"Jilted! My daughter! How dare that... if he thinks he's going to get away with... jilted!"
"Not jilted, Father," Lillian said when Mr. Canfield was forced to take a breath. "Lord Reyne and I simply agreed we did not suit."
"Put a good face on it, my girl. By tomorrow, everyone will know he's thrown you over for that East chit." This was by no means the first time he'd brought up this point during their conversation. When she'd come to him an hour ago to tell him her engagement was at an end, he'd been rendered almost speechless. The first words from his lips had been, "My God, what will the ton say?"
Lillian continued, "I'm very fond of Sarah. She and Alaric should find a life of perfect bliss together. I could never have made him half so happy."
"Happy! You're Jacob Canfield's daughter. I've settled four thousand a year on you in your own right. How much more happiness does a fellow need?"
Her father could never understand her dream of marrying only a man for whom she could feel true affection. She'd given up trying to explain. He thought that any male with a decently respectable title was all any young woman could ask for. He'd done everything he could to bring Lord Reyne and Lillian together, even announcing the date of their wedding without consulting either of them.
All the same, Lillian did not blame her father for the termination of her engagement. There had never been even the possibility for anything but mutual respect between her and Alaric, Earl of Reyne. For Lillian, that had not been enough.
"Perhaps there is something wrong with me," she murmured.
"Eh? What? What did you say?"
"Nothing, Father. It doesn't matter."
"Oh, no, it doesn't matter to you! You don't foot the bills. That last evening dress you bought cost..."
Lillian had inherited more than dark eyes and hair from her father. She'd also received a goodly portion of his temper. Always, she struggled to keep it under control by taking a moment to repeat a psalm silently before speaking. But not all the psalm murmuring in the world would keep her silent now. It had already been a very trying day. "If I am too great an expense to you," Lillian said, "perhaps it would be best if I retired to the country house for a time."
"Aye, cower away! No decent man of rank will look at another's leavings. The nobility's fussy that way. All the money I've spent to make you a fitting bride for a duke or earl! I might just have hurled it into the fire. If you don't get carried off by some fortune hunter, you'll most likely marry some jumped-up tradesman's son."
"Then I will at least have kept to my class."
At that, her father began almost to gibber. He hated to be reminded that he'd gotten his start behind a draper's counter before heading off to India to make his fortune.
Lillian stood up. "I think," she said, "that I should accept Lady Pritchard's standing invitation to visit her home in Rochester. You recall my old school friend, I'm sure. I have no wish to be a burden to you, Father."
"Perhaps you're right. We can put it about that it's a long-arranged visit. Yes, yes, a clever notion that. Give the ton time to forget." The tall nabob patted his daughter's cheek awkwardly. "Perhaps it's my fault for taking you off to the East when you were seventeen. We should have come back in time for your come-out. I didn't realize my business would take three years. I should have sent you home."
"No, Father. I loved India. We should go back someday."
With a flash of renewed anger, Mr. Canfield said, "And then two years fending off the worse sort of shabsters and ... you can't say I haven't tried to find you a worthwhile husband! And the finest of the crop you have to whistle down the wind!"
"Believe me, Father, I appreciate all you have done. But it is best that I do not marry Lord Reyne. He loves Sarah, not me."
The end of the Season, two or three weeks distant, could not arrive quickly enough for Lillian. Though she made it abundantly clear that the end of her engagement to Lord Reyne had been amicable on both sides, she still had to meet stares, whispers, and impertinent questions everywhere she went. Lillian left London as soon as she decently could.
Lady Paulina Pritchard was a wealthy widow for all she was only twenty-six. She had married an elderly baron immediately upon leaving school at eighteen. Though she and Lillian had shared little in common while attending the same school, as they were four years apart in age, they'd met again when Lillian first appeared as goods on the marriage mart. Lord Pritchard himself had died at the end of 1807, and Lillian had paid several visits to her bereaved friend who was living so quietly in Kent.
"My dear, dear Lillian! Such a surprise! But how did you know I wanted you? This old house is so dreadfully boring without friends."
"You have no one visiting you then?" Lillian asked, after being embraced in welcome.
"No, not a soul. Well, there are those tedious Garnet girls and their mother. And Lord and Lady Winchell. As well as Mr. and Mrs. Mackesy. Honorables, you know. But other than them, not a soul. No one I can really talk to! Nobody sympathetic!" Paulina gave a great sigh and threw herself into an armchair in a welter of lace and blue muslin.
Stripping off the gloves and gypsy hat in which she'd traveled down from London, Lillian said, "Why, what's amiss?"
"Thorpe's hiding something from me.... I can feel it!"
Lillian was accustomed to Paulina's theatrics and so did not gasp with horror. Opening her carriage robe, she sat down opposite Paulina and said, "Who is Thorpe?"
"Surely, I told you... oh, perhaps not. We met three months ago, at the Duke of Grantor's house. From the moment I looked into his eyes, I knew that this was the man who could replace dear Pritchard in my lonely life." Paulina shook back her head, the cropped red curls bouncing. "I know he felt the same. We had only two blessed weeks before he was suddenly called home, but I know had it been longer I would be planning my wedding now. That reminds me, how soon will you and dear Alaric be married?"
"We shan't be getting married. Didn't you see the statement in the Gazette?"
"No. Oh, that's too bad. But about Thorpe... the entire time we were together, his preference for my company was deeply marked. We agreed that I should come at once for a visit, but every time I mention it in one of my letters, he sends back an evasive answer. I know he is keeping something from me. Perhaps something scandalous!"
"Perhaps it isn't a convenient time for him. What does he do?"
"Do?" Paulina asked blankly.
"Yes. Is he a lord, a farmer, a... a tinker? How does he occupy himself?"
Paulina laughed sparklingly. "Oh, my dear girl, whatever are you thinking of? He doesn't do anything. He's Thorpe Everard. You must have heard of him. Everard of Mottisbury Castle." When Lillian shook her head, Paulina said, "He's simply one of the wealthiest men in England. I'm sure your father would know who he is."
"I'm sure he would. But I do not. Would I know him by his title?"
"Thorpe doesn't have a title. Why does he need one? The Everards never would accept any of the titles kings tried to give them. They have this vulgar tendency to want back the money they loaned to royalty. That's what the kings used to do, you know. Instead of paying back the loans, they'd make the loaners knights or barons or something. That's where we found our title. But the Everards have such family pride."
"If he's as haughty as all that, Paulina, you will simply have to await his pleasure. He'll send for you, no doubt."
"Oh, Thorpe is very proud. Too proud to let me discover what his trouble is. If only I could find out some other way." She pressed her fingers against her forehead. 'Then we could discuss it, arrange the matter, and get married. I don't care what the secret is. I'd be loyal to him through anything."
"You love him so much as all that?"
"Love him?" For a moment, Paulina turned the large diamond ring on her left hand, a memento of her first husband. "Oh, to be sure."
Dinner was a noisy meal. Paulina preferred laughter, even at the silliest things, to intelligent discussion. Lillian was glad to escape upstairs to the nursery after the meal. But the person she sought there was gone. The nursery was thick with dust and the schoolroom no better. Swathed in holland covers, the rooms had an eerie, abandoned aura.
Returning to the withdrawing room, Lillian asked, "Paulina, where is Lewis?"
"Oh, didn't I tell you? He's gone to school."
"School? Isn't he ... that is, he's seven now?"
"Yes, I think so." Paulina looked up at the ceiling while she counted on her fingers. "Yes, that's right."
"Will he come home for the summer? You know how fond I am of him."
"No, I'll be at Brighton and it's no place for a boy. I've made arrangements for him to spend the holidays at school. It was supportable to have him home while I was living so retired in mourning for Pritchard, but now..." Paulina lifted her creamy shoulders, displayed to such advantage in her low-cut green gown.
Changing the subject, she fell to admiring the fine sapphires around Lillian's throat, a gift from Mr. Canfield on her eighteenth birthday and her favorite among all her jewels. Lillian felt that Paulina would like to know how much they'd cost but hoped her friend was not quite bold enough to ask directly.
It was halfway through a raucous game of forfeits that Lillian became aware that Paulina was studying her with an appraising air warranted by something other than jewels. She tried to ignore it, but every time she looked up, it was to meet her hostess's eyes. Therefore, when a rap sounded at her door after she'd prepared for bed, Lillian knew it had to be Paulina.
After beating about the bush for some little time, the baroness came to the point. "Would you go to Mottisbury for me? I know it is a great deal to ask, but I have been thinking.... Thorpe doesn't know you. He hasn't been near town this Season or last. He said he finds it boring. You could go-- you could find out what it is he's keeping from me."
"You want me to spy on him?"
"Yes, but only for his own good. I will make him very happy and I... I need to marry him."
Though Lillian was shocked that her friend had put forward such a suggestion, she tempered her response when a few crystal tears slipped from Paulina's wide blue eyes. "You must see that I can do no such thing."
The baroness sniffled. "But... but you're the only one of my friends I can trust. The rest of them are so empty-headed, but you, Lillian, you're so sane and serene. I know you could do it."
"No doubt, but I--"
Breaking in, Paulina said, "Listen, I have everything planned. Thorpe has a six-year-old daughter. We've discussed raising children; he thinks my ideas very sensible. Anyway, he needs a governess for little ... little ..." Paulina concentrated for a moment and then shook her head.
"I thought," she continued, "that if I wrote a reference, you could take this position for a few weeks and then come back and tell me everything you found out. I'd go myself in the twinkling of a bedpost, but I'm sure he'd recognize me at once no matter what disguise I affected. You, on the other hand, could easily look like a governess. Of course, you'd have to change your name. He's bound to have heard of your father."
"I cannot. It wouldn't be right. Besides, there is no chance of my fooling anyone. I cannot even play in amateur theatricals with any conviction. You should simply ask Mr. Everard what the trouble is. I'm sure he will tell you."
"I tell you he won't! He's too proud." Paulina paced up and down the room and then stopped at the foot of the bed. "Well, Lillian, if you don't feel you can do it, there's an end to the matter. Now, I'm thinking of expanding my house party. What say you to Mrs. Henderson-Phipps, Mr. Lloyd Gilfoy, and Lady Anne Winslow?"
"Do you want to invite three of the most noted gossips . .. oh, Paulina, you wouldn't."
"Wouldn't what?" The clear blue eyes were innocent, but a smile flirted with the corners of her mouth. Lady Pritchard looked like the kitten who knew where the back door to the mouse hole lay.
"I shan't stay to be interrogated by those three."
"Of course not. You shall go to Mottisbury. It happens I have a letter of reference right here. I had Mrs. Garnet sign it, testifying that you cared for Margot and Matilda the last four years. Of course, you'll have to look older than you are, as they are turned eighteen, but that shouldn't be difficult."
"And what if I go home to my father rather than to do your bidding?"
"Why then I shall be forced to tell Mrs. Henderson-Phipps, Mr. Lloyd Gilfoy, and Lady Anne Winslow how upset you were over the severing of your engagement to Lord Reyne, how you spent the night sobbing on my shoulder, and cursing the girl who took him away from you. Let me see, her name is Sarah East, isn't it? I hear she's a very pleasant girl, but how many of the ton will be confirmed in their notions of her as a scheming minx who made a dead set at Alaric, I wonder? You see, I've had letters from town about her already." Again, Lady Pritchard smiled. Lillian could almost hear the feline purr as she, a mouse, scampered between the paws, velvet as yet but hiding razor claws.
Therefore, with mixed feelings. Miss Lillian Canfield boarded the post chaise on Monday, five days later. Mottisbury was two days by coach from Rochester, Kent. Horsemen had done the journey, carrying missives back and forth, in less time than that, but a governess could not ride breakneck across country.
Her fellow passengers quickly dispersed. Loving husbands were embraced by wives and children. An old man walked off arm in arm with his equally aged wife. Friends greeted one another with joyous cries. Lillian had no alternative but to follow her baggage across the dusty street and into the posting inn.
The landlord's lady showed her into a quiet room when she learned the lone girl was the new governess at the castle. "No doubt someone will be along to fetch you up before long, miss. You wait in here and I'll bring a goodly glass of lemonade as soon as I find a minute."
'Thank you. It was a hot and dusty trip."
"Aye, there's been little enough rain this spring." The landlady bustled off.
After brushing off her pelisse, Lillian looked out the window. She saw a green and peaceful garden walled off from the busy marketplace. If there'd been little rain, one would not know it by this oasis. Red and yellow turk's caps nodded on long stems amidst dense green foliage. The grass plot was ringed with brick paving stones, and birds splashed playfully in a small fountain. Lillian felt she would like to find the way into the garden, to cool herself while waiting to go to the castle.
Just then, however, she saw someone move. A pretty girl in a white apron stepped out onto the grass. She looked back over her shoulder and smiled. Lillian could not hear through the glass, but felt certain the girl giggled. A young man followed, his rough clothing covered by a leather apron such as ostlers wore. For a moment, the girl stood pensively, trailing her fingers in the water. Then she flicked her fingertips at the young man. Dodging away from his teasing grabs, she at last fell into his arms. Their kiss was long. Then the boy raised his head, listening. Quickly, the two parted, though not without a backward glance.
Lillian felt ashamed of herself for spying on these clandestine lovers. Yet, even as she berated herself, she sighed. In her heart, she knew that love was not for such as she. Her heart had never leapt at a man's approach, nor had her cheek ever grown pale or flamed into rose when some gentleman spoke. Not even for Alaric Reyne, an earl of undoubted attractions.
Twenty days ago she'd understood in a flash what lay between Alaric and Sarah East. She had correctly interpreted, as they had not, the expression in his eyes when he'd looked upon the golden beauty of the other girl. Lillian had not felt jealousy then, but she felt it now. Jealous, not of Alaric, for she'd not loved him. Jealous, rather, of those who had felt the king of emotions take command of their heart.
She leaned her hot forehead against the cool glass and felt tears burn her eyes. Her heavy traveling dress, borrowed from her maid, was uncomfortably tight in the bodice. The door opened, but Lillian did not turn. It would just be the landlady with the lemonade. She'd welcome a cooling drink.
"Miss Cole?" a strong male voice said from behind her. "Are you Miss Cole?"
With a start, she recalled that was the nom de guerre Lady Pritchard had chosen for her. "Oh! Yes," Lillian said, as her hand stole up to touch her cheek. She was relieved to find it dry. With a bright smile she turned and then reached for the wall behind her as her knees surrendered their support.
"How do you do, Miss Cole. I'm Everard of Mottisbury Castle." She could see what Paulina had meant about his pride, but the other woman had not mentioned the excellent reason he had for it.
"How--how--" Lillian stuttered.
"Are you quite well?" His eyes, the rich green of a sunlit sea, narrowed as he surveyed her, beginning with her disarranged locks and ending with the round toes of her boots peeking from beneath her bedraggled hem.
Lillian straightened up under that penetrating gaze. "I'm perfectly well, Mr. Everard. The coach was very hot."
"I've come to take you up to the castle, but I will wait until you've taken some refreshment. I heard a reference to lemonade?"
The landlady hustled in, a sweating earthenware jug and two mugs on a tray in one hand. Lillian watched but saw no undue reaction on the lady's features. Perhaps she was used to seeing Mr. Everard in town and the impact was lessened. It seemed unthinkable to Lillian.
A man had no right to look like this. Or, if he must be splendid, he certainly had no right to surprise a woman without warning. Such a paragon should be equipped from birth with a herald to go before him and announce to the female kind that a dream walked among them.
Her hand shook as she lifted the cup. "Very good," she said after drinking.
"Have another," Mr. Everard said. "We've plenty of time. I shan't hurry you. You seemed rather flushed just now, when I came in."
Lillian blushed all the brighter. She was not used to personal comments, at least not to such unflattering ones. And it was a wonder she'd only turned red. A more susceptible woman, she imagined, would have dropped down in a dead faint.
"The young lady must be rattled half to death, the way those big coaches sway," the landlady said sympathetically as she left the room.
"There is no reason to be concerned," Lillian answered. "I'm entirely at your disposal, Mr. Everard. I cannot wait to meet my pupil." That seemed to be the sort of thing she remembered her own governess saying, when new. Perhaps this pretense would be as easy as Lady Pritchard had predicted.
She took up her pelisse and stood waiting. Surely he'd not be able to resist one swift glance in the mirror above the fireplace before they left the inn. She'd met many a handsome man in London, and she knew what they were like--more in love with their own reflection than with the living face of any woman. Looking at Mr. Everard's thick black hair, she decided he must have spent a good hour before the glass arranging it to lie in those rich waves.
Thorpe Everard put his mug on the table next to hers. "Very well. I know Addy has been beside herself all day waiting for you." A grimace twisted the line of his firm mouth a moment. He ran his hand over his cheek and chin. She could hear the rustle of afternoon whiskers. Then his big brown hand lifted to his head and he raked his fingers through his hair, leaving it even more attractive than before.
"I confess. Miss Cole, my daughter has never yet had a governess. My grandmother has had sole charge of Addy almost since her birth. Are you tactful?"
A warm smile came to his face. Lillian had to drop her eyes. It really wasn't fair. He had a tremendous natural advantage in any conversation. He said, "I'm afraid I've never acquired the knack of saying one thing when I mean another. I hope you have the talent for smoothing down hackles, or you may not last in my house, Miss Cole. As she never had a governess in her youth, my grandmother is of the opinion that governesses are unnecessary. I didn't tell her you were coming. Neither she nor Addy may take the notion of a resident teacher with equanimity."
"I'm sure I shall manage," Lillian said with a lift of her chin. A challenge of this sort was precisely what she needed to take her mind off her deception. Lady Pritchard had never managed to remember Thorpe's daughter's name, so Lillian was glad to have that piece of information. "Addy's a charming name."
"It's an abbreviation of Adrienne. When she was small, she couldn't pronounce it. Now she won't answer to it." Lillian saw a gleam of pride in green eyes unveiled by thick dark lashes.
"Lady .. . Mrs. Garnet said your daughter is six. Does she know her letters?" Oh, dear, she'd have to be more careful. He didn't seem to notice the slip, however.
"I think so. I'm not quite sure. My grandmother thanks no one for interference. Not even me. Especially not me. Men, in her opinion, are as unnecessary as governesses. Is this yours?" At her nod, he lifted her valise without effort. "You did not bring very many things, Miss Cole." How wicked of nature to give him the facility of lifting one black brow without troubling any of the other muscles of his lean face.
"I was not sure what I would need. I can send for the rest of my belongings as I require them."
"Such foresight. Or perhaps wisdom. You may yet run screaming out the front door."
"You make the castle sound like something from Otranto," she said, following him through the inn. "I trust you have no resident monsters." It would be too bad, she thought, if this magnificent-looking man is henpecked, but she could not expect a paragon to be strong willed.
"Grandmother's a ... no, she's not as bad as all that. Merely used to being in command. I don't mind, as long as she doesn't try to rule me. That is a battle she will not win. Take my advice and stand up to her."
"I shall." She returned his gaze with great firmness, ignoring the strange quiverings of her knees. The corners of his mouth lifted in a smile of great charm, showing front teeth that overlapped the tiniest amount. Rather than diminishing his great good looks, this insignificant flaw brought everything else into perspective. Despite the strange quivering rising into her midsection, Lillian did not look away.
Thorpe chuckled. "I believe you could do it. But you're rather young. And small. Those Garnet girls are nearly grown, aren't they? How ever did you manage them at your age?"
"I am older than I look."
"You'd have to be." He stowed the valise in an exquisitely sprung curricle with a gleaming black body. "You'll want to hold on to your bag, lest it jounce out onto the road," he said. He held out his hand to help her to mount.
On an average day in London, she might require the assistance of a gentleman fifteen or twenty times. A glove was usually sufficient to prevent the contact from affecting her. But a cricket player's leather would not have saved her from the warmth of Thorpe Everard's touch. It seemed to reach through all barriers and take her over.
"Ready?" he asked with another of his devastating smiles.
Dear heaven, there was a dimple in his left cheek, the length of the tip of her forefinger. She could just imagine touching his face so that her finger fit into the impression made for it.
She sat silently beside him as he flicked the reins over the horses' backs. She was silent now because she was striving for control. This was ridiculous, this riot in her body and mind. All the more so, she scolded, when it is obvious that he is completely unmoved by my presence. Perhaps he wasn't even aware that he had this effect on women. Perhaps it wasn't him at all.
The sun was certainly very hot, and she'd stepped out of the dark coach into the bright sunshine without a moment between the two. It was sunstroke, she decided. Let her lie down in a cool, dark place and this fancy would leave her.
Driving by a field, Lillian turned her head to observe the people working diligently among the rows. As they passed, all the women, young or old, came racing forward to wave and smile at the curricle.
"People in Mottisbury are very friendly," Mr. Everard said. He briefly saluted the massed women with his whip. Something like a sigh passed through them, though it might have only been the breeze.
"Indeed, I can see that." She could also see that the men in the field leaned sullen faced on their implements until the curricle had gone past. Looking behind her, Lillian saw that some girls returned to their work, but many stood staring after the man in the vehicle.
Apparently, Lillian thought, I am only one of many. No wonder Paulina wants to marry him. Oh, well, at least I shall be spending most of my time with the little girl. In ten days, I shall say we do not suit and go back. Paulina will simply have to believe that I could not find anything out. And I shan't, not if I have anything to say about it.