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Vivian stared at the handwritten note: His grace desires...
Smiling wryly, she decided she rather wished he did. But then she'd only seen him from a distance and entertaining such a thought was beyond scandalous.
She folded the note without further ridiculous considerations and shoved it into the large pocket of her work smock. The orchids -- her prize among the flowers she maintained -- would be ready for him day after tomorrow, as his butler requested. This would be work for hire, or rather expertise for hire, nothing more than it was each year at this time.
Again, she would fill the standard and formal order for fresh flowers from the reclusive Duke of Trent, displayed to beautify the rooms of his coastal estate that stretched for miles on the western slope overlooking the Lizard Peninsula. And again this year, she would do her best to get a peek of the enigmatic man who'd managed to escape the noose for the murder of his wife.
Vivian started at the interruption and turned swiftly toward the doorway between her house and garden, where her housekeeper stood with a totally unreadable look on her aging, sun-weathered face, seemingly not at all concerned that her mistress had been daydreaming instead of potting.
"Yes, Harriet, what is it?" she replied forthrightly.
The older woman hesitated, wiping her hands on her apron. "There's a ... person here to see you. A man. The ... um ... stage actor from the Shakespearean Company that's been playing at Cosgroves for the summer."
Vivian caught herself from gaping. "An actor is here?"
Harriet lowered her voice. "Gilbert Montague, he said his name is. He didn't have a card, and of course I didn't admit him, but he's choosing to wait just the same. Said his business with you is urgent."
Mildly intrigued, Vivian moved toward her housekeeper, stepping into the shade created by vines that wove through the trellis-covered porch, and reached for a hand towel on the garden bench. "Did he say what he wanted?" She couldn't begin to imagine what business an actor might have with her, personally or professionally.
Harriet stepped out onto the cobblestone, her plump figure erect and her expression firmly set in a line of disapproval. "He didn't offer a reason for his visit, no," she replied succinctly. "He only said he wanted a few minutes of your time, and would you oblige him. I told him I'd see if you were at home."
Vivian smiled inwardly. She was obviously at home, but adhering to social protocol, Harriet had to check. And of course one would never allow someone so common into one's private residence.
She smoothed her hair away from her face; the midday heat never failed to add an annoying bounce to loose curls that framed her cheeks and forehead, preventing her from keeping it tidy. She no doubt looked a fright, spending the last two hours working with soil in the sun and humid air, but then it hardly mattered, she decided. Mr. Montague, being a person of the stage, had certainly seen far worse in his line of work or on the street.
"Very well, I'll receive him," she informed her housekeeper, reaching behind her to untie her dirtstained work smock. As Harriet's eyes opened a fraction in surprise, she added, "But don't bring him through the house; inform him that he'll find me 'round back and through the gate."
Harriet nodded once, her disapproving expression giving way to one of solid relief at such wisdom. "Yes, ma'am. I'll send him on momentarily."
Once again standing alone in the afternoon shade in her secluded patio, Vivian tossed her smock on the bench and shook out her brown muslin skirt. As one of her three work gowns, she'd chosen this one in particular this hot morning because of its looseness through the bustline and waist, but it didn't do a thing to flatter her figure. As much as she adored the theater, she'd never in her life greeted an actor -- or anyone of so lowly a station -- in her home, so how she looked to this one probably didn't matter in the slightest.
Stepping back into the sunlight, she poured herself half a glass of lukewarm water from a pitcher on the nearby potting table. As she drank thirstily, she heard the creak of the thick wooden gate as it gave way to intrusion on the westernmost side of the house.
Quickly, she patted her mouth with the bottom of her smock and turned to face the approaching sound of heavy footsteps on the cobblestone walkway. Standing with as much formal bearing as the circumstances allowed, her hands clasped behind her back, she faced the small, tufted palm tree that jutted out from the corner of the property until she saw his legs appear, then his body in full form.
Vivian backed up a step as the man approached her. She'd expected him to be large, as she'd twice seen him perform rather magnificently on stage. Still, she wasn't prepared for the wide-shouldered, long-limbed person of supercilious elegance now standing directly in front of her, between two rare species of prized orchids, blocking the sun with his head as he gazed down at her face.
His appearance, however surprisingly fashionable, couldn't hide the coarseness of his stoic features as he focused on her quite intently, perhaps expecting her to glance away with uncertainty or discomfiture. She couldn't, however, allow herself to cower. Instant uneasiness deep inside quickly alerted her, sharpening her senses, warning her to keep her mind focused and her stance one of indifference, even arrogance. She refused to be intimidated by his sheer size. Surprisingly, though, she wasn't afraid.
"Mrs. Rael-Lamont," he acknowledged with a slight nod, his tone a deep drawl, his diction perfect. She tipped her head toward him once in reply.
"Mr. Montague, I presume. What may I help you with today?"
Copyright © 2004 by Adele Ashworth.