Authors: Donna Lea Simpson
Her abrupt departure was motivated by nothing less than Mr. Martindale’s transparency. In her gig, ribbons firmly in her hands, Theresa glanced over at the girl beside her.
“Your father thinks I’m after him to marry,” she said, clicking at her mare.
The girl giggled. “Do you think so? How bigheaded of him.”
“I suppose he has been approached by his share of ladies with matrimony in mind,” Theresa said grimly. “I just don’t happen to be one of them.”
“I don’t wish to marry.”
The country lane narrowed, and a cart drawn by two heavy, plodding draft horses trundled down the middle. Theresa pulled to the left and waited for it to pass. “One should never say never,” she said. “That’s like saying that you never intend to die. I suppose there is a certain inevitability about some things. Someday, perhaps when I am old, I may want companionship. Until then . . .” She glanced away.
With unnerving perspicacity, Angelica said, “Did a gentleman disappoint you?”
Ruefully, Theresa glanced sideways at the girl. That was an episode in her past to which no one who knew her referred. “I suppose I cannot draw back now from the rather informal conversation we engage in.”
“At least you talk to me,” she said glumly. “Papa only ever shouts or warns or commands. ‘Angelica, watch out for Jacob.’ ‘Angelica, I told you to mind your brother.’ It is fatiguing.”
Theresa shouted out loud with laughter and her horse snorted in sympathy and danced a little. She settled the mare down and said, “The way you said that was so very much like a London belle. ‘It is fatiguing.’ You will do very well with the languid air so many ladies must cultivate.”
“What is it like? London and the season,” Angelica asked, eyes shining.
“London?” She was not unhappy that the subject of her disappointment at the hands of a gentleman was dropped, and so she gladly engaged in conversation about the London season, a topic she well knew. “London during the season is the most fascinating place I would
want to live. There’s so much to do and see, and there is no better place to shop. I must show you some watered silk I brought back with me this season. It is exquisite!”
Angelica sighed happily. “I would love above all things to see it. May I come to your house?”
“Of course. We’ll ask your father when I return you. But first, on to Mr. Gudge’s home. Poor old curmudgeon; he broke his leg some time ago, so you mustn’t mind his bad temper.” She clicked and her mare smartened her pace.
They spent the rest of their afternoon talking about London. Angelica was a sharp and avid listener, and the day passed quickly. Theresa couldn’t remember when she enjoyed her charity visits so very much.
• • •
“. . . and I would like two pounds of the tongue sent to Meadowlark Mansion,” Theresa said the next morning to Butcher. “If Mrs. Butcher would be so kind as to prepare it the way she does for me, I would be much obliged.”
No one stared to see such an eminent lady in the butcher’s shop, for everyone had known Lady Theresa since long before her hair was put up, and everyone knew that she never left anything that was important to her to anyone else to do. Food rated high on her list of important things. Even while her mother was alive—and that lady had only died five years before—Lady Theresa had had the handling of all the household duties, for Lady Leighton was an ethereal beauty with not one whit of common sense. Her husband and daughter adored her for that and protected her from any unpleasantness, such as having to tell Cook what to make for dinner. Thus, Lady Theresa had grown up as a “managing woman.”
When the village ladies waiting for her to finish her order with Butcher heard the destination of the two pounds of tongue there was general dismay, a feeling that hung in the air like an odor of which no one would speak. Theresa frowned at the sly side glances Mrs. Greavely traded with Dame Alice, wife of a local knight.
Theresa had always been fond of Dame Alice, and so was surprised to see her in agreement with Mrs. Greavely on any front. She had thought better of the woman than that. As Theresa left the butcher shop, the two women followed, and the bolder of the two, Mrs. Greavely, accosted her.
“Lady Theresa, are we to understand you have not only been to that house but are now taking over the management of it?”
Pausing only momentarily, Theresa answered, “Not at all.” She began to walk again, sparing a glance up at the sodden skies. A distant rumble of thunder rolled across the heavens and she quickened her pace, only to find the two women accompanying her.
Dame Alice, trotting with them like a fat cob after racehorses, said, between puffs of breath, “I’m sure Mr. Martindale is very nice, but that son of his . . . there’s a reason God made him like that. Evil somewhere in that family!”
Theresa stopped abruptly and swiveled to look at the two women. “Is that what this is all about? Some superstitious nonsense about that poor boy? I’m ashamed of you both!”
Dame Alice looked away nervously, but Mrs. Greavely bridled and said, “Lady Theresa, there are things in this world that we don’t understand. There’s a reason no decent family keeps their idiots. It is unlucky and against God. And Mrs. Hurst says the boy soured milk just by looking at it! She also said that—”
“Stop!” Theresa felt her face redden. Thunder rumbled ominously. “Mrs. Hurst—may I assume she was the recently dismissed housekeeper for Mr. Martindale?—is an ignorant old besom! Jacob is a dear, sweet child who—”
Mrs. Greavely thrust her face close to Theresa’s. “Lady Theresa, mark my words, that boy is cursed. And so the whole family because that man has not the sense to put his boy decently away somewhere with someone to look after him. And it is the girl who will suffer for it. I hear she is wild and incorrigible already. Mrs. Hurst says she has an unnatural affinity for the stable boys. Was seen talking to them, just as bold as may be. No good will come of it, mark my words. And we do not want that kind of folk buying Meadowlark!”
So this was the kind of filth that was being spewed about the Martindales. And the poor man just wanted somewhere to “decently” raise his children! And Angelica! What chance would she have if she was labeled early as a wanton? It was despicable, and Theresa was just about to open her mouth to say as much when the heavens opened and sheets of rain lashed down, driven by a sudden wind. She said a hasty farewell and raced on to the drapers.
She had much to think of and much more to plan. This contemptible meanness in her village couldn’t go unchallenged, but she must tread carefully and summon every bit of knowledge of village ways to her aid. She would not let Jacob and Angelica suffer. In that moment Mr. Martindale’s handsome smile rose to mind. He would make a valuable addition to their village social circle if he decided to buy Meadowlark mansion, and she must see that he had every reason to stay.
For the children’s sake.
James Martindale sat, head in his hands, thinking that perhaps he ought to move back to London and forget his plan of becoming a country gentleman. What was he doing, after all? He had just had to sack another servant, one of the grooms, for saying that Jacob gave a mare the evil eye and caused it to miscarry its foal. It was not that country folk were more ignorant than town folk—he had heard his share of rude comments from those in his town household, and from supposedly more enlightened people, too—but in London he had already weeded out the empty-headed among his staff. However, only a few of his London people had come with him, and a country house required a larger staff. How was he ever to do here what he had done in London? He did not know whether he could face that long process again, nor subject Jacob and Angelica to the turmoil during it.
Perhaps he should let go of this house and return to London.
“Mr. Martindale,” said Dora, curtseying at the doorway of the library. “Lady Theresa to see you, sir. Said it was private, she did.” The girl’s eyes were wide with curiosity.
He could not complain about a little inquisitiveness though, since the girl was excellent with Jacob. In fact, he was considering hiring her as nursemaid since Jacob seemed more amenable to her gentle coaxing than Bobby Turner’s bluff commands. “Send her in,” he said. “And leave the door open!” He had no wish to accidentally compromise Lady Theresa into marriage, especially when he was unsure of her motives in visiting so frequently and befriending Angelica. He had met his share of curiosity seekers, as well as marriage-minded young ladies. He would satisfy neither.
“Mr. Martindale,” she said, sailing forth, hand extended.
He stood and shook hands and offered her a seat. Instead, she restlessly paced to the window and gazed out over the landscape, the view overlooking the stables and rolling hills behind. She turned and clasped her hands in front of her.
“You have a problem,” she began without preamble.
He stayed silent, regarding her steadily, taking in her neat, absolutely correct mode of dress and her angular figure. She certainly did not look like the normal husband hunter in his experience. “Do I?”
She glanced at the open door and walked toward it, but he said quickly, “I ask that it remain
, my lady.”
She whirled and faced him, her lips primmed into a straight gash across her face. “Now see here, Mr. Martindale,” she said, her tone stern. “I am not now nor will I ever be in the market for a husband, and if I were, I can assure you I would not seek to entrap him in that manner. I would think that my personal recommendations are not so . . . so lacking that I would need to resort to such means.”
He felt himself color at her straightforward assessment of his fears. How had she inferred that from his simple words? “I . . . I assure you, my lady—”
“Never mind,” she said, waving off his faltering apology and pacing over to a table. She restlessly turned over a gilt-edged book and stared at the title. “I know there are ladies who will resort to such means, and you don’t know me from Adam, so what should I expect? I know I have been audacious and unusual in my approach to your family.” She looked up directly into his eyes. “You interest me. Jacob and Angelica interest me. But I am concerned.”
“Yes.” She glanced again at the door but did not cross to it. Finally, she moved toward James and sat down. He sat opposite her.
Lowering her voice and leaning forward, she said, “There’s talk in the village. Cruel talk. I don’t like to admit it, but St. Mark-on-Locke is afflicted with the usual number of gossips, backbiters, and vicious minds. In London when one meets with such people, one can exclude them from one’s circle, or at least keep one’s distance. That’s impossible in a village the size of St. Mark.”
She spoke, he thought, from experience, and he gazed at her curiously. He had heard tell of a broken engagement, but he would never pry.
“I fear my own staff is the worst,” he confessed. He clutched his head and thrust his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know what to do but go back to London, where at least I have narrowed my staff down to those whom I can trust.”
“That is closing yourself and your children off from society. Would you,” she said carefully, glancing down at the floor, “care to stay at Meadowlark if you could find peace?”
“I like the house,” he said, glancing around him. “It reminds me of the house I grew up in. I was raised in the country and miss it profoundly. I’d like my children to have that same experience, but I’m afraid things are not such with my family—my father, in particular—as to allow visits there.” He was silent for a minute and patted down his tousled hair. Sighing, he finally said, “Yes, I would like to stay, but I won’t have Jacob subjected to the petty cruelty of small minds. He deserves better than that, as does Angelica.”
“I agree completely!” she exclaimed, hitting the arm of her chair. “And I would help, if I may.”
She told him much he didn’t know, and it was worse even than he feared. The housekeeper he had let go, Mrs. Hurst, had spread her vile poison among the villagers; now with the stableman let go, it would likely spread to any who hadn’t already heard. He appreciated Lady Theresa’s honesty, but it seemed to him that the outlook was bleak.
He came, sometime in the half hour they spoke, to trust her motives. “Whatever you think we should do, my lady, I’ll go along with. I’m willing to place myself in your hands.”
“Sir, if you said that to a husband-hunting lady, she would be booking the parson.” When he chuckled she smiled back at him and said, as she stood and extended her hand, “I look forward to the challenge, Mr. Martindale.”
He stood and took her hand to shake. She had removed her gloves, and her hands, large for a woman and with a capable look about them, were very soft and cool to the touch. He felt a fleeting moment of attraction but dismissed it. He liked women, so it should not be surprising to him, that sensation. He had been attracted to many women in his life, from chambermaids right up to duchesses, but it didn’t mean anything but that he liked women.
He doubted she noticed or felt for him anything but a friendly interest. She had made her motives clear; she wanted to help Jacob and Angelica, and incidentally, him. He thought she might be relieving boredom, too, but gave her too much credit to think that was her primary motive.
“May I see Angelica now?” she said brightly, her voice oddly breathless. “I have some fabric I wanted her to look at. She is going to be thirteen soon and is growing quickly; she will need new dresses.”
“I’ll go find her.”
• • •
Once he was gone, Theresa let out her breath on a long sigh. The touch of his skin against hers had been like an electrical spark on a dry day. His hand was warm and large, engulfing hers, and he had squeezed with just the right amount of pressure, like a hug that makes one tingle.
She hadn’t felt that from a mere handshake since—
Since Paolo. Paolo and the debacle that followed were consigned to that territory of rarely remembered memories. He was a Spanish diplomat’s son and she met him in London the spring after her mother died. She had not even been planning to go to London that year, but her father was traveling and she was at loose ends, so though she still had a few more weeks in half mourning, she had gone to stay at her aunt’s house in Mayfair, to join in what limited activities were suitable.
And then she had met Paolo. She was twenty-five and he twenty-two, but she fell for him with all the desperate infatuation of a lonely girl with her first love. And he had seemed to feel the same. She suggested marriage to him, he acquiesced, but then deserted her, running back to Spain and the girl to whom he was affianced. She hadn’t known about Señorita Vasquez and the understanding between them that had existed since their early childhood.
The worst part was she had, in fairness, to acquit him of the worst kind of chicanery. He had been kind and gentle and had listened to her talk for hours about her fey, adorable mother and how much she missed her. She had been the one to suggest marriage, to ask him, in point of fact. He had been gallant, he had been evasive, but she had heard enough to send an announcement to the papers.
She had been wrong. He fled London, she feared, to avoid having to tell her to her face that they couldn’t be engaged, would never marry. He had an arranged marriage to a distant relative in his near future.
She had been a fool.
After, all of London had tales of his conquests, and it appeared that she had been just one of many. Ladies of all types and ages and appearances claimed he had made love to them, offered them marriage, seduced them with his dark good looks. She supposed she would never know the truth, what she had meant to him, how much of what the other women said was true.
She had been so sure she was his one and only love. What did that say about her perspicacity as a woman that she could be so misled, mostly, it seemed, by her own desires and needs? On that bleak thought she was interrupted by Angelica and forced to put a smile on her face. She put Paolo from her mind and focused instead on the girl in front of her.
• • •
She spent much of the next two days with the Martindale family, assessing their strengths, watching them and listening to their conversation.
Mr. Martindale was not the problem. He was presentable—handsome, actually, with dazzling eyes and—
She restrained her wayward thoughts. He was presentable and had a good family history, being the younger son of the Viscount St. Boniface. He was intelligent, likable, and canny, though frightfully naïve about people. He expected people to judge him based on his actions and integrity. Unfortunately, ofttimes being good, kind, hardworking, quiet, and gentle made others feel inadequate by comparison. One jealous or bitter person could spread buckets of poison, and folks were ever willing to listen to the worst about a person.
She would have to work around that determined naïveté, she decided.
It came down to the children, Jacob in particular. Maybe someday the world would understand more about what happened in the mind to create a child like Jacob, silent, withdrawn, sometimes totally focused on one object—like her bird-adorned hat—and at other times content to just stare off into the sky for hours. But until that day, an enlightened day when those whose minds did not work as everyone else’s were not seen as evil, then subterfuge was called for.
Not that she minded subterfuge. She was afraid she was often far more devious than people knew, even those closest to her. In Angelica she saw a possible confederate, for the girl was as crafty and cunning as herself at that same age, she thought, and as willing to manipulate people.
How to enlist her aid?
Bribery usually worked.