A bemused smile played on Rosalind's lips as she sat in the garden of Apple Hill, repairing yet another hem torn loose by Sukey. The beauty of Kent, the orchard of England, was all around her. As the name indicated, Apple Hill grew mainly apples--seventeen varieties.
The spring glory of blossom time, when the orchards foamed in white and pearly pink, was past, but in the cutting garden, roses and peonies, their heads heavy with petals, nodded in the sunlight. Their perfume scented the air.
It was not the enchantment of her surroundings that caused Rosalind's smile, however. It was the copy of a literary magazine, the Camena, which she had received in the post that morning.
Finally seeing her poetry in print was a joy akin to laying eyes on one's firstborn child. And it was not just a single poem, either. The editor, Lord Sylvester Staunton, had devoted a whole section to his new protégé and written a critique himself. He had praised her work's "refined sensitivity," comparing her love of nature to that of William Wordsworth. Blossom Time was the title she had chosen for her collection of spring poems, composed last spring and polished over the winter.
Lord Sylvester had discovered things in the poems that she had not known were there. Her "sleep of winter" he said, was a metaphor for not only the dormant plants but for the slumbering soul of mankind in the early eighteenth century. Her transformation of barren branches to leaves and flowers in spring, he opined, was the new romantic renaissance in poetry. Even her frozen apple trees were likened by Lord Sylvester to the story of Persephone and a host of other classical myths, many of which she had never heard of. She had dutifully looked up each one in the library to broaden her knowledge, for like most ladies of her class, she lacked real training in the classics.
She felt the publication and the praise were all because Lord Sylvester had mistaken her for a man. For two years she had sent out poems under her own name, only to have them come thumping back to her as too frivolous for the readers of the various magazines to which she had submitted them. The first time she had used her second name, Frances, changing the e to i, she had met with success--and it confirmed her suspicion that it was her sex that had kept her out of print. Her smile held a tinge of gloating. Camena was the most prestigious of all the new literary magazines, and Lord Sylvester had loved her poems.
Wrapped up in her thoughts, she didn't hear Lord Harwell's approach when he came striding through the orchard. He stopped a moment at the edge of the garden, gazing at her, wondering about that smile. It struck him that his neighbor, Rosalind Lovelace, was as pretty as any of the chits he'd left behind in London.
It was unusual to see her sitting at her ease in the garden. She was more likely to be bustling off to the vicarage to help with the chores there, or teaching Sukey to ride, or rushing about her brother's estate in the donkey cart, delivering pork jelly to an ailing tenant or blankets and linen to a new mama.
Sunlight filtered through the branches of the primrose bush under which she sat, dappling her face in shadows. Her brown hair, tinged with copper, gave off sparks of light where the sun struck it. When she glanced up and saw him, she gave him a warm smile of welcome.
He had never considered Roz beautiful, but she had a liveliness and down-to-earth charm that was better than beauty. Her eyes, he thought, were her best feature. It was unusual to see eyes so green. Usually they had some trace of brown or yellow. Hers were the clear, dark, brilliant green of a holly leaf.
He bowed with playful formality. "Good afternoon, Miss Lovelace," he said.
"Hullo, Harry," she replied, and peered playfully over his shoulder. "Home from London once again without a bride, I see. Another Season wasted."
Lord Harwell lived by the credo "Work hard, play hard, and love hard." He devoted six weeks of each spring to loving and playing hard. The rest of the time he was busy about his estate, Drayton Abbey, producing the best hops in the country and introducing improvements in his herd of Guernseys, with occasional breaks for playing and loving to keep his hand in.
"Not entirely wasted," he said, and picked up the sewing basket by her side and sat down. "I enjoyed a few delightful flirtations."
She looked at him from the corner of her eyes. "Getting a bit long in the tooth for flirtations, aren't you?" she chided.
In Rosalind's view, it was past the time when Lord Harwell should marry and settle down. He was the only son; it was his place to sire an heir and train him up to his future role.
Harwell featured largely in Rosalind's daydreams, but she had too much barnyard common sense to let dreams color her reality. Harwell was just a friend. When he married, it would be to some fine lady from the tip of the ton.
He was one of those dashing rogues too rakish to trust, and too attractive to ignore. His dark good looks were more rugged than handsome. A shock of straight black hair fell over his forehead when he removed his curled beaver and tossed it aside. His broad, square shoulders were covered in a well-tailored jacket of blue superfine. In the country, he dispensed with a cravat and wore a comfortable dotted belcher kerchief, but there was no danger of mistaking him for a provincial buck. From head to toe he was the epitome of elegance. His barbering was excellent, his top boots gleamed, and his buff trousers were spotless.
He had the reputation of a flirt, but he had never had a flirtation with his closest neighbor. He was too wise a bird to foul his own nesting area. Over the years, he and Rosalind had settled into an undemanding friendship, like a couple of gentlemen. He had been very helpful, especially to Dick, when Mr. Lovelace had died five years before.
"I expect we are reaching that age where we should bite the bullet and settle down," he agreed.
"We?" she asked, lifting a shapely eyebrow in mock dudgeon. "You can give me close to a decade, Harry. I have not yet hit the quarter-century mark." She was twenty-four, like her twin brother, Dick.
"You can't be far from it. Face it, Roz, bachelorhood stares us both in the face." The words were hard, but spoken in a light manner.
She lifted the tail of her skirt slightly and said, "This, for your information--though I should hardly think you of all people need be told--is a skirt, milord, not buckskins or pantaloons."
His eyes skimmed over her yellow dimity gown with a white bib. As usual, her only effort at adornment was a little cameo medallion. The tail of her petticoat showed beneath the skirt. A perfectly plain muslin affair.
"And a very ... serviceable skirt it is, ma'am. Did I mention petticoats trimmed with lace are all the crack in London this Season?"
"We were discussing my skirt. No need to inquire how you have become familiar with ladies' petticoats."
He gave a rakish grin. "Ask away!"
Rosalind ignored this, as she always ignored his broad talk, unless it passed the bounds of acceptable behavior. "The point is, ladies are not bachelors."
"A thousand pardons. Would it lessen the sting if I had said spinster?" She smiled, when he expected to see a frown. 'You've gone and found yourself a beau!" he exclaimed. "I am disappointed with you. I thought you and I would dodder into senility together, Roz. Who is he?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
"A lady don't smile like a moonling when she's accused of being a spinster if she knows there's a grain of truth in it."
"There's more to life than marriage. But I don't have to tell you that. No need to remind a bee of honey."
"This goes from bad to worse! Setting up as a light-skirt, Roz? But how intriguing!" He grinned rakishly. "You might have saved me a trip to London if you had let me know."
He didn't expect her to blush, nor did she. Neither did she mount her high horse and give him a scold. Miss Lovelace had never had a Season, but neither was she a girl. At four and twenty, she had had her share of beaux and knew something of the world.
"Pray lift your mind--and speech--from the gutter if you can," she said in a perfectly bland voice, and picked up the needle to resume her chore.
"Come now, who is he?" Lord Harwell persisted.
To show her lack of interest in this topic, she said, "Did you bring any company back with you, Harry?"
"No. Who is he?"
"I thought your uncle Ezra might have come. He usually does after the Season, does he not?"
"I got lucky. He has the gout. He's staying at the London house to be near his doctor. Whoever he is--"
"Don't you know who his doctor is?"
"Whoever your lover is, you have my blessing."
"That, of course, weighs heavily on my mind," she said ironically. "And it is not very flattering that you would happily hand me over to any old hedge bird, sight unseen."
"Au contraire! It is a compliment on your good taste and common sense. You would not toss your round bonnet at anyone ineligible. I'm sure he is an unexceptionable old hedge bird."
"That demeaning 'round bonnet' was quite unnecessary, Harry. I'll have you know my new spring bonnet has a six-inch poke."
"The new height is eight inches. Er, what did you say your fellow's name is?"
She gave him an arch smile. "I didn't say," she replied, and plunged her needle neatly into the skirt of Sukey's gown.
"A secret admirer? How ... adolescent."
"No admirer at all. At least not in the way you mean," she said, thinking of Lord Sylvester.
Harwell noticed the soft smile that touched her lips and made the echo of a dimple in her left cheek. A breeze shifted the branch above her, and a shaft of sunlight turned her hair to fire. He gazed a moment, watching the play of sunlight on her cheeks.
"I repeat, a lady don't wear that particular expression if she isn't in love."
A smile lit the green eyes that glanced up from her sewing. "Seen it often, have you, Harry?"
"Only occasionally, and never on a lady I had any wish to marry. If you've settled for a lover, you can do better than whoever he is."
"You don't know who he is."
"I know he ain't me."
"That is ungrammatical, also highly egotistical."
"So you do have a lover! I knew it! You've as well as admitted it."
"One admits to a fault, or an error. There would be nothing amiss in my having a beau. If I had one, which I don't, you would be one of the first to know."
"Then what is making you--glow?" he asked, hesitating over the last word. He had never seen Roz so radiant.
"Springtime, I expect," she prevaricated.
She wanted to shout her triumph from the tree-tops, but discretion kept her silent. As her poetry had been published under a masculine name, she meant to continue the hoax until she was established. Harry had too broad a field of friends and acquaintances to trust him with the secret. She was proud of her work, but it was not something that he would be interested in. As Harwell's friend and neighbor for as long as she could remember, she had never seen him read a poem, or mention one. His reading consisted of the journals, the farming magazines, and for light entertainment, the racing and gentlemen's magazines.
Harry tilted his head, raised one eyebrow, and gave her a quizzing glance. Before he could say more, the air was shattered by a yelp, and a child came hurtling like a bullet onto his lap. The child was closely followed by a barking spaniel, who added his dusty paws to Lord Harwell's spotless buckskins.
The child was Rosalind's young sister, Sukey. A tousle of golden curls tickled his chin. As she turned her head, she smote him with a pair of big blue eyes and a dimpled smile. Sukey had her papa's coloring.
"Harry! Did you bring me a present from London?" she asked. "You said you would. You promised."
"Mind your manners, Sukey," Rosalind said. "A lady does not cadge gifts."
Harry said mischievously, "The sort who throw themselves on a fellow's lap do, actually."
"We are speaking of ladies, Lord Harwell."
He fished in his pockets but came up empty-handed. "Ah, I must have left it at home," he lied, trying to remember what he had promised her.
"What is it? Is it sugarplums?" Sukey asked eagerly.
"That's it." He'd pick some up next time he was in the village.
Rosalind just shook her head. "I don't know which of you is worse--Sukey for begging, or you for promising and then forgetting."
Sukey scowled. "Don't forget next time."
She scrambled down from his knee. As she reached to stroke Sandy's ears, Rosalind noticed she had torn yet another hem. "I have half a mind to put her in trousers," she said. 'That is the second hem she's torn this week. It's pelting after that dog that does the mischief."
"What you need is a kitten, Sukey," he said. "I shall bring you one tomorrow."
Rosalind gave him a knowing look. "That mangy brindle cat of yours has been blessed with another litter, has she? Don't try to palm them off on us. We already have six kittens in the barn."
"I want another kitten," Sukey said.
"One of mine is snow white," Harry said, directing his temptation at Sukey. "A pretty little ball of white fur that just fills the palm of your hand. I call her Snow Drop."
"It would be a her," Rosalind murmured.
"Oh, Roz, can I have her?" Sukey begged. "Can I have Snow Drop? I don't have a white kitten."
"Of course you can." Harwell glinted a triumphant smile at Rosalind. "Your sister wouldn't be so cruel as to deprive you of a snow white kitten."
"Especially when she has already been deprived of the sugarplums she was promised," Roz retorted. "Very well. I daresay there are plenty of mice in the barn to go around. But just one kitten, mind."
"Sukey shall have her sugarplums as well--as soon as I get into the village."
"Thanks, Harry," Sukey said. Sandy went yelping after some new scent, with Sukey flying at his heels.
"Where is Sukey's nanny?" Lord Harwell asked, when they were alone again.
"Miss Axelrod has accepted an offer of marriage."
"Another spinster has accomplished the impossible. Marvelous how you old--older ladies can find someone to slip a set of manacles on."
"And Miss Axelrod all of nineteen. It is really a wonder she had the strength to do it. She left us in May. It is no matter. She was really only a nursery maid. Sukey requires a governess. She will be six this month. Time to get her nose to the grindstone."
Rosalind's smile was tinged with sadness to think of Sukey growing up. Mrs. Lovelace had died giving birth to Sukey. At that time, Rosalind had taken over as mistress of Apple Hill, and as stand-in mother to Sukey. It had thrown Rosalind's life into turmoil. At eighteen she had been betrothed to Sir Lyle Standish. The year of mourning had delayed the marriage. Before the year was over, Mr. Lovelace had died of a chill. The romance with Lyle might have withstood one year of mourning; it was not up to a second. She had regretfully given him his congé. Within the year, he had married the local schoolmistress.
Dick, her twin brother, had been about to go up to Oxford that autumn. Instead, he had been pitched, quite unprepared, into the role of master of a large estate. It had taken his and Rosalind's combined efforts, with ample help from Harwell, to run the place.
Dick was not at all sorry to miss out on university. He was not bookish, but he was very good about estate matters. It was soon clear he had no head for ciphering, though. The keeping of the books and the management of the house fell to Rosalind. There hadn't seemed to be much time to find another husband.
Dick had derived his comfort from riding, hunting, shooting, and those masculine activities of his class. He had recently found himself a lady and was engaged. Rosalind had struck up a friendship with the vicar and his wife and become active in church doings. Her solace, when she was alone, was reading, which soon led to trying her own hand at writing. She had always liked poetry and nature. She wrote about the beauty of the changing seasons. It was a diversion, something happy and peaceful to think about, to keep the blue devils at bay when she was alone.
Harwell, watching as these thoughts left a trace of sadness on her face, said, "Haven't brought him up to scratch yet, eh?"
She jerked back to attention. "What? Oh, still harping on my imaginary beau? No, I was just thinking how quickly time passes."
"Very true. Time flies when one is with a pretty lady. I am referring, of course, to Sukey," he added mischievously, as a light flush colored her cheek. He rose and stretched his long arms. "I must be off for a word with my bailiff. I'll bring the cat tomorrow."
"Harry! You said kitten!"
"Right, the kitten. Snow Flake."
"Snow Drop, you wretch! And she had better be pure white."
"I'll touch her up with talcum powder before I come," he said, and slanting his curled beaver at a dashing angle over his right eye, he left, laughing.