Authors: Mary Balogh
“You look as if you would welcome a glass of lemonade,” the stranger said, setting a hand at the small of her back and leaning down to smile into her face.
Tea was no longer being served on the church lawn. But two tables had been left outside, a large bowl of lemonade and a trayful of glasses on each. Not much of it was being drunk. Most of the older generation had gone home, and the younger people seemed to prefer the ale being served at the inn.
“I would indeed,” she agreed.
They did not speak as they crossed the green and then the road to the church lawn and the table beneath the oak tree where she had found shade from the sun after judging the pie contest. He ladled out a glassful of lemonade for her and watched as she drank it, grateful for its tart coolness. Behind her, out of sight beyond the massive trunk of the old oak, the fiddlers were playing again, the sound of their brisk music mingling with the sounds of voices and laughter. Ahead she could see moonlight gleaming on the surface of the river, which flowed past the village behind the church.
It was a scene she concentrated deliberately upon remembering.
When she had finished drinking, he took the empty glass from her hand and set it on the table. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him if he was not thirsty himself. But there was a certain spell, a certain tension between them that words might break. She had no wish to break it.
She had had no real girlhood—not after the age of nine, at least. No chance to steal away into the shadows for an innocent, clandestine tryst with a beau. There had been no chance for romance or even for light, harmless flirtation. At the age of five-and-twenty she suddenly felt like the girl she might have grown into, had her life not changed forever more than half a lifetime ago. She liked being that girl, however fleetingly.
He slid one arm about her waist and drew her against him. With the other hand he grasped her hair below the ribbon and pulled on it with just enough pressure to tip back her head. Moonlight and tree branches were dappled across his face. He was smiling. Did he always smile, this stranger? Or was he merely indulging today, amid strangers he would never see again, in his own escape from more sober reality?
She closed her eyes when his face dipped down, and he kissed her.
It did not last long. It was not by any means a lascivious kiss. Although his lips parted over her own, he made no attempt to plunder her mouth. His one hand remained splayed firmly against the back of her waist, while the other cupped the ribbon at her neck. She did not for one second lose herself in passion, though she knew she could swoon into it if she chose. She would not so waste a single precious moment. What she did instead
was carefully and deliberately savor and memorize each sensation. She felt his long, hard-muscled, leather-clad thighs against the softness of her own, his abdomen hard against hers, his chest firm against her breasts. She felt the moist intimacy of his lips, the warmth of his breath against her cheek. She breathed in the mingled scents of cologne and leather and man, and tasted on his mouth ale and something unidentifiable that must be the very essence of him. She heard music, voices, laughter, water flowing, a single owl hooting—all from a vast distance away. She twined her fingers in his thick, soft hair and felt with the other hand the well-developed muscles of his shoulder and upper arm.
Beware of a tall, dark, handsome stranger
She drank her brief, clandestine draft of youthful romance from the brim to the very dregs. And then, when he raised his head and loosened his hold on her, she accepted the fact that the day was ended.
“Thank you for the dance.” He chuckled. “And for the kiss.”
“Good night,” she said softly.
He looked down at her for a few moments longer. “Good night, my country lass,” he said in answer, and strode past her, back in the direction of the green.
rellick was a pretty village. He had seen that yesterday, gazing down on it as the main road dipped into the river valley. This morning, as he stood at the taproom window inside the Boar's Head sipping coffee, Lord Ferdinand Dudley noticed the whitewashed, thatched cottages with their neat, colorful flower gardens on two sides of the green. On the riverside stood the stone church, with its tall, slender spire and spacious lawn, in the middle of which stood a great old oak tree. The vicarage, its gray stone walls ivy-covered, was beside the church. He could not see the water from where he stood, just as he could not see the row of shops next to the inn, but he could see the forest of trees on the far side of the river, a pleasantly rural backdrop for the church and village.
He wondered where exactly Pinewood Manor was. He knew it must be reasonably close, since Bamber's solicitor had mentioned Trellick to him as the nearest village. But how close? And how large was it? What did it look like? A cottage like one of those opposite? A house like
the vicarage? A larger building, as its name implied? A dilapidated heap? No one had seemed to know, least of all Bamber himself, who had not appeared to care much either.
Ferdinand fully expected the dilapidated heap.
He could have asked for directions yesterday, of course—it was what he had ridden into the village to do, after all. But he had not done so. It had been well into the afternoon and he had persuaded himself that viewing Pinewood for the first time would be better left until the morning. The gaiety of the village fête into which he had ridden had been partly responsible for that decision, of course, as well as that country lass with the enticingly swinging braid whose laughing eyes he had met across the village green after the children's sack race. He had wanted to stay and enjoy himself—and see more of her.
Just two weeks ago he had not even heard of Pinewood. Now here he was on the verge of seeing it, and wondering what exactly there would be to see. A fool's errand, Lord Heyward, his brother-in-law, had predicted of his journey. But then, Heyward was never strong on optimism, especially where the escapades of Angeline's two brothers were concerned. He did not have a high opinion of the Dudleys, even though he had married one of them.
He ought not to have kissed that woman last night, Ferdinand thought uneasily. He was not in the habit of indulging in flirtations with innocent country wenches. And he suspected that she might be more than just a country wench. What if Pinewood Manor turned out to be very close, after all—and not in ruins? What if he should decide to stay there for a while? She might even turn out to be the vicar's daughter. It was entirely within the realm of possibility, since she had clearly been one of the prime movers of the festivities—and she had stepped
out of the vicarage during the evening. He had not asked who she was. He did not even know her name.
Devil take it, but he hoped she was not the vicar's daughter. And he hoped Pinewood was not so very close. That stolen kiss might yet prove an embarrassment.
Of course, she had been pretty enough to tempt a saint—and Dudleys had never been candidates for sainthood. Her dark red hair and perfect features in an oval face would give her a claim to extraordinary beauty even if one considered her only from the neck up. But when one added the rest of her to the picture… Ferdinand blew out his breath and turned from the window.
was one word that leaped to mind. She was tall and slim but generously curved in all the right places. He had had evidence of that with his body as well as his eyes.
The memory itself was enough to make him uncomfortably warm.
He went in search of the landlord to ask about Pinewood. Then he summoned his valet, who had arrived with his coach and baggage in the middle of last evening, an hour after his groom had arrived with his curricle.
An hour later, freshly shaven and wearing clean riding clothes and boots so shiny that he could almost see his face in them, Ferdinand was riding across the river via a triple-arched stone bridge beyond the vicarage. Pinewood Manor, the landlord had assured him, was very close indeed. The river formed the boundary of its park on two sides, in fact. Ferdinand had not asked for further details. He wanted to see for himself what the place was like. He noticed suddenly that a number of the trees on the other side of the river were pines.
, of course. There was a footpath between the trees and the river, stretching
away to his right until it was lost to view around a sharp bend in the river beyond the village.
It all looked very promising, but he must not get his hopes up prematurely.
It did not matter anyway, he told himself. Even if Heyward's gloomy predictions proved correct, he would be no worse off than he had been two weeks ago. All he would have missed was a week or so of the London Season and the arrival in town of his brother Tresham with his wife and children.
Ferdinand's spirits continued to rise when he found himself riding along a winding driveway shaded by overhanging trees—a driveway wide enough to accommodate even the grandest of carriages and displaying no sign of being overgrown from disuse.
He burst into song, as he sometimes did when alone, serenading the trees around him and the blue sky above. “ ‘Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-laaa. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la. Each with his bonny lass.' ”
But both the song and his forward motion came to an abrupt pause as he rode into the bright sunlight clear of the band of trees and found himself at the foot of a wide lawn. It was bisected by the driveway, which curved off to the left before it reached the house in the near distance.
. Ferdinand whistled through his teeth. It was definitely more than that. It was closer to being a mansion, though that might be something of an exaggeration, he admitted, thinking of the imposing grandeur of Acton Park, his childhood home. Nevertheless, Pinewood was an impressive gray stone manor set in a sizable park. Even the stables and carriage house toward which the driveway turned were not negligible in size.
A flicker of movement to his left drew Ferdinand's eyes
to two men, who were busy cutting the grass with scythes. It was only then that the neat, well-kept appearance of the lawn struck him. One of the men turned to gaze curiously at him, leaning both arms on the long handle of his scythe as he did so.
“That is Pinewood Manor?” Ferdinand pointed with his whip.
“Aye, 'tis, sir,” the man agreed, respectfully touching his forelock.
Ferdinand rode onward, feeling somewhat euphoric. He resumed his singing as soon as he judged himself to be out of earshot of the grass cutters, though perhaps not with quite such cheerful abandon. “ A-a-dancing on the grass,' ” he sang, picking up the song where he had left it off. “ ‘Fa-la-la-la-laaa.' ” He held the high note and noticed that the lawn did not stretch right up to the doors of the manor but ended before a low, neatly clipped box hedge with what looked like a formal garden beyond it. And unless he was much mistaken, there was a fountain in that garden. One that worked.
Why the devil had Bamber been so careless of such an apparently substantial property? Was the house a mere empty shell beyond the respectable outer facade? It was surely damp and horridly dilapidated from disuse, but if that was all that was wrong with it, he would count himself well blessed indeed. Why let the prospect of a little mildew dampen his spirits? He finished the verse of his song with a flourish.
“ ‘La-la-la-la-laaa.' ”
There was a cobbled terrace before the front doors of the manor, he noticed as he approached the stables. The formal garden, consisting of graveled walks, box hedges, and neat floral borders, was below it, at the foot of three broad steps. He was surprised, as he dismounted by the
stables, to be met by a young lad coming out of one of the stalls.
The Earl of Bamber had never lived at this manor in remote Somersetshire or even visited it, if he was to be believed. He had denied any knowledge of it. Yet he seemed to have been spending money on its upkeep. Why else were there two gardeners at work on the lawn and a groom in the stables?
“Are there servants at the house?” he asked the lad curiously.
“Aye, sir,” the boy told him as he prepared to lead the horse away. “Mr. Jarvey will see to you if you knock on the door. That was a right fine display of ball throwing, if you will pardon me for saying so, sir. I could only hit three of them candlesticks myself, and they was much closer when I tried.”
Ferdinand grinned his acknowledgment of the compliment. “Mr. Jarvey?”
“The butler, sir.”
There was a
Curious indeed. Ferdinand nodded affably, strode across the terrace to the double front doors of the manor, and rattled the knocker.
“Good morning, sir.”
Ferdinand smiled cheerfully at the respectably black-clad servant who stood between the opened doors, a look of polite inquiry on his face.
“Jarvey?” Ferdinand asked.
“Yes, sir.” The butler bowed respectfully and opened the doors wider before stepping to one side. His professional glance had obviously informed him that he was confronting a gentleman.