Authors: Gayle Buck
Judith reached the bottom of the stairs before she recalled her other guests. She hesitated, not wanting to walk in on the Nicklebys or for that matter Sir Peregrine Ashford. She had had quite enough of high drama and absurdity for one morning. Indeed, she had the unmistakable beginnings of the headache. What she required was quiet and a chance to order her thoughts, she told herself.
Withers had seen Judith descend the stars and his sympathy was aroused by her worried frown. He had heard through the servants’ grapevine that Miss Grantham had been up to see Miss Brown. Obviously, her visit to that young lady had not gone well. He stepped forward. “Is there anything you wish, miss?”
Judith smiled, a rueful light in her eyes. “There is, actually. Where may I be private from my various assorted guests, Withers?”
The butler’s expression reflected his complete understanding. “The library, miss. I have not seen anyone enter that particular room, though some persons have taken it upon themselves to inspect the premises,” he said in censorious tones.
Judith laughed, before recalling that she did not want to be found. She glanced about hastily. “Why is it that I feel a fugitive in my own home? Withers, I should like a lemon water and a headache powder in the library, please.”
“Very good, miss,” said Withers.
Judith entered the library and closed the door behind her with a sigh. She turned to seek one of the wing chairs before the grate, behind which crackled a welcoming fire. She was just seating herself when out of the corner of her eye she caught a flicker of movement. Judith turned her head, but finding nothing out of the ordinary in the curtained window or the shelves of books, she put back her head and closed her eyes. It was as she began dozing off that she heard a whisper of sound. Judith started up, her eyes flying wide.
Mr. Smith stood awkwardly in the midst of the carpet, a vaguely furtive look on his face. “Begging your pardon, miss. It weren’t my intention to startle you.”
Judith’s heart was racing. She swallowed. “Where did you come from, Mr. Smith?” she asked sharply.
Mr. Smith’s expression became sheepish. “I was perusing the titles, as it were, when you came in, miss. I saw immediately that you had not seen me and I was about to bring myself to your attention when you sat down all tired-like and closed your eyes. Not wishing to disturb you, miss, I thought I would tiptoe away and leave you to it,” he said.
It was more than Judith had ever heard the gentleman utter at any one time and definitely more than she wanted to hear at that moment. She put her hand to her head. “Mr. Smith, I appreciate your consideration. However, do keep in mind that on any given day I for one would prefer to be civilly disturbed rather than half frightened out of my wits.”
The library door opened and Withers entered, a silver tray in his hands. He paused when he saw that his mistress was not alone as he had expected. Mr. Smith seized his moment. “I shall remember it, miss. I perceive that you have called for refreshment and so I will be running along now.” He sidled past the butler and whisked himself out of the door, without seeming in any great hurry but yet moving with speed.
Withers looked around at his mistress. “That is a very odd gentleman, if you’ll pardon my saying so, Miss Grantham.”
“Indeed he is,” said Judith, reflecting that Mr. Smith was not the only guest whose behavior was extraordinary. She shook her head on a sigh. “I do not know what I have done to deserve all of this.”
Withers made a commiserating noise. He set the tray with its glass of lemon water and the packet of powder on an occasional table and straightened up. “Is there anything else that you require, miss?”
“No, Withers, that will be all, thank you,” said Judith.
The butler left her alone, closing the door softly behind him, and relayed quietly to the footmen that Miss Grantham was not to be disturbed. Any persons found near the library were to be firmly steered away and if anyone was to inquire after Miss Grantham, they were to be given the reply that she was consulting with the housekeeper. That should do it, thought Withers with satisfaction.
But he did not take into account that Miss Grantham’s nature was fairly well known to one particular gentleman, who snorted with derision when he was given the housekeeper excuse and with very little reflection hit upon the library as the most likely place that Miss Grantham would secrete herself. Sir Peregrine marched toward the closed door, brushing aside all efforts by a conscientious footman to turn him away, and thrust open the door.
Judith looked up from the book in her hands, startled. During an hour and a half of blessed solitude, her nerves had steadied and her headache had dissipated almost to nonexistence. It was therefore an unpleasant shock to see Sir Peregrine standing so aggressively in the doorway, his expression both grim and triumphant. The question of Cecily’s well-being, which had receded proportionately with the interest she had found in her book, came rushing back to the fore. “Bother,” said Judith under her breath. She summoned a polite smile to her lips. “Sir Peregrine. How…nice.”
He laughed at her intonation and came forward. “Quite so. But you should have known that I was not to be hoodwinked so easily, Miss Grantham. Your estimable housekeeper hardly needs such strict guidance as your footman tried to persuade me into believing.”
The footman in question hovered anxiously about the open door. Judith, who realized at once that her household had been attempting to shield her, gave a reassuring nod to him. “You may go, Henry. I shall speak to Sir Peregrine.” The footman reached for the brass knob and closed the door.
Sir Peregrine walked to the mantel and leaned his shoulder against it, not bothering to move aside the fir and holly that decorated it. The scent from the bruised greenery became pungent on the air. “Kind of you to grant me an audience, ma’am,” he said with irony.
Judith marked her place in the book and closed it. “What may I do for you, Sir Peregrine?”
Sir Peregrine came away from the mantel and seated himself in the wing chair opposite her, crossing one knee over the other. His booted toe swung gently. “I first wish to convey an apology, Miss Grantham. I realized after your precipitate exit from the breakfast room this morning that I was perhaps harsher in my speech with you than I had any right to be. I hope that we may begin again, and with greater civility.”
Judith was silent a moment. Her eyes were unreadable. “Of course, Sir Peregrine. I certainly will not cast aside such a handsome apology.”
“You revenged yourself upon me finely, you know,” said Sir Peregrine reflectively. “I never in my life wish to hear a single word more regarding mail coaches and their attendant discomforts and dangers.”
That brought a laugh from Judith. Her eyes sparkled, having lost their shuttered look. “I suppose I should apologize for that. It was very bad of me, I fear.”
Sir Peregrine agreed with the faintest of grins. “But you were always one for pranks, were you not? It was one of your most likeable qualities.”
The easy smile was wiped from Judith’s face and her expression became notably cooler. “What is it you wished to speak to me about, Sir Peregrine?”
Sir Peregrine mentally cursed himself for the misstep. He had wanted to disarm her and sweep away the barrier that she had erected between them so that his task of persuading her to his viewpoint would be easier. Now the barrier was firmly entrenched and he thought that there would be little use in gentle, logical persuasion. He decided on a frontal assault. “Miss Grantham, once more you have anticipated me. I think that you may guess what I wish to address, and that is your obvious hampering of my efforts to establish an understanding with my ward, Miss Cecily Brown.”
“I? You mistake, sir. I have done nothing to
you, as you put it. Quite the contrary, in fact.”
“Come, Miss Grantham! I have sent word up to Cecily twice that I awaited her and both times she sent back a refusal to see me. I know well where your sympathies lie and also your disapproval of my intentions for my ward’s future. Surely you do not intend to deny that you have brought influence upon Cecily,” said Sir Peregrine with impatience.
Judith stared at him with distant coldness. “My dear sir, your opinion of my character is most gratifying, to be sure. You accuse me of harboring your ward, recommending to her that she have nothing whatsoever to do with you, and generally flying in the face of all that is honorable and lawful!”
She rose quickly to her feet, the book sliding unheeded from her lap to the carpet. Her heated emotion had brought becoming color into her cheeks. “I do not blame Cecily in the least for refusing to deal with you, for you are too clothheaded to entertain the least understanding of anyone but you!” She spun on her heel, intending to leave his presence.
But Sir Peregrine, having leaped to his feet, caught hold of her arm and turned her ungently about. Her angry gaze met his hard blue eyes. “Judith!”
“Unhand me this instant!” exclaimed Judith. She tried to pull free of his grasp, but his fingers only tightened on her arm. The situation was intolerable. Furious, she slapped his face with every ounce of her strength.
“Damn you, Judith!” he exclaimed. His hands slid up to her shoulders and he gave her a quick, hard shake. They stared at one another then, tension crackling between them.
Sir Peregrine found that he could not look away from her eyes or her whitened face. The years had rolled back for him and he no longer remembered his ward. All he was aware of was the breath coming quickly between Judith’s half-parted lips, the feel of her slender bones under his hands.
The spell was broken by a knock on the library door.
Sir Peregrine slowly loosened his fingers from her shoulders. Judith stepped back, her eyes still on his face. Sir Peregrine turned away to the mantel, as though he had been contemplating the fire for several minutes.
Judith took a shuddering breath. She was unutterably shaken. A second knock sounded and she found her voice. “Enter!”
The door opened and Withers stepped inside, his expression giving nothing away, but when he spoke there was a thread of anxiety in his voice. His eyes went from his mistress to Sir Peregrine’s broad shoulders and back again. “Miss Grantham, I am sorry to intrude, but there is a problem that Cook would like to consult with you about.”
“Yes, I shall come immediately,” said Judith. She was immeasurably relieved that she was not to be faced with dealing with the tumult of emotions she was feeling at just that moment. She went quickly out of the library.
Sir Peregrine did not look around at her exit.
Judith dealt with the minor culinary emergency, smoothing Cook’s affront at having her kitchen invaded by Mrs. Nickleby and being told in lofty tones that her pudding was off. “I ask you, miss! My pudding has never been off and so I told that noseybody to her face,
she did not care for, you may be sure of that!”
“No, Cook, I am certain that she did not,” said Judith with a sigh, sensing that she would have further calming to do whenever she should meet Mrs. Nickleby. And that would undoubtedly be at luncheon, she realized. She wondered dismally what had happened to the dull quiet that she was used to whenever she returned to Elmswood from one of her visits.
When Judith left the kitchen she went directly upstairs and ordered a bath. She told her maid that under no circumstances did she want to be disturbed until it was time to dress for luncheon. The maid was astonished that her mistress would shut herself up when there were guests in the house and she was not behind in mentioning it in the servants’ hall when she went down to request hot water to be brought up.
After several sympathetic observations and sighs, it was the consensus of the household that Miss Grantham’s holiday was not quite what it should be, what with vulgar tradespeople running tame in the house, a suspicious shadow of a man snooping about, and a runaway heiress kicking up a dust. Not to mention the disturbing presence of the gentleman who had once broken Miss Grantham’s heart.
Perhaps fortunately, Judith was unaware that she was the prime topic of conversation belowstairs. She took her time in her bath. She had much to think about, primarily of how a certain gentleman made her feel whenever he looked at her.
Since she had jilted Sir Peregrine five years before, they had met one another on numerous occasions at London functions to which they had both been invited. She had always been able to prepare herself for those moments, only to be expected since she and Sir Peregrine were members of the same social circle. Those fleeting meetings had always been made easier by the tacit understand of their peers that Miss Grantham and Sir Peregrine Ashford were never to be seated together at dinner or left without other partners during a ballroom dance.