In a few days she would be gone. Eve Hawthorne could almost taste freedom.
No more lectures from a stepmother only eight years older than herself. No more tight-lipped frowns at a remark deemed too frivolous. No more having to endure the heavy-handed attempts at matchmaking with whatever widower or bachelor her stepmother hoped might be willing to take Eve off their hands.
When Eve’s husband died two years ago, he had left her, at twenty-six years of age, not only alone but nearly penniless. The Hawthornes had never been renowned for their ability to keep money in their pockets, and Bruce, the youngest son of a middle son of an earl, had had no income beyond his military commission, which had made it even more difficult for him to stay within his means. Eve used what little money Major Hawthorne had left her to pay off his debts, and even then she had been forced to sell their furniture and many of their belongings in order to satisfy his creditors. She had had no recourse but to return to her father’s home to live.
After almost eight years of marriage and managing her own life and household, it would have been hard in any case to have once more become a dependent child, but since Eve’s father had remarried several years earlier, Eve had found herself living not only on the Reverend Childe’s charity but on that of her stepmother as well. It had not been a welcome situation for either woman.
Eve faced her stepmother now, determined to keep a pleasant smile on her face. Surely these last few days they could manage to get along without their usual subtle struggle.
“It is a beautiful day, Imogene,” Eve observed. “Quite pleasant and warm for September. And Julian has finished all his lessons. Did he tell you how well he did in Latin?”
Eve realized as soon as she said it that her words had been a mistake. Much as Imogene Childe reveled in her son’s intelligence and education, it was always a sore spot with her that she herself had not received the sort of classical education that Eve had had at the hands of the Reverend Childe. She did not like to be reminded that Eve helped her father teach Julian, whereas Imogene, his own mother, could not.
“I am aware of Julian’s achievement in the subject,” Imogene responded, her mouth pruning up. “But he has not made the progress he has by ignoring his studies and running off to play.”
Eve knew better than to advance the argument that her half brother needed some time to play just as he did to study. Instead, she said, “But Julian will not be playing; we will be observing nature. The animals . . . the plants . . . the ways in which autumn is making changes in them. Besides, it is important for Julian to observe the beauty and wonder of the world that God has made for us, is it not?”
She smiled at Imogene sweetly, knowing that the pious woman would have more difficulty combating this argument.
But it was Julian himself who clinched it. “Please, Mother?” he asked, looking his most angelic. “Auntie Eve will be here only a few more days, and then she and I can’t do this anymore.”
The thought of her stepdaughter’s imminent departure brightened Imogene’s expression, and, with a sigh, she relented. “Very well, you may go with your aunt, Julian.” She turned her gaze to Eve. “But pray, do not bring him home muddy again or with grass stains all over his clean shirt.”
“We shall do our very best to stay clean,” Eve promised her. She no longer tried to make her stepmother understand that one could not expect a young boy to remain perfectly tidy unless he did nothing but sit in a chair all day.
Mrs. Childe nodded, the tight corkscrew curls on either side of her face bouncing. “You had best remember, Eve, that the Earl of Stewkesbury is not looking for someone who will let his cousins run wild. The Talbots are one of the finest families in England. He wants a woman who is a model of decorum. Those girls’ reputations will depend on what you do as their chaperone. It is a heavy responsibility, and I hope the earl will not regret entrusting it to someone as young and frivolous in attitude as you.”
Eve managed to retain her smile, though it was more a grimace than an expression of humor or goodwill at this point. “I will keep that in mind, ma’am, I promise you.”
After picking up her long-brimmed bonnet and tying it on, Eve followed her half brother out of the house and across the yard, cutting through the churchyard and cemetery to the beckoning field beyond. She smiled to herself as she watched Julian race ahead, then squat to observe some insect making its way through the grass.
The thought of leaving Julian behind was the only thing that tugged at her heart, marring somewhat the joy of leaving this house. Her half brother had made the past two years bearable, easing her grief over Bruce with his warm affection. Even his mother’s rigid rules and sanctimonious airs had seemed less bothersome when Julian slipped his small hand in hers and smiled at her or tilted his head to the side like a curious sparrow as he asked her a question. Eve’s marriage had been childless, which had long been a sorrow to her, but Julian’s presence in her life had helped fill that hole in her heart.
It would pain her to leave him, but in only a couple of years Julian would be sent off to Eton as his father had been before him, and then Eve would be left in the house with only the company of her studious, abstracted father and her carping stepmother. It was a prospect to make one’s blood run cold.
That was why Eve had jumped at the opportunity to chaperone Lord Stewkesbury’s American cousins. Lady Vivian Carlyle, Eve’s friend since childhood, was also close to the Talbot family, headed by the Earl of Stewkesbury. Lady Vivian had written Eve recently to say that the earl was in desperate need of a chaperone for his young cousins who had arrived in London from the United States. It seemed that the chaperone Stewkesbury had first hired to help the young women enter English society had proved entirely unsuitable. What was needed, Vivian had written, was a woman of good family who could act as an older sister or young aunt to the girls, taking them under her wing and instructing them—as much by example as teaching—in the things they would need to know to make their way successfully through a London Season. Vivian had thought immediately of Eve and wanted to know if she would be interested in traveling to Willowmere, the country seat of the Talbot family, to assume the position of chaperone.
Eve had written back to assure her friend that she would indeed welcome the opportunity to chaperone the American girls. In reply, she had received a letter from the earl himself, offering her a generous stipend for her troubles and stating that he would send a carriage to bring her to Willowmere—a gesture Eve found most gracious, though it was doubtless inspired more by the fact that she was a friend of Lady Vivian than by any concern for Eve’s own person.
The earl had given her two weeks in which to pack and prepare for her journey, which meant that the carriage was scheduled to arrive anytime in the next two or three days. She had only these last few days to enjoy her half brother’s company, and she intended to take full advantage of them. So she put all of her stepmother’s injunctions out of her mind and followed the boy through the field and down to the brook.
They paused to watch the antics of a red squirrel and later to investigate the remains of a bird nest that had fallen from a tree. Julian had a healthy curiosity about all things in nature, both flora and fauna, and Eve did her best to read enough to keep up with his questions. She had never thought to learn so much about butterflies, or pheasants and robins, or birches, beeches, and oak trees as she had the last two years, but she had enjoyed exploring such topics—though she could not deny the little ache in her heart when she thought of how it would have been if she had children of her own with whom to share these wonders.
Before long they reached the brook that lay east of town and followed it to a large rock perfectly arranged for sitting and watching the shallow stream as it burbled its way over the rocks. Eve took off her bonnet and gloves and set them aside, followed by her walking boots and stockings. She kilted up her skirt and waded into the water after Julian, bending down to look at the little fish arrowing past their feet or chasing after a frog as it bounded from rock to rock.
Imogene’s strictures were ignored as they laughed and darted about. Julian had more than one streak of mud upon his shirt, and the bottoms of his trousers had been liberally splashed with water. His hands were grubby and his cheeks red, his eyes sparkling with pleasure. Eve, looking at him, wanted to grab him and squeeze him tight, but she was wise enough not to do so.
She was standing in the brook when she heard the sound of a horse’s hooves, and realized that they must have drawn closer to the road than she had thought. She turned to climb up the bank, and a small snake brushed her foot as it slithered by her. Eve let out a shriek, forgetting all about the road and the horse, and Julian fell into a fit of laughter.
“Oh, hush, Jules!” she told him crossly, then had to chuckle herself. She was sure she must have presented quite a sight, jumping straight up into the air as if she had been shot. “’Twasn’t funny.”
“Yes, it was,” the boy protested. “You’re laughing.”
“He has you there,” a voice said from behind them.
Eve whirled around. There, on the small wooden bridge that crossed the stream, stood an elegant black stallion, and on its back was a man with hair as black as the steed’s. They were both, man and horse, astoundingly handsome.
She felt as if the air had been punched out of her, and she could only stare at the man, bereft of words. The rider swept off his hat and bowed to her, and his hair glimmered as black as a raven’s wing in the sunlight. His eyes were a bright, piercing blue and ringed by thick black lashes as straight and dark as the eyebrows that slashed across his face above them. Even on horseback, it was obvious that he was tall, his shoulders wide in his well-cut blue jacket. A dimple popped into his cheek as he grinned down at her, showing even white teeth. It was clear at a glance that he was the sort of man who was used to charming anyone he met.
“Hullo,” Julian called pleasantly when Eve did not speak, and he splashed out of the water and up the bank toward the man.
The stranger swung off his mount with a careless grace and led his horse off the bridge and down the embankment toward them. “I had not hoped to find a naiad on my travels today,” he said to Eve, and his bright eyes swept appreciatively down her form.
Eve was suddenly, blushingly, aware of how she must look. Her dress was hiked up, exposing all of her legs below her knees, and her bonnet was off, her hair coming loose from its pins and straggling down in several places, her face flushed with exercise and heat.
“What’s a naiad?” Julian asked.
“A water nymph,” the man explained.
“And something I am not.” Coloring furiously, Eve jerked her skirts down and shook them into place. There was little she could do about her bare feet or her hatless state, of course, for her shoes and bonnet lay several yards behind them on the rock. Her hands went to her hair, trying to tuck some of the stray strands into place.
“That is always what demigoddesses claim,” the man went on easily, still smiling as he came up to them. “But even we poor mortal men can see their true beauty.”
Up close, Eve could see the tiny lines that radiated from the corners of his eyes and the dark shadow of approaching beard along his jaw. If anything, such imperfections only served to make him even more handsome. Looking at him set up a jangling of nerves in Eve’s stomach, and the afternoon seemed suddenly warmer and more airless than it had moments before.
“Don’t be absurd.” Eve tried for a tart tone, but she could not keep from smiling a little. There was simply something engaging about the man’s grin, so easy and friendly.
“What else am I to think?” He arched a brow, his blue eyes dancing. “Coming upon such a lovely creature, the water running around her, the sun striking gold from her hair. Even the animals yearn to be close to you.”
“Like the snake!” Julian giggled.
“Exactly.” The stranger nodded at the boy gravely. He turned back to Eve. “There. Even a child can see it. Though, of course”—he tilted his head, considering—“one would think a nymph would be more at ease with the creatures of the fields and brooks than to scream at the sight of a snake.”
“I did not scream,” Eve protested. “And it wasn’t the sight of it, it was the feel.” She gave an expressive shudder, and both Julian and the stranger chuckled.
She should not be talking with such ease to a complete stranger, Eve knew, even if he was absurdly easy to talk to. She felt sure that Imogene would tell her that such charm was the hallmark of a rake. But Eve was not feeling cautious today. For the past two years she had done her best to live by her stepmother’s rules, and soon she would have to be prim and proper, befitting the chaperone of young women. Surely she could steal this day, this moment, for herself. She could even flirt a little with an attractive stranger. After all, who was to know?
“It occurs to me that I should stay and guard you from such dangers,” he said, and the dimple flashed again as his lips curved into a smile. “Who knows what sort of creature might need slaying? Indeed, I should probably escort you home.”
“’Tis most kind of you, sir, but I cannot trouble you. You were clearly on your way somewhere.”
He shrugged. “That can wait. It isn’t every day that a man can rescue a nymph, or even a maiden.”
Eve raised a skeptical brow. “I already have a champion.” She glanced toward her brother, who had already tired of their conversation and was digging into the ground with a stick.
“I can see that.” The stranger’s eyes followed hers to Julian. “I can scarcely compete.” He turned back to her. “But there may be other times when you are out without your champion. Times when some company might be welcome. I should be happy to offer you my services as an escort.”
“I would not wish to delay you on your journey.” Eve’s eyes danced as she waited for his response.
“But I have arrived at my destination. It is my good fortune to be stopping in the village ahead.”
“You are most kind,” Eve responded demurely, casting a twinkling look up at him through her lashes. It had been a long time since she had flirted with a handsome man. Had she forgotten how pleasurable it was? Or was it this man who made it pleasurable? “Perhaps, if you are in the village for a time, we might chance to meet again.”
“I can make sure that I am here for a time.” For a moment the laughter was gone from his eyes, replaced by a warmth that Eve felt all the way down to her toes. “If you would but tell me where I might chance upon you taking a stroll?”
Eve let out a little laugh. “Ah, but that would make it far too easy, would it not?”
He moved closer, so that she had to tilt her head back to look up at him. “I do not think that you are making it at all easy for me.”
He reached out, and Eve’s breath caught in her throat, for she thought he was about to touch her cheek. But then he plucked a leaf from her hair and held it up to let the breeze take it.
Leaning in, his voice lowered, he said, “Surely a naiad should pay a token, should she not, for getting caught by a mortal?”
A frisson of excitement ran down her spine. “A token?”
“Yes. A price. A forfeit. They always do so in stories—grant a wish or give a present. . . .”
“But I have no gift to give you.” Eve knew she should back up, should cease her flirting. But something held her; she could not look away from his bright eyes, could not stop the anticipation blossoming in her.
“Ah, that is where you are wrong, my nymph.”
He bent and kissed her.
His lips were firm and warm, the kiss brief. And at the touch, Eve seemed to flame into life. She was suddenly, tinglingly, aware of everything—the sun on her back, the breeze that lifted the loose strands of her hair, the scent of the grass from the meadow, all mingling in a heady brew with the sensations, sudden and intense, spreading through her body.
He lifted his head, and for a long moment all she could do was stare up at him, her mouth slightly open in a soft O of astonishment, her eyes wide.
“I—I must leave.” With an effort, Eve turned away. “Come, Jules, we’d best get back.”
Her brother, still digging in the dirt, raised his head and turned. “Already?”
“There. You see? It has been too short a time. Pray do not leave when I have only just met you,” the man protested.
“I fear we must.” Eve backed up quickly, stretching her hand out toward Julian.
“At least tell me your name.” He took a step after her.
“No—oh, no, I must not.” She stopped and looked at him, still dazed by the swift tumble of emotions inside her.
“Then allow me to introduce myself.” He swept her an elegant, formal bow. “I am Fitzhugh Talbot, at your service.”
Eve stared at him, chilled. “Talbot?”
“Yes. I have business at the vicarage in the village, so you can see that I am perfectly respectable.”
Talbot! The vicarage! Eve let out a little choked noise, and, grabbing Julian by the hand, she whirled and fled.
Eve ran along the bank of the stream, pulling Julian along after her. When she reached the rock, she picked up her things, not daring to glance back. She could only pray that Mr. Talbot would not take it into his head to follow her.
“Auntie Eve!” Julian did not have to be told to pick up his own shoes and stockings; he was clever enough to have caught on to the urgency of the situation. “What are we doing? Why are we running?” He turned his head and glanced back toward the road.
“He isn’t following us, is he?” Eve asked.
“No. He’s leading his horse back to the road.” Julian paused. “Is he a bad man?”
“What? No. Oh, no. Pray do not think that.” Eve paused to put her shoes back on and help Julian into his, then struck out across the field at as fast a pace as her brother could keep up. “I think he is the man who is coming to take me to Willowmere.”
Talbot was the family name of the Earl of Stewkesbury. This man must be a relation of some sort whom the earl had sent to escort her. She dreaded what he would think when he realized that the “water nymph” he had seen cavorting in the brook, shoes and hat off, hair tumbling down, was the intended chaperone for the earl’s cousins. That rather than a straitlaced widow, Mrs. Eve Hawthorne was the sort who romped about letting strangers kiss her!
“Then he is a bad man.” Julian’s lower lip thrust out.
Eve glanced down at him and forced a smile. “I am glad that you will miss me, Jules, but you mustn’t think that Mr. Talbot is bad. He is simply . . . well, running an errand for the earl.”
“But I don’t understand.” Julian panted as he trotted along beside her. “If he is the man who’s come to get you, why didn’t you say who you were? Why didn’t we walk back to the house with him?”
“If we hurry and take the back way, we can get to the vicarage before he does. I must change clothes before I see him.”
“You know how your mother feels when you are messy and dirty? That’s why we always tuck in your shirt and try to clean up before we return to the house. Well, I think that Mr. Talbot may feel as your mother does.”
“But he was quite nice. He seemed to like you.”
“That was when he didn’t know who I was. It’s all very well to like someone when you think she is just a . . . an ordinary person, but it changes when that person is supposed to be in charge of a group of young girls.”
“I don’t understand.” He looked up at her, frowning.
“I know. It’s something that makes more sense as you get older. I just need to make sure that when he sees me again, I look much more like a mature, responsible woman.”
“And not a naiad?”
“Definitely not a naiad.” Taking Julian’s hand, she broke into a run.
Fitz stood still for a long moment after the woman ran away, staring after her in amazement. Sudden flight was not normally the feminine reaction to his name. At thirty-two years of age, Fitzhugh Talbot was one of the most eligible bachelors in England. He was the younger half brother of the Earl of Stewkesbury, and though his mother’s family was not nearly as aristocratic as his father’s, the money that she and her father had left Fitz more than made up for that minor flaw. These factors alone would have made him well liked by maidens and marriage-minded mothers alike, but he had also been blessed with an engaging personality, a wicked smile, and a face to make angels swoon.
Indeed, it would take a determined soul to find anyone who disliked Fitz Talbot. Though he was clearly not a dandy, his dress was impeccable, and whatever he wore was improved by hanging on his slender, broad-shouldered body. He was known to be one of the best shots in the country, and though he was not quite the rider his brother the earl was, he had excellent form. And though he was not a bruiser, no one would refuse his help in a mill. Such qualities made him popular with the males of the ton, but his skill on the dance floor and in conversation made him equally well liked by London hostesses.
There was, in short, only one thing that kept Fitz from being the perfect match: his complete and utter disinterest in marrying. However, that was not considered a serious impediment by most of the mothers in search of a husband for their daughters, all of whom were sure that their child would be the one girl who could make Fitzhugh Talbot drop his skittish attitude toward the married state. As a consequence, Fitz’s name was usually greeted with smiles ranging from coy to calculating.
It was not met with a noise somewhere between a gasp and a shriek and taking to one’s heels. Still, Fitz thought, he did like a challenge, especially one with a cloud of pale golden hair and eyes the gray-blue of a stormy sea.
When he reached the road, he swung up into the saddle and turned his stallion once again in the direction of the village. He did not urge the animal to hurry; Fitz was content to move at a slow place, lost in his thoughts. He had been willing enough when his brother Oliver asked him to fetch the new chaperone for their cousins. Fitz was often bored sitting about in the country, and the week or two until Mary Bascombe’s wedding had stretched out before him, filled with the sort of plans that provided infinite entertainment for women and left him looking for the nearest door. So he had not minded the trip, especially since he had decided to ride Baxley’s Heart, his newest acquisition from Tattersall’s, in addition to taking the carriage. That way, he could escort the doubtlessly dull middle-aged widow back to Willowmere without having to actually spend all his time riding in the coach with her.
But suddenly the trip had acquired far more interest for him. His plan to return to Willowmere the following day now struck him as a poor choice. There was not, after all, any need for the girls’ chaperone to be at Willowmere immediately. What with Cousin Charlotte as well as Lady Vivian overseeing the wedding preparations, there was more than adequate oversight of his cousins.
Fitz could put up at the inn for a few days and look around the village for his “water nymph.” First he would pay a call at the vicarage to meet the widow and tell her that they would be leaving in a few days. He might have to pay another courtesy visit to the vicarage in a day or two, but other than that, he would be free to spend his time in a light flirtation—perhaps even more.
Fitz’s avoidance of marriage did not indicate any desire to avoid women. Though he was too careful in his relationships to be called a rake, he was definitely a man who enjoyed the company of women. And after all, he had been immured in the country for a month without any female companionship . . . at least, of the sort he was wont to enjoy in London. But this naiad offered a wealth of possibilities.
He thought of the girl’s slender white legs, exposed by the dress she had hiked up and tied out of the way . . . the pale pink of her lips and the answering flare of color in her cheeks . . . the soft mounds of her breasts swaying beneath her dress as she hopped from rock to rock . . . the glorious tumble of pale curls, glinting in the sun, that had pulled free from her upswept hair.
Yes, definitely, he wanted more than flirtation.
He considered how to go about finding her. He could, of course, describe her to someone like the local tavern keeper and come up with a name, but that would scarcely be discreet. And Fitz was always discreet.
He supposed that she could be a servant sent to tend the boy. However, her dress, speech, and manner were all those of a lady. On the other hand, one hardly expected to find a lady splashing about like that in a stream. And who was the child with her? Could the boy have been hers? There was, he thought, a certain resemblance. But surely she was too young to have a child of seven or eight, which was what he had judged the lad to be. Fitz would have thought that she was no more than in her early twenties. But perhaps she was older than she appeared. There were mothers who romped with their children; he had seen Charlotte doing so with her brood of rapscallions.
Perhaps she was the lad’s governess—though in his experience governesses were rarely either so lovely or so lighthearted. Or maybe she was the personal maid of the boy’s mother. Personal maids were more likely to have acquired the speech patterns of their mistresses than lower servants, and they also frequently wore their mistresses hand-me-downs.
None of these speculations, however, put him any closer to discovering the girl again. She had hinted that he might come across her walking through town, so perhaps she regularly took a stroll. Still, he could scarcely spend his entire day stalking up and down the streets of the village.
Lost in these musings, Fitz was on the edge of the village almost before he knew it. Indeed, he had almost ridden past the church before he realized where he was. Reining in his horse, he looked at the squat old square-towered church. A cemetery lay to one side of it; Fitz had gone past it without a glance. On the other side of the church was a two-story home, obviously much newer than the church but built of the same gray stone. This, he felt sure, would be the vicarage.
It was a rather grim-looking place, and he could not help but hope, for his cousins’ sake, that the widow who resided there was not of the same nature as the house. He thought for a moment of riding past it, but a moment’s thought put that idea to rest. In a village this size, it would be bound to get back to the residents of the vicarage that a stranger was in town, and they would feel slighted that he had not come first to meet them. Fitz knew that many deemed him an irresponsible sort, more interested in pursuing his own pleasure than others’ ideas of his duty, but it was never said that he ignored the social niceties.
Besides, he thought, with a little lift of his spirits, as he swung down off his horse, he would have an excellent reason to keep his visit short, since he needed to get his animal stabled and find himself a room. Brushing off the dust of the road, he strode up to the front door and knocked. The summons was quickly answered by a parlor maid, who goggled at him as if she’d never seen a gentleman before, but when he told her that he wished to speak to Mrs. Hawthorne and handed her his card, the girl whisked him efficiently down the hall into the parlor.
A moment later a woman of narrow face and form entered the room. Her dark brown hair fell in tight curls on either side of her face, with the rest drawn back under a white cap. Her face was etched with the sort of severe lines of disapproval that made it difficult to guess her age, but the paucity of gray streaks in her hair made him put her on the younger edge of middle age. She had on a gown of dark blue jaconet with a white muslin fichu worn over her shoulders and crossed to knot at her breasts.
Fitz’s heart fell as he watched her walk toward him. Poor cousins! He had the feeling that the girls had merely traded one martinet for another, and it surprised him that the lively Lady Vivian would have recommended such a woman. However, he kept his face schooled to a pleasant expression and executed a bow.
“Mr. Fitzhugh Talbot, ma’am, at your service. Do I have the honor of addressing Mrs. Bruce Hawthorne?”
“I am Mrs. Childe,” she told him. “Mrs. Hawthorne is my husband’s daughter.”
“A pleasure to meet you, madam.” He took the hand she extended to him and smiled warmly down at her. “Clearly you must have married from the schoolroom. You are far too young to be anyone’s stepmother.”
The tight expression on her face eased, and color sprang into her cheeks. She smiled somewhat coyly. “’Tis most kind of you to say so, sir.”
“I am the Earl of Stewkesbury’s brother,” he went on. “And I am here to escort Mrs. Hawthorne to Willowmere. I believe he wrote to her regarding the matter.”
“Yes, of course. I have sent a servant to tell Mrs. Hawthorne that you have arrived.”
She gestured toward the sofa, and Fitz sat down, relieved to learn that at least his American cousins had escaped living with this woman—and that he would not have to endure two days of traveling with her.
Mrs. Childe took a seat across from Fitz, her spine as straight as the chair back, which she did not touch, and inquired formally after his trip. They made polite small talk for a few moments before there was the sound of hurrying footsteps in the hallway. A moment later a tall, slender woman dressed in a gown as severe and dark as Mrs. Childe’s, her blond hair pulled back and twisted into a tight knot at the crown of her head, stepped into the room.
Fitz shot to his feet, his customary aplomb for once deserting him. There was no mistaking the woman despite the complete change in her attire. The tightly restrained hair was the same pale ash-blond, the eyes the color of a stormy sea.
The middle-aged widow he had expected was, in fact, his water nymph.
© 2010 Candace Camp