Authors: Regina Darcy
Copyright © Regina Darcy 2016
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher and writer except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a contemporary work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.
For queries, comments or feedback please use the following contact details:
Lord Nathaniel Hughes, the Viscount of Wiltshire, commonly referred to as “Hughes” by his friends, was bored. Ever since his close friend, the Duke of Staffordshire, had tied the knot with the beautiful Miss Georgette Danford, he had been questioning his own bachelor status.
The loving bliss the couple exuded had him longing for something other than his current, temporary liaisons with married women. He was by no means looking for a love match, far from it. However, the issue of an heir was of outmost importance. The only problem with his new, inexplicable, yearning was that he did not trust women at all.
Anything else would have been unusual; after all, he had witnessed the treacherous nature of a woman first-hand.
Now, Nathaniel was not prone to the incessant musings that afflicted many gentlemen of his advanced age. That said, at twenty-eight, surrounded by several gentlemen who were already married, he was hard pressed to ignore the need to father a legitimate heir. This was one of the reasons he was now languishing in the Gloucestershire countryside.
Bored to tears in London, he had decided to visit his cousin at Langdon Manor. He had the misfortune to have agreed to stay for three whole weeks when he first arrived. Having spent two weeks in the company of his nieces, he was happy to notice he had now somewhat regained his senses. As he suspected, the delightful little monsters had been exactly what the doctor ordered. Five more days of
Uncle Nathaniel this, Uncle Nathaniel that
and he could rush back to London and freedom.
Luckily, his boredom had been cut short when his dear friend Alden Haddington, the Earl of Beckton, had come calling. He had known Alden for several years. Both had served in the same regiment under the Duke of Staffordshire. The Earl had particularly strong, disapproving views on Nathaniel’s string of mistresses. The irony was that the Earl was known to have left an equal trail of heartbroken beauties behind him. The only difference being, he had never touched them.
Alden was currently an esteemed Member of Parliament. Although he was certainly very vocal in the House of Lords, Nathaniel was one of the few people who knew Alden found the challenge of conversing with the fairer sex, insurmountable. He had yet to finish a sensible conversation with any eligible young woman he had actual designs on. Half the broken hearts he left behind him were due to disinterest, and the rest due to an inability to approach the lady in question.
It was a longstanding joke between them, that at this rate he would die never having known a woman. However, despite their markedly different dispositions, his friendship with Nathaniel had remained strong over the years.
“Nathaniel, are you listening?” the Earl queried bemused. “I see you are studiously avoiding the topic,” he continued as he climbed on to his horse.
“What topic would that be?” Nathaniel replied, puzzled at the sudden line of questioning. His thoughts were elsewhere.
“That of your self-imposed loneliness.”
“Loneliness? That’s a bit harsh, my dear fellow.”
“Begging your pardon, but what would you call burying yourself in the countryside?” Alden asked with a raised eyebrow. Nathaniel shrugged.
“Well, I am of the opinion that your loneliness would swiftly be solved by a matrimonial arrangement,” Alden continued dryly.
“Good Grace! I am not yet at my deathbed to be sentenced to such domestic hell,” Nathaniel exclaimed. “An incidental marriage is not something I aspire for in any near future.”
The Viscount had no wish for Alden to get a whiff of the fact that he had very much been reconsidering his bachelor status for the last couple of weeks. Once the Earl fixated on an idea, he didn’t let it be. Whilst this was useful in Parliament, it was highly annoying to his friends. Nathaniel had no intention of becoming his next pet project.
The Earl laughed, then grew silent and said quietly:
“How much longer are you going to let her treachery dictate your life?” His question was followed by a pregnant silence.
“I do not know what you are referring to,” Nathaniel replied, squirming in his saddle.
Alden seemed to sense his rising discomfort, and let that particular matter drop by changing the subject. “Sooner or later you will have to produce an heir,” he said instead. “You know as well as I do that your cousin Albert is not the right man to wear your coronet with dignity.”
Nathaniel laughed aloud. His cousin Albert was fat, bald and mostly intolerable. He turned in his saddle to face his friend. “Any woman I would marry would find me insufferable and swiftly be plotting my murder.”
“Beget your heir first,” Alden replied with mirth, “then you can see how long it takes for one of you to throw the other in the lake.” Both men chuckled ruefully. “Right, I best be on my way. I am due in London in a week,” the Earl exclaimed.
“Rushing off? Do not tell me it is the lovely Phoebe Alexander that is your urgent business,” Nathaniel replied with a knowing smirk. “When are you going to get the courage to tell her she has stolen your heart?”
“Right after you get married and produce an heir, old chap,” Alden retorted without missing a beat.
“So never then?”
The Earl laughed, bid his friend goodbye and set his horse to a gallop across the manor drive and on to the road towards London.
Nathaniel watched him race on with a wistful smile. He was loath to turn back towards the house. On an impulse, he decided to explore the surrounding landscape instead. This would be a great opportunity to take a break from his nieces. He urged his horse into a trot and was soon deep into the Gloucestershire countryside. The peace of his surroundings was working surprising wonders on his nerves. As he reached the outskirts of the Crown Forest of Dean, he dismounted, tied his horse and continued on foot.
He thought of Lady Anne Smithey, the most treacherous woman he had ever met. An incomparable beauty. Her skin flawlessly pale, her
a vision of innocence and her heart as dark as charcoal.
It had been five years and still the invisible wound she had inflicted upon him had not yet healed. He knew full well that his reputation as a lover was only gained after Lady Anne crushed his young heart. He had set out to conquer every beauty, learn every trick, so as to never be at the mercy of a woman again. And he had succeeded. He had vast experience of women and his expertise had gained him the reputation of the best lover in London. Nathaniel took a deep breath.
Why am I so restless?
Irritated, he walked past a configuration of trees and then stopped dead in his tracks. Somewhere a woman was singing.
Intrigued, he parted the bushes and walked into a clearing. In front of the clearing, there was a small stream and on the other side was a woman. She was blissfully unaware that she was being watched. With her eyes closed, she sang her heart out. It was Sir. Thomas Moore’s
Last Rose of Summer
. She wasn’t the best songstress he had ever heard, but her voice vibrated with the joy and innocence of youth.
Bewitched, the Viscount slowly dropped to his knees, tucked his legs underneath him and drank in the scene before him.
'Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.
I'll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o'er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.’
As she sang the last words, she seemed to sense that she was being watched and turned around. Time stopped. Nathaniel was transfixed.
Hers was not a classical beauty; her features were too strong for that. But, fire burned fiercely in her eyes. Her softly curved lips looked like they were made to be kissed.
The young woman looked startled and made to dash off. Hurriedly, Nathaniel rose and stretched out his hand besieging.
“Wait!” She stopped dead in her tracks. Slowly she turned around and looked at him. Her eyes were bright with curiosity.
“Surely you would not run away from a man separated from you by a stream?” he asked soothingly. The mischievous lady smiled, and he felt his heart turn.
“Only if such a man is not a
,” she replied.
“And what makes you think I am not a gentleman?” he asked with a roguish smile. “Although I must admit you are as beautiful as any English rose.”
The young lady blushed. Then she bit her lower lip and responded, “No gentleman would so brazenly spy on a lady. No sir, you are no
so I bid you goodbye.”
Before he could react, the young lady had turned around and dashed through the woodland. There was no way he would be able to catch up to her. Stunned, Nathaniel sat back down, his heart racing.
He had no wish to follow the young siren. He had been through this before, five years ago. He was NOT going to go through this again. On the morrow he was leaving for London. With gritted teeth and steely determination, the Viscount of Wiltshire rose and went in search of his horse. But despite denying it to himself, he was fighting a losing battle. His heart had already been conquered.
Miss Abigail Baxter rushed through the woodland, her heart in her throat. Who was that man? Typical that she should come upon someone when she was trespassing.
She did not usually pick flowers, not that she had been when the stranger stumbled upon her gallivanting about like a woodland sprite. At the thought, her cheeks burned in shame. When was she going to learn to be more sensible and proper? That said, picking flowers was not something she found particular delight in, no wonder she had taken the opportunity to indulge in a spot of woodland singing.
Of course, it was hardly of her own volition that she had ventured out into the Baxter’s woodland area in search of wildflowers. She studiously refused to indulge the thought that she could have gone somewhere where she
With her father, Sir James Baxter, due home that afternoon, Lady Susan Baxter, his wife, had employed her reluctant eldest daughter’s services in brightening the family home for him.
“Must I, though?”
Abigail had voiced her distaste for the idea without hesitation.
“If you do not, your father will have nothing to brighten up his arrival,” Lady Baxter replied. “Is that what you want, Abigail?”
“Very well, mother,” she had acquiesced. “I suppose reading can wait a little while longer.”
“Thank you, dear,” her mother had cried after her, as she left for the field, making a show of dragging her feet.
In truth, it did not bother her all that much to be out in the fresh air, but she did not need to give her family that impression. They were used to her high-spirited rebellion, however jocular it usually was, and she intended to maintain her reputation.
She glanced at the basket hanging from her arm and frowned. From her standing, she had gathered enough flowers to plan the Prince Regent’s birthday, but she knew, without question, that her mother would not feel the same. So she plodded along for a while longer until the basket was full to overflowing and only the most ignorant or indecent person would claim she had fulfilled her task half-heartedly. But truth be told, her thoughts were firmly elsewhere.
She was startled when she noticed the sky had grown dim, clouds gathering and the sun sinking below the horizon.
Oh no! I have lost track of time again.
Picking up her skirts, she started running home.
Mud from the fields sprayed up and marred her undergarments and clothes, but she paid it little heed. The servants would have her dress spotless and ready-to-wear in a short period of time.
She burst through the kitchen door and, practically throwing the basket of flowers into her mother’s arms, sprinted for her bedroom.
“Abigail!” Lady Baxter cried after her. “Where have you been?”
But she did not respond. She had seen her father’s muddied boots outside and knew he was already home. She had gathered the flowers but clearly not soon enough. She reached her room and stripped out of her dress as quickly as she could manage. Pulling on a fresh one, she ran down the stairs and into the sitting room.
She paid no heed to her father’s greeting as she ran into his arms and cuddled into his giant hug, nestling her head against his chest.
“Abigail, my dear,” he said with a smile, “you are much too old to be charging into your father like that.”
“I don’t know, father; I don’t feel very old,” she murmured against his chest.
“You’re twenty-one, my dear! Your mother had been married to me for two years at your age.”
“I shall beg for a respite from marriage discourse today, father. I would like to enjoy a few moments in your company before we return to this insufferable subject,” she said as she rolled her eyes. If there was one thing she was tired of discussing, it was her lack of a husband.
“Of course, dear, you are right.” He smiled again; the same smile that had won her over every time he apologised for an unkind word or tried to comfort her. “Tell me, how has your week been?”
“Rather dull,” she answered honestly, “I have not left Gloucestershire for over a month and it is driving me mad.”
“Is that so? Well we must do something about that then, mustn’t we?” her father replied with a wink.
“What did you have in mind?” She perked up at the possibility of a holiday. She loved their family home but there was so little to do in Gloucestershire that a change of scenery every now and then was welcome, and helped her to appreciate her home all the more.
“Well you are aware that I am not one for recreational travel, the comforts of home cannot be underestimated. But I am old and you are not,” her father added, with a twinkle in his eyes. “How about you converse with your brother and we will see if some time away from Gloucestershire can be arranged. Now go freshen up and we will talk some more over dinner.”
The Baxter family dinner was as standard an affair as family dinners went. There were no high formalities or any lavish decorations. The table was set by the servants and the food brought out. A pair of vases also made themselves at home on the table, Abigail’s freshly picked wildflowers adding a little extra colour to the room.
Sir Baxter took his seat at the head of the table and the rest of the family sat around him. To his right sat Lady Baxter and Abigail. Opposite them sat Rose Baxter, Abigail’s junior by two years, and Christopher, her junior by three.
Having said Grace, the family began to eat. It was Sir Baxter who was the first to speak.
“So, Christopher, Rose; I am of the understanding that Gloucestershire has become rather boring this time of the year. Is this so?”
“Not at all, father,” Rose answered timidly. She was always so quiet.
“YES!” Christopher shouted, practically breathing his answer on all of them. “There’s nothing to do but watch the sun rise and set. There aren’t even any suitably pretty young ladies.”
“Ahem!” Abigail coughed into her closed fist.
“Except, of course,” he bowed his head, suggesting he was not finished, and continued, “For my beautiful sisters.”
“Oh, you are too kind, Christopher.” Abigail batted her eyelashes at him and he flashed his tongue at her.
“I beg to differ,” Lady Baxter interjected with a frown.
“Oh mother,” Christopher said, “When we speak of beautiful ladies, mention of you is unnecessary as you transcend them all. It is not fair to include you in the ranks of ordinary women.”
“Your clever tongue is sure to get you in trouble one of these days, son.” Lady Baxter grinned, a rare treat indeed. “But I think it will get you out of trouble more often than it gets you in.”
“It is proved as reliable an asset as any.” He chuckled and Abigail sighed loudly.
“If we have finished catering to Christopher’s ego, can we continue our discussion about the tiresome nature of Gloucestershire?”
“Thank you, Abigail,” her father said. “Yes, let us continue. I do not wish for my children to be bored; the devil makes work for idle hands. What would you suggest?”
“Maybe acquire more books for us to read.” Rose was unusually fast to offer the first suggestion.
“You do not want to go to Bath,” Christopher jibed her.
“Or London!” Abigail said excitedly, eager at the prospect of leaving the countryside for a spot.
“We could do both,” Christopher said, shrugging his shoulders slightly.
“What a marvellous idea! What do you say, father?” Abigail’s hands were clasped in front of her as though she were practically pleading with him.
“Well, what does your mother have to say?”
All eyes in the room immediately jumped to Lady Baxter and she rolled her eyes.
“Of course it comes down to me. Well I can hardly say no, or you will all surely despise me!”
“I would not despise you, mother,” Rose said, but no one heard her over the excited chattering of Abigail and Christopher.
“How diplomatic you are, mother. No member of Parliament could ever compare,” Abigail said and kissed her on the cheek.
“Mmm, yes. Well, pray I do not regret agreeing to these tiresome activities.”
The family’s excited chattering continued well past dinner and a date to travel south to Bath the following weekend was set, and from there, they would head to London. Amidst the excitement, Abigail Baxter felt a twinge of regret that she was now to never find out, whom the mysterious stranger was she had met out in the woods.