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Authors: Cynthia Wright

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BOOK: Silver Sea
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"I do apologize, my lady, but it's shockingly early! I'm something of a night owl...."

"I believe it is customary for hired companions to suppress such expressions of discomfort." Lady Thomasina gave her a decidedly sharp look, then sniffed. "It appears to be prodigious good fortune that we are to acquire another passenger at the Black Swan Inn! I have every confidence that he will make a better effort to entertain me."

Before Adrienne could take in the older woman's announcement, the berlin rumbled into the yard of a coaching inn, preceded by their outriders. Puzzled, she drew back the curtain and beheld Nathan Essex striding toward them.

"That,
Miss Beau, is a fine figure of a man! Don't you agree?" As spellbound as a young girl, she added, "Furthermore, I perceive that Mr. Essex is in his element at this early hour."

Adrienne gaped inelegantly. How on earth had that knave managed to acquaint himself with Lady Thomasina and squirm into her good graces? "I—how—"

"Mr. Essex paid me a call and explained a bit of your situation, persuading me to allow him to protect
both
of us." The old woman beamed and raised her jewel-encrusted quizzing glass. "I'd be a fool to refuse such a delicious offer, particularly given the dearth of entertainment one usually suffers at Harms Castle. You, my girl, must surrender to the inevitable and be grateful that your father thinks enough of you to enlist Mr. Essex's services."

Adrienne's head was spinning, and Nathan was about to open the coach door. "But why must he ride with us?"

"Because it amuses me."

A wild sort of energy came into their midst when Nathan climbed aboard. His wide shoulders seemed to fill Adrienne's vision, and his clean male scent filled the air. As he settled into the space beside her, he turned bespectacled eyes on her that snapped with all manner of wit.

"I knew I would enjoy this!" Lady Thomasina proclaimed, beaming. "If I were smaller, I would ask you to sit by me."

"I would that that were possible, my lady," he replied, then gave Adrienne a dark look, murmuring, "We meet again, my charge."

She was incensed by the way he bent his head in mock deference. "Pray do not forget your station, Mr. Essex."

"If you will not forget yours, Miss Beau," came his retort, and it pricked her. "We are both paid employees of those more fortunate than we, are we not?"

Fuming, Adrienne pressed her lips together, turned her body away from him, and stared out the window as the berlin rolled back onto the road.

"Once again I must express my appreciation, my lady," He said to Adrienne's mistress. "Perhaps your companion neglected to tell you that she has received threatening messages from her former employer, who made improper advances toward her when she was governess to his children. Although it would seem that she will be safe in your household, her father is concerned and wants to be certain also that no danger comes to
you
, my lady. As I have mentioned, it would be my honor to look after both of you."

The old woman appeared to swoon momentarily. "How
gallant
you are, sir."

"Not at all. Now then, how would you prefer to pass our journey, my lady? We could have a game of cards, or—" Nathan reached into his pocket and brought out a worn, travel-sized volume of
Ivanhoe.
"—I could read aloud, if you like."

Lady Thomasina's rouged cheeks reddened further, and she sighed, ecstatic. "I wonder if you do not misrepresent yourself, Mr. Essex! Perhaps you are a scholar in disguise."

"I fear not." He dipped his head, but his eyes twinkled. "I am merely conscious of the courtesy you do me by allowing me close access to my... charge." Raveneau slipped his hand around Adrienne's wrist and gently held her until she squirmed free, blushing. "I would make myself useful in return."

"Delightful." Her ladyship beamed. "Simply irresistible. Don't you agree, Miss Beau? Yes, of course you do. And we shall have
Ivanhoe.
Do begin, Mr. Essex. Your audience is rapt."

He opened the book and obeyed in tones laced with amusement. " 'In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don...' "

Adrienne heard his voice through a mist of confused embarrassment. Her wrist burned where Nathan's fingers had encircled it, and she felt the persistent, steely line of his thigh, even through her gown and pelisse. Did he
mean
to press against her? Cheeks flaming hotter at the thought, Adrienne clenched her teeth. She reminded herself that he was only a servant, a hired guard, and ought to be respectful to her. After all, her father was paying him to take care of her! There had to be a way to force him to treat her with the same sort of respect he paid Lady Thomasina Harms.

It galled her that he made her think such things. Adrienne despised aristocrats who put on airs and pretended they were somehow above untitled folk, and yet here she was, longing to put Nathan Essex in his place. Why was he so infuriating?

As the procession of vehicles wound deeper into the verdant Hampshire hills, her ladyship interrupted Nathan from time to time in order to scold her young companion. "Are you listening, Miss Beau? Sit up straight, child, and show some breeding!"

Was Adrienne mad, or did she feel the pressure of his thigh intensify at such moments?

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

When dawn broke at Harms Castle for the fourth morning since Adrienne's arrival, she lay in her narrow bed and realized that she profoundly regretted every decision she had made leading up to that moment. How many times did she have to entangle herself in wretched coils before she would learn to listen to voices of reason?

Her body ached with fatigue. She might be paralyzed—but couldn't be that fortunate. Adrienne knew that she was perfectly healthy, and so she must crawl out of bed, bathe with cold water, dress, and begin one more endless day of servitude.

Lady Thomasina Harms's own schedule was considerably less taxing. She favored an array of bizarre pastimes, which Adrienne had glimpsed that first night in London, when her ladyship hinted about her color-and-size Systems. They were currently being practiced in the sprawling library at Harms Castle. Lady Thomasina spent most of each evening there, making precarious stacks of bottle-green or blood-red books, aided by her reluctant companion.

"My husband insisted on grouping the books alphabetically," her ladyship would complain as yet another pile of old books got too tall and toppled over. "Can you imagine? We had horrible rows about it, and I could scarcely wait to organize them all with a
real
system. Of course, he's only been dead a few months, and it may take years."

Then, long past midnight, she would waddle off to bed, leaving trails of powder from her wig. Lady Thomasina liked to sleep late and have a leisurely breakfast in bed. Adrienne, meanwhile, quickly discovered that she was expected to rise with the rest of the household staff and "get down to business" making more precarious piles of colored books.

On this fourth morning, as she finally managed to fasten her own gown, a sharp knock came at her door. Lady Thomasina's tallow-faced abigail, Hortie, seemed to delight in rousting the newest servant out of bed. Each day Adrienne rose earlier, and each day Hortie arrived earlier. Adrienne wished she didn't have to answer. The rapping only grew more insistent, however, forcing her to yank open the door to the corridor.

"I'm coming!" she cried. "Why can't you—" Her voice broke off at the surprisingly welcome sight of Nathan Essex.

"Yes?" A slow smile crept up to his eyes.

"I thought you were Hortie."

"I'm not. I begged to come in her stead."

"Hortie hates me because Lady Thomasina's given me her old chamber, and now she's forced to sleep in the dismal servants' quarters." Adrienne walked back into the narrow room, which adjoined her ladyship's grand suite, in search of hairpins and a ribbon. "I despise this place! I should have listened to my father."

Boldly Nathan closed the door and followed her. "You only say that because he cannot hear you recant."

"Well, I would like to know, where have
you
been? What are you being paid to do, frequent the taverns in Winchester?" She brushed her hair furiously.

"Have you missed me?"

"Only in the way that misery misses company, sir! Eternity in Hell could not be worse than twenty hours of each day spent taking books from shelves and sorting them by color and size, while listening to Lady Thomasina's tirades!" She spoke in a ragged whisper, aware that only a heavy door separated them from her ladyship's bedchamber. "At least you might
help
me!"

"The night we arrived, supped, and were shown our rooms, you made it quite clear that you preferred to be spared another moment of my company—"

"I had just spent an entire day in your lap, while you read
Ivanhoe!"
she protested.

"You were not in my lap, Miss Beau. I would remember it clearly if you had been." He removed his spectacles and began to polish them.

She felt his eyes roam over her in a way that made her breathless and warm. Nathan was clad in a loose white shirt, a worn cravat, and the familiar buff breeches paired with top boots that needed shining. Yet his appeal was shockingly potent.

His hair gleamed. Glossy and black, it was recklessly long, curling over his collar. Adrienne, who had been overwhelmed by exhausted boredom, knew a spark of interest. She hated him but welcomed the diversion.

Feigning contrition, she sighed. "I
know
I was not in your lap, but I felt awfully closed in during our journey. Perhaps my manners suffered."

Manners? Nathan thought, wildly amused. "Have you grown new manners since arriving at Harms Castle?"

"Must you be so relentlessly infuriating?"

He laughed and watched as she lifted her slim arms and fashioned a soft knot of chestnut curls atop her head. Feathery baby tendrils trailed along the nape of her neck. He was sorely tempted. "I was right all along. You
don't
like me."

"Not in the least," she agreed. "However, if I must perform acts of slavery in my role as servant, you might as well join me. My shoulders ache beyond reason, so if nothing else, you can lift the books."

"A thrilling plan."

* * *

Harms Castle was only a few decades old, built by Lady Thomasina's father-in-law with a fortune acquired through an advantageous marriage. Located a half-dozen miles from the ancient town of Winchester, the Nash-designed country house was nestled into a lush fold of hills and bordered by the trout-filled River Itchen.

Adrienne found the maze of rooms confusing, since they all seemed to look alike and the arrangement was much different from that of her family's chateau where she had grown up.

Harms Castle featured a great entry hall, a saloon, a drawing room, a long gallery, a dining room, and, of course, the infamous library. The west wing consisted of apartments, most of which were vacant, since Lady Thomasina was the only noble in residence.

She was catered to by a score of servants, ranging from the house steward, butler, and cook, to housemaids, liveried footmen, and scullery maids. Yet either the staff was too small for the castle's size, or they were lazy, or they were not instructed to clean properly, for the place was as rundown and musty as the berlin Lady Thomasina preferred for travel.

Adrienne regarded her new state of servitude as odd indeed. Although well born, she had always been too spirited to enjoy lolling about, so she had not expected to be put off by physical work. However, Lady Thomasina's tasks were tiresome, because they were queer, pointless, and demanding.

Walking with Nathan to the servants' dining room, Adrienne was brightening already, though she would never admit that to him. They breakfasted on grayish porridge with Hortie, some housemaids, and Jarrow, the fat butler who looked like a man overly fond of spirits. It was Hortie who reminded Adrienne that her ladyship expected work to begin in the library by six o'clock. Nathan casually rose and followed her.

Climbing a dark staircase from the servants' wing, she glanced back at him. "What are you up to now?"

"I'm going to help you, just as you asked. You don't really object to my company—do you?"

He knew just how to get under her skin and turn it pink. "I have discovered that even
your
company is welcome in this godforsaken place. Besides, Papa is paying you, isn't he?"

"Handsomely."

"It seems that neither of us has a choice."

Adrienne watched as he paused in the arched corridor to examine a painting by Fragonard. What a puzzle Nathan Essex was! He seemed misplaced somehow in his decidedly middle-class clothing and occupation, and Adrienne had to remind herself continually that he was probably someone her father had met at a cockfight or in a pub on the docks.

"Well, then, if Papa is paying you to watch me, where were you these past three days? I have realized that you didn't give me a proper answer when I asked earlier."

BOOK: Silver Sea
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