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"Winter bowed her head over the ornamented desk. "Lord, I'm so tired and lonely. Why did You have to take father away?" With a sigh, she ran her small, crooked fingers over the elegant scrollwork of the desk. Here she felt her father's presence as nowhere else. Here she diligently worked on the estate books as her father had done for so many years. Here, at this desk beside her father, she had learned to handle estate affairs.
By the time he passed away, the tenant farmers felt comfortable approaching her with their problems, considering her both honest and fair. But the responsibility of running the entire estate by herself had taken its toll on the fragile young woman. She straightened and stretched, trying to dissipate the stiffness in her muscles from the hours of work over the heavy books.
There was no one else, no son to inherit. The rolling fertile land, the long red-stone Renton Hall, the overseeing of staff and tenants, the duty hers and hers alone. The task wearied her even as it gave her purpose.
Winter pushed back her waist-length brunette hair, unaware of the silver highlights sparkling through it. She preferred having Mrs. Duncan pull her hair to the sides, leaving the rest streaming down her back. She tried to rub her stiff shoulder, but her inflexible fingers could only assuage the stiffness slightly.
She stretched her equally stiff leg, grimaced at the flash of pain through her thigh and knee and clenched her teeth. She wondered, not for the first time, what her life might have been if the arrogant cup-shot peer driving the high-perch phaeton had managed to avoid their carriage. What if their carriage had not overturned, breaking her mother's neck and crippling her?
Shaking her head to clear away the anger, she cried out, "Lord, why? Why did You take father, as well? I know he was ill, but "
Slowly lowering her leg, Winter smoothed the skirts of the white-sashed, deep rose muslin gown that hugged her young maturing figure. Recalling the wide full skirts her mother always wore, Winter smiled at her simple practical gowns, designed to be comfortable with a minimum of underskirts and fullness.
Since she neither subscribed to fashion magazines nor mixed in society, she had no idea her practical gown reflected the new French simplicity in fashion. She only knew her gowns fit comfortably and swished gracefully around her feet.
Again she smoothed down the skirt, liking the feel of the soft material under her palm. "Papa, you don't mind I save black for what few guests I have, do you? I know you said we should not mourn excessively, but it's it's only been four months. Oh, Papa."
She blinked her long dark lashes over expressive deep blue eyes that dominated her oval face. Despite her grief, she held a maturity belying her small stature and delicate bone structure.
Laying down her pen, Winter rubbed her sore wrist. Even without a scold from the family butler, Richard Duncan, she knew she needed a break.
Jupiter, her iron-gray gelding, would be only too eager for a hard ride up Renton Hill. Then there was dear Mutton-head. Winter smiled. The little black puppy had been her father's last gift. Exasperated at their unsuccessful attempts to train the wriggly puppy, he called him Mutton-head and the name stuck.
Thanks to her father's prudent management, life here was good, if lonely. How she wished for someone in whom she could confide her fears and share the burden of dealing with the estate. With disgust, Winter thought of her nearest neighbors.
Hardly had her father been buried before Lord Nelson stopped in. Portly and pompous, he started by offering condolences. In the next breath he said, "Ah, my dear. With no one to inherit, you are now alone. Surely a wee thing like yourself will not be staying on."
He gave her no time to answer as he plowed on. "As your father's dear friend."
She grimaced at this fabrication, but still he took no notice. "I am here to make an offer. Generous, of course. Will give you enough to find a chaperone and establish yourself in London."
"Lord Nelson. Lord Nelson. My lord," she yelled to get his attention, thinking he must certainly be partially deaf. "I am staying right here."
Lord Nelson stepped back in surprise. "But my dear. This is not seemly. Not seemly at all."
With a plastered-on smile she had Duncan show him the door.
His behavior showed at least a modicum of concern. Anthony's approach had been quite odd, to say the least, considering their less-then-amicable relationship. Then again, Winter admitted, Viscount Derik's behavior had never born much scrutiny.
A few days after Lord Nelson's visit, Anthony, dressed in what Winter imagined was the first style of elegance, sauntered into her parlour for all the world as though he already owned Renton Hall.
Bowing low over her hand, he held it so long she snatched it away, knowing from the chill of his palm how much he shrank from her touch. Frowning, he said, "I do not wish for you to be alone at this terrible time of grief. I don't want you to be alone now or in the future." He cleared his throat, hesitated as though considering carefully, "Winter, I am asking for your hand."
She gaped at him in astonishment. An arrogant smile touched the corners of his thin lips.
In her vulnerability, she took his proposal seriously. She glanced up at the rather hard features framed by dark curly hair, took in his lean muscular body. She could do worse. "I do not understand this. You can not possibly have feelings for me, and I have never much cared for you, Lord Derik. Mayhap with time."
Leaning back, the viscount shook his head, "My dear Winter. Time we don't have."
"I don't love you, Anthony." Winter clasped her hands. She hated being in this position.
Lord Derik tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear, making her shiver. "Winter, love has very little to do with my offer."
At her confusion, Anthony wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Winter, don't get in a taking over my words. They are, after all, only true. Your father is gone now. You are alone here, and this is for your protection."
Winter moved away from his embrace. "Anthony, I "
Hurriedly he continued, "We've known each other forever and our estates march side by side. Combining our estates would make us one of the largest landowners between here and London. Think about it. Marry me and you spend the rest of your life in comfort. No longer would you need concern yourself with ledgers, finances and disgruntled farmers."
It almost sounded good. "I don't know." She stared into Lord Derik's eyes. There was something in his gaze that gave her pause, though she could not put a name to her fear. She got to her feet.
He seemed to sense her thoughts and frowned. "What is there to consider?" He tried to pull her down beside him again. When she moved away, he also stood and stared down on her. "Your bloodlines are impeccable, Winter. Surely you want children."
The flicker in her eyes made him press his suit. "You'll make a good mother, Winter. What more do you want?"
"I am not a brood mare up for sale, Anthony."
She could tell he kept his temper under control with difficulty. Lord Derik took her arm. "Listen, Winter. We'll get along just fine. I'll treat you well. You have my word on that. Besides, you go your way, and I'll go mine."
Winter whispered, "What of love?"
"This is the nineteenth century. We're not peasants to marry for some fleeting passion. We're above all that. Marriage is for the merging of property and bloodlines. To put it bluntlyto beget an heir." He paused, releasing Winter's arm.
"After you produce an heir, you can, discreetly, of course, find someone to love you. Surely you don't expect me to be faithful. I'm sorry, Winter, but " He shrugged and spoke almost with regret. "I won't be. I'm not the faithful sort."
Her eyes widened at this blatant admission. "Viscount Derik, unless a man loves me, I will not marry him. Father left Renton Estates to me, and I will manage just fine."
"Who else would have you?" His words, though quietly spoken, stabbed her heart.
Blinking back tears, she tugged the bell cord. To her relief, Duncan answered almost immediately.
"Please show the Viscount out." With a curt nod, Winter watched Anthony, his shoulders stiff and tense, march toward the door.
Turning, he managed a smile. "At least I'm honest, Winter. Think about my offer."
The door closed, and she was alone. Wrapping her arms about herself, Winter tried to still her shivering. "Lord, somehow he frightens me. You know how cruel he has sometimes been in the past. He has a large estate. He doesn't need mine. Does he want power, Lord? Is this about greed or is there something else?"
No answer came. Anthony's words returned. Hurtful though they were, Winter knew them for the truth. Who would want a woman with a disability such as hers? Deep inside, a part of her cried, while another part picked up the pieces and prepared to go on.
A smile pulled at the corners of her lips as a verse filled her mind from Hebrews 13. I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.
"Thank You, Lord, for reminding me that even if I have no one else, You will provide for me."
Blake's poem "The Tiger" hummed in her mind. It was her favorite among the poems by William Blake. Softly she quoted the poem taught to her by her father after the accident that took the life of her mother.
For the first time, she wondered if the learning of the poem hadn't given him, and herself, the strength to go on.
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire?
Somewhere inside Winter felt that strength. God would take care of her.
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright. The words continued to sound their refrain. Again she had been remembering rather than working. Not able to concentrate, Winter got up from the desk, letting her long full sleeves billow over her hands, and headed toward the door.
Before she made it halfway across the room, Duncan appeared in the doorway. "Oh, excuse me, my lady. I had no idea you were finished here."
For the first time, Winter noticed his graying hair and the slight stoop to his shoulders. For her, he would always be the smiling man who gave in to her whims when she was in leading strings.
"I thought I'd have Jupiter saddled and take a ride."
"Very good, miss. But I have someone here to see you." Before Winter could respond, he announced, "Justin Stuart, Earl of Alistair."
Tall and commanding, Lord Alistair strode into the room, dwarfing the small study by his presence. Winter closed her mouth with a snap as she took in the giant of a man who wore his well-tailored blue coat, lighter colored waistcoat and white breeches with casual indifference. Yet his manner kept Winter from classifying him as a dandy. More like, she thought as she surveyed the amusement in his gray eyes and the dark, wind-tossed hair, a rake.
Lord Alistair. She recalled the name, now, along with the rumors of his exploits in London. Her dark images of him did not match the solid strength that kept her from dismissing him out of hand.
Lord Alistair's eyes darkened as Winter surveyed him with a snap of anger in her eyes. Her frankly disapproving appraisal seemed to disconcert him.
Winter sighed. Lord, she appealed silently, do I have to contend with Lord Alistair, too?
She could think of only two reasons he might be paying her a call and both infuriated her. "Well, what brings you to the door, a marriage of convenience to get your hands on the inheritance to squander on your vices, or an equally offensive offer for the estate?"
Lord Alistair took a step back and stared down at her as she glared up at him, daring him to speak. He brought himself up sharply. "Neither," he said in a deep, controlled voice. "I came on behalf of Lord Renton's daughter. I wish to speak with her."
Winter's eyebrows lifted. So his high-in-the-instep lordship had not made the connection. "Why, may I ask?"
Irritation crossed his face, and he examined her as though she was beneath his dignity. He probably thought of her as a little less than a glorified servant. Lord Alistair growled, "I have come to make provisions for the child. Now, miss, whatever your name is, as her nurse."
Winter scarcely heard the last as she repeated. "Provisions? What provisions? Why does Lady Renton need the likes of someone like you?"
"Why, to see to her future care." Lord Alistair leaned against the nearby shelf as though he found it awkward to converse with an obstinate female.
Anxiety clouded Winter's eyes as she stifled a shiver of fear. "Please," she whispered, "tell me plainly of what you speak. Why should you have ought to do with my ah, her care? Lord Renton died over four months ago. It seems rather odd for you to show up here now."
Guilt crossed Lord Alistair's face. He shifted as her inquiry appeared to hit home. "I can see you are not about to let me see the child until I clarify my position."
Pulling out the guardianship papers, he unfolded them and flashed them in front of Winter. "You do read, don't you?" Sarcasm laced his tone.
At her nod, he added, "Lord Renton appointed me guardian of his daughter and trustee of his estate."
Winter rocked back in shock. "Fustian! How is that possible?"
Lord Alistair appeared to enjoy the effect his pronouncement had on her. Straightening, he took a menacing step toward her, deliberately, she sensed, to overpower her with his height. "You heard correctly. I want to see the girl, and I want to see her straightaway."
Instantly, Winter's astonishment turned to anger aimed both at her father and at this arrogant stranger trying to intimidate her. "No! How could he?" she blurted, clenching and unclenching her hands. "I've run this estate for almost two years. I do not require some meddlesome lord taking over."
Her tone bitter, she added, "What do you plan to do, lock Lady Renton away somewhere? Let her rot?"
Surprise flashed across Lord Alistair's expression. "No, I have no intention of removing the girl from her home. I do intend to ensure she and the estate are properly looked after."
After hesitating, he said, "If you fear for your job, mayhap we can work out some arrangement."
His piercing stare faded when Winter bit her lips to suppress her bubble of laughter. A puzzled frown crossed his lean features. "Does my boldness so amuse you then?"
Winter's anger faded into a choked laugh at the man's bold assessment. Actually, having never seen herself as a desirable woman, the situation struck her as funny. If only the arrogant lord realized. She tried to swallow the giggles. The odious man deserved her sharpest set-down.
But the confusion and pique on Lord Alistair's face was too much and a giggle escaped before she could recall it. "M'lord" she forced herself to swallow another giggle "I think we had better talk."
She nodded toward the door. "Please, I will meet you in the east parlour, down the hall to your left."
Lord Alistair hesitated. "And the girl?"
Another giggle escaped. "I, ah, promise you, you will meet Lady Renton."