Read an Excerpt
"Nonsense, Emily. I am doing this for your own good." Roland's slightly plump cheeks quivered with annoyance. He was unused to rebellion, especially when his authority as head of the family was enhanced by the solemn dignity of his seat behind the desk in his library. "A green girl cannot possibly be expected to know what will be best for her."
"But he frightens me." Emily's soft brown eyes filled with tears. She blinked them back. Weeping always irritated her brother.
"You scarcely know the man. You cannot judge his character after standing up with him a couple of times at balls. You are excessively fortunate to have caught the earl's eye."
"I do not feel in the least fortunate. He has a horridly cutting tongue."
Having suffered himself, Roland looked a little conscious. "Naturally he will curb his sarcasm when you are betrothed."
"And when we are married?"
Unable to answer, he resorted to bluster. "Pray don't be pert, Emily. It is a splendid match. I leave in the morning to arrange the settlements and I shall bring him home with me the next day. There is nothing more to be said." He began to fuss with the papers on his desk.
Emily fled from the room, then stumbled to a halt in the passage outside. It was no use going up to her chamber. Charlotte would follow her there, and though her sister-in-law would sympathize she was also bound to counsel obedience.
The passage led to the back door out to the stables. At this time in the evening the grooms were doubtless in the kitchen eating their dinner. The horses would not prate to her of her duty to obey her brother.
Heedless of a distant rumble of thunder, Emily scurried across thestable yard. A lighted lantern hanging from a nail showed an empty stall, surely a safe refuge. Dropping to her knees on a pile of fragrant hay, she scarcely noticed how it pricked through the warm green wool of her gown. She hid her face in her hands and wept.
How could Roland be so brutal as to force her to marry a man who was a friend of the sinister Lord Byron"
A bell jangled as Jodie stepped into the dingy little shop. She glanced around at the shelves piled with dusty cardboard boxes. The Good Guys it was not.
Behind the scratched wooden counter a pimpled youth looked up from the soccer page of the Oxford Mail. "Yes?"
"I need a transformer so I can run an American hairdryer on English volts. Or is it amps? I can't do without it in this climate." She pushed back a clinging strand of straight black hair, damp from the drizzle outside.
"The boss is busy wiv Lord Faringdale's stuff right now." His attention already returning to his newspaper, the clerk jerked a thumb at a tall man in grey sweats who leaned against another counter, scribbling numbers in a catalogue.
Lord Faringdale? A real live lord? Despite her republican upbringing, Jodie regarded him with interest.
He must have heard her request, for he looked up. "Unless you need a transformer for other high-wattage appliances, too, it'd be much cheaper to buy a new hair-dryer, you know." His voice was a pleasant baritone, his speech precise in the educated English manner yet without affectation.
He looked thirtyish: fair hair, thick and wavy; features too irregular to be called handsome; eyes the colour of California skies. His grey outfit (a lord in a tracksuit!) revealed the long-legged, athletic build of a runner or basketball player.
Under her scrutiny he flushed slightly. Jodie realized she had not responded to his advice.
"Sh--darn! I could have bought a new hairdryer downtown instead of dragging all the way out here. I have digs in Headington," she explained, pleased with the Anglicism, then glanced at the clock on the wall, grimacing "and I've missed my bus. Not the first time. I've learned to take a book with me wherever I go." She patted her tote bag.
"Headington?" He hesitated. "I'm going that way. Would you like a lift?"
"Thanks, but I..." Jodie reconsidered. This was England, not America, and who could be more respectable than an English lord? "Thanks, that'll be great. I'm Jodie Zaleski."
"Giles Faringdale." His smile was crooked, unexpectedly charming. "I'm nearly done here. We'll take the ring-road and be there in no time."
When they set off a few minutes later Jodie was slightly disappointed to find he drove a Range Rover; she had hoped for a Rolls or a Bentley.
"I did hear right, didn't I?" she asked. "You're a lord?"
He looked embarrassed. "Yes, a viscount."
"Do I call you 'my lord?'"
"Please, call me Giles. I try to avoid the 'my lord' business."
"That's a very English name."
"It has alternated with Roland in my family for generations."
"Then I'm glad I hit the Giles generation. Thanks for the ride, Giles. It's a real hassle not having a car. My dad said he'd buy me one, but the traffic in Oxford scares me half to death. At least they drive on the right side of the road in La Jolla."
"You're from California? Jeans and high-heeled boots suit the image, but I thought all Californian girls were blondes."
She laughed. "That's a myth propagated by the tourist bureaus. My mom's half Chinese, though you can't tell by my eyes. I inherited the straight black hair from her. She's a biologist and she explained it all to me once."
"Are you a student here?"
"A Rhodes scholar," Jodie announced with pride. "I'm collecting material for the thesis I want to write when I get back home. It'll be a comparison of English city and country life in the early nineteenth century, so it's a real help to be over here. Just being able to visit the old buildings makes it all seem real, though I haven't been to any stately homes yet."
She closed her eyes and gripped the seat as Giles drove the wrong way, in her view, round a busy roundabout, turning onto the Oxford by-pass. The next roundabout they would come to was in Headington. Would he ask for her phone number when he dropped her off--or did she dare ask for his? She didn't want to be thought a brash American, yet it seemed a pity to let a lord get away without making an effort. A real, live English viscount! She pinched herself.
"I wonder," he said diffidently "whether you'd like to see my home. Waterstock Manor isn't really big enough to be called a stately home, but the house is little altered since Queen Anne's time. It's near Thame, about ten miles. If you have nothing better to do you could come now and I'll run you home later."
"Hey, that sounds great!"
"I hope you won't be disappointed. We only have a couple of rooms furnished in period style. My mother believes in comfort before elegance."
"I guess you have plumbing and electricity then." Jodie grinned. "I was afraid to ask."
It had stopped raining, and the sun came out as they left the city behind. Ploughed farmland lay in long, gentle slopes on both sides; copses and spinneys glowed in autumn russet and gold. Hazy with distance, the wooded ridge of the Chilterns marched across the southeastern horizon.
"This is about as different as you can get from San Diego County," Jodie remarked. "I bet it hasn't changed much in a couple of centuries. What crops do you grow?"
"Barley, wheat, turnips, I think, and could it be beans? Sorry, I'm not much help. I'm a physicist, not a farmer."
"A physicist! You're kidding! As in quarks and cosmic strings and that? I figured you for a gentleman of leisure. You're a professor?"
"I'm not attached to the university; I work at home--and don't you dare say anything about mad scientists."
She laughed. "Okay. You must be purely theoretical, then?"
"No, I have a lab. It's rather an odd set-up, actually." Giles sounded embarrassed. "I won't go into details, but it suits me very well because I have a ridiculously old-fashioned attachment to my family's land."
Having moved five times in her life, Jodie thought ridiculous summed it up, but she tactfully did not say so. "What are you working on, or is it hush-hush?"
"A rather obscure problem connected with electron orbits and tunneling electrons. Do you want to know more?" He grinned as she wrinkled her nose.
"No, but I'd like to see your lab."
Ahead, Jodie caught a glimpse of a square, red brick house, half-hidden by trees. Moments later they turned into a courtyard surrounded by low brick buildings. A garage door opened automatically and Giles drove in.
"This is one end of the stables. Most of the rest is taken up by the lab, but I have a couple of riding horses at the far end. I'll introduce you to them, if you like, but first I must tell Mother there will be one extra for tea."
She followed him across the stone-flagged courtyard and into the house by a back door. "I don't want to be any trouble."
"She'll be happy to see you. There are plenty of people here during the week but the two of us rattle around a bit at the weekend, unless my sisters bring their families over."
"I'm not dressed for afternoon tea with a ladyship."
"Nor am I. Don't worry; since the sun came out, her ladyship will probably be in her gardening clothes." Giles led Jodie across a marble-floored entrance hall, and out through an exterior door onto a flight of steps. "Yes, there she is." He waved to a figure in the garden below and called "Mother, I've brought a friend for tea."
A woman in shapeless tweeds and a blue headscarf set down her wheelbarrow and waved at them. "Very nice, dear. I'll just finish manuring the roses."
It was not at all what Jodie had expected of a viscountess, but nothing loath she returned the casual wave.
"No hurry," Giles assured his mother. "We'll do the grand tour and meet you in an hour or so."
From the entrance hall they went up a wide marble staircase to a suite of light, airy, high-ceilinged rooms on the first floor, furnished in a variety of eighteenth-century styles. It reminded Jodie of a good antique store back home, though she was too polite to say so. Then she noticed two costumes arranged on dummies: a magnificent Georgian court dress, hooped and laced, and a high-waisted Regency gown of fine, dark-green wool trimmed with bows of apricot ribbon.
"Now this is interesting." Jodie inspected the Regency gown closely. "Most of the costume pictures you see are from fashion plates but this looks like it was an everyday dress. The jumper style is particularly practical because you can wear a blouse or a sweater under it, depending on the weather. Am I boring you?"
"Only a little." Giles grinned. "I'll tell you what, how about trying it on? It looks about your size. My mother would be thrilled to death to see you in it."
"It's in very good condition." She fingered the fabric dubiously. "I'd hate to damage it though."
"Try it on. You were saying you weren't properly dressed for tea with the viscountess."
"Okay, I'll do it, if you promise I won't be hanged, drawn, and quartered if I spill tea on it. I'll change behind that Chinese screen."
Carefully they undressed the dummy. Under the gown it was wearing a long-sleeved white blouse, frilled at neck and cuffs, and nothing else but a linen shift. Heavy-duty stays had been out of fashion for most of the Regency period, Jodie remembered, just making a comeback toward the end, though old-fashioned women, and those more generously endowed, had never given up their corsets.
"I'd better keep my own underwear on underneath," she said, taking the garments round behind the dragon-painted screen. She stripped off her jeans and sweater and put on the shift. As she donned the blouse, she realized it buttoned behind. "Giles, will you do it up for me, please? It seems to fit pretty well."
His fingers dealt deftly with the tiny buttons, sending a shiver down her spine. She cast an oblique glance over her shoulder. His face was serious, concentrating on the task. Nonetheless, though she had frequently appeared on the San Diego beaches in the skimpiest of swimwear, she wondered whether she had been wise to invite such intimate contact.
She trusted Giles, recently though she'd met him. It was herself she was not sure of. He was an attractive man, and she had broken up with Brad six months ago, when she told him she was going to England. It would be crazy to get involved in a futureless relationship with an English lord.
"There you are." He finished the buttons. "Can you manage the dress?"
"I think so."
He retreated. She slipped the gown over her head, tying the long ribbons in a bow beneath her breasts, and emerged into the room to examine herself in an ornately framed cheval glass.
"Hey, that's not bad. My hair's all wrong but the boots don't look as out of place as I expected." She turned and performed an approximation of a curtsy.
"Very elegant." He laughed. "I won't attempt a bow. Let's go down to the lab before tea."
"You're sure your mom isn't going to mind me wearing this?"
"It will amuse her," he promised.
Unused to long skirts, Jodie stumbled on the stairs. At once Giles reached out to steady her. "Careful. Mother won't be amused if you break your neck."
"Thank heaven for pants," Jodie exclaimed. "Dressing this way all the time would be a real pain in the you-know-what."
They crossed the courtyard again and Giles unlocked a door into the central part of the stable block. The long room inside was flooded with sunlight from west-facing windows. Polished metal gleamed, and the level hum of well-behaved machinery filled the air. Jodie recognized nothing but a row of blank computer screens.
"There's nothing much to see," Giles apologized. "The accelerator is running and the computers are crunching numbers." He turned on a screen, hit a few keys, and a moving graph glowed blue on silver.
"Just like a hospital scene on TV."
"On Monday, when my staff come in, it'll be all ready for us to have a go at guessing what it means. Wait a minute, that's odd." His fingers danced over the keyboard; the graph moved backwards and stopped. "I'd better check," he muttered, and strode over to the impressive, instrument-laden bulk of the accelerator.
Jodie followed him. He peered at a set of dials. Leaning closer to see what he was looking at, she brushed against his shoulder.
The world shuddered and went black.