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A pale-gray pigeon fluttered from the peak of the hothouse, parting the delicately swirling mist in its agitation. It dropped on the ground with a ruffled flourish, strutting past a lop-eared rabbit who looked rather woebegone in the crystalline dampness. The rabbit twitched its nose and waited patiently by the wooden door of the hothouse.
The door opened and the rabbit left the mizzle for the fragrant warmth of the hothouse. Light filtered down through the whitewashed panes, bestowing a strange delicate green cast to the two people beneath the rows of exquisite orchids. The rabbit hopped across the worn slats of water-stained wood and settled at the feet of his mistress. Safely hidden beneath the old wooden potting bench, it seemed to listen, one ear carefully alert while the other hung crazily over his left eye.
Charity was grateful for the diversion. Roscoe was always to be depended upon when needed. While it might be unusual to have a pet rabbit, there was little conformity in Charity Lonsbury.
Although the eerie glow from the windows did not enhance her chestnut curls or her peach-tinted skin, it gave her steady gray eyes intriguing depths, hinted of secrets concealed beneath the demure exterior. Her slender figure was well-balanced, though her gardening apron hid the sweet curve of her bosom from the approaching squire's gaze. Her chin tilted defiantly as she considered the words most likely to reach her ears.
She stiffened at the familiar and very irritating sound of Squire Hamilton Bigglesby clearing his throat. It was a raspy staccato, guaranteed to vex ears less sensitive than hers. She cautioned herself not to allow hermind to wander during his effusive prose. If she murmured agreement at the wrong moment, she would find herself betrothed to the wretched man. The mere thought of his cold, pudgy hands on her body was enough to make her toss her tea.
She thumped a small clay pot on the bench and began to fill it with her special blend of moss and shredded bark. This was for potting the last of four sections of a sympodial orchid that she had divided earlier. If she must hear the squire out, she could at least get something accomplished. He was too persistent to leave her in peace. As she gently transferred the plant, she nodded her head. "Proceed, Squire." What else could she say? He would speak regardless. His prose would spout like water from an ice-cold spring, sharp and unrelenting.
Squire Bigglesby was disconcerted by his intended's lack of maidenly flutterings or suitably receptive posture. However, he wouldn't allow this to deter him from making her his bride. After they were wed he would end this nonsense of orchids and rabbits.
"Ought to take that demmed rabbit and make a fine stew out of him instead of cosseting him like this," he muttered. Then, realizing these intentions were better silenced for the moment, he again cleared his throat, seemingly unaware of the resistance in the rigid figure near him. "My dear Miss Lonsbury..." He paused and drew nearer, taking care to keep a distance from the dirt-stained bench. "Charity, dear lady, for we are surely past all such formalities, are we not? You must know I am the most patient of men. 'Tis clear I hold you in the highest esteem." He cleared his throat once again, unmindful of her wince, and continued. "I would that you allow me to announce the date of our marriage. Surely you will accept my offer. You will find none better .. or higher." His eyes narrowed, nearly disappearing into the folds of fat that rounded his face. The chit would accept him this time, he was certain. There was little income to sustain her, and she must long for the pretties his purse could buy.
"I can afford to keep you in a handsome manner," he reminded her in an unctuous voice. It put Charity in mind of the grease that dripped from a roasting pig: thick, oily and slightly malodorous when left to stand. Charity squared her shoulders and inhaled a precious breath of free air. If she agreed to marry the squire, it would be the last she took. "Sir, you do me great honor, I'm sure. I cannot agree to wed you, however."
He bristled with indignation. "You are over the year of mourning for your father. There is naught to stand in our way. You are twenty-one, are you not?"
"That is true, sir." She raised her eyes to look at the figure awaiting her answer with such overweening confidence. Such a figure he thought he cut. His cravat was an economy of linen and the bottle-green coat hung neatly over his wide shoulders. If his primrose pantaloons strained against the bulk of his thighs and his puce waistcoat threatened to burst its buttons, it was a compliment to his cook, her roast beef and trifle. The coarse redness of his nose attested to his fondness for port, and his rough skin reflected his love for a bruising ride to the hounds, none of which was reprehensible ... to most. Charity reflected that if his face was a road map of his life's journey, the trip had indeed been a rough one.
For a moment Charity's thoughts skimmed to another man, one tall and slim, dark-haired, with eyes of the most intense blue she'd ever seen. She had often watched as he called on her father, the late reverend. She would linger near the top of the stairs or hover in the garden to catch a glimpse of him, then listen for the deep richness of his voice. A sigh escaped from her lips as she contemplated the impossible, her preux chevalier, the knight in shining armor who would never come to her rescue. The Marquess of Kenrick was far beyond her in every way, and she was well aware of the complete futility of her dreams. She was destined to love him without any hope, for she had no dowry, no chance to meet him face to face. Still, that did not make acceptance of the tedious Squire Bigglesby inevitable. She would fight against that horror in every way she could.
"Nevertheless, I must decline your most gracious offer." That ought to mollify the pompous prig, she decided. His conceit was just short of second to none.
He drew up in offended dignity and deepening anger. "I have been patient beyond all reckoning. I have made my decision! I think your father would be most gratified to know his daughter is married to a man of my stature. We will marry, my dear. If you do not choose the date, I will set it for us." His eyes gleamed with the knowledge Charity would be forced to agree with his logic.
"That cannot be. You cannot force me against my will, and I will not marry you. There is no one to ask for my hand, for there is no one I am answerable to in this world. My word and mine alone is what counts here. And I say no." The time for ladylike politeness fled. She must stand her ground against his man. Marriage to him was unthinkable! It was a blessing he was not privy to Mrs. Woods' repeated urgings to seek help from the Earl of Nevile, Charity's uncle. Charity had no doubt the squire would attempt to seek a means of demanding that gentleman compel Charity to accept the squire as a worthy husband.
Bigglesby paced the narrow wooden slats of the hothouse floor in pensive, ponderous steps. One plump hand stroked his chin while he mulled over the problem he faced. He no doubt deemed her a recalcitrant miss. Her refusal angered him greatly, she could see that. Then he stopped short, as if an idea had struck him all a heap.
Charity stared at the figure who stood so completely out of place among the orchids. Delicate blooms of lavender and green, pink and white, cascaded over narrow ribbons of leaves all about him, their beauty totally ignored. She doubted very much that his nose was sensitive enough to catch their elusive scent.
The clearing of his throat drew the expected wince as well as a tremor of fear. There really was no reason for the latter, as the squire had always deported himself in a seemly fashion. Yet he was known to get his way in all things, and she was sadly lacking in support to withstand any threat. Alone at the cottage with only Mrs. Woods, the former housekeeper at the rectory, she had little protection. Josiah Bent would defend her, but what could an old man like him do, other than wield his gardening hoe? She met the pale-blue eyes, now beaming with satisfaction, with rising trepidation.
"I am going up to the great house to pay my respects to Lord Kenrick. You knew he had arrived? Perhaps I will mention the use of the hothouse to him. Yes." The squire looked about with a smug air of victory. "I'm certain he would wish to be appraised of the way you use, or should I say abuse, his gracious generosity to your esteemed father, our late Reverend Lonsbury. Your cottage is part of his lordship's domain as well, isn't it? You rent from him? Quite dependent upon his generosity, I daresay. I wonder how he will view all you have done, Miss Lonsbury." With a jab at her composure more perceptive than he realized, he added, "I sense more goes on here than he knows." He made a futile attempt to draw in his girth before making a sketchy bow to a worried Charity. Turning to exit the hothouse, he stumbled over the soft furry body in his path. Though Charity couldn't understand his muttered words, she guessed their meaning from his angry tone.
She scooped up Roscoe and scolded him with a hint of frantic laughter in her voice. Burying her face against his plushlike fur, she gently berated him. "Oh, that was naughty, dear Roscoe. He'll hate you even more, and the danger of your ending up in his stew pot will be all the greater."
Roscoe wrinkled his nose and settled in her arms.