Authors: Mia Marlowe
Copyright Â© 2014 by Diana Groe
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Cover art by Victor Gadino
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For the Norwegian Hunk, my hero always.
Where one stands on a matter depends upon where one sits. When someone else is holding court on one's settee, spreading delicious falsehoods, one is tempted to brand them a liar. When one finds oneself on the same settee, practicing deception, one considers it being economical with the truth.
âPhillippa, the Dowager Marchioness of Somerset
“What the devil do you think you're doing?” Richard Barrett demanded as he climbed down from the hired carriage. He pushed open the garden gate and thundered up the overgrown walk.
The young woman wielding a pair of shears was annihilating a runaway rosebush with evidence of malice aforethought. Prickly cuttings spilled from the basket at her booted feet. Peeping from under the broad brim of her straw bonnet, the girl glanced over her shoulder at Richard and then turned back to her pruning.
Richard was usually benevolently neglectful where servants were concerned, not bothering to notice them most of the time. But he certainly wasn't used to
His friend Lawrence Seymour ambled after him, hands in his pockets, whistling tunelessly. Lawrence was only along on this trip for moral support. If Richard wanted to dally on his way home to Somerfield Park with an unscheduled stop at Barrett House, he knew Seymour wasn't one to complain.
Dallying was one of the things Seymour did best.
“I said,” Richard spat through clenched teeth, “what are you doing?”
“What's it look like?” she muttered. “Writing a book?”
If she knew who he was, she'd never be so disrespectful. Richard was about to give her a blistering dressing down when she looked up and held his gaze with a pair of astoundingly blue eyes.
“Do forgive me,” she said in a slightly more conciliatory but not at all deferential tone. “I simply despise being interrupted when I'm working on something.”
Her voice was low and strangely musical, with an unusual lilt he couldn't identify. She certainly didn't sound like one of the local girls who went into service on his father's estate. But then she ruined her quasi-apology.
“In case you're not as bright as you look,” she explained, “I'm trying to undo years of neglect.”
Richard bit back the smoldering set down she deserved. If he were honest, he'd have to admit the irritation he felt didn't have anything to do with roses or cheeky gardeners. His life had been upturned by a letter, and the changes it portended set his teeth on edge.
not as bright as you look,” he said, “may I point out that you're cutting the bush back too far?”
Ordinarily, he wouldn't care, but Richard's grandmother, whom he adored, had planted that bush, or at least had ordered it plantedâthe dowager marchioness might arrange cut blossoms in crystal vases, but she drew the line at any activity which involved perspiration.
“You're going to kill it,” he warned.
“Perhaps.” The young woman shrugged and tucked away the straggling lock of dark hair that had escaped her bonnet. “But at least it won't be sending bloomless shoots up the drain pipe any longer. If it lives, it'll be loaded with blossoms later in the season.”
But Lady Antonia and her family were coming
in the season. Richard ran an appraising gaze over Barrett House as if he were seeing it for the first time. The two-story house was usually reserved for pensioners who retired from Somerfield Park's service. It used to be the dower house on the estate. Richard's grandmother had ordered a much more opulent residence built for herself when it came time for her to occupy Barrett House. Still, by most lights, the place was considered quite charming.
At least, it used to be charming.
The roses weren't the only things crying for attention. Though Richard had met his family at their town house in London fairly often, several years had passed since he'd been to their countryseat. While he'd grown to manhood, finished his education at Oxford, and gone on an extended Grand Tour of the Continent, Barrett House had crumbled. More than a few slates were missing from the roof, and the listing chimney was in serious need of repointing. The heavy front door, once a deep bottle green, had faded to the shade of old grass clippings.
Surely the butler who looked after Barrett House could explain its state of decay. “Where's Porter?”
The young woman continued to brutalize the bush, snipping away with abandon. “I have no idea.”
“Well, don't just stand there, girl. Run and fetch him.”
She stopped at that and turned to face him, shears still held in her gloved hand.
, Richard thought.
There was a smudge of dirt on her cheek, but it was a lovely cheek nevertheless, with a soft hollow beneath the bone. Richard usually considered that feature the mark of a beauty who would age well. However, her expression was far from lovely. Her dark brows lowered over those disconcertingly blue eyes.
“Of the two of us, only one is being useful at the moment,” she said as if she were his equal. “Since you're the one who wishes to speak to Mr. Porter, I suggest
run and fetch him.”
“Who the dickens do you think you are?” he demanded.
“I don't merely
,” she said with a withering glare. “I
who I am, my lord. For all your fine trappings, can you say the same?”
He was Richard Barrett, Lord Hartley by courtesy, since it was one of his father's lesser titles. As son and heir to the Marquess of Somerset, he was a heartbeat away from being a peer of the realm, by God. No dirty-cheeked chit was going to speak to him so. But Richard was saved from sacking her on the spot by the arrival of Mr. Porter, who bustled out the green door.
With his nervous energy and high tenor voice, Porter reminded Richard of an overgrown cricket, his arms and legs slightly bowed, yet still longer than they needed to be. His wiry, gray eyebrows waved like myriad antennae above pale eyes. Porter rubbed his hands together and hurried down the front steps.
“Ah, Lord Hartley, you'll have had news of the sad event then.”
“Only the barest information.” Richard had been in Paris when word of his father's accident reached him. His mother's cryptic letter pleaded for him to come home and take up the reins of the estate during his father's incapacity. “I gather Lord Somerset isn't improved.”
“Oh, it'd be a wise man as knows that. He keeps to his chambers most days, I understand, but welcome home in any case, your lordship,” Porter rattled on. “Erâ¦ahem, I don't mean welcome exactly. Not under these circumstances. But it is ever so good to see you, my lord. And you too, sir, Mr. Seymour, isn't it?”
Porter bowed politely to Lawrence. Despite his resemblance to a humble insect, the butler had a prodigious memory and could call every visitor who'd ever darkened Barrett House's door by nameâprobably knew where to find them listed in
too. “Would you care for tea before you go up to Somerfield Park?”
“Don't bother,” Richard said. “We'll have something at the inn.”
Stopping in the village of Somerset-on-the-Sea was a stalling tactic. Between slow mail and a delayed Channel crossing due to dicey spring weather, it had been a full month since Lord Somerset's accident. Another hour or so could hardly make a difference. Besides, none of the changes in Richard's world would seem real until he set foot in Somerfield Park.
And he wasn't ready for them to be real.
“See that Barrett House has a proper turn out, will you?” Richard said. “I'm expecting guests, and I want the entire estate shown in its best light.”
Mr. Porter blinked slowly at this. “You mean to entertain, your lordship?”
“No, of course not.” It would be the height of disrespect to his father to host a house party when Somerfield Park was in crisis over Lord Somerset's condition. “The people I'm expecting are more like family. Or at least, I expect they will be. It's the lady I plan to marry, along with her parents.”
Porter glanced at the young woman with the shears and relaxed visibly. “Oh, well, in that case, I should inform you thatâ”
“Lord Hartley,” the girl interrupted, “despite our disagreement over how to trim roses, allow me to tell you how distressed I am over your father's unfortunate accident.”
Her manners might be missing, but her somber expression declared her words sincere and surprisingly well-spoken for a gardener. Then she picked up the basket and, with a beguiling swish of skirts, breezed into Barrett House through the faded front door.
Richard stared after her with consternation. Despite her smudged prettiness, she was proof that the quality of the help at Barrett House had deteriorated along with the property.
“Off you go too, Porter,” Richard said. “And tell that girl to mind her tongue and use the back door from now on if she wants to keep her position.”
Porter's eyes bugged out a bit at that, but he scurried away to do Richard's bidding.
“If she loses her position here, I can think of a few I'd like to see her in,” Lawrence drawled. “Nothing wrong with that little gardener that a bath wouldn't fix. Come to think of it, a bath is something I'd enjoy assisting her with immensely.”
“Stow your gab, Seymour,” Richard said. “There's enough on my plate without having to fret about you despoiling the help.”
“The help? No need to worry on that score. I seem to recall you have three nubile sisters at home.”
Richard punched Seymour's shoulder as they climbed back into the carriage. “Meddling with my sisters is a serious offense. I'd have to borrow that tasty little gardener's shears and apply them directly to your manhood.”
“Ouch.” Seymour winced and then cocked his head at Richard. “Tasty little gardener, eh? The way you've been doting on the angelic Lady Antonia of late, I didn't think you'd notice a lesser mortal.”
“I'm planning to marry, not enter a monastery.”
Richard barked an order to the driver, and they rattled down the road toward Somerset-on-the-Sea and the one and only inn in the village. Even though Richard hadn't been home in years, he was very like his father. Many of the residents seemed to recognize him as the carriage rumbled past. The men doffed their caps in respect. The women dropped quick curtsies.
Richard had expected to have another couple decades with his father at the helm of the Somerset marquessate. Now that Lord Somerset was unable to perform his duties, Richard's carefree days were gone. These were
people. His responsibility. Every soul in the village, every crofter on the surrounding farms, even the vicar and sexton in the local church were beholden to the Somerset estate for their livelihood in one way or another.
The invisible weight on Richard's shoulders grew heavier with each turn of the carriage wheel.
Millicent Goodnight let the parted curtain fall together and skittered away from the front window of Barrett House lest her daughter accuse her of eavesdropping on her conversation with that surprisingly good-looking young man. Sophie handed off the basket of clippings to a waiting servant and sank onto the slightly threadbare settee before the fireplace.
Chin resting in her hand, Sophie sighed.
Any other mother might suspect her daughter had fallen head-over-giddy-heels with such a presentable fellow after even so short an acquaintance. But Millicent knew Sophie.
The sigh meant she was bored.
It's my own fault
, Millicent decided. She should have come home as soon as Sophie was born, but she couldn't bear to leave her husband, Henry, in India. After allowing the girl to grow up wild as a mongoose in the bustle of Bombay, amid exotic temples and petty princes' decadent courts, Millicent supposed the British countryside seemed pretty bland to her daughter.
“Good heavens, child, don't keep me on pins. Was that him?”
“It was,” Sophie said.
“He's quite striking, isn't he?”
That was an understatement. His hair was the color of dark honey, but there was nothing sweet about Lord Hartley. Tall, broad-shouldered, and raw-boned, he was blessed with masculine symmetry in his strong features and dark, deep-set eyes that hinted at an even darker sensuality behind them. He was bound to turn feminine heads everywhere he went.
Though Millicent was intensely devoted to her husband of some thirty years, even her heart had skipped a beat over Lord Hartley's handsome face. She fanned herself quickly and hoped Sophie attributed it to the frequent flashes of heat that plagued her now. “I knew Lord Somerset's heir was young, but I didn't expect he'd be nearly soâ”
“So rude,” her daughter finished. “He didn't say a single civil word to me.”
“Well, when you go about dressed like a charwoman, what do you expect?”
“Forgive me, Mother. Next time I feel like gardening, I'll be sure to wear my pearls.” Sophie rolled her eyes. “A gentleman's courtesy shouldn't be dependent upon my wardrobe.”
“But it is, dearest. When will you accept that the world sees people for the way they present themselves?”
“There may be something to what you say, Mother. Lord Hartley presented himself just as I suspected he wouldâas a spoiled, self-importantâ¦” Sophie paused and Millicent could almost see steam coming from her daughter's ears. “He's probably the most horrible rake too. After anything in skirts. Titled fellows usually are, I've heard.”
“Sophie!” Where had she heard such things? Mrs. Goodnight decided to take another tack. “Granted, this wasn't the most auspicious of meetings, but surely you can find
good to say about the man.”