Authors: Raine Miller
“You’ve got your bristles all set up, Cousin.” Jules paused but then bent in laughter again. “Cursing in the churchyard, right in the parson’s ear—that was in high-ropes, Graham!” Jules and Hargreave were still lost in idiotic laughter as the three walked away.
“I cannot wait until you are married; there might be some relief then, from you cutting up my peace.”
Hargreave replied, “Well you shan’t have long to wait then. So you’ll be staying on, after Jules’ wedding? Please consider Kenilbrooke open to your needs, Graham.”
“No, you moronic dolt. She’s going to her sister at Wellick after the new year. And I just happen to have the acquaintance of a certain Dr. John Brancroft of Gloucester Hospital. I do not need your help, either of you. You have done your parts, and I thank you. Now you may leave me be. By God, I mean it or I shall have to thrash you both and you will not look winsome for your wives!”
WHEN her carriage drove up he was there waiting. No other person was going to touch her as she got out but him—of that he was certain. He looked at his hand when he reached for the door handle and envisioned it was her bare skin he was touching. Graham had always been told he had big hands. Imogene’s hands were elegant and perfect. He gripped firmly when she placed her hand in his and felt the jolt down low of arousal. The merest touch and he felt stirred. He really needed to get some control over his reactions. His imagination, and his cock, had minds of their own apparently, especially when it came to Imogene, and they were in public for Christ’s sake!
Imogene offered the introductions for her family. “Lord Rothvale, I do not believe you have made the acquaintance of my cousins, Timothy Wilton, and his sister, Miss Cariss Wilton.”
“It is a pleasure, Miss Wilton. Mr. Wilton, I hear you take your studies at Cambridge. Today I shall introduce you to my brother, Colin Everley. He’s at Trinity finishing now, but it can never hurt to have further acquaintances away from home.”
Timothy Wilton thanked him and led his young sister into the party.
Now that he had her all to himself, he smiled down at the beautiful Imogene and offered his arm. When she took his arm and returned the smile he felt a burst of happiness shoot through him. “You seem to be in happier spirits than you were this morning at church, my lord.”
He nodded in agreement, and kept his expression bland on purpose. “What think you of croquet, Miss Byron-Cole? Are you any good at it?”
“I am tolerable at it, but I am told I can be devilishly competitive at sport.”
“Excellent. Do me a kindness, please. Should you encounter my cousin or Hargreave’s ball in the course of the game, at any time, be merciless and send them into oblivion.”
She seemed to find his comments hilarious. So much so that she laughed out loud. “We have a pact, my lord. On my honor I
definitely do it.”
“I have made you laugh. I love the sound of your laugh. It was worth it, this morning’s debacle, to hear you laughing just now.”
“A good laugh is always worth it,” she said, as he led her toward the games.
Graham enjoyed the game very much, the least of it being revenge upon his cousin and friend. The greatest pleasure for him was being able to watch her at liberty, mallet in hand, striking the ball with a skillful flourish, laughing and floating over the grass, dark golden hair, shifting in the wind, her smiles at amusing conversations. To him she was ethereally beautiful and he loved to look at beauty. True to her word, she sacrificed any shot in which there was the opportunity to send Hargreave or Jules.
“Well done, Cousin,” Jules whispered in his ear. “I am impressed you have gained her loyalty so quickly. Looks as if I have helped you after all, doesn’t it?” Graham put out his hand in greeting and Jules took it. Graham gripped painfully hard and was satisfied to see his cousin wince through the handshake. Jules complimented, “She is lovely, perfect for you. So she’s the one that will make you happy, eh? So fast…but I can already see a change in you.”
“Thank you for the kind sentiment. I have never known such unshakable feelings. Like it was meant to be or—well yes, I dare to hope that she will be mine. How did you get through this experience with Mina?”
Jules shook his head. “It was utterly dreadful. I wish I could say it was not. But you’ll manoeuver through just fine. You have the advantage of coming together amiably from the first. She likes you. How did you manage that so easily?”
“By smiling and asking her to dance,” Graham replied dryly.
“Ouch. I guess you have heard the stories of how it was with Mina and me at the first. I was such a stupid arse and she fairly hated me. You are much wiser than I was. My advice? Be completely honest with her and declare yourself, soon. I suspect Miss Byron-Cole would appreciate some candor in her life about now. Don’t wait too long. If you don’t offer for her, someone else will. She’s just out of her mourning and well dowered. Everyone’s giving respectable deference to you now, mostly due to your rank, but that won’t last forever.”
Graham nodded his understanding, but felt his heart ditch at the thought of another courting her.
She is mine.
Both men watched Elle approach Imogene to invite her for riding the next day, hearing her say, “My cousins Colin and Graham will be accompanying me. We will call for you at Wilton Court tomorrow at ten o’clock.” They saw Imogene acknowledge the information and agree to go along.
Graham turned to Jules. “Your sister is the kindest, sweetest person I know and I owe her everything in this. I’ll not forget what she has done here for me, Jules.”
Jules smiled wistfully and nodded. “I know. She is, and I know you’ll not forget.”
It became too emotional then for the cousins to continue conversing. Too many memories of painful hurts, and children without parents, so they grew quiet.
Both of them understood.
“LORD Rothvale is in love with you.” Her friend whispered into Imogene’s ear from behind.
“Jocelyn! You just about frightened me to death. And how on earth can you say such a thing? He barely knows me.” Imogene was shocked at her friend’s candor, but could not deny the feelings of excitement that came with Jocelyn’s words. It had been so long since she had embraced the emotion she hardly recognized it.
“I realize that, Imogene, but short time or no, that man is in love with you. He asked me about you.”
“He asked about me?
When was that? You were not at the ball, Jocelyn. By the way, why in the world not?”
Jocelyn ignored her last question. “Mamma and Papa invited them to dinner at our house. Jules, his sister Ellenora, and their cousins.”
“Of course they did. Julian Everley will be your brother soon when he marries Mina.” Imogene tried to divert the conversation. “What do you think of Ellenora?”
“I like her, but I was speaking of Lord Rothvale. Don’t you want to know?”
Imogene felt her face flush. She couldn’t speak, so she just nodded and waited for Jocelyn to tell it.
“When we sat to dinner, he put himself by me. Somehow he already knew that we are close friends. He told me of meeting you that day, how you brought back the lamb. Imogene, he is entranced when he speaks of you. He wanted to know what you like to read.”
“What did you say?” she whispered.
“Poetry. Lord Byron.
Le Morte d'Arthur
. He liked that, I think.” Jocelyn looked at her boldly. “He wanted to know your favourite colour as well?”
“I told him it was…green. He liked that, too.”
His eyes are green
. “You should not have told him, Jocelyn. It’s not right. I don’t want people speculating.”
“Too late for that, I think.” Jocelyn took up Imogene’s hands. “His eyes never leave you. If you turn and look now, you will find he is staring at your back as we speak. I think the better question for you is what do you think of him?”
He’s looking at me right now?
Imogene lifted her head, her stubbornness rising up. “I like him. He is a gentleman toward me. He has done nothing to cause me to see him as anything other than that.” She dropped her eyes. “He will be in my riding party tomorrow. Would you like to join us, Jocelyn?”
“No thank you, dear. You must use your opportunity with him tomorrow to help him get to know you better. Don’t let this chance slip away, encourage him.”
Imogene pondered Jocelyn’s words. Could he really be in love with her? How could he after just a few meetings? Could she love him? She had to admit, just thinking about him made her suddenly warm inside. She liked how that felt.
“YOU were magnificent today.” Graham viewed her earnestly, trying to soak in as much of her presence as he could. He found that the urge to be with her every minute was surprisingly strong. Right now he could almost feel tinges of panic at the thought of her leaving.
“I had a wonderful time. It felt good to laugh and I truly enjoyed the games. Our conspiracy against Mr. Everley and Mr. Hargreave went quite well, I daresay. They were at the bottom of the heap in scores.” Imogene’s triumphant grin easily gave away her competitiveness.
“All thanks to you. You are possessed of a wicked competitive streak. It’s true. ‘Mark and learn from Miss Byron-Cole!’ should be the cry of the day.”
She laughed again. “Miss Imogene, please. Miss Byron-Cole has too many names in it. I look forward to riding tomorrow, Lord Rothvale,” she told him easily, her eyes flashing.
He bowed, thrilled at her request that he address her by her Christian name. “Miss Imogene, as do I…very much.”
You have no idea how much, beautiful Imogene.
Love comforteth like sunshine after rain.
William Shakespeare ~Venus and Adonis, 1593
clouds exuding the threat of rain were in full force by the time Imogene’s riding party called at Wilton Court. Introductions were made all around for those who were in need of one and Lord Rothvale, looking handsome and somber as ever, gave assurance that should the weather turn, he would see her safely home. When assisting her in mounting Terra, the feel of his big hands around her waist burned right through her clothes. “All set?” he asked.
She nodded sharply at him, totally unable to form any words.
“Where to, Miss Imogene? You’re the only one of us who has the advantage. Lead us on?”
“Very well, follow me.” She guided Terra out.
Imogene took them to a high meadow dotted with trees, well beyond the boundaries of Kenilbrooke. There was an old rock wall, crumbling enough in places that it could be breeched on horseback. Beyond the wall upon the hill, were the ruins of a castle. Formidable centuries past, but now returning back to the earth in its waning days. The roof had been removed long ago, and with that one act, the castle’s doom had been sealed. The walls immediately began to separate, tumbling down once there was nothing to keep the enormous weight of the stones forced together at the top. The ruin was still beautiful, even in winter and in its dying gasps. Outside the wall, sheep dotted the hillside, grazing and reminding her of the occasion she first saw him. The sheep had colonized the area and fixed themselves in and around the ancient toppled stones. His brother, Colin, and Ellenora Everley paired up and headed off, picking their way through the rubble.
Their pace slowed and Lord Rothvale pulled up next to her. “Where did you find it?”
Imogene knew that he was referring to the lamb she had rescued on the day he arrived, for the grazing sheep had reminded her of the same thing. “Way down there in the creek bed,” she pointed below them to a meandering creek flowing with water. “It was dry then, nothing but rocks.”
“So adventuresome. You were quite comfortable scrambling down into that rocky pit?”
“It wasn’t comfortable, but had to be done. I could not have left the poor thing to die.”
“You are rather fearless I think.”
“More like a girl raised in the typical country way. It was nothing I would not have done were I at my home, at Drakenhurst.”
“You consider yourself a typical country girl? I assure you, that you are not. I have never met anyone like you in my life.”
I feel the same way about you.
“Perhaps you’ve not spent enough time in the country, Lord Rothvale.”
“I don’t think that’s it.” He cocked a brow at her and shook his head. “What of your home, Drakenhurst? How did you occupy your days there?” What surprised Imogene the most was how he behaved as if he really wanted to know about her life. Most men would simply greet a lady as society dictated, showing little interest in her person or thoughts. Yet, he looked deeply into her eyes when he asked questions as if her answers were important information he desired to know.
“Drakenhurst is in Essex, a working estate, not far out of London at Waltham Forest. My father kept an excellent stable and enjoyed the hunting when his obligations to Parliament allowed him time to pursue it. From a young age, I realized being out of doors is much preferable to being in. I rode very frequently, and indulged in a bit of target practice as well. I find the required skill and precision of archery a challenge and like the quietness of it. The stillness and concentration necessary, before the arrow is released toward the target is…is satisfying to me, and feels like an accomplishment. I miss it. Since I have come to Shelburne, I’ve not had opportunity to take it up again.” Her voice trailed off and she felt the sudden need to stop talking.
“You are an accomplished sportswoman. You see? I was right. You are not the typical country girl as you modestly claim. You sound like Artemis, goddess of archery and the hunt. What a portrait that would make, Miss Imogene. Just imagine it.”
“My lord, I assure you, I am not the paragon of accomplishment you praise me to be. I had occasion to spend plenty of time indoors as well with the more ordinary and traditional occupations expected of a young lady. I write and keep a journal. I also read a great deal.”
Which you know already.
“My mamma was ill for a long time, my sister and I attended to her continually. She dearly loved for us to read to her, and later, she had need of me to write her letters.” Imogene looked at him challengingly, not wanting pity, for she was protective of her grief still, and not yet ready to share.
He nodded and wisely let it go. Lord Rothvale had good instincts, which was a fortunate for him, because she did not want to speak about her mother. Not today.
They rode along together in companionable quiet. Again she was impressed by his easiness. He didn’t push. It was more like leading her where she wanted to go. She could speak freely and there wasn’t a pressing need to fill the surprisingly comfortable silences with unnecessary conversation.
“My turn,” she said. “I have answered several of your questions, so it’s only fair you give up some answers, my lord. Agreed?”
“Ask away, Miss Imogene. I am yours to command,” he answered lightly, seemingly glad the somber spirit of their conversation had passed.
“Why did your cousin, Mr. Everley, refer to you as wayward, at the ball? He called you his wayward cousin and I want to know why.”
He gave her a lifted eyebrow first and then spoke. “A fair question I suppose. It is nothing sinister, I guarantee. I am ‘wayward’ in the sense of being away from home for a long time. I’ve been in Ireland for the past year putting business affairs to order. Remember, how I told you of the death of my mother last fall? Well, the Irish estate, Donadea, passed to my family upon her death. I had to attend to business there.”
“And Ireland is very agreeable to you?”
“Yes, very much so. In fact, I stayed much longer than was originally intended. When Julian wrote to me of his upcoming marriage to Miss Mina, I felt the time had come for me to return to England, and to my responsibilities here. My family is important to me, and I wished to offer support to Jules, of course,” he finished quietly.
He is loyal to his family.
“Do you miss Ireland?”
“It is bewitching to be sure. The old world still exists in Ireland and right along with it, the old world creatures…fairies, and brownies, and elves.” He looked at her stone-faced for a minute before he winked, his green eyes teasing her.
“Even brownies, my lord? They are the naughty ones I’ve heard.” She teased him right back.
“Indeed. I’ve never met a brownie I could trust. They are all wicked little demons.”
“I think somebody else is wicked, telling imaginative tales about the residents of the Emerald Isle.”
He threw his head back and laughed at her, the sound of his laughter hitting her right in the heart. “But truly, there is a magical beauty that pulls you in, captivates you. I know I will return someday.” He looked directly into her eyes and Imogene could have sworn he was referring to her in his words. “Though I am happy to be here in England—it was time for me to leave Ireland, and right now I would not wish to be anywhere else.”
Despite the chill of the day, she suddenly felt hot. “Your name, it is not commonly bestowed, is it? Was Graham your mother’s surname, given you in respect?”
“Yes. You are exactly right. It is somewhat of a family tradition. I thank God my mother was not named Bumweald or Whitelegg, or something equally horrifying.”
She could not hold back the comment. Lord Rothvale was easy to tease. “I don’t know about that, I think Whitelegg Everley has a good ring to it, don’t you?” She kept her face serious even though she wanted to fall on the grass and howl. He saved her by laughing first and letting her join in.
“You have a lovely name,” he said. “Imogene is an Irish name. Did you know? It means ‘last daughter.’ And your surname is shared with England’s most celebrated poet.”
Imogene didn’t feel like talking about her name, rather she watched him intently, looking at his hair. She blurted, “You wear your hair in the old way. Is it because you have been in Ireland?” She immediately regretted her question. “Forgive me. That was rude of me to ask.”
He shrugged. “I don’t mind telling you. It just seemed easier at the time. Ireland is very different from England, simpler, less complicated. I have thought of cutting it now that I am back.”
STUDYING her reaction to his words, he observed a quick furrow at her brow before she whispered the word, ‘regrettable’ so lightly, he barely heard.
She fancies the long hair.
“But maybe I’ll just leave it long.” She smiled at him again.
Graham believed in fate. He believed in his frequent and vivid dreams, feeling it was fate that had brought him here to this place, with the purpose of finding her.
He was ready.
Ready to go home and claim his inheritance in the true sense of all it entailed.
Ready even, to take a wife.
The notion of a wife, now that he had met Imogene, was so strong that it was the only way in which he could see her. He needed to be sure though. Sure of her feelings. He could not share any of this with her yet, but held faith in it. His dreams were strong, and Imogene was an ever-present force.
Sleep was something he looked forward to each night, for in his sleep he might find her in a dream. He could go to her. He could touch her.
The laughing sounds of Elle and Colin broke through his musings as they pulled up, riding hard. Graham looked at them questioningly. “The sky, my brother,” Colin directed scornfully pointing up. “It’s going to pour!”
Graham looked up to ominous, rolling, storm clouds. Right then, the sky opened up and unleashed with a vengeance. The sound of it like a giant thundering beast coming at them gave the instinct to bolt. “We are caught and there’s nothing for it! Prepare to get wet!” Graham shouted as the four of them headed back at a hard run.
Imogene looked like she was having the time of her life—so free and unconventional. Galloping in the rain, getting soaked, feeling the water run down his face, was the least of it. Having those things happen with her, stirred him. It felt wildly intimate. As their horses pounded over the turf, she looked over and met his eyes. Grinning widely, she yelled, “I love this.”
He laughed out loud in response to her declaration, taking in the vision of her. So beautiful—even in the pouring rain—racing over the fields, soaked to the skin, clearly loving every minute of it.
And I love this…with you.
As they approached the grounds of Kenilbrooke, Colin and Elle shouted their goodbyes and headed away toward the stables. Graham and Imogene continued on together toward Wilton Court at a gallop. It was not much farther to go, and too soon they arrived, riding straight into the barn to get out of the rain. Graham leapt down from Triton and was waiting to help her dismount, his hands latching on to her waist, pulling her down toward him. He wasn’t going to miss this chance to touch her and have her body up against his. Not possible, and propriety could be damned.