The Year of Our Lord, 1596
Astrological signs indicate a tranquil spring
Thump. Thump. Thump. Her heart thudded against her chest.
'Twas not what the stargazer predicted.
Alone in the garden, Kate watched in terror as the wild beast bore down upon her.
The animal came barreling out of nowhere bounding toward her like a fiend from the netherworld, a large creature with lolling tongue and foaming mouth. Her body stiffened. Immobilized by uncommon fear, she waited breathlessly. Unable even to shift her gaze, Kate spotted the canine's prey from the corner of her eye. The fearsome hound chased a small hare, which hopped toward the hawthorn at great, and enviable, speed.
No sooner had the inevitable flashed through her barely functioning mind than it happened. It had to happen.
In one wild and desperate move, Kate threw herself into the dirt, hoping to avoid a nasty collision. Her frenzied movement caught the dreadful brute's attention at the last possible moment. He made a mighty leap, soaring above her but nonetheless spraying Kate with freshly tilled soil.
Sputtering, she pushed herself to a sitting position and gingerly picked the dirt from her mouth. More of the malodorous manure covered her person than lay under the rosebushes. Chunks of dark, damp earth clung to her hair, splattered on her face, and lodged in scattered clumps on her borrowed gardening attire.
Although never one to mind a little dirt, Kate did not deign to roll in it. She had donned her ailing papa's thick woolen trousers and jacket to work in the garden. She enjoyed gardening. The rich black soil smelled of spring and hope. She'd breathed deeply of it as she planted several new centifolia bushes. Had she been born a man, she would have become a gardener just like her papa.
As she brushed the dirt from her jacket, Kate looked about cautiously. Satisfied the beast had disappeared, she let out a sigh of relief, a heavy, unladylike whoosh of air.
And then she heard the whistle, sharp and piercing.
Her breath stuck in her throat, causing a strangled gasp. She knew that whistle. Surely, it could not be... But it must be.
Oh, double fie! After all these years, to meet Edmund again when she wore more grime than the rushes on a tavern floor. The whistle came again. Kate turned toward the garden path, hoping against hope that it was not Lord Stamford.
But it was.
God save her, she smelled like the stable!
She considered making a run for it, but the sight of him stopped her. Riveted to the spot, she watched him approach.
Tall and solid as a rugged English elm, Edmund strode toward Kate in a hurried, off-step gait. No matter what changes time had made upon his physical person, she would know him anywhere. Her heart fluttered madly. Dressed in simple country attire, his white linen shirtsleeves billowed from beneath a buff leather jerkin; wearing deep russet Venetians, and polished black boots, the earl cut a striking figure.
A surge of joy shot through Kate, sweet and strong. Trembling within and without, she started slowly to her feet, never taking her gaze from the dark-haired man almost upon her. Drawing a deep breath to steady herself, Kate struggled to regain her composure, or at least to quiet her quaking body.
Kate Anne Beadle had not seen Edmund Wydville for well over ten years, and she wished to greet her old childhood friend with some semblance of dignity.
Instead, her shaky knees gave out and she plopped back on her bottom. Branches snapped and thorns pierced her derriere as she hit the dirt. Biting her lip to prevent a yelp, she fought back tears of humiliation as the Earl of Stamford reached her bed of roses.
"Good morrow, Gardener."
His great, warm smile struck her heart directly, as if he had taken special aim. For so long, her heart had been a very still and silent part of Kate, but now it skipped in an alarming fashion.
She forced a quivering smile.
"Are you hurt?" he asked. His forest green eyes darkened with concern.
Kate, still rendered incapable of only the merest movement, shook her head. "Nay," she whispered.
Grasping her wrist, Edmund pulled her to her feet. She could feel the warmth of his hand through her papa's heavy, soil-stained cotton gloves. A warmth that burned like the touch of fire.
The rust-colored beast returned, and Edmund took a firm hold of the chain circling the panting animal's neck, even as Kate took a wary step back.
"Ah, Percy, only see what you have done. Thrown more dirt over this poor gardener than is to be found in the entire garden."
Percy barked in reply. A deep, ferocious sound akin to a lion's roar. She held her breath, eyeing the beast with fresh apprehension.
With his gaze focused on her dirt-covered garments, Edmund did not seem to notice her distress. "I fear your clothes are beyond repair. I shall see that you have new --
" 'Tis not necessary, my lord." Just hold your dog, she thought.
As a child, Kate had been bitten by what had appeared at first to be a harmless greyhound. The bite had gone deep and left her with a distrust of dogs ever since, no matter how playful or innocent they appeared. Edmund, though, had always loved animals. Dogs, cats, ferrets, or birds, he had time for whatever species crossed his path.
"Aye, it is quite necessary," he insisted. "Percy has badly misbehaved on our first day back at Rose Hall."
"I believe he spotted a hare."
"Percy enjoys the hunt, but I shall keep him at heel."
Kate prayed for Edmund's success.
His brows slashed into a frown. "Forgive me. I have not introduced myself," he said, dipping his head briefly. "The Earl of Stamford, at your service."
"Good day, sir."
She could hardly credit it was truly Edmund standing before her.
He did not boast a boring chiseled perfection like some men. The planes of his face were broad and generous, just as his heart. The square set of his jaw projected strength, both of body and spirit.
While Kate contemplated Edmund in dreamy adoration, he stared at her papa's big, ugly boots. Ashamed to be caught wearing them, she shifted her weight as her old friend's bold study moved to the thick woolen trousers and oversized jacket she wore.
Painfully aware of her unsightly appearance, Kate felt ready to sink even as giddy elation spiraled through her. What must he be thinking? When would he recognize her?
The musky heat of the striking earl swirled in the space between them, reached out and wrapped around her, warming Kate like a woolen cloak on a summer's day. His inspection paused briefly on her dirt-adorned face before rising to her wide-brimmed straw hat.
She attempted to smile, but her lips merely twitched.
He did not recognize her. As if he could through all the dirt!
"Bloody hell!" Edmund folded his arms across his broad chest, studying her with a bemused expression. "Despite your dress, I believe you to be a woman."
"I am indeed a woman," she assured him, suppressing the need to both stifle a giggle and crow with delight.
Against all the rules of polite society, and Kate did know her manners, she would keep him guessing all day if she could. After all, he had plagued her relentlessly when she was a child.
But the desire to torment Edmund a bit was quickly dampened by a flicker of impatience. How long would it be before he recognized her? She had recognized him easily enough, although he hadn't had such broad shoulders when he was a green young man of eighteen.
Edmund shot Kate a wry smile before his gaze traveled the length of her once more. "Pray pardon, but do you always dress like a man?"
"I find men's work clothes so much more comfortable for gardening," Kate replied sweetly.
"An uncommon attitude unless..." His voice trailed off. Cocking his head to one side, he craned his neck slightly forward, narrowing his eyes as if he would then be able to see behind the dirt and the oversized clothing concealing the woman before him. "Unless you are--"
"I am Kate," she blurted. "Do you not remember me?"
"Kate?" Edmund's mouth dropped open, his eyes widened, and his dark craggy brows spiked up in astonishment. "Kate Beadle?"
"Aye, my lord."
Obviously stunned, he stood in silence for a moment before the beginnings of a grin creased his quite agreeable lips. His meadow-green eyes sparkled, crinkling at the corners, just as Kate remembered.
"I thought it might be you," he confessed. "For what other woman would dress so?"
"No other, indeed!" she responded jubilantly, not at all offended by his remark. Teasing her had been his way when they were young.
"Kate!" He shouted her name with a deep, rumbling exuberance that certainly could be heard clear to the village, miles away.
And Kate released the joy and laughter locked inside since she'd first caught sight of him. The thrill of seeing her old friend spilled from her like the burst of a waterfall over a mountain bluff.
Before she knew what was happening, Edmund joined her laughter as he scooped her into his arms, twirling her around and around. Their laughter echoed in the quiet countryside.
The earl's behavior was completely inappropriate, and Kate loved it. She loved feeling his strong arms about her, loved hearing the deep laughter erupting from his chest.
Kate had loved Edmund ever since she could remember.
Perhaps she'd loved Edmund since he'd first taken her along on his fishing expeditions. To her mama's chagrin, Kate had been rather a hoyden. She preferred to fish with Edmund than attend a tea party with his sister, Jane. Besides, Jane let it be known in not-so-subtle ways that she found playing with the gardener's daughter sorely beneath her.
Even though there was almost a ten-year age difference between them, Edmund had always treated Kate with kindness. In retrospect, she must have been an annoyance following him about as she did. Anytime she spotted the gangly young man, she would take up his company without leave. She trotted behind him, adoring his every step. To Edmund's credit, he never lost patience with her that she could recall.
They shared a love of the outdoors, and more.
The earl had been an unwelcome addition to his family; Kate had been abandoned by hers. It had been their secret, unspoken bond: two unwanted children who found comfort in each other's company.
Edmund's beast jumped and barked beside them, growing louder and more excited by the moment. When at last her feet touched the ground, she braced herself momentarily against Edmund to keep from falling.
"I fear you have made me quite dizzy, my lord."
"But you shall forgive me? You always did."
With reluctance, Kate stood back from him, from his warmth, from the strength of his arms and the shelter of his spirit. "Do you not think that I may be a different person than when we were children?" she asked.
It was difficult to flirt with a man when one resembled a street urchin. In truth, Kate had no idea why she was behaving in such a bird-witted manner. Edmund had been her childhood friend and could never be anything more. 'Twas useless playing the flirt.
"I shall not allow you to be any different at all." Edmund chuckled, shaking his head in a gesture of wonder. He smiled down at her.
A smile that captured and held her rapidly beating heart.
"I hope you have not changed overmuch," he said.
"Why is that?"
"An independent spirit is rare in a young girl--and admirable."
"Admirable, only to you, I fear." No one else thought it amusing that Kate railed at destiny for having been born a girl instead of a boy.
His lips quirked in amusement, but his gaze remained steady and soft, locked on hers. "I thought never to see you again," he said quietly.
"Nor I, you," she admitted in the barest whisper.
Kate had been a brokenhearted child when Edmund went off to Cambridge. He had not always returned on holidays. Too soon she had been sent to an Italian convent for study. Eventually, she had resigned herself to the idea that she would never be in Edmund's company again.
"How do you fare, Kate?"
"Well. Very well."
"When last I asked after you, Aunt Cordelia told me you had accepted a position as a children's nurse."
He'd thought of her! He'd asked about her!
"Papa has been ill," she replied above the sound of her boisterously pounding heart. Could Edmund hear its thunderous beating? "I was obliged to return home to care for him."
"I confess I am glad for your return, but regret the reason."
"Aye, but Papa has made great strides."
"Have you been doing his work?"
"Nay. I had some idle hours, and if you remember, I always loved the roses."
"And digging in the dirt."
She laughed. "You do remember."
His voice softened. "I remember much, Kate."
She felt a great flapping of gossamer wings in the pit of her stomach. 'Twas the tenderness of his voice to blame, the gleam of his wondrous green eyes. "You were always kind to me, my lord."
"Would you ride with me on the morrow?"
Such an outing would be highly improper. "I would enjoy that very much," she replied quickly.
"We shall ride to the stream and fish for trout."
"The same trout we could not catch years ago?" she asked.
"The very same." His mouth turned up in the same disarming grin he'd had as a boy. "The fish will jump and taunt us, but we shall be engrossed in conversation. I am eager to know every detail of your life during the past seven years."
It had been more than ten years since Kate had last seen Edmund, but she did not correct him. "You shall discover that my life has been uneventful, my lord. And I do not wish to bore you."
"You have never bored me, Kate," he said with a droll twist of his lips. "I shall have cook prepare us a basket."
Kate realized only too well that the Earl of Stamford could not ask her to dine with him at Rose Hall. It simply wasn't done. Certain protocol might be overlooked when they were young, but not any longer. A nobleman of Edmund's rank and station could never form an alliance with a gardener's daughter. Kate remained well beneath Edmund's touch.
Edmund's thoughts were on Kate as he rode over his East Midland estate that afternoon with his steward, Joseph Trumble. As a child, the gardener's daughter had been sassy and sweet, a mixture he'd found amusing. From time to time over the course of the years, he'd wondered about her. He'd speculated on what had happened to the impertinent little girl who believed she could do anything a boy could do--an uncommon attitude that at the time had caused Edmund to fear for Kate's future.
He wondered if nature had favored her. It was impossible to tell through the layers of dirt and manure if she had become a comely miss or an ill-favored wench. The years might have wrought many changes in Kate. His invitation to ride with him had been an impulsive one, one he hoped he would not regret.
For the first time since his arrival, Edmund felt happy to be back at Rose Hall. He did not come often to his country estate, located just north of Leicester. He preferred London's city life and the company of his burgeoning group of companions there. Although he dutifully took his seat in Parliament and was a regular at court, Edmund's heart belonged to gaming and sporting with his intimates. He could think of nothing better than an afternoon of hawking, bowling, or billiards--unless a worthy tennis opponent challenged him to a match.
When Parliament adjourned for the Easter recess, Edmund had journeyed to Rose Hall. He had neglected matters of his estate for too long. Another compelling factor forcing his return was his dear aunt, Cordelia. In her last communication to Edmund, she claimed to be on her deathbed. She warned that if he did not visit soon, he risked never seeing her again.
Edmund expected the old woman had the constitution of a team of oxen and would outlive him by a number of years.
The smell of spring freshened the air and sharpened the puffs of snowy white clouds ambling across the sky. As Edmund rode beside Trumble, he realized he'd forgotten the beauty of the country. Astride his favorite gray, he surveyed the rolling hills, scanned the herds of grazing sheep, and listened to Trumble list the needs of the estate. Percy pranced like a pup beside his mount, barking at anything that moved, including rich green blades of grass stirring in the breeze.
As the afternoon wore on, Edmund felt a deepening sense of peace, a feeling he'd not experienced for quite some time. Hours later, unexpectedly energized by what he could only attribute to the country air, he strode into the great hall where he knew he would find Aunt Cordelia.
"Edmund, where have you been all the day?"
"Reacquainting myself with Rose Hall." Smiling, he brushed his lips against his aunt's parchment cheek.
Evidently, she'd misjudged her toilette and had applied an extraordinarily thick layer of powder. The white talcum filled the crevices of age and gave her complexion a deathly pallor. Her dyed lips presented a startling crimson contrast to her ghostly flesh.
"Why must you spend the day with Trumble when you have not paid a visit to me in many months?"
"And why have you refused my invitations to come visit me in London?" he countered.
She hung her head. Faded yellow ringlets bobbed with a sigh so heavy it weighted the room. "I cannot travel. I am dying."
Edmund rocked back in surprise, stifling a chuckle. "Dying!"
For most of her life Aunt Cordelia had suffered from an acute case of one malaise or another. Aware that imagination seldom led to death, Edmund had never been overly concerned.
"Forgive me, Aunt, but you appear to be in excellent health. One might say... robust."
Aunt Cordelia's double chin and plump figure were not hidden by the wide ruff and volume of her dress. She did not look remotely like a woman withering away from a fatal illness. Further, he knew his aunt kept a close secret. Cordelia sipped sack throughout the day, from dawn's light 'till midnight.
"Do not be deceived by thine eyes." She blinked at him in an accusing manner.
"The surgeon cannot discover what ails me. I have been bled and blistered to what end, eh? I continue to feel weak and indisposed day after day."
"Do you take daily walks in this good country air?"
His aunt recoiled as if Edmund had suggested throwing herself on a bed of nails. "Nay! I could catch something dreadful in the outdoors."
Before Edmund could respond, the door to the drawing room opened. He looked up and experienced his second shock of the day.
"Edmund," Cordelia asked, "do you remember little Kate?"
The air rushed from his lungs.
Little Kate. This was not the smelly, dirt-covered girl he'd discovered earlier that day in the rosebushes, nor the small child with the big round eyes who years ago followed him to his castle in the trees.
The Kate who stood just inside the drawing-room door regarding him with a soft, enigmatic smile was a tall, slender beauty.
Edmund could not be certain he was breathing as he beheld his former fishing companion. A mixture of awe and appreciation fixed him in a near mesmerized state.
Who would have guessed Kate would blossom into a beauty with high, regal cheekbones the same soft pink shade as the garden roses? Who could have known the smattering of freckles he remembered would fade, leaving a flawless, creamy complexion? The child's mass of tangled blond curls had been captured and tamed by the woman. Kate's sleek honey mass had been pulled back and covered by a net caul at her crown.
She wore a simple open gown of violet silk over voluminous petticoats. The low square neckline of her cream-colored bodice displayed a tantalizing view of full, round breasts.
Edmund felt warm of a sudden. Without ruff or farthingale, Kate managed to be more attractive than any lady of his acquaintance dressed in the height of fashion.
"My lord," she said. Her lips parted in a teasing smile as she made a slight curtsy.
Edmund drew a ragged breath.
"Edmund?" his aunt repeated.
Jarred from his stupor, he grinned and strode across the room. "Mistress Kate! What a delightful surprise." He winked as his eyes met hers. Clasping her hand in his, Edmund slowly brought her fingers to his lips, brushing them softly.
"I fear I keep appearing where you least expect me," she said. Her wide amber eyes sparkled like spun gold.
The pulse at his wrist raced.
"I am charmed, nevertheless," he replied, lowering his voice to an intimate aside. "But I must confess I hardly recognized you without your gardening attire."
"Or dirt?" she asked with a saucy grin. Her lips were scarlet and dewy, as if she'd just run her tongue across and wetted them.
Fleetingly, Edmund wondered if Kate's lips had ever been kissed. She smelled of rosewater. The sweet flower scent drew him closer. "You have become a beautiful young woman," he said, rather hoarsely.
They stood inches apart. The urge to gather Kate into his arms and whirl her about again struck Edmund with amazing force.
"You flatter me, my lord. Time has made changes."
Edmund nodded, willing his body to cool, his eyes to look away. "Time has blessed you."
She gave him a brilliant smile. "You appeared surprised when first you saw me."
Kate had always spoken what was on her mind. 'Twas a disconcerting habit Edmund had hoped she had outgrown. Apparently, she had not.
"Not at all," he mumbled.
Embarrassed, Edmund took Kate's elbow intending to hurry her to his aunt's side. But she balked. She scanned the room, searching for someone or something.
"Is something amiss?" Edmund asked.
"Is... is your hound about?"
"No. Percy waits downstairs."
"Did you find my comfrey?" Aunt Cordelia asked, unmindful of Kate's apprehension.
"Aye. 'Tis here." Kate held up the ivory vial and carried it to where the old woman waited impatiently. " 'Twas in your bedchamber, just as you suspected."
"God reward you," Cordelia declared. "In my delicate condition, 'tis necessary to keep the comfrey close at hand, eh?"
Edmund gave a nod without taking his eyes from Kate.
"Sit here, Kate." Cordelia blinked as if the dim room had suddenly flooded with sunlight. She patted the bench beside her box chair. "Kate has been a fine companion to me since she came home to nurse her papa," his aunt explained to Edmund.
"I am certain that she's an excellent companion.
She always was," Edmund replied as he met Kate's eyes.
"Fortunately, Papa has not required all of my time, so I have been able to visit regularly with your aunt."
"Kate plays the lute, you know," Cordelia said, flicking a speck of lint from her black wool shawl.
"Nay, I did not know."
"And she plays draughts with me."
"A woman of many talents," Edmund offered.
"Aye. And, oh, my dear, when I have the headache, she gives the most comforting strokes about my forehead, and here at my temples." Cordelia demonstrated with her own gnarly fingers while she talked, "Kate all but chases the pain away, eh? She is more effective than any herb."
Edmund imagined Kate's slender fingers caressing his brow with the soft, feathery touch of an angel. He could almost feel her fingers trailing down to his chest, splayed against his heart. With his eyes wide open Edmund could even dream of her hands drifting still further down.
Bloody hell! What was he thinking? Such devil thoughts were blasphemous in the company of his spinster aunt and a lovely young virgin. But was Kate a virgin?
Bloody hell! Had he lost his mind? The state of Kate's virginity was no business of his. Had he been brought to the brink of madness by the country air? Or was it something in the gardener's daughter's smile? He knew not.
"I shall miss Kate when she leaves," Cordelia lamented.
"When she leaves?" Edmund repeated. "Where are you going, Kate?"
"Since Papa has recovered, I have applied for another position as nurse."
A small part of Edmund relaxed. Her departure did not appear imminent. "Will you be happy as a nurse?"
"Aye, my lord. I am quite fond of children."
Her smile was warm enough to melt an iceman's heart.
"Then why not marry and have children of your own?" he asked.
'Twas a forward question, but the thought of his childhood friend laboring as an unappreciated servant rankled Edmund. Even worse was the thought of what untoward demands might be forced upon Kate behind the stairs. Many of his fellow noblemen were infamous for taking liberties with the more fetching help. If Kate was a virgin now, she might not be for long.
Pursing her lips, heavenly lips in Edmund's opinion, Kate considered the question. "Someday I shall. I look forward to having children... but I am not yet ready for marriage."
"The vicar is smitten with our Kate," Aunt Cordelia offered in an exaggerated whisper before heaving a sigh. "But I can hardly see a future for her with him, eh? Dudley is twice her age and has a dreadful over-bite."
"Are you matchmaking for Kate, Aunt Cordelia?"
"Not at all," she snipped. Visibly affronted, she quickly changed the subject. "Will you stay to hear Kate play or are you off to join Mister Trumble once more?"
"Forgive me, but I must meet often with Trumble while I am at Rose Hall."
"But I shall see thee before nightfall, Edmund, eh?"
"Most certainly, Aunt." Edmund shot his aunt a reassuring smile and then turned to Kate. "I look forward to our next meeting, Mistress Kate."
She lowered her head demurely, but not before he caught her enchanting smile and the sparkle of gold in her eyes. "As do I, Lord Stamford."