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The child was small, helpless, and in harm's way.
As Douglas Allen drew his horse to a halt, he absorbed more, equally disturbing facts:
The grooms clustered in the barn doorway would do nothing but mill about, moving their lips in silent prayer and looking sick with dread.
A woman-the child's mother?-unnaturally pale at the foot of the huge oak in the stable yard, was also likely paralyzed with fear. The child, standing on a sturdy limb of the old tree thirty feet above the ground, was as white-faced as her mother.
"Rose," the woman said in a tight, stern voice, "you will come down this instant, do you hear me?"
"I don't want to come down!" came a retort from the heights of the oak.
Douglas was no expert on children, but the girl looked to be about five years old. Though she stood on one limb, she also anchored herself to the tree with a fierce hold on the branch above her. When she made her rude reply, she stomped her foot, which caused the branch she grasped to shake as well.
Douglas heard the danger before he saw it. A low, insistent drone, one that would have been undetectable but for the stillness of the stable yard.
At Rose's display of stubbornness, the woman's hands closed into white-knuckled fists. "Rose," she said, her voice an agony of controlled desperation, "if you cannot climb down, then you must hold very, very still until we can get you down."
"But you promised I could stay up here as long as I wanted."
Another stomp, followed by another ominous, angry droning.
Douglas took in two more facts: The child was unaware of the hornets' nest hanging several yards out on the higher branch, and she was not at all unwilling to come down. She was unable. He recognized a desperate display of bravado when he saw one, having found himself in an adult version of the same futile posturing more than once in recent months.
He stripped off his gloves and stuffed them into the pocket of his riding jacket. Next, he shed his jacket, slung it across the horse's withers, turned back his cuffs, and rode over to the base of the tree. After taking a moment to assess the possibilities, he used the height of the horse's back to hoist himself into the lower limbs.
"Miss Rose," he called out in the steady, no-nonsense voice his governess had used on him long ago, "you will do as your mother says and be still as a garden statue until I am able to reach you, do you understand? We will have no more rudeness"-Douglas continued to climb, branch by branch, toward the child-"you will not shout"-another several feet and he would be on the same level as she-"and you most assuredly will not be stamping your foot in an unladylike display of pique."
The child raised her foot as if to stomp again. Douglas watched that little foot and knew a fleeting regret that his life would end now-regret and resentment.
But no relief. That was something.
The girl lowered her foot slowly and wrinkled her nose as she peered down at Douglas. "What's peek?"
"Pique"-he secured his weight by wrapping one leg around a thick branch-"is the same thing as a taking, a pout, a ladylike version of a tantrum. Now come here, and we will get you out of this tree before your mama can devise a truly appalling punishment for your stubbornness."
The child obeyed, crouching so he could catch her about the waist with both hands-which did occasion relief, immense relief. The droning momentarily increased as the girl left her perch.
"You are going to climb around me now," Douglas instructed, "and affix yourself like a monkey to my back. You will hang on so tightly that I barely continue to breathe."
Rose clambered around, assisted by Douglas's secure grip on her person, and latched on to his back, her legs scissored around his torso.
"I wanted to come down," she confided when she was comfortably settled, "but I'd never climbed this high before, and I could not look down enough to figure my way to the ground. My stomach got butterflies, you see. Thank you for helping me get down. Mama is very, very vexed with me." She laid her cheek against Douglas's nape and huffed out a sigh as he began to descend. "I was scared."
Douglas was focused on his climbing-it had been ages since he'd been up a literal tree-but he was nearly in conversation with a small child, perhaps for the first time since he'd been a child.
Another unappealing aspect to an unappealing day.
"You might explain to your mama you were stuck," he said as they approached the base of the tree. He slipped back onto the horse, nudged it over to where the woman stood watching him, and then swung out of the saddle, Rose still clinging to his back. He reached around and repositioned her on his hip.
"Madam, I believe I have something belonging to you."
"Mama, I'm sorry. I was st-stuck." The child's courage failed her, and weeping ensued.
"Oh, Rose," her mother cried quietly, and the woman was, plague take this day, also crying. She held out her arms to the child, but because Rose was still wrapped around Douglas, he stepped forward, thinking to hand Rose off to her mother. Rose instead hugged her mother from her perch on Douglas's hip, bringing Douglas and the girl's mother into a startling proximity.
The woman wrapped an arm around her child, the child kept two legs and an arm around Douglas, and Douglas, to keep himself, mother, and child from toppling into an undignified heap, put an arm around the mother's shoulders. She, much to his shock, tucked in to his body, so he ended up holding both females as they became audibly lachrymose.
Douglas endured this strange embrace, assuring himself nobody cried forever. While he waited to extricate himself, several impressions came to him.
The first was of warmth. Douglas had forgotten a human embrace could be warm, and the crying woman was warm indeed. Her body heat radiated against his chest, bringing with it the second impression: fragrance. She smelled of soap and something spicy-lavender with rosemary, at least. The child, whose hair was tickling Douglas's chin, smelled of the same soap and of the out-of-doors and of little-girl sweetness.
Douglas hadn't known little girls had their own scent.
And the final impression, strongest of all, was a sense of pleasure his body took in being close to a warm, adult female, one well formed and unself-conscious of their proximity. Douglas didn't censure himself for this realization-bodies would be bodies, after all-but neither did he allow himself to explore it.
With a sigh and possibly a final, small lean against his shoulder, the woman stepped back, leaving Rose anchored to Douglas's chest.
"Sir, I cannot thank you enough. Will you introduce yourself?"
Now Rose was willing to hop down off his hip, but the girl disconcerted Douglas by taking his left hand and standing beside him. Mother and child wore the same expectant, teary expressions, and Douglas found himself unwilling to shake his hand loose of Rose's. She had, after all, been through an upsetting business-and she was a child.
"Douglas Allen." He bowed over the lady's hand. "Viscount Amery, at your service."
They were both bare-handed, so he dropped her fingers at the first acceptable moment, but not before he noticed even her hands were warm. Not hot, sweaty, or clammy, but warm.
"Miss Guinevere Hollister," she replied, offering him a curtsy, then swabbing her handkerchief over Rose's cheeks. "Will you come up to the house for tea, your lordship?"
"Tea would be appreciated." He slung his jacket over his shoulder, his one hand still held captive by Rose. As they turned to walk toward the house, Miss Hollister aimed a glower at the stable boys standing in the door to the barn.
"For heaven's sake, Ezra, take the viscount's horse and see about that hornets' nest when it is safe to do so."
Douglas heard her ordering the stable help around, but was preoccupied with matching his stride to a small child's.
"You could carry me," Rose said, smiling up at him as if she'd divined his thoughts. She had dark hair in a riot of curls around a gamine face, and guileless green eyes.
"Rose." Her mother's tone portended a sharp rebuke.
Douglas swung the child back up to his hip. "We will have our tea that much sooner," he pointed out. When the girl laid her head on his shoulder and sighed like a tired puppy, he wished he had not been so complicit with her schemes.
This child was the most... presuming person he'd met in recent memory. To his everlasting relief, when they gained the entry to the house, Rose was handed off to a footman with instructions that she be taken to her nurse, there to await her mother's judgment.
Rose turned halfway up the stairs and waved at Douglas with the hand not clasped by the footman. Not knowing what else to do, Douglas offered the child a slight bow in response.
This exchange was not lost on the mother-Miss Hollister, as she'd so boldly introduced herself-but she withheld comment on a grown man who'd bow to a grinning, waving child.
"This way, if you please." Miss Hollister led him down the hallway to a small parlor toward the back of the house. As she rang for tea, Douglas rolled down his cuffs, shrugged back into his jacket, and took in the appointments of the room.
The furnishings were more for comfort than elegance, this being in the way of a family parlor. A small blue velvet sofa was positioned under a window opposite the hearth, and two well-cushioned chairs with a low table of mellow blond oak between them sat along the inside wall. Before the hearth, but angled toward the center of the room, stood a sturdy oaken rocking chair.
Silence had fallen between Douglas and his hostess while he'd inspected the surroundings. She regarded him from her seat in one of the chairs, her expression politely curious.
"I invite you to be seated, my lord. I've taken the liberty of ordering some sustenance with our tea, it being nigh to luncheon and you having ridden out from Town, unless I mistake the matter."
Douglas took the other chair. "You do not. Mistake the matter, that is."
A small, pained smile crossed Miss Hollister's features, suggesting she would somehow rise to the challenge of exchanging pleasantries with a man who regarded small talk with as much affection as he did epidemics of influenza.
"While I know our families are connected," she began, "I am at a loss as to why you would honor me with a call, not, of course, that you are unwelcome."
She looked down at her hands. Douglas feared she was blinking back more tears, contemplating the morning's outcome had he not come to call.
"Miss Hollister, the child is safe, and I have no doubt one of the grooms would have been up that tree had I not happened along. You must not dwell on the miseries that could have befallen you."
Ignoring the miseries that had befallen one could also be useful, though Douglas kept that observation to himself. His hostess offered him a genuine smile for his assurances-false assurances though they were-then rose to accept the tea tray from a parlor maid.
While Miss Hollister fixed the tea, Douglas recovered from that smile, from the sheer, dazzling surprise of it.
His first impression of her had been one of plainness. Her features had been pinched with desperate concern; then she had been crying in relief. As he studied her over the tea service, he surmised that she sought to minimize her feminine attributes.
Her hair, a rich, glossy chestnut, was scraped back in a severe bun. She wore a mud-brown dress, one without a single bow or ruffle. Her attire did the job of decently covering her with a vengeance, the collar coming up to her neck, the sleeves covering her wrists. But she couldn't hide a pair of wide, slanting green eyes, high cheekbones, or a generous, even lush mouth.
Nor could she entirely disguise an amply endowed female figure, though from the cut of her clothing, she tried to.
"How do you take your tea, my lord?"
Her voice was as subtly lovely as the rest of her, a soothing contralto, though her hands had the slightest tremor as she maneuvered around the porcelain tea service. The teapot sported cabbage roses, all pink petals and soft greenery.
She did not strike Douglas as a silver-tea-service sort of woman, which was appealing to a man who'd sold all but one set of good silver.
"Strong, three sugars, no cream." A silence followed, one he knew he ought to fill with... words. Or something.
"Are you always such a serious fellow?"
"I have much to be serious about," he replied, taking the tea from her. Their fingers brushed, and a faint blush crept up the lady's graceful neck. How odd, that a woman in her position would blush so easily.
"You have me at a loss here," Miss Hollister replied, busying herself with her tea. "While you are former brother-in-law to my cousin's wife-do I have that right?-I am not familiar with your... specific situation. May I offer you a sandwich?"
She offered him two, heartily stacked with beef and cheddar, as if she knew the hours since breakfast for Douglas had been long and busy. He dragged his attention from the food on his plate-he even spotted a dab of mustard on the bread-and framed a reply.
"My late brother was married to Astrid Alexander, the woman who is now your cousin Andrew's-Lord Greymoor's-wife," Douglas said. "His countess, rather. I find it curious you and I have not been introduced, but I understand from Greymoor you prefer to rusticate."
With her bastard child, which hardly needed mentioning.
"My doting cousin," the lady said, sipping her tea placidly. "Greymoor probably told you I am his steward here at Enfield-or perhaps he referred to me as his chatelaine if you caught him in a gallant mood." She had watched as Douglas demolished his first sandwich, but now excused herself to murmur something to a footman outside the half-open parlor door.
Douglas waited until she was back in her seat, then got down to business.
"Miss Hollister, I do not know what your cousins have told you about me, but if I am serious, to use your word, it's because I appear here today to solicit your assistance."
She considered her tea with enviable calm. "I am in your debt, my lord. Any assistance I can render you, it will be my honor to provide."
Those words were as much invitation as he'd hear, so Douglas launched into his rehearsed speech. "Your cousin holds your abilities as a manager of this estate in highest esteem. Greymoor says you have taught both him and his brother Heathgate much about the details of profitable landholding."
This was not flattery, but rather, simply stated fact, and it had his hostess looking... bashful. Momentary shyness rendered her beauty even more alluring, lending her an illusion of innocence that made a man want to, well, nuzzle her. To run his nose along the line of her jaw, to inhale the fragrance of her skin and hair. To steal a march on her reserve and tease her into flirtation.
What extraordinary thoughts. Douglas cut them off with brisk self-discipline, the way one might swat a capering horse into behaving by brisk application of the riding crop to the beast's quarters.
"My cousin exaggerates," Miss Hollister replied. "Enfield prospered when our grandfather held it. I have merely kept it organized, and I have enjoyed doing so."
Douglas recalled her casual orders to the stable hands, and thought that yes, she indeed enjoyed being lady of the manor here. Lord and lady of the manor.
"It is my hope," he said, sitting forward to pour himself more tea, "that your cousin-"
Miss Hollister's hand closed over his on the handle of the teapot. Douglas sat back, dropping his hand.
"I beg your pardon," he said, hoping he wasn't, for the love of God, blushing. "I am a bachelor, Miss Hollister, and quite used to seeing to my own comforts. Pour for me, please?"
"You were saying?" she prompted as she added cream and three sugars to his tea, then held it out to him.
He was careful not to allow his fingers to touch hers this time, though as for the cream-cream was a luxury, but a man intent on begging was due some fortification.
"I was saying I hope your cousin did not exaggerate regarding your skills, because I have need of a competent steward. I believe Greymoor made mention of my situation in his letter of introduction?"
"I confess, my lord, we are in the midst of the apple harvest, and my attention to correspondence has been lacking in the past few days."
Despite her demure bearing, Douglas had no doubt she'd been out in the very orchards, perhaps even on a ladder, possibly without even a hat to shield her perfect complexion-
This time, he brought a mental hatchet down on his wayward thoughts.
"Well, then, madam, with your permission, I will explain more fully-"
The footman returned, bearing a plate of cakes. Lovely, artfully decorated little confections Douglas could gobble up in about two bites each.
Miss Hollister didn't ask if she could serve him, but put four on a plate-it would hold no more-and passed it to him. "You must not be shy about satisfying a sweet tooth, my lord," she said, smiling that beguiling, alluring smile again.
And how was a man supposed to think, much less hold forth articulately, when he was battling tea cakes, a perfect cup of tea, and that smile?
She served herself one cake, a small, chocolate sweet, which she held briefly under her nose-a definite nose to go with that wide mouth and those slanting eyes-inhaling the scent of the tea cake before biting off half and savoring it, only to catch Douglas staring at her.
"My lord?" she said, though Douglas could recall no particular question on the floor. Neither could he recall the last time the sight of a woman nibbling at a treat had held his interest, much less fascinated him.
"I beg your pardon." Douglas sat back. "I was explaining, Miss Hollister, I have need of a competent steward, and your cousins suggested you." Had suggested her in glowing, admiring terms, in fact.
Douglas's pronouncement provoked a thoughtful consumption of the remainder of Miss Hollister's tea cake.
"That surprises me, my lord. Andrew and Gareth-Greymoor and Heathgate-know I love it here and consider this estate not simply my place of employment but my home and Rose's too. Andrew has agreed I might have a life estate here at Enfield. He cannot transfer the property to me in fee simple, because it is entailed to the barony, which he holds. He has no need of the property, though, and is in negotiations with his solicitor regarding the possibility of a life estate here for Rose as well. Then too, women are generally not stewards of anybody's land but their own."
Though many a widow took an interest in her holdings, women were not generally stewards of even their own land, or rather, ladies were not.
Douglas ignored that salient fact, and tried to ignore the remaining cakes as well. "I was not aware of the legal arrangements between you and Lord Greymoor, and I do not offer you a permanent position."
His hostess arranged four more cakes on a plate and held it out to him, which rather resembled a discharge of firearms directly at his concentration.
"What sort of position do you offer?"
"I need an advisor," Douglas said, and now that the point of the meeting-visit-was again under discussion, he did not permit himself so much as a glance at the plate on his knee. "Lord Greymoor has offered to sell me his estate in Sussex at a price just above insultingly reasonable. I need an assessment of what the land is truly worth, and Greymoor recommended you in glowing terms for such a project. Your cousin Heathgate was equally complimentary, and we do share a family connection, however remote."
Elsewise, Douglas would never have considered a female as a source of advice on anything of significance-not that he'd seek advice from many men, either.
"This would mean travel to Sussex?"
He bit into a chocolate tea cake with raspberry icing, to be polite and perhaps to stall a moment. "Of course, travel at your convenience."
Her brows knit, like the wings of a butterfly closing. "I'm sorry, my lord, but I am not in a position to assist you."
A beat of silence went by, while Douglas chewed his positively scrumptious chocolate tea cake, the sweetness in his mouth at variance with the bitter notion of having to beg the woman for help.
"You will not allow me even a fair hearing?" He put the question with perfect civility, as if this project could not possibly be the last straw within reach of a drowning man.
"Explain at your leisure, my lord, but my decision will not likely change."
Explain, he would, but he'd been ingesting sustenance steadily, and his body needed to move-and to put distance between himself and the infernal plate of distraction-so he paced to the window and laced his hands behind his back.
"My finances... my family's finances, rather, are not what they should be." He remained at the mullioned window, his back to his hostess, her sandwiches, and her luscious cakes-and her smiles. "My father and my brother before me did not manage well, and the estate is heavily in debt as a result-this is a situation I am not willing to put before some factor, some man of business, whose discretion is merely professional."
His hostess said nothing. He plowed on-he was good at plowing on, though he knew precious little about plowing land. He knew far too much about grieving for an older brother who'd pissed away his inheritance, and a younger brother who'd sought to steal that inheritance for himself.
May a merciful God allow them both to rest in peace.
"Lord Greymoor has proposed that I buy from him this estate in Sussex," Douglas said, returning to the matter at hand. "He claims it is a profitable concern, and believes it could be made even more so, but I must ask myself: If the land is so profitable, why would he turn it over to me?"
With his back turned, he held up a hand to stay any comment his hostess would have made.
"You are thinking," he went on, "Lord Greymoor, being a decent sort, is simply allowing me a chance to get on my feet and pay off my remaining debts, which include debts within the family. This is perhaps the case, but I cannot afford to trust his generous nature, Miss Hollister. For that matter, I cannot afford to trust much of anything except the evidence of my own eyes and my own experience."
"Yet you are willing to trust my opinion of the land's potential?"
"No," Douglas said, turning and finding her the picture of serene propriety, sitting by her tea service. "Not entirely. I am willing to listen to your opinion and consider it along with my own assessment. I am not stupid, Miss Hollister."
Though he was uneducated about husbanding the land. He was also proud, but couldn't consider that entirely a failing if it kept him from begging this woman for her aid.
She studied her teacup as if searching the dregs for words. "Your lordship, I cannot assist you, though I am flattered at the faith my cousins place in my abilities. I am not in a position to leave Enfield for any length of time."
He thought she'd say more, but she fell silent and looked him up and down. Douglas knew what she saw: height, a few inches over six feet in fact, which had made an atrociously gangly adolescent out of him; blond hair queued back because it was less inclined to lie neatly than he'd prefer; and blue eyes, probably shadowed with fatigue, because sleep often eluded him.
He had been told he had a sensual mouth, whatever the hell that meant. The thing formed words and ingested food, which was all Douglas required of it.
Though it did a bloody poor job of convincing his hostess, apparently, and that was tiresome.
"You have been honest with me," she said at length, "and I will offer you some honesty in return: I do not want to leave Enfield, my lord. Ever. Not for a month in Sussex, not for a week in Town. I am content here."
Her words were plain enough, and yet, Douglas suspected she was a trifle reluctant to be turning him down. Perhaps a trifle reluctant to immure herself here in the countryside with her bastard child, season after season. His request was unorthodox, just as her position as manager of Greymoor's property was unorthodox.
The plain dress, the severe coiffure, the lack of even a brooch to adorn her person made her look like the matron of some institution for wayward girls.
Perhaps, despite her past-because of her past?-she was concerned about the appearances?
"If it suited you," he said slowly, "we could travel together as man and wife, using some fictitious name. I do not foresee making a lengthy stay in Sussex."
"Travel together as man and-" She set her teacup down with a clatter, all pretense of genteel hospitality gone from her expression. "What sort of backhanded insult do you offer me, Lord Amery? Do you think because I am a mother that I am not due the same courtesies as any other woman?"
She rose, and it struck Douglas that, in addition to all her other attributes, she was a tall woman. He preferred tall women, felt less of a lobcock around them-though in point of fact, he preferred tall, calm women.
"Do you think, my lord," she went on with quiet venom, "that my cousins would tolerate such an improper arrangement?" She whipped around in a flurry of mud-colored skirts and made for the door, but Douglas beat her by half a step. When she grabbed for the door latch, he reached past her shoulder and pushed the door shut.
He remained thus, his arm extended over her shoulder, his hand flat on the door, holding it closed. He spoke quietly, because his mouth was very near her ear, and his nose was close enough to catch a whiff of her rosemary and lavender scent. "I apologize, madam, if you think I offered you insult. That was the furthest thing from my intent. Will you hear me out?"
He stepped back, wanting to shake the infernal woman for her silly fit. Greymoor had said she was frighteningly competent at her work, but skittish, and likely the victim of ill usage by the child's father. Douglas recalled that last comment as he watched Miss Hollister resume her seat, her spine stiff, her eyes-may God have mercy upon him-suspiciously bright.
"I apologize," he said again, still standing, as she had not bid him to do otherwise. "I am in need of your services, and I thought to offer an uncomplicated means of achieving that purpose-nothing more. If some other arrangement is better suited to traveling together, I lack the imagination to conceive of it."
"I accept your apology," she said in arctic tones. "Please do sit, my lord. That is, if there is more you would say?"
Such manners, when Miss Hollister clearly wanted to see the last of her guest. Those manners shamed Douglas's assumptions regarding fallen women, not that he'd met many.
"There is a bit more I would convey to you," he said, sinking into the rocking chair at the opposite corner of the small room. His choice of seat put him at a small distance from the remaining tea cakes and clearly relieved his hostess.
A pragmatic appeal had failed, which left Douglas with... the unpragmatic. The undignified, the honest.
"My family situation is... troubled," Douglas said, his voice softer for all he was sitting at a greater distance. "My older brother was an unhappy, frivolous man. My younger brother was no better, and my mother is no longer inclined to go about in Society. I am the last exponent of my line still functioning, our finances are a disgrace, and I need..."
He needed to shut up. He looked off, and for an unguarded moment, fatigue, grief, and isolation swamped his reserve and no doubt showed in his eyes. He tried to reassemble his features into some bland, polite expression, but in the silence, his hostess spoke.
"You need what I have here," she finished for him. "You need sanctuary."
Relief at having been saved further explanation warred with self-consciousness.
"A place," Douglas said, unable to keep wistfulness from his tone, "a place to rebuild, to make something good and new. But I am not an experienced man of the land, and our family seat is little more than a manor with a home farm. Some factor hired at arm's length to assess the property would not do. This purchase in Sussex..."
He trailed off, and they were quiet for a few moments, a not uncomfortable silence that allowed Douglas the privacy of his thoughts.
"You saved my daughter's life, at the least." Miss Hollister spoke quietly too. "You did so when you didn't know her; when people, including her own mother, who should have seen to her safety, did not or could not. I owe you."
Douglas did not interrupt what was clearly a difficult recitation, and as his hostess had earlier, he resorted to the study of her teacup. Unlike his sturdy, rosy little cup, hers was delicate green porcelain, with a parade of white unicorns encircling the rim.
Fragile and odd, but lovely.
"Because I owe you, my lord, and because I want-I need-to be beholden to no man, I will do as you ask. I will travel to Sussex and see this land of yours. I will make recommendations and offer advice. I will do so without remuneration because we have a family connection, but there will be conditions."
He nodded. Every gain in life came with conditions.
"The terms, my lord, are these." She took a deep breath and clutched the arms of her chair as if she were in anticipation of brigands appearing in her parlor, her calm voice and steady demeanor notwithstanding. "My role will not be as steward, but as some innocuous female, your cousin, something of that nature-not your wife. Never as your wife. Rose will come with us, and we will travel as discreetly as possible. You will provide a chaperone, and in that capacity, I believe my aunt, Lady Heathgate, will serve." She shot him a very direct look, a challenging look. "Are we agreed?"
Though it beggared his pride, she was going to help him. For a bit of humility on his part, he would know if the hope-the stubborn, irrational, unbecoming, inconvenient hope-that had sprung up unbidden when Greymoor had made his offer was grounded in reality.
"We are agreed, Miss Hollister."
He rose to take his leave shortly thereafter, and would have bowed over her hand again, except she dipped to fuss over the tea tray and came up holding out a linen serviette to him.
"The tea cakes, my lord. I've had enough for the present, and Rose certainly won't be having any sweets for a while."
He accepted the offering of sweets and tucked the napkin into his coat pocket. When Miss Hollister had called for his horse, he expected her to leave him at the front door of her home. Instead, she accompanied him out onto the wide front porch and showed no signs of abandoning him until the horse was brought around.
"I will call on you tomorrow to discuss the details of our journey," he said as the groom named Ezra led the gelding out. "Tonight I will be a guest of your cousin, the Marquess of Heathgate. And, Miss Hollister?"
She shifted her glance from his horse-a big, shiny bay, who'd walked over to a tree full of hornets at his master's simple request-to Douglas. "Yes, your lordship?"
"Rose..." he said, frowning at the fact that the irons had already been run down the stirrup leathers, which was not exactly a best practice. "You mustn't be too hard on her. She was frightened, overfaced, and too proud to say so. In an innocent child, we cannot take very great exception to that, can we?"
He was away down the steps without giving her a chance to reply-what did he know about children or innocence?-then at the mounting block and up on his horse. "Shall we say ten of the clock, Miss Hollister?"
"If you are truly interested in learning to manage the land, my lord, make a day of it. Get here as soon after sunrise as you are able, dress as comfortably as you can, and be prepared to spend the day in the saddle."
"I have my orders, ma'am." He nodded politely, saluted with his crop, and turned Regis in a neat pirouette before cantering down the drive.
As soon as he was out of sight of the house and the woman standing on its porch, Douglas brought his mount down to the walk, withdrew the tea cakes from his pocket, and devoured them, slowly, methodically, one right after the other.
Gwen watched Douglas, Lord Amery, canter off, noting with one part of her mind that he had an elegant seat, even as the other, louder part began castigating her for this morning's business.
If Rose hadn't been up that tree, Douglas Allen could never have wrested this agreement from Gwen. But Rose had been up the tree, and worse, she could be laid out in the parlor at this moment, dead and disfigured as a result of her childish misadventure. And for just an instant, the man had looked... desolate. He'd looked as Gwen had felt so often, yet he hadn't the comfort of even a child to console him.
Douglas Allen had the ability to proceed calmly with the next necessary task, though, and that was a fine quality in a man who intended to find his salvation in the land. And he'd been right about something, too: Rose had been frightened out of her wits, and unable to ask for help. Gwen knew that condition intimately, and she would not judge another harshly when suffering the same state.