman had a sturdy contralto, suited to a sturdy tune, and she was sturdy as well. Trent was taken aback to find her standing in the shallows of the pond happy-as-she-pleased, wearing only a summer-length shift—and a very damp summer-length shift at that. Her long, dark hair rippled down her back as she trailed a line-and-pole fishing rod across the water and sang—to the fish?
A dairymaid playing truant on a pretty summer day, or a laundress or other menial. She had the defined arm muscles of a dairymaid and the earthy ease with her body that Trent associated with females unburdened by the designation “lady.” While he stood mesmerized, she set the pole on the bank and, still standing in the water, began to plait her hair.
God above, she was a lovely sight. Trent resisted the urge—even urges had deserted him until recently—to tug off his boots, shed his clothes, and wade out to her side, there to do nothing in particular but be naked in the sunshine with her.
Sobriety could make a man daft, but not that daft. Rather than yield to his impulses, he stood among the trees and looked and gawked and looked some more, as if his eyes had been thirsty for this very image.
For anything that might make him wake up.
The lady was comfortable in the water, occasionally reaching down to splash herself. The shift became an erotic enhancement to bare flesh, outlining her figure, peaking her nipples, and creating a damp shadow at the juncture of her thighs. Her shape was thoroughly feminine—she had real breasts, real hips, not some caricature created by whalebone, buckram and clever stitching. When she lifted her arms to pin her braid on her head, the wet material shifted so one pink, tightly furled nipple slipped momentarily into view.
The image was purely, bracingly lovely. Trent mentally thanked the Widow Lady Rammel for causing him to be in that spot at that moment. He resolved to come fishing himself in the same pond and to vicariously join the dairymaid in her pleasures. The thought wasn’t even sexual—he hadn’t had those impulses for some time—but it was a sensual, happy thought.
And precious as a result.
He silently withdrew and walked Arthur some distance before using a handy stump to mount. Reluctant to leave the wood, he let the horse wander up one path and down the next until the hour approached noon.
“Come along,” he said, turning Arthur to the east. “We have a widow to condole. No more of your prevarications.”
All too soon, Trent was ushered into a pleasant family parlor done up all in cabbage roses; pale, gleaming oak; and sunshine. He steeled himself to endure not only the thoroughly feminine décor, but also fifteen minutes of social hell, tepid tea, and useless platitudes. When he turned to greet his hostess, however, the only thought in his head didn’t bear verbalizing:
She’s not a dairymaid.
Ellie’s first thought was that Trenton Lindsey, Lord Amherst, had been to war. They’d been introduced at a local assembly several years before, and then he’d been an impressive specimen. Tall, fit, and possessed of dark, sparkling eyes to go with his dark, thick hair. He’d had an animal magnetism that Dane, for all his blond good looks, had lacked.
Now, Amherst was gaunt, his eyes shadowed, his clothing beautifully tailored but too loose and several seasons out of fashion.
“Lord Amherst.” Ellie curtsied and held out her hand. “A great pleasure. It’s too hot for tea, and the veranda will allow us some shade. May I offer you lemonade, hock, or sangaree?”
“Anything cold would be a pleasure.”
Ellie attributed his surprised expression to her sortie out of first mourning attire. She was in lilac, one of her favorite colors and one abundantly represented in her summer wardrobe. Dane would not have been pleased with her departure from strict decorum.
Which was just too perishing bad.
“We are neighbors, are we not?” Ellie inquired as he offered his arm and escorted her to the back terrace. The gesture reminded her that Amherst had married several years back. Thus, he sported the kind of understated good manners husbands usually acquired—some husbands.
“Your land marches with mine this side of the trees,” Amherst replied. “I don’t recall your gardens being this extensive.”
Had Dane even noticed the gardens?
“They used to be smaller, but I am not prone to idleness, and when the weather is fine, I like to be out of doors. Gardening provides the subterfuge of productivity and the pleasure of the flowers.” Then too, even new widows were permitted to dig in their own gardens.
He tarried at the door to the shaded veranda to sniff at a potted pink rose. “Which is your favorite flower?”
Amherst snapped off the rose and offered it to her, the gesture so effortlessly congenial it took Ellie a moment to comprehend that the rose was for her.
“Forgive me,” he said, his smile faltering the longer Ellie stared at the rose. “I do not socialize a great deal, and my small talk is rusty.”
Ellie accepted the bloom, careful of the thorns. “Please allow your small talk to crumble into oblivion. I am heartily sick of sitting through every recipe in the shire for restorative tisanes, and everybody’s favorite Bible passage for difficult times. At least a discussion of flowers is novel.”
Her escort was quiet. Had she disconcerted him or even shocked him? Maybe mourning went on so terribly long because months were needed to get the knack of being a proper widow.
A proper, discreet widow?
“You’ll not be planting lilies again,” Amherst said.
Because they were standing in the doorway, Ellie caught his scent.
He smelled wonderful—masculine but sweet, spicy, alluring, clean, intriguing. She could have stood there all morning, trying to sort and classify the pleasures of his scent.
Carrying a child did this—made the faculties more acute, more delicate.
She picked up the thread of the conversation. “I won’t be planting lilies, no. I’ve already put off blacks at home. Scandalous of me.”
“Sensible of you. The departed are gone. They don’t care what we wear.”
“You don’t think my late husband is peering down at me from some cloud? Commenting to St. Peter that I never was a very biddable wife?” That would be the least of Dane’s complaints.
“You didn’t force him onto that horse, Lady Rammel.” Amherst’s voice was so calm, so quiet, Ellie almost missed the keen insight of his observation.
She stayed right where she was, next to him in the shady doorway, while birds sang to each other in the nearby wood, and flowers turned their faces up to the welcoming sun.
“Say that again, my lord.”
“Your husband’s death was not your fault,” Amherst said slowly, clearly. “By reputation in the clubs, Dane Hampton loved to ride to hounds, loved the drunken steeplechase, loved to cut a dash on his bloodstock. He died doing what he loved, and he was lucky. You are lucky, in fact, that he died while frolicking with his hounds. His demise wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t a bad death.”
Ellie wanted to make him say those same words all over again, but instead searched for a rejoinder.
And found none.
“Thank you.” She’d focused so intently on his words that it came as something of a surprise to see her hand still tucked in the crook of his elbow. Life was brimful of surprises recently. “These calls ought to come with a manual of deportment, and what you’ve just said should be the first required words.”
A smile threatened at the corners of his mouth. “I have no favorite Bible passage, and I’m fresh out of recipes for tisanes.”
“I like the verse about the lilies of the field, about neither toiling nor spinning, but still meriting the Almighty’s notice,” Ellie said, making herself step back. She liked Lord Amherst, liked that he wasn’t too self-conscious to stand near her, and that he didn’t spout platitudes. “Because that passage mentions lilies of the field, the scent of which now makes me ill, I’ll have to search out a new one.”
“You haven’t told me your favorite flower.” Amherst followed her onto the veranda, and Ellie silently conceded the point: Flowers were alive, Bible verses were not. Two different sources of comfort, one dear to her, one expected by her neighbors.
All of her neighbors, save one.
“Lily of the valley,” she decided. “For its scent. Roses, for sheer delicacy of appearance. Lilacs, for the confirmation they bring of spring, though they lack the stamina for bouquets. We’’re given so many worthy flowers, it’s hard to choose. Shall we be seated?”
He handed her into a chair at a wrought iron grouping at one end of the veranda, then took a seat beside her. Not across from her, but beside. How was it she’d had such a pleasant sort of neighbor all these years and had never become acquainted with him?
“Would you be willing to look over my gardens?” he asked, the chair scraping back as he arranged long legs before him. “I’ve allowed Crossbridge to suffer some neglect in recent months. I’m focused on the crops, the buildings, that sort of thing, but the estate once had lovely grounds.”
“Surely you have a head gardener, my lord?” But she wanted to do this. She wanted to make something pretty grow for her quiet, insightful neighbor and maybe make the acquaintance of his wife, if her ladyship were out from Town.
Friends being in shorter supply than she’d realized. When had she become so isolated—and why?
She also wanted to get off her own property and could slip over to Amherst’s gardens without anybody knowing she’d been truant from her grieving post.
Anybody but Dane. Ellie wanted to aim her face at the sky and stick her tongue out.
“Crossbridge has staff,” Lord Amherst said. “They have much to do simply holding back the march of time. The home wood encroaches on the pastures, for example, and my gardeners are busy clearing the fence rows, cleaning up several years of frost heave, and trimming the hedges. My flowers have been orphaned.”
On the third finger of Ellie’s left hand, a fat, shiny diamond caught a beam of summer sun. She took her rings off when she gardened.
“Dane left a daughter.” Heat flooded up Ellie’s neck, and she wondered if pregnancy also unhinged the jaw and the common sense. Amherst was a neighbor, true, and he’d likely know about Andy if he bothered to attend services, but he was a stranger.
A handkerchief appeared in her peripheral vision, snow white, monogrammed in purple, and edged with gold—also laden with his lovely scent. Ellie would not have suspected her slightly rumpled, out-of-fashion, overly lean neighbor of hidden regal tendencies, but his instincts were excellent.
“Perishing Halifax.” She snatched the handkerchief and brought it to her eyes, though she hadn’t cried for days. “Forgive me.”
“You are not the one who left a daughter,” Amherst replied evenly. “Perhaps the forgiveness is needed elsewhere.” He didn’t pat her hand, didn’t move any closer, didn’t murmur nonsense about time healing and God’s infernal will. He lounged at his ease two feet away and let her have her tears.
“Andy is eight.” Ellie blotted her eyes again. “Coriander. She’s young enough to miss her papa sorely. Dane was decent to her.”
Amherst still said nothing as Ellie defended Dane’s memory. Dane had been decent to Andy, once Ellie had staged the first and only row of their married life and insisted the child be raised at Deerhaven.
“People will tell you the grief eases, Lady Rammel, and in some ways, it does. Life tugs you forward, and you add good memories to the store of losses. The losses don’t cease hurting, though, not altogether.”
Ellie stopped dabbing at her eyes. “Perhaps you’d better keep a Bible verse or two in your pocket, my lord. Your honesty is particularly bracing.”
Also curiously welcome.
He inclined his head, not smiling. “My apologies. Grief is an old shoe that fits each foot differently, and I shouldn’t prognosticate for others. Keep the handkerchief.”
“My thanks.” Ellie took a surreptitious sniff of his heavenly scent and signaled the footman tactfully waiting a distance away with the tray. “What shall you have, Lord Amherst? Cold tea, hot tea, sangaree, hock, or lemonade. Alas, no tisanes.”
“Good company can be a tisane. I’ll enjoy some lemonade.” He didn’t smile with his mouth so much as he did with dark eyes that crinkled at the corners. Dane would have liked Amherst, which was something of a comfort.
Ellie garnished his glass of lemonade with mint and lavender, which seemed to make it ever so much more palatable. When she’d poured for herself—now, lemonade appealed—she held up her glass in a toast.
He politely raised his glass a few inches and sipped, his expression considering.
“You’ve a rebel in your kitchen. I’ve come across the mint with lemonade before, but not the lavender.”
Ellie sampled her drink, finding it exactly to her taste, rather like Lord Amherst’s brand of condolence call. “My own recipe. Not everybody likes it. Andy says I’m daft.”
“An outspoken young lady. One wonders where she might have acquired such a trait.”
“Are you teasing me?”
“On page forty-two of the manual, you will find that teasing is required.” Amherst’s tone was grave. “Right after ladylike sniffles and before a recitation of platitudes.”
“Useless platitudes.” Ellie couldn’t help but smile, because teasing was indeed a consolation. “Were you sincere in requesting my help with your gardens, or was that a recommendation from the manual as well?”
He held the wet sprig of mint under his lordly nose, and Ellie realized he might tease her, but he wasn’t a man given to simple banter. Dane had bantered easily and merrily. She’d found it charming—at first.
“The request was sincere. I’m short of staff, and the gardens are, of necessity, a low priority. I would not want to intrude on a time of grief, but I can use the help. Beyond a certain point, even the most well-designed garden can’t be rescued, and my plots are approaching chaos.”
The best-planned marriages could reach the same state of untenable disrepair all too easily. Ellie liked that his lordship would admit he needed help, though it threw into high relief that Dane had not needed her, except to produce an heir. In his lifetime, that priority had been untended to.
“Chaos sounds intriguing,” Ellie said. “Weather permitting, expect me on hand tomorrow. What time suits?”
“It’s cooler in the morning.” Amherst removed the lavender sprig from his drink and placed it on the tray, when Dane would have either pitched it into the pansies or consumed his drink, garnish and all. “We’ll tour the grounds, and you can give me your first impression. I’m usually off on my rounds by eight.”
“That will suit.”
Nothing in his tone suggested he was merely being polite by making this request, but Ellie still had a sense her neighbor was somehow dodging. She signaled the footman again. This time, he brought over a tray bearing a cold collation of meat, cheese, condiments, and sliced bread. “I thought you might enjoy some sustenance, my lord. May I fix you a sandwich?”
Amherst set his drink down and picked up the lavender. “I’ll pass, but you should eat, my lady.”
“You truly don’t mind?” She did momentary battle with a craving for a bite of cheese—a sharp cheddar with dill would be splendid. “I’m famished, if you must know, but then, I lack the petite dimensions of a proper English beauty and probably always will.” Swimming and fishing always put a sharpish edge on her appetite, even as they soothed her nerves.
An odd smile crossed Amherst’s features. Even gaunt and dispensing sympathy, he was attractive, particularly when he smiled. Then too, there was his scent, his subtle humor, his gentlemanly manners. If all that weren’t enough to endear him as a neighbor, he was also…kind.
Amherst twiddled the lavender, the scent rising on the breeze, while Ellie prattled on about flowers and consumed a real sandwich—not some stingy gesture with watercress and a pinchpenny dab of butter. All the while, as he made appropriate replies and sipped his drink. Ellie sensed that he drew pleasure simply from watching her eat.
Dane might have winked at her and joked about getting her a larger mount.
Eating for two was less guilt-inducing than eating for one. When Ellie rose to see her guest out, though, she stood too quickly and had to seize his arm while the sounds of the summer day faded behind an ominous roaring.
“Steady on, my lady.”
He was stronger than he looked, bracing her against his body until the dizziness faded and Ellie’s head was filled once again with the lovely scent of his person.
“Take your time,” he murmured, making no move to step back. “Shall I call for a maid?”
“I’m fine.” She’d been far from fine for at least two months, and possibly for much longer than that. “Though perhaps when you’ve gone, I might have a lie down.”
He peered at her, and Ellie became aware—more aware—that he was quite tall, taller even than Dane, who’d been proud to top six feet. And wasn’t that like a man, to be proud of something he’d had nothing to do with, no control over whatsoever?
“Let me see you into the house. Those naps can be a trap.”
“I beg your pardon?” Ellie let him slowly promenade her down the veranda, his arm snugly around her waist, her hand in his. They were barehanded, because they’d been eating. His firm grip on her hand and waist reassured her more than she’d like to admit.
“The sleeping,” Amherst went on. “Drifting from day to day is easy, and then you don’t sleep at night, and the waking nightmares are as bad as the ones you’d have were you slumbering. Then you’re so useless the next day, you’re taking another nap and up all night yet again.”
Ellie digested that and continued their measured progress toward the house.
“You’ve lost someone dear,” she concluded, detecting a slight hesitation in his gait.
He withdrew the sprig of lavender from his pocket, but at some point, he’d fashioned it into a circle the diameter of a lady’s finger. He presented the little garnish to her with a courtly flourish.
“Haven’t we all lost somebody dear?”
* * *
“Trenton is doing better.”
Darius Lindsey’s hostess was one woman he didn’t dare lie to. The dowager Lady Warne was a connection formed when Leah Lindsey—Darius and Trent’s sister—had married Nicholas Haddonfield, Earl of Bellefonte. When Nick had joined the family, he’d brought his eight siblings and his grandmother along. With few exceptions they boasted commanding height, lightning intelligence, and a zest for living that made them individually and collectively overwhelming on first impression.
Lady Warne held out a plate of ginger biscuits, and Darius took two. She kept the plate before him, and he took two more.
“Define ‘doing better,’ my boy.”
“He sleeps for more than an hour at a time, really sleeps,” Darius began, searching for compromises between truth and fraternal loyalty. “He’s stopped drinking, except for a glass or two of wine with dinner. He rides again. He’s writing to family and not shut up at Crossbridge the way he was in Town.”
Lady Warne ran an elegant finger around the rim of her glass. “For some of us, the best medicine is the land, the beasts, the out of doors. Not very aristocratic, but there it is, and quite English. Can you stay with him?”
No, Darius could not stay with his brother, and not only because Darius had promised to spend the summer in Oxfordshire helping Valentine Windham reclaim an estate from ruin.
“Hovering won’t serve. Trent might have needed somebody to haul up short on his reins, but he’s on his own now. Many a man has vowed to swear off gin, or gambling, or carousing, and two weeks later he’s at it worse than ever. Trenton has a long way to go, physically, if nothing else.”
Lady Warne’s finger paused. “Amherst’s health is poor?”
“He’s a ghost.” Darius could think of no more accurate word. “Five years ago, I would have put Trent up against any dragoon in the king’s army. He could ride, shoot, handle a sword, or quote Shakespeare with the best of them. By comparison, he’s feeble now. If the Crossbridge steward hadn’t run off with the housekeeper, Trent might still be drifting around the town house, skinny as a wraith and twice as pale.”
Run off, and taken a good sum of household money with them, so lax had Trent’s supervision become.
“Five years ago, your brother hadn’t capitulated to your father’s choice regarding the succession.”
Lady Warne had the elderly ability to ignore tender sentiments, and she was right: Paula—or her fat settlements—had been the Earl of Wilton’s choice, and Trent, ever dutiful, had graciously recited the appropriate vows.
“Trent has been through a rough patch, but he’s stubborn, when he has a reason to be.”
“Unlike others.” Lady Warne’s smile was devilish. “Others are stubborn for the sheer fun of it.”
“Is Emily proving stubborn?” Darius set his empty plate down, as if his little sister might be lurking behind the curtains, watching him eat a ridiculous number of fresh, warm ginger biscuits.
“She is sweet but sensible,” Lady Warne said. “Particularly now that she’s out from under your father’s boot heel. If she doesn’t present herself shortly, though, I will wonder if she hasn’t perfected the art of the feminine dawdle.”
“Wasted on a brother who wants only to take her for a ride in the park.” And to make sure she was behaving herself.
“Let me fetch her.” Lady Warne rose gracefully, leaving Darius to sip cold cider and wander the room. He’d been reasonably honest with Lady Warne, for she was old, and as sharp as the rest of her clan. Trent was sleeping, some. He was eating, a little. He was riding short distances, but only because a man without a land steward could either tramp all over his acres or ride a horse, and Trent wasn’t up to the tramping.
Those glasses of wine at dinner—three or four of them—were consumed with desperate relish, too. Darius had longed to hover, longed to order the servants to empty every bottle of spirits, to put Trent on a schedule of riding and walking and a diet of good summer fare.
But barging into another man’s life, destroying his dignity, and deciding his fate was the province of the Earl of Wilton, not his grown children. Darius had done what he could for Trent, then withdrawn to tend to other responsibilities.
He owed Trent the kind of faith Trent had shown him. Trent claimed Darius had saved his life by hauling him bodily down to Crossbridge, but in Darius’s mind, that was simply the return of a favor owed.
Arthur, being six feet tall at the withers and gelded, stood biologically and physically above much of what made life trying. This made him an adequate conversationalist for Trent’s return through the woods.
“And there I was,” Trent muttered, “trying to make small talk with a widow, for the love of flowers.” A papa of small children developed strange epithets. “A woman not three months past the loss of her spouse, and what do I do? Damned near put her in a faint, poor thing. She ought to burn my handkerchief and bury the ashes at a crossroads, mark me on this.”
Arthur took a nibble of a passing branch.
“She’s pretty,” Trent went on, ducking to avoid the same branch. “Prettier the longer you look at her, and believe me, horse, I looked. Sat up and took notice.” That had been the strangest sensation, like dreaming he was waking up. The longer Trent had listened to Elegy Hampton’s voice and watched her hands and face, the more alert he’d become, but slowly, like shaking off a drug or a hard knock to the noggin.
He hadn’t had the same peculiar sense when he’d seen her in her shift singing to the fishes. That had been a different pleasure altogether, though equally unexpected.
“And God help me, she’ll be on the property tomorrow morning expecting me to converse civilly and offer hospitality.”
A simple call between neighbors shouldn’t overtax him. He knew the civilities, knew them in his bones, because excellent manners were the first arena in which he’d taken on besting his father. The first of many.
In the early afternoon heat, the lure of a nap pulled at him strongly, but in keeping with his determination not to scare his brother—Trent’s label for what had been happening in his life before this forced remove to the countryside—Trent handed his gelding to a groom and ambled off on a slow walk instead.
Because, damn it all to hell and back, one quiet hack of a morning and a slow walk were about all he could manage.
His footsteps took him through the once-impressive gardens behind his manor house. The sun should have felt oppressive, but when he stopped to rest—to think—on a bench, the soft heat on his face bore the benevolence of an old friend’s voice heard after long absence.
The gardens were in bad condition, neglected and overgrown past open rebellion. Some beds had succumbed to weeds. Others had been taken over by one of the hardier flowering species, and the whole business gave off an air of a cheerful botanical riot.
“Even my flowers…” Trent muttered, then caught himself. Talking to a horse was one thing, talking to oneself quite another.
“Thought you were dozing off,” came a voice from behind a twelve-foot-high lilac bush.
“Show yourself, Catullus.” Trent gave up the pleasure of the sun on his closed eyelids. “I do not pay you to skulk.”
Cato emerged from the thicket of greenery, a sprig of mint dangling from the left corner of his mouth.
“Hiding from Cook, are you?” He seated himself beside his employer uninvited and leaned back to enjoy the sun right along with him.
“She tortured me with menus before breakfast and hinted mightily that a single gentleman ought to entertain when he’s in the country of a summer.”
“I entertain plenty,” Cato replied, twirling the mint between his teeth. The oral gymnastics and the comment combined in a manner somehow lewd.
“You entertain the tavern maids.” Trent’s stable master was big, good-looking in a dark-haired Irish way, well muscled, and a thorough scamp with the women—and the ladies. His speech held a hint of a brogue when his emotions ran high or he was foaling out a mare, but his diction and word choice were otherwise refined.
Not quite Eton, but public school at least and maybe even university. The contradiction of a gentleman’s education with a horse master’s vocation hadn’t struck Trent before.
Not much had struck Trent…before.
“Why aren’t you laboring away in my stables?” Trent asked, settling lower on the bench.
“Work’s done for now. You need to make a decision about your mares.”
“It’s nigh June, your lordship.” Cato’s voice held a hint of irritation. “You wait any longer to breed them, and they’ll be foaling in the worst of the heat and flies next year, with the best of the grass over and done. You can let ’em yeld this year, but a stable master likes to know these things, so he can put a few of the ladies in work. Then too, Greymoor’s stud has a dance card to manage.”
“Work a mare?” Trent snatched the sprig of mint from between Cato’s lips and tossed it aside. He was irritated with himself more than Cato, because even following a conversation took effort when a man kept picturing a certain damply clad widow on a fishing expedition.
“A mare,” Cato said with exaggerated patience. “A lady’s mount, by any other name, perhaps even a mount for a sister, or sister-in-law, or daughter. You’ve seen the like, once or twice?”
“I have.” Trent hunched forward and forced himself to apply his sluggish mind to the question on the floor: What would Lord Amherst like to do with the mares at his country estate, if anything?
Turn them loose in the home wood and spend the summer wandering after them.
“You weren’t this stupid two years ago,” Cato remarked when the silence lengthened.
Or perhaps the mares could trample the stable master.
“You are big enough and fast enough to make outrageous comments like that, Cato,” Trent replied placidly, because Cato was goading him for some purpose known only to himself. “Don’t think getting a rise out of me will provide a result you’ll enjoy.”
Cato shrugged broad shoulders and grinned a charming, robust fellow’s grin. “Here in the wilds of Surrey, one finds one’s entertainment where one can, your lordship.” He rose with the easy grace of the strong and fit, though his observation went far beyond impertinent. “Let me know what you decide.”
As Cato strode off, Trent’s foot, independent of any decision by its owner, shot out and neatly tripped the stable master, who was laughing outright when he regained his balance.
Cato saluted with two callused fingers. “Better. Not your best effort, but a start.”
Arthur would probably agree with that assessment.
Trent did, too.
The weather was glorious, his neighbor punctual, and Trent in a toweringly bad mood as a result. What—what?—had possessed him to invite this Lady Rammel onto his property, much less offer her a gardening project that could stretch for weeks? Even as he knew his anger was irrational—and he knew staying busy was a means of survival early in a bereavement—he resented the way she sat her horse, as if born on its back. He’d ridden like that, once upon time. Darius still rode like that. Cato road as if statues should be erected on his model alone.
And did Lady Rammel have to fill out her habit so…robustly? He used to take pride in the cut of his clothes and the elegance of his turn-out.
Did she have to damned smile at his useless stable master when Cato appeared from nowhere to help her off her horse?
“You’re acquainted with my stable master?” Trent managed as Lady Rammel’s mare was led away.
“He and Dane were thick as thieves in hunt season.” She beamed as if this was famous good news. “They could natter on about cubbing and tail braiding and line breeding and heaven only knows what else for hours. I expect Mr. Spencer will miss Dane when the hunting starts up in the fall.”
Mr. Spencer, being Catullus Sandringham Spencer, or Cato, to his many adoring familiars. Trent hated riding to hounds on general principles.
Also because his father thrived on blood sport.
“What have you done with Dane’s horses?” Trent heard himself ask.
Could he have fashioned a more gauche question to put to a huntsman’s bereaved widow?
Lady Rammel’s smile dimmed. “Odd you should inquire. Dane’s cousin is coming up at the end of the week to take them in hand. The stable lads are going through another round of mourning as we speak.”
“His cousin?” Trent offered her his arm and searched the viscous morass of his memory for who that might be. Hampton had been titled, and somebody was no doubt dancing a jig on his grave in consequence.
“Drew,” she said, with no inflection whatsoever. “Dane called him Dutiful Drew, and not only behind the poor man’s back. Drew is the heir and takes his duties seriously.”
“Is he putting your dower property to rights?”
“My dower…” Hers brows knit, then her smile reappeared. “I suppose, but I’m happy at Deerhaven. Papa owned Deerhaven outright and set it aside for me in the settlements, so here I’ll stay.”
“Lucky for me,”—the sentiment was genuine, though sentiments had also, until recently, gone into eclipse along with Trent’s urges—“and for my flowers.”
As the lady chattered on and they made several slow circuits of his gardens—he kept up with Lady Rammel easily—Trent began to enjoy his bad mood. Tripe? Tripe? How long had it been since he’d indulged in such a word, even in the privacy of his thoughts?
He cast his mental hounds, and other words came to mind, bold, articulate terms like asinine, fatuous, and puerile, words a man could toss out with some heat and substance behind them. He started to put all three in a sentence and searched for an appropriately colorful verb to hitch up to them when he realized his companion had fallen silent.
Some time ago.
Shite. “I beg your pardon, my lady.”
Trent kept his eyes forward. “My conversation has deserted me, which would be no great loss, except I’ve put yours to flight as well.”
“I’m listening to the exchange between your wanton flowers.”
Wanton was a fine old word. “What are they saying?”
“The irises are complaining their slippers are too tight,” Lady Rammel informed him. “While the roses need a good hair combing but are planning to parade some splendid finery in a few weeks, nonetheless. The Holland bulbs are tired of dancing and ready for a supper break. The daffodils wish everybody else would hush so one could get some rest.”
“Are all my flowers female?”
“Lilacs have woody stems, and they grow quite vigorously, so I think of them as masculine.”
Woody…old words, vulgar ones, tripped through Trent’s head, and it now became imperative that he keep his eyes front.
“May we sit a moment here?” Lady Rammel dropped his arm and settled on a shaded bench, the same one Trent had occupied with his stable master. “This had to have been your scent garden, and it’s worth lingering over.”
Trent settled in beside her, happy to note he hadn’t needed the respite—not quite yet.
His companion was quiet, apparently content to inhale the effects of a scent garden growing riot on a summer morning. Beside her, Trent’s bad mood had eloped with his conversation, leaving him acutely sensitive to the pleasure of simply sitting beside a pretty woman in the morning air. She wore lavender well for a lady of her coloring, and she hadn’t minced along beside him as if her full corset were torturing her bones.
He endured the most peculiar impulse to take her hand.
Lady Rammel closed her eyes and tipped her head back. “Andy wanted to come with me this morning. Her situation can be difficult.”
“Difficult?” Trent sorted through the implications, while noting that Lady Rammel had long eyelashes. “She’s an only child?”
“She’s an illegitimate child,” Lady Rammel replied, her tone mild, even weary. “One wants to protect her from unnecessary distress, but not overprotect.”
The urge to take the woman’s hand persisted. She had freckles over her knuckles, suggesting she didn’t always wear gloves when she gardened. “You are wondering if I would censure you or the child, should you presume to allow her to accompany us through my gardens.”
“Something like that.” She opened her eyes and studied a tuft of silvery green lavender flourishing before some tall plants Trent didn’t know the name of. “Would you censure me for bringing her?”
Of course not, but what was Lady Rammel really asking? A man who hadn’t spent a long year clutching the brandy decanter would have puzzled out the subtleties easily.
“You wonder about the girl’s welcome, because her father is no longer around to insist she be treated civilly?”
“Yes, though her father is no longer around to gainsay my decisions, either,” Lady Rammel countered, the first hint of steel threading her tone.
Trent regarded the pretty lady beside him and permitted himself a flash of ire at idiot spouses who left children half-orphaned, particularly for something as foolish as a drunken steeplechase.
Though he’d left his own children more than half-orphaned for the dubious company of the brandy decanter, hadn’t he?
“Miss Coriander is welcome at Crossbridge.” Trent rose and offered Lady Rammel his hand. “I’ve a pony she might put to use, come to that. The poor beast hasn’t been exercised to speak of in years.”
“Miss Coriander will take up residence here if you let her know you’ve a pony going begging.”
“God in heaven.” Trent shot her a stricken look and stopped in midstride, his hand still wrapped around hers. “If you don’t want her to ride, I will understand. My uncle took a bad fall, and my aunt—”
She stopped him with a shake of her head.
“Dane overfaced his horse, overindulged his thirst, and overestimated his skill in bad footing. Andy is a more prudent sort, for all she’s only eight. I’m sure she’ll take to your pony. In fact, even Dane would agree—would have agreed—it’s time she met a few ponies.”
“Then I must introduce you to Zephyr.” Trent turned them toward the stables. “I adore her. She’s the one female who isn’t impressed with Cato’s charms, unless it’s feed time.” He strolled with Lady Rammel along the walk, and when he realized he was still holding her hand, he decided to continue in that fashion rather than create awkwardness calling attention to his blunder.
Lady Rammel was friendly with the pony, who flirted back shamelessly, suggesting the little beast was partial to women, as some equines were. That necessitated introducing Lady Rammel to the pony’s neighbors and confreres, including Arthur, who also flirted without any dignity whatsoever.
Lady Rammel scratched Arthur’s big red nose. “He has such a kind eye. A gentleman, this one, and well named for royalty.”
“He was named for a cloth doll my sister had when we were quite young.”
The only toy Trent could recall Leah owning, in fact.
Lady Rammel dropped her hand. “If you value your free time and your ears, you will not ask Andy about animals. She has a menagerie of zoological rag dolls, and they all go to high tea, picnics, story hour, and so forth.”
The recitation sent a spike of homesickness through Trent, for his children, especially for little Lanie.
“An imaginative young lady,” Trent said, as he strolled Lady Rammel right up to the house, though—had he been capable of rudeness—he might have called for her horse when they were in the stables. “May I offer you some sustenance now that you’ve spent half the morning tramping all over my domain?”
“You may.” She beamed at him again, that smile he was starting to watch for. Had Dane Hampton, as he lay gasping his last in the mud beneath a gate, longed for one more glimpse of that smile?
For the first time since arriving at Crossbridge, Trent was smitten with spontaneous gratitude, rather than the manufactured variety. His stable master, cook and butler hadn’t gone a-maying like his steward and his housekeeper, and he had sufficient staff that he could entertain a neighbor on an informal call.
He was alive; he could move about under his own power; and he had three lovely children. Any one of those was a substantial blessing, and he’d nearly allowed them all to slip from his grasp.
So he could clutch a brandy decanter?
“We’ll have a reprise of breakfast,” Trent said, taking a place beside Lady Rammel at a wicker grouping under a spreading oak. “Or for some of us, the first verse.”
She eyed him up and down in a thoroughly uxorial fashion, sending a wash of heat over Trent’s cheeks. “You haven’t eaten yet?”
“One becomes involved in the day, and I’m adjusting to country hours and country fare.” To eating regularly, in any case.
“What’s your favorite source of sustenance?” She settled in as if getting comfortable before interrogating him, though it wouldn’t do at all for Trent to give his honest answer.
“I’m partial to sweets.” Brandy was sweet. Sweetish.
She wrinkled her nose. “Not a thick, bloody beefsteak?”
Trent glanced around, making sure the footmen were not in evidence. “Just because you were married toRammel doesn’t mean you had to adore his every choice and preference. Or any of his choices and preferences, for that matter.”
Her ladyship found it necessary to rearrange the drape of her skirts. “Have you been reading the manual again, my lord?”
They’d start breakfast with a serving of honesty, because Rammel had not appreciated his wife, of that much Trent was certain.
“I loved my mother,” Trent said. “She doted on us, preserved us from the worst of my father’s temper, and wasn’t above pitching a cricket ball to her sons when Papa was away. But she was stubborn, had a selfish streak, and could be close-minded. Even as I understood that she needed determination to survive her marriage, I could still acknowledge those traits weren’t always healthy.”
“How long has she been gone?”
“Years. She was ill for some time first.”
“I wonder about that.” Lady Rammel resumed smoothing her skirts. Had she been the one to sew all those rag dolls for Miss Coriander? “I wonder about whether a little time or a lot of time is better than death coming for you in an instant.”
“And then,”—Trent reached over and stilled her hand—“you wonder better for whom.”
“I don’t miss the things I thought I would,” she said, her gaze on Trent’s bare hand. “I do miss things I thought of as…obligations.”
Sex. She’d been a dutiful wife; Rammel had been a healthy young husband, and she missed the sex. How Trent wished he’d lost a wife with whom he missed something so basic.
“You miss standing up with him in church?” Trent suggested as the footmen appeared with several trays.
She snorted. “Dane in church? He was a hatches and matches Christian, not overly fond of regular services. He did his part for the local living, and he tarried long enough in church to be shackled to me.”
“He told you he felt shackled?” Rammel deserved to be trampled in the mud all over again if he’d taken that low shot.
To a man who’d been married for five years—not shackled, not even to poor Paula—Lady Rammel’s smile looked forced. “Of course he didn’t use those words. Shall I serve?”
She was at home with the duties of a hostess, of a wife, and she had the knack of turning the conversation back to innocuous topics—his flowers, Miss Coriander’s clever governess—while she fixed him a plate of scones and fresh strawberries to go with his gunpowder. For his part, Trent let himself enjoy the lilt of her contralto wending through his senses as her hands dealt with the tea service.
Unbidden, the sound of her singing, half-naked in the woods, stirred in his memory.
He wasn’t particularly hungry, even with all their walking, but he ate to be polite. His guest, however daintily, ate to enjoy her food.
“Is there anything more pleasurable on the palate than perfectly ripe fruit?” She chewed a bite of strawberry, her eyes closed, then smiled as she swallowed. “I’m being tiresome to bring it up, but I can’t help but feel as if I’m supposed to fade away, oppressed by grief, unable to eat.”
“Some people grieve that way,” Trent said, eyeing his buttered scone. Other people drank and drifted while they neglected themselves and their children.
“I am disappointed in Dane for dying,” she replied, munching another strawberry. “I am quite sorry for him, but the great black cloud of overwhelming loss has yet to engulf me for more than a few days or a few hours at a time.”
Trent put his plate down because he knew exactly what his guest was asking and had asked it himself until the question had made him sick.
“Lady Rammel, if that great black cloud comes calling, I hereby admonish you to have a good cry, then run like hell, gorge yourself on strawberries and flowers and chocolates, wear bright colors, dance on the lawn, and sing at the top of your lungs.”
Or fish in my pond, which he could also see her doing.
“I don’t think Vicar would support your prescription,” she said, her smile fading.
“Vicar wasn’t married to the man,” Trent said in exasperation. “How did Dane remark your first anniversary?”
“He was off shooting in Scotland.” She picked up a large, perfectly ripe, red berry, but didn’t eat it. “He wasn’t about to miss the opening of grouse season two years in a row.”
“What did he give you for Christmas last year?”
“He…something. Exactly what escapes my memory.”
“What did he give Miss Andy?”
“A cloth horse doll,” she said slowly. “That I made for her.”
“Do you take my point?”
She put the strawberry down. “I don’t like your point. If you’re telling me I’m grieving in proportion to how I loved my husband, perhaps I should be offended.”
“My apologies.” Trent should have stuffed a scone in his maw, or remarked something inane about the weather, but instead he served up more honesty. “Though I risk giving offense, I’m suggesting you’re grieving in proportion to how you were loved.”
The emotions on her face were painful to see, anger and disbelief at his rudeness, then shock, more disbelief, and a dawning hurt.
Trent had hurt a woman, who’d done not one thing to deserve it—before breakfast was even off the table. “Forgive me. I should not have spoken thus.”
“You know more about this grieving business than you should,” she replied, her features composing themselves.
“Maybe more than anybody should. May I have another scone?”
He held out his plate, hoping desperately to distract her even if it meant he’d have to choke down the damned scone. When she left, he would find a brandy decanter. Yes, it was morning, and yes, he’d done better lately. But this…
She fixed him another scone, sliced it cleanly in half and slathered butter on both halves. “Jam, my lord?”
“No, thank you.”
She passed him the plate, then turned her face away. By the funny little hitch of her shoulders, Trent knew, for the thousandth time, he’d inspired a woman to tears.
Until his cousin Dane’s untimely death, the ladies had found Drew Hampton charming and occasionally worth a tumble or a waltz, though he was merely an heir presumptive, not an heir apparent. In the great whirling circus of titled society, he was barely worth a mention, particularly when Dane—handsome, robust, witty, and generous—had been unlikely to die for at least another two score years and had married a robust young lady well suited to childbearing.
Drew eyed the canopy of his vast bed and considered having winged pigs embroidered thereon.
“What has you smiling?”
His romping partner of the morning, Lady Somebody or Other, tiptoed her fingers across his naked chest, then headed south.
“The thought of a hearty meal following our exertions,” he replied, trapping her wandering hand. “Shall I have a bath sent up for you?”
The buxom brunette—when relieved of her clothing, she answered cheerfully enough to Crumpet, Angel, or Darling—ceased her southerly peregrinations. “You’re serious.”
“I’m hungry. I’ve appeased your other appetites and mine, so now food is in order.”
Women, apparently, didn’t grasp that sequence of events as readily as men did.
“I should be grateful you didn’t roll over and go to sleep.” The brunette sat up and swung her feet off the bed, accepting the dressing gown Drew handed her. “You really need to work on your charm, sir.”
“You found me charming enough twenty minutes ago.” Drew set about dressing himself and glanced at the clock on the mantel—fifteen minutes ago, to be precise.
“You’re honest. That has a certain backhanded charm,” the brunette allowed, her smile reluctant. “You’re wishing I’d take myself off, aren’t you?”
“I appreciate directness in a lady, particularly in the bedroom.” Drew offered a hint of a smile to soften the sentiment, though he truly was in want of sustenance.
She rose and started organizing the clothing she’d tossed over a chair earlier.
“As subtle as you are, one wonders how I was lucky enough to merit your attention.” Her actions were abrupt, a minor display of pique Drew tolerated rather than provoke her further. He did need to work on his charm, or he would have needed to work on his charm, if he’d had any to start with.
She’d been a willing romp, so Drew let her get dressed in peace, obligingly doing up her stays and hooks. She was wise enough not to complain, and he’d send her flowers tomorrow, but their encounter was exactly as he’d intended it to be.
And likely far less than she’d hoped it could be.
All the more reason to observe the civilities and see the lady to her waiting town coach. He politely bowed over her hand and thanked her for her company, then took himself back to the comfortable confines of the Rammel town residence. He passed through the kitchen, letting the scullery maid know he’d take a tray in the library. In the hallway, he caught sight of himself in a mirror hung over a cherry-wood sideboard.
The fellow in the mirror was tired, not quite tidy, and going a bit hard around the eyes and mouth.
Less than three months after Dane’s death, and he was behaving more like Dane, looking more like Dane—more arrogant, more self-absorbed, though Dane’s blond, muscular appearance had been at variance with Drew’s taller frame and dark coloring. Dane hadn’t been a bad man, but neither had he been a good man. He’d been a viscount, a title, and no better than he had to be, as with most of the breed.
If dear Ellie were not carrying, Drew would soon become the next Viscount Rammel, and the thought brought no joy.
Dane, in typical viscount fashion, hadn’t spared the coin when it came to his pleasures, leaving a stable of fine hunters to be dealt with. The thought gave Drew a pang, because it meant he’d be traveling down to Deerhaven the following day to see about the horses.
And that meant facing Ellie, who was his responsibility as well. Too bad there weren’t broodmare sales for slightly used viscountesses.
He turned his back on the mirror, for that thought was callous even for him, even when not one living soul stood between him and his recently deceased cousin’s title.
Men were so much easier to understand than women. If a man was upset with his fellows, he put up his fives, delivered a blistering set-down, called out his detractor, or ignored the whole business with cool, manly disdain.
Trent dug for his spare handkerchief, for women, unfathomable creatures, cried. For the entire five years of his marriage, Trent had been bewildered, resentful, and then downright despairing at his wife’s tears. Nothing stemmed the flow of Paula’s upset, not time, not solitude, and most assuredly not reason.
Reason, he’d learned early, was the surest way to provoke her further.
Lady Rammel blotted her eyes with the handkerchief he’d given her earlier in this burdensome morning, but when he reached out to pass over the reinforcements, she took his hand instead and used it to haul herself right over next to him on the wicker settee.
She bundled into his side, weeping against him in quiet torrents, the sound tearing at his composure as visions of brandy decanters danced in his head. His arms went around her even as he bent his head to try to decipher what she was saying.
“I’m s-sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t be inane.” Proximity to her was the price he paid for having been so ungallant with her grief, and the lady wasn’t about to turn loose of him.
“Do you ever hate her?”
He’d bitterly resented Paula, for the middle two years of their marriage. “Who?”
“Your mother. The one who lingered and was stubborn.”
That mother. “Nearly.” He would worry about his unfilial admission later. “She inveigled promises from my brother and me, promises with lasting and hurtful consequences, and at certain times, if I didn’t hate her, I came very close.”
“And she was your mother.” Lady Rammel nodded, apparently satisfied with his answer, and the gesture waved her silky dark hair against Trent’s cheek. He resisted the urge to bury his nose in that feminine treasure, but allowed himself an inhalation of her fragrance.
“You’ve a different scent today from yesterday.”
“I have my moods. Some of them inconvenient.” She shifted as if to gather herself away from him, but Trent stopped her.
She heaved off another Sigh of Sighs and relented, turning her face into his shoulder. “Earlier, when I said I missed the obligations?”
Trent’s fingers traced over the knuckles of the hand she rested against his chest. “I recall the comment.”
“I miss paying his bills. I miss scolding him for getting mud all over my carpets and wearing his boots to table. I miss him coming in from the hunt field, bellowing for a toddy and his slippers. He wasn’t company, exactly, but he was there.”
The litany was pathetic in some ways, but at least she had a list, prosaic as it was. “That you miss him is good, a blessing.”
She snorted, a ladylike explostulation of self-derision. “I missed him when he was alive. I didn’t always like him, but I missed him.”
For her, this was Progress. Trent laced his fingers with hers and offered her hand a consoling squeeze rather a platitude, Bible verse or tisane.
“I did not matter to my husband half so much as his favorite hunter,” she said, with a tired sort of asperity, “but I comforted myself with the fiction that I did, that I might matter to him someday.”
When she’d become the mother of Rammel’s heir?
“You matter to Andy,” Trent said, and that must have been the right thing to say, because along his side, her body gave up a remnant of defensive, resentful rigidity.
“I do. You’re right about that, and it’s important.” She smiled at his much-abused handkerchief, and a tightness in Trent’s chest eased.
That smile held something secret, female and sweet, a little maternal, but not without mischief. Trent’s hand, the one that had been linked with hers, lifted as if to touch her smile, but common sense caught up with him, and he settled for returning his rambunctious appendage to his thigh.
Breakfast should not have concluded with his guest in tears, making awkward confessions as she wrinkled his handkerchief, but he made no move to shift away, and neither did she. In fact, as they lingered on the settee—lingered cuddling on the settee—Lady Rammel grew heavier and more relaxed against his side. Her eyes soon closed, and her breathing fell into a slow, steady rhythm.
The deuced woman had fallen asleep against him.
He tucked her more closely to his side, stole a whiff of her hair, and glanced at the clock—though he had no appointments, pressing or otherwise, on his calendar. Seven fragrant and peaceful minutes later, his companion stirred, but she didn’t bolt upright, expressing ladylike horror at her behavior.
She…nuzzled at him. Nuzzled. Then gave a soft, sleepy sigh and drifted into stillness.
Arthur nuzzled Trent’s pocket for treats. The house cat occasionally nuzzled Trent’s chin to interrupt his reading or demand to be let out. A nuzzling female was novel and dangerous and stirred urges both protective and unruly.
Lady Rammel sat up slowly two minutes later, chagrin on her pretty features. “Perishing Halifax. I have lapsed mightily, haven’t I? What must you think of me?”
“You have napped, a little.” Trent tucked back a lock of her hair that had tried to snag itself on his lapel as he’d retrieved his arm. “Would a glass of lemonade appeal?”
“Yes, I believe it would, along with a nice big hole in the ground to conveniently swallow me up and rescue me from further apologies. A vow of secrecy would be appreciated as well.”
“My daughter is a firm believer that after every bout of tears must come a restorative nap.” Also a cuddle. Trent rather missed Lanie’s cuddles. “Napping, in my daughter’s case, is a constructive habit. Her way of leaving the scene of the drama.”
“You’ve a daughter?”
“Just the one. I’ve sent my dependents to visit my sister, but my daughter can put the whole household into an uproar when she’s peckish, or tired, or happy, or cranky.” Trent shifted to a seat at a right angle to his guest, intending the distance to support her bid for composure.
Also his bid for composure.
The lady yawned with a sleepy sweetness. “Andy hates her given name. Her mother was a cook, and Andy thinks the name an insult. When the child is determined on her pique, we all hear about it at length.”
She fell silent, smoothing the hanky slowly against her thighs for a moment before raising her head and peering over at Trent. “Having disgraced myself in your presence, my lord, may I make a further imposition?”
“Of course.” He was a gentleman, after all, and she was a lady in distress.
“Nobody uses my name,” she said, folding his handkerchief tidily in half over her knees. “Old retainers will call me Miss Ellie, but they’re few and far between, and it isn’t the same. We’re neighbors. I would be pleased if you and yours would not stand on formality with me.”
Trent had been happy to become Viscount Amherst upon his majority, because it was a step up from what his father typically called him. Now, he dreaded the day he’d be Wilton.
“I will happily use your name under appropriate circumstances,” he replied slowly. “Except, my memory fails me. Your given name is Eleanor?”
She shook her head, stroking his hopelessly wrinkled handkerchief yet more. “Most people think it is, but my mother had a whimsical streak. My given name is Elegy, hence, Ellie.”
“Shall I call you Elegy? The name seems a short removed from ‘eulogy,’ and I can’t think that would be helpful.”
“Ellie.” She beamed at him, expectation in her gaze.
“Trenton,” he replied, with a sense of yielding to fate—or doom. “Trent to my family and friends.” Though not to his wife. To Paula, he’d been unfailingly Amherst.
“I will call you Trent under appropriate circumstances and take my leave of you before I conjure more mortification, in addition to bawling like an orphaned calf and falling asleep like a tipsy dowager.”
Trent drew her to her feet. “I’ve spent my share of time with the bovines and the dowagers, and I can’t recall enjoying the experiences half so much as I’ve enjoyed this time with you.”
“You are kind.” She slipped her arm through his and let him escort her back to the stables. When they arrived, Trent was relieved to see Arthur had been saddled up, Lady Rammel’s groom having been sent the short distance home rather than linger waiting for her at Crossbridge.
He rode along to Deerhaven with her, assisted her to dismount in her own stable yard, and about fainted dead away when she went up on her toes and kissed his cheek in parting. When she pulled away, she smiled up at him, a woman not given to vapors who had only needed a little comfort.
A neighborly kiss then, a widow’s kiss. Nothing more.
He bowed and took his leave, letting Arthur amble back through the wood on a loose rein as Trent tried to put his finger on what had pleased him about the morning’s exchange—because amid all the awkwardness and poor conversational gambits, they’d shared something gratifying, too. Lady Rammel—Ellie—was a toothsome woman with a lovely smile and a quick wit, true, but there was something more.
She’d trusted him. A woman did not cry, much less cat-nap, in the presence of a man she didn’t trust. She’d let Trent in, to her emotions, her motivations, her thoughts. She should trust him, of course, because he was a gentleman, and yet, Trent found it flattering that she did.
Insupportable ce tome porte bien son nom.
Lecture laborieuse, longue, ennuyeuse et le pompon revient au couple.
C'est niais à souhait, j'ai levé les yeux aux ciel plus d'une fois en lisant la déclaration. C'est désolant. L'héroïne imbue, arrogante, capricieuse, lui affligeant et pathétiquement ridicule. La liste est non-exhaustive...
À croire que tous les hommes de ce tome sont idiots, bavent, bégayent, c'en était de trop pour moi.
En bref, un couple terriblement pitoyable dans le comportement, le scénario est morne, et se concentre que sur la beauté exceptionnelle de l'héroïne.
Une perte de temps.
J’attendais impatiemment, et même fébrilement de commencer ce tome. J’ai attendu deux jours je pense. J’avais hâte de découvrir ce duc un peu sauvage et cette Isidore qui semble si forte.
Je vous le dis tout de suite, bien que les personnages soient sympathiques, j’ai moins été émerveillée que par les autres tomes.
En gros, Isidore attend son mari depuis des années, un aventurier qui a voulu découvrir l’Asie et l’Afrique, et qui n’avait nullement envie de retourner dans son duché. Sauf que, je vous le rappelle, dans le tome précédent Isidore a voulu déclencher un scandale en se rendant chez Lord Strange, pour faire revenir son époux.
Ils se rencontrent enfin, mais bien qu’on sente le désir entre eux, ils décident de se séparer mutuellement. Ils ne seraient pas accordés l’un à l’autre (mon oeil!). Donc, tous les deux cherchent à se séparer et à s’attirer mutuellement. Un peu fade et inapproprié à mon goût. Mais finalement, pendant qu’ils essayent de remettre le duché en état, ils se rapprochent, avec les petites difficultés du quotidien. Je pense entre autres à des toilettes bouchées et une belle-mère désagréables !
Finalement, les deux âmes pures sautent le pas et se découvrent faits l’un pour l’autre comme d’habitude.
Tome agréable, peut-être un peu trop rapide, et j’ai regretté l’humour beaucoup moins présent que dans les autres tomes et les autres duchesses aussi moins présentes.
Lady Aurora, fille de duc vouée à un grand mariage sans amour, est aussi un rien collet-monté, très à cheval sur ce que l'on doit - ou non - laisser paraître, en vrai, une aristocrate digne et fière de l'être. Pourtant, lorsque Nicholas Sabine, le plus bel homme qu'elle ait jamais vu, ce condamné à mort américain qui combat son propre pays, croise un jour son chemin, c'est, sans qu'ils en aient conscience, le coup de foudre. Et, ni une, ni deux, elle se porte à son secours... et finira par lui tomber dans les bras.
Pour resituer l'histoire, c'est la même série que Désir brûlant et Pris au jeu (ce dernier raconte d'ailleurs l'histoire de Raven, la sœur de Nicholas), que j'avais appréciés, et j'étais donc curieuse de savoir pourquoi les autres tomes n'avaient pas été traduits.
Ce opus-là ne manque pas de qualités, les héros sont attachants, elle, plutôt féminine et assez simple, lui, très viril et vibrant d'énergie, et leur histoire aurait pu étinceler.
Mais le récit est long à se mettre en place...
-> La suite sur mon blog si le cœur vous en dit...
Lu en VO.
Nous voilà, avec ce premier tome, revenus en plein dans l'univers multidimensionnel de Grace Burrowes ! Pour les nouvelles lectrices, attention de ne pas trop s'y perdre...
Car cette série, intitulée en VO Windham Brides, fait suite à la série fleuve des Windham, non traduite : celle-ci compte 2 nouvelles fondatrices pour les duc et la duchesse Moreland (Perceval et Esther), suivies de 8 romans dans lesquels on fait connaissance de leurs nombreux rejetons...
Si on aime GB, et si elle rencontre un tel engouement Outre-Atlantique, c'est bien pour cela : la tendresse dévolues à ses personnages, les sentiments exprimés en orfèvre, les dialogues étincelants, drôles, sensibles ou sensuels, et les situations de vie amoureusement rendues.
Ce tome premier, donc, nous fait renouer avec le grand-petit monde des Windhams. Et pour qui a lu la série antérieure, je peux vous dire que c'est un vrai bonheur de tous les retrouver.
Grace Burrowes adore faire cela : promener ses personnages d'un tome à l'autre de son oeuvre (gigantesque et quasi tentaculaire).
Pour ceux qui la découvrent, je pense qu'il faudrait peut-être une petite remise à niveau, ne serait-ce qu'en lisant les titres sortis en VF, à défaut de se lancer dans les Windham : on croise parfois quelques Windham dans la série des Lords solitaires, et cela peut donner une idée sur la manière dont elle traite la narration ou les galeries de personnages.
En même temps, l'histoire de ce Charme caché peut très bien se lire indépendamment de la série antérieure. En effet, elle se suffit à elle-même, et on peut se contenter de faire tranquillement connaissance avec la tribu Windham sans se tracasser outre mesure, en savourant tout simplement leurs échanges et leurs interventions !
Ne vous attendez donc pas à du Highlander 17ème siècle... C'est de la régence. Ce petit air d'Ecosse nous vient d'un personnage viril et un peu ours, le nouveau (à son corps défendant) duc de Murdoch, un guerrier Highlander tendance Waterloo en bisbille avec les anglais. Un vrai dur à cuire, et à ce titre, un pur Highlander comme on les aime ! GB nous le promène même en kilt, de même que son très séduisant frère à l’œil taquin dont elle narrera les aventures dans le tome 2.
J'ai été plus que charmée par ce titre, malgré quelques longueurs, car il faut bien avouer que la majeure partie du roman, dont le scénario tient à un fil.
Mais les sentiments partagés par les deux héros, si beaux, si justes et joliment exprimés, et toute l'humanité, la douceur, la passion, la justesse, et les quelques traits d'humour, dont GB pare leur relation, valent largement les quelques heures passées en leur compagnie.
-> Cet avis est beaucoup plus développé sur mon blog... ;-)
Vous serre le ventre, vous empoigne le coeur, vous fait retenir le souffle, vous touche, vous frustre, vous atteint, vous emerveille... c'est ce que vous fait ce roman et plus...
Houston, oh Houston! mais quelle souffrance, quelle peines, quelles épreuves... Lorraine Heath a un don pour vous faire vivre les épreuves de ses personnages de manière si réelle, si profonde et si vivante... des épreuves qui rendent Houston plein de doutes, sans espoir, mais qui ne diminuent en rien la grace et la douceur de son âme qui vous font rappeler les chevaux qu'il dresse...
et quel amour! dans le silence, dans les brèves paroles, dans les confidences et dans les épreuves... vous réalisez vous sentez vous comprenez que cet amour ne pouvait pas ne pas être, s'installant dans l'ordre des choses entre Houston et Amélia, leur destin. Deux âmes qui aillent ensemble, de manière si naturelle, si inévitable et si parfaite. La marge de choix dans l'amour est presque inexistence.
Et Amélia, la douce Amélia si féminine, si tendre, si compréhensive, qui fait tomber petit à petit les défenses de Houston, aussi solides soient elles, qui vous touche par son passé douloureux, par ses peurs et sa vulnérabilité...
Les personnages secondaires sont également merveilleux, ce sont les personnages principaux des tomes suivants...
Le point qui m'a dérangé dans ce roman c'est le sens absolu donné à la parole par les personnages. Il faut respecter sa parole oui, mais entre deux maux, ne nous optons pas pour le moindre? Heureusement qu'ils finissent par le réaliser...
Les romans de Lorraine Heath sont des joyaux, impossible de les lâcher tant qu'on ne les a pas terminé, et vous restez dedans longtemps après les avoir terminé. Merci Lorraine pour ces merveilles!!!
Dommage qu'ils ne sont pas traduit en français!
Bof, bof, bof... trop de descriptions inutiles, trop de détails sans importance, trop de passages insignifiants où il ne se passe rien, trop d'évènements inintéressants qui sont pourtant décrits à la loupe, histoire tout simplement plate et qui traîne en longueur au point où je me suis même demandée à un moment si j'allais vraiment le finir (et pourtant je termine toujours un roman commencé au moins en diagonale quand je m'ennuie).
Les seules points positifs sont les personnages qui sont par contre quant à eux hyper attachants. Je dois bien avouer également qu'il y a quelques passages très prenants et d'autres qui sont même carrément poignants. Ceci dit pour le reste ça manque de rebondissements, manque de passion, manque de sensualité, manque de romance tout simplement.
Malgré tout ce livre peut plaire aux lecteurs de romance historique même si dans cette histoire la romance n'est pas le thème principale et tarde d'ailleurs beaucoup trop à démarrer (vers plus de la moitié du bouquin).
Skilled with a sword and quick with her wit, Scottish rebel Claire Stuart cannot be tamed. And nothing can deter her from rescuing her beloved sister and saving them both from arranged marriages--not even the handsome Highlander who vows to protect Claire. His scorching gaze and fiery kiss bring her to the brink of surrender, but she belongs to no man...
Seducing Her Would Be His Reward
Graham Grant has had his share of lasses. But he has never met one as headstrong or as bonnie as Claire--or one with such desperate, dnagerous plans. Helping her could betray his honor, his country, and more. Graham can't claim her. Yet everything in him says: Take her, make her yours, teach her pleasure, and never let her go.