Raindrops struck Laura's straw hat with a splattering sound. She ran over the damp grass, trailing the skirt of her blue-checked tennis suit over a rosebush, and sending bursts of crimson petals into the air. Ahead, the white-painted gazebo offered shelter. It also offered seclusion.
"Run or you'll get soaked, slow-top," she called to the man who ran behind her. Howard Farmer her associate from Cambridge University was her tennis partner for the weekend.
He leapt a rose bush, and then with agile grace, vaulted the gazebo balustrade. He stood with one slim, white flannel leg crossed over the other in a studied pose as she ran up the steps. "Slow top, eh?"
"I caught my skirt." Laura tossed her racquet onto the wicker table.
He smiled at her. "Are you mad because I didn't let you win the last set?"
She frowned. "My skirt. Again."
A smile crinkled the corners of his hazel eyes. He came close and brushed a wet curl from her brow.
At the gentle touch of his fingers, Laura drew a deep breath and tucked her hair firmly behind one ear. Moving to the railing, she gazed out at the rain. If only she could wear the knickerbockers now in fashion. It didn't bother her that her mother would be shocked. Her father, however, would think she looked like one of the new breed of women who would rather bed a woman than a man. She had overheard him saying as much to Mother over the newspaper at breakfast. Her mother had shushed him with a glance in her direction. He already accused Laura of being far too competitive to be feminine. She could play golf and tennis as well as most men, so why should she pretend otherwise? As to her sexual proclivities, he would be quite wrong. She definitely planned to make love with a man.
"You often seem angry." Howard stood so close, his breath tickled her ear. "I don't understand why."
"Why should you?" she said folding her arms. "You're a man. You're free. I can only dream of such choices."
The shower eased off to a drizzle and a ray of sunlight broke through the clouds.
"I've enjoyed the tennis," Laura said, in an effort to regain her good nature. "But I must go and change for the party." Up at Cambridge she thought she knew who she was. She wasn't used to the complex feelings that now pulled at her.
They gathered up their rackets and balls, and strolled along the avenue of dripping beech trees, to its far end where the house stood.
Laura loved the garden after rain; it reminded her of replenishment and renewal. Of rebirth. A carpet of bluebells painted the ground beneath the trees and the grass seemed luminous. The pungent smell of wet earth drifted in the air. As they drew closer to the house, she slipped her arm through Howard's. She couldn't help smiling when she gazed at him. He looked so attractive with his keen hazel eyes and floppy, fair hair curling over his collar. Her mother had shaken her head and said he needed a haircut.
They reached the end of the avenue. Howard paused to gaze up at the warm brick walls of Grisewood Hall. "Quite a place your parents have here."
It was a pretty house, Laura had to admit, newly built in the Queen Anne style with a soaring roof, turrets and bay windows, settled into the grounds of an old garden. "Should be called the mad house," she murmured, as they entered the lofty marble-tiled hall. "Particularly today."
Black-skirted maids in white aprons, rushed past carrying silverware and crystal glasses, laying tables in the dining room. Waiters struggled with huge urns of exotic, hothouse flowers.
"Come through to the breakfast room," Laura said. "You can't go home damp, you'll catch cold."
"Do you care about my health?" Howard asked with a grin.
"I wouldn't like to be responsible for you catching your death," she said evasively. "I'll fetch you a towel."
The rain had driven the afternoon's garden party indoors. Laura's father, Lord Palmer, a prominent political figure in the Liberal party, held many such social events at their Wimbledon home.
She met her mother on the stairs. "You look like a drowned kitten, Laura." Lady Palmer's eyebrows rose. "You should be dressed to receive our guests. Your rose pink satin is laid out for you and Mary is waiting. I hope she can do something with your hair."
"My yellow crepe with the navy braid shall do." Laura put her hand to the damp, auburn coil at her nape. Her neck felt hot and not just from the recent exercise. "I can manage my own hair." Her mother frowned. "If you insist on having Mary do it, Mother, I'll have it all cut off and sell it. Then donate the money to charity."
Her mother's frown turned to one of pained resignation. "Now that you have finished the ridiculous, literature degree, which did nothing but give you airy fairy ideas, your father and I intend to cast about for a suitable husband for you. Your future is not under your control." A jerky movement with her hand indicated the breakfast room where Howard waited. "And it won't be that penniless, young man."
Laura turned on her heel and headed down the hall. She found Howard chatting with a young maid. "You'd best dry your hair." She tossed him the towel as the maid scurried away eyes lowered. "Before you get the staff sacked."
He smiled as he rubbed his hair. "You can't be jealous."
"No. I can't." She folded her arms across her chest.
He threw down the towel, took her hand and drew her behind a marble pillar. "Why did you ask me down?"
She removed his hand from her arm. "You're good company."
He gazed at her, shaking his head. "I felt there might be something between us, but I can't get close to you. What are you defending? Your honor is safe with me, if that's what you wish."
Blond chest hair peeped from his open collar, unsettling her. He could make her laugh and laughter was an aphrodisiac, or so her women friends at Cambridge told her, when they discussed their sexual exploits. She planned to have experiences of her own very soon. Why not Howard? The thought caused a ripple of excitement to pass through her. A warning bell sounded in her head and she moved away. "You're too serious."
His hazel eyes searched hers. "Too serious for what?"