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The silence in the luxurious country library belonging to Lady Kenyon was broken only by the crackling sound from the pages of three-day-old newspapers from London. The July afternoon sun beamed in through the leaded windows, casting sharp shafts of light across the interior, revealing dust motes floating lazily in the air. At last, one of the two gentlemen seated near the bay window spoke.
"You really intend to pursue this, er, course, Thornbury?" Lord Musgrave asked hesitantly, peering over the top of his paper in an attempt to gauge the mood of his friend. Lowering the paper, he ran his fingers through his sandy hair, his brown eyes clearly troubled. He had somewhat the look of an unhappy beagle.
The grin that had charmed most of the females in the ton at one time or another slowly spread across the handsome countenance of Jason Ainsley, Earl of Thornbury. His nod was most decisive, the grin almost smug.
"Think she will come?" Lord Musgrave persisted. "Might not. Lady Ware hasn't been seen in society since her husband's death several years ago."
"She wrote a gracious letter to Aunt Charlotte promising she would be here. Today, as a matter of fact." Lord Thornbury also lowered his paper, a devilish smile crinkling up the corners of his eyes. "It is a challenge, Musgrave. To woo and win the favors of the beautiful Georgiana, Dowager Marchioness of Ware is a temptation I cannot resist."
"Might not be beautiful anymore," Lord Musgrave reflected. "Dash it all, mourning turns some females into watering pots and drabs."
"As I understand it, this was a marriage of convenience," Thornbury replied with cynicism lacing his voice. "I doubt she was overlybeset with grief." He glanced at his good friend Musgrave and gave him a reassuring nod. "I shan't seduce her. I have never had to go that far when interested in a woman. They usually come to me," he finished without a trace of boastfulness.
Indeed, that was putting the matter lightly. Thornbury had been pursued by more women than he could count and could have his choice of agreeable females wherever he chose to go. He envisioned a pleasurable dalliance with the reputedly beautiful widow to enliven his visit with his aunt. The house party he had promised to attend that might have been boring now appeared most encouraging.
"Well," Musgrave said while casting a jaundiced look at his friend, "I hope she gives you your comeuppance. 'Tis time some woman did."
"I doubt it will be the meek little widow. Usually these beautiful women are not inclined to wit; charm is enough."
Musgrave's mobile mouth twisted into a rueful grin and he said no more on the matter. Silence resumed, with the crackling of the papers as the loudest sound to be heard for some minutes.
Suddenly, the sound of carriage wheels hard upon gravel came through an open window. The men quickly rose, consigning their newspapers to the floor. A look out of the bay window brought the sight of a shiny black carriage drawn by four equally black horses bowling along the avenue to the house.
"Suppose it might actually be her?" Lord Musgrave said thoughtfully with a side glance at Thornbury. The earl had dragged Musgrave to the country during the Season, albeit the last of it, on a questionable lark and Musgrave was of a mind not to wish him well in his quest.
"We shall see," the earl replied quietly, leaning against the frame of the leaded window so as to better identify who exited the carriage that had now come to a halt before the front entrance. Liveried servants hurried from the house, bustling about the carriage, letting down the step and removing a trunk from the boot while a small, drab female, obviously an abigail, popped from the vehicle to oversee matters. She carried a small case, jewels belonging to the marchioness most likely.
"The carriage is without a crest, but that means nothing. The new Marquess of Ware most likely keeps that one for his own use, giving the widow another," Thornbury mused aloud.
"I think this is a dashed harebrained scheme. Why should you think to win the old geezer's widow?" Lord Musgrave asked with a frown.
"After all these years the widow is suddenly making an entry to society. When my aunt mentioned it in her letter I couldn't resist the lure. There was a good bit of gossip when old Ware died. I've a notion to become"--he paused, giving Musgrave another of those devilish grins before continuing--"acquainted with the cause of it all."
"But he was the stuffiest old bird in the country, fat as a flawn, and nasty-tempered to boot," Musgrave muttered, moving forward so that he might also catch a glimpse of whoever next exited that carriage. "Can't think but what his widow would be an antidote. Stands to reason. Who else would have him?"
"At the time, rumor had it that she was exceptionally beautiful and very young and had been forced to wed him," Lord Thornbury replied softly.
"You mean she was the bride whose husband died in bed on his wedding night? Died of joy, some said," Lord Musgrave added with a chuckle.
"The one and the same," the earl replied, drawing in a breath at the sight of the young woman who exited the carriage. She glanced up at the house, revealing a face of exquisite beauty above a form that even in her traveling clothes looked more than adequate. Her blue twilled silk pelisse with its puffed oversleeves flattered her slim figure. Gloved hands dealt with a blue parasol and a cream scarf with graceful gestures. A gust of wind tore the delicate hat from her head and a footman dashed after it.
With practiced appraisal both men took note of the raven hair softly curled about her head and the pure line of her profile. Even at this distance there was little doubt that Georgiana, Dowager Marchioness of Ware was a very beautiful woman.
"Am I right?" Thornbury said softly.
Lord Musgrave gave a low whistle while exchanging a meaningful look with his friend. "I see what you mean, old chap. Quite a story there, what?"
"And I mean to be the one to learn the whole of it. Those lovely lips look made for kissing." The devilish gleam had returned to the earl's eyes. "I cannot wait to begin my voyage of discovery."
"Don't know about that. Doesn't look like a fast female," Musgrave said reflectively. "Be interested to see what she looks like close up."
The earl gave his friend a curious glance, then turned again to the window where he could see the traveling coach heading off to the stables. The widow had entered the hall and been lost to view. "You may have a point, but mark this, I shall have the lovely widow. I intend to change for dinner and look forward to our introduction."
Lord Musgrave watched as his good friend left the library. '"1 hope you know what you are doing, dear chap," he muttered.
Charlotte, Lady Kenyon swept forward to greet her most welcome guest, Georgiana, Dowager Marchioness of Ware. Although the marchioness was much younger, they were both widows. Charlotte had visited Georgiana the previous summer to inspect the Ware rose gardens. She had been much struck with the lovely and charming young woman, resolving to do something for her when she could.
"My dear, how fresh you look. I wish I might appear to that advantage after a fatiguing journey." She tucked Georgiana's arm in her own and slowly walked with her up the curving stairs to the next floor and along to the west wing.
"I have a well-sprung coach and John Coachman insists upon pampering me by stopping early each day," Georgiana replied with a smile.
"It pays," Lady Kenyon said with a nod. "Now--all the single ladies are in this west wing, while the bachelor gentlemen are off to the east wing, with a few married couples to each side."
"There are quite a number gathered here for your party?" Georgiana asked hesitantly. For this, her first foray into polite society, she had hoped to find a smallish group and was dismayed to detect the hint of large numbers.
"Not really. And regardless of how many attend, my house parties are always those sort where everyone goes their own way. There is tennis and fishing, riding and shooting for those who enjoy those sort of things. Billiards and cards for rainy days and evenings, of course. My late husband had an excellent library and we gather there if it should rain. Come evening we meet in the ground-floor drawing room before dinner, which is at five of the clock. It will be casual, my dear. Just the thing for you to test the waters. I mean to bring you into fashion, you know," Lady Kenyon said with a twinkle in her eyes.
Georgiana took a bracing breath, then smiled at her friend. "I shall take each moment as it comes. Lady Kenyon."
"Charlotte, dear girl. And I shall call you Georgiana if I may." At Georgiana's demure nod. Lady Kenyon gave a satisfied smile. "I shall leave you to freshen up; then please join us downstairs."
Closing the door behind her pleasant hostess, Georgiana bit her lower lip, wondering again if she had done the right thing in accepting this invitation. No matter how delightful the older lady might be, there were others at this party who could have long memories and might treat Georgiana with suspicion at best and rudeness at worst.
Not permitting herself to dwell on possibilities, she greeted her abigail when she entered from the small dressing room adjacent to the bedroom. "Is all in order, Perkins?"
"Nice place with proper wardrobes and good beds." When they traveled Perkins always made it a point to test the beds for comfort--not that they traveled frequently.
Georgiana glanced about the room, noting the exquisite canopy covered in the same blue damask as the bed beneath it. The same fabric made up the simple panel draperies that hung at the two windows from which she could see a lake sparkling in the late afternoon sun. "I believe I shall enjoy rowing on the water again," she murmured, half to herself, as she admired the view. "Where shall I put your drawing equipment, my lady?" the abigail inquired with a fond look at her talented mistress.
"That little table near the door ought to do for the moment. I had best change and join the others. I think I should like to be among the first to go down."
"Ah, yes, that can be an advantage," the abigail said with a sage nod of her head. "And you had best wear the rose gauze with your pearls. First impressions are so important, as you well know."
So it was that within a half hour Georgiana braved the charming stairs that curved down to the ground floor. In the newer fashion of the day, the house had been built so one might have instant access to the gardens. From the drawing room the rose gardens for which Lady Kenyon was justly famous might be sought through French doors. The enormous conservatory filled with exotic plants from around the world was just off the dining room.
Upon entering the drawing room Georgiana found that she was one of what seemed at first sight to be a vast number of people, all of whom were unknown to her. She felt rather shy and resolved to limit her conversations to a select few.
"Hello, my lady."
Georgiana whirled about at the rich sound that met her ears, rather like the deep purr of her favorite cat. She inspected the gentleman who had entered the drawing room with a wary eye. Much taller than she, handsome as might be, and possessing a gleam in his midnight gaze she had seen all too many times in the past three years, he would be one to avoid if possible.
The need to introduce herself was circumvented by Lady Kenyon's hurried approach.
"Dear Georgiana, I want you to meet my nephew." She made the introductions with the grace of a skilled hostess, then turned to greet several others who had come in from the garden.
"I see you admire the garden," the earl said politely, standing at her side while she gazed out at the beds of roses--masses of red, pink, white, both Chinese and French varieties.
"Roses are a favorite with me," she admitted in a soft voice. "I always like to see how the beds have been set out and discover which sort are grown."
"Is that what has kept you occupied and away from our company this past year or so?" He fingered the seal that hung from its chain at his waist below a deceptively simple ivory marcella waistcoat.
She gave him a look that told him he had overstepped the boundaries of good taste with his question. Nevertheless she decided to give him a partial answer, for she sensed he was one of those who persisted until he learned what he desired to know. There was something about his stance, the way that corbeau coat fit his broad shoulders, the precise folds of his snowy cravat, the manner in which he wore the biscuit pantaloons that spoke of a supremely confident man. She would hazard a guess that he rarely put those patent-sheathed feet wrong. That he may have in this instance she had no intention of revealing in so many words.
"I have always enjoyed gardening. When I was widowed I found it a great comfort in my solitude. If you will excuse me, my lord." She gave him a bland look, then crossed the room to join her hostess.
The earl stood where she left him, a bemused expression on his face that had Musgrave most curious when he joined his friend.
"Met the widow?" Musgrave asked when unable to contain his curiosity any longer.
"Indeed. This may offer more challenge than I expected." Beyond that, Thornbury revealed no more, to Musgrave's evident frustration. "She certainly is a beauty. That rose gauze brings out warm tones in her skin and the pearls add to the impression of luminescence. Rare beauty, indeed."
Musgrave failed to reply, realizing that none was required.
It was not long before Georgiana had made the acquaintance of all those in residence. There was only one who truly made her feel ill at ease and that was a pity, for he was Lady Kenyon's nephew. There might well be nothing to worry about, but her senses had picked up on something in those eyes of his that rang warning bells.
Before her year of mourning was over she had been subjected to all manner of subtle and not so subtle attempts on her virtue by married relatives and acquaintances of her late husband. Marriage, brief though hers was, had not much to recommend itself in her estimation. The odious Lord Ware was almost enough to turn her from male society forever. She had decided to test her susceptibility to the male sex by attending this house party. It was to be hoped she had not made a mistake.
Gazing down at her with a most inscrutable and polite countenance, Lord Thornbury presented his arm to Georgiana when dinner was announced, escorting her to the dining room with great seemliness. He was proving to be all that was proper. Perhaps she had only imagined that predatory gleam in his eyes?
"I imagine you look forward to viewing the roses by the morning light. I understand that is when they are at their best," he offered after seating himself at her side.
Flustered at this polite attention Georgiana agreed. It was a relief to have such a blessedly neutral topic to discuss.
"Indeed, my lord. I intend to make good use of my time while here. I have my drawing materials along and plan to inspect each and every bloom in Lady Kenyon's rose collection. I understand she has some fine specimens."
"Like most young women today, you do watercolors?" His manner was casual, verging on bored.
"Well, no, actually, I do careful drawings, then make etchings from them. I make precise notes regarding color, then tint the etchings at my leisure."
Georgiana tasted her food hesitantly, noting Lady Kenyon had an excellent cook.
There was a pause while they were served with a remove of turtle soup; then the second course was brought in from the kitchen. Lord Thornbury politely carried on a brief conversation with the lady seated to his left, a flirtatious woman named Selina Woodburn, Georgiana recalled.
There was no doubt of the invitation in Mrs. Woodburn's saucy hazel eyes. Georgiana wondered if the earl was prey to such blatant attention very often. It was something she'd not considered before, a gentleman being opportuned by a lady. It undoubtedly revealed her naiveté that she had no idea how much of that sort of thing went on. She had been so shocked when male relatives and the friends of her unlamented late husband had implied they would be more than happy to assuage her grief she hadn't considered there might be a reverse position to the matter.
Seated to her right, the very quiet gentleman, a Lord Musgrave and apparent friend to Lord Thornbury, ventured into speech. "You like the roses in the garden, Thornbury tells me."
"I do very much. And what pastime do you enjoy while in the country?"
Her question seemed to surprise him, for at first he had no answer. Then he grinned and replied, "Don't know. Seldom come out. Daresay I'll fish and do a bit of shooting. You play cards?"
"Tolerably," she replied, echoing the terseness of his speech.
"Good. We could be partners this evening--if you don't mind, that is."
Finding much to like in this unassuming and most unthreatening man, Georgiana agreed immediately.
At the conclusion of the dinner Lady Kenyon rose to lead the ladies into the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen to their port and spicy conversation. Georgiana's cousin had once eavesdropped and informed her that it was not fit for a lady's ears, being one outrageous story after the other.
Feeling shy, Georgiana drifted over to the fine pianoforte to seat herself with the thought of playing quietly for the group. She began with a simple arrangement of a Haydn piece, then continued into a Mozart sonata of which she had imperfect mastery but liked anyway. When she finished, she discovered the earl had taken a place behind her. It surprised her that she hadn't sensed his presence, he was that sort of man. "I've not heard that piece played quite that way before," he said with the glimmer of amusement in his words.
"Yes, well," she said with a shrug, "when I do not quite know the music, I confess I fudge a bit. I very much doubt that anyone--other than you--noticed the difference."
He looked about the room and agreed. "I daresay you have the right of it. Would you like to see the roses by moonlight? I'm told that we might be in for a special treat as well. Aunt Charlotte suggested you might enjoy it."
With her hostess implying that it was safe for Georgiana to go with her nephew, there seemed to be little she could do but agree. "I should like that. Some roses are extra fragrant in the night air, I have heard."
She placed her hand lightly upon his proffered arm, wondering what it was that seemed so dangerous about this man. There appeared to be an aura about him mat attracted her even as she felt something cautioning her, warning her.
They slowly strolled up and down the neat paths softly illuminated by the full moon and aided by fairy lights hanging from several pergolas. The day's warmth combined with the evening dew to bring forth a heady fragrance. She breathed in deeply, reveling in the lustily scented air. When she returned to the dower house she must seek her own rose garden in the evening. She had been missing a treat.
"Come," the rich and very male voice at her side urged. "I believe the surprise may be found now."
She permitted him to lead her down to the bottom of the garden. There, dancing like so many magical lights, were glowworms flitting delicately on the soft night air. They seemed to execute a complicated minuet of their own and so she whispered to her escort, her voice reflecting her delight
"I am pleased you like them. Aunt Charlotte thought you might." He retained a light hold of her hand with his other hand, but it didn't precisely threaten her. It did send tremors through her and she couldn't understand why.
Georgiana was enchanted by the glowworms with their mystical dance of blinking light. However, she discovered she was far more conscious of the man at her side, one she had at first dubbed a philanderer and a flirt. It seemed she must revise her opinion, for he was all that was polite to her. And to her amazement and ultimate chagrin, she found a wistful longing to know just what his attentions might be like.
Of course, she added to her mental wanderings, it could be that she had no appeal for the gentleman. In which case she was utterly safe in his company, she attempted to assure herself.
Eventually they returned to the house where the group was settling into foursomes for playing cards. She excused herself from Lord Thornbury and joined Lord Musgrave at the table where he had saved a place for her.
Although he was not directly in her sight, Georgiana found she had developed an awareness of Lord Thornbury's whereabouts. He joined Selina Woodburn and her husband Marius at their table, with Lady Kenyon making up the fourth.
Georgiana considered herself a competent player at best and was not terribly surprised she made a few errors. Lord Musgrave was the best of partners, smiling and excusing her so that she lost some of her nervousness. She soon found she was able to watch her cards and follow the conversation.
"Did you enjoy the roses on your little walk?" Lady Pickering asked, a coyness in her manner.
"Actually, Lady Kenyon has the right of it," Georgiana answered with more composure than she'd have thought possible. "There are a number of varieties that have marvelous scent at night. It makes for a very romantic walk," she concluded without thought to her words until she saw the malicious gleam in Lady Pickering's eyes.
"Well, if a lady strolls the paths with the dashing Lord Thornbury I daresay that most anything might seem romantic."
Her ladyship tittered a little laugh that was likely intended to sound like a tinkling bell. It didn't, her laugh seemed forced and Georgiana, having endured far worse in her days, merely smiled and agreed politely. 'I found his lordship to be quite civil," she said with as bored an air as she could manage.
Lord Musgrave choked on a mouthful of wine and Lord Pickering had to thump him on the back before all was calm again.
"I say, dashed if I don't think Lady Ware and indeed, the rest of us, could do with an early night of it," Lord Musgrave said when he could speak again. "Traveling, you know. Hard on a person. Country air and all that as well. I mean to rise early and see what I can do with a fishing pole."
Georgiana put down her cards with a grateful sigh. Lord Musgrave must be reading her mind, for she had been longing to escape the group and seek her bed.
As she ascended the stairs she found Lord Thornbury coming to her side, handing her a night candle should she have need of it.
"You enjoyed your evening, I trust. I have always found Aunt Charlotte's gatherings most relaxing and pleasant." He gazed down at Georgiana with an expression in those amazing dark eyes that she couldn't begin to discern.
Her own gaze twinkling with amusement, she nodded politely and said, "Indeed, I did, my lord. Glowworms are an unusual treat, even for a country woman."
She left him standing in the hall. Lighting her way with the candle, she walked swiftly along the corridor until she reached her room. The door closed firmly behind her before she yielded to the urge to chuckle.
"You enjoyed a pleasant evening, my lady?" her abigail said with fond regard.
"Well, Perkins, I am not certain what I expected when I came, but I think it was not what I have found. I do not quite know what to make of it all," Georgiana concluded, thinking to herself that Lord Thornbury was the most enigmatic man she had ever met. But, she decided, she had found a way to perplex him--treat him like her nephew Pip. It seemed to her that her somewhat cavalier handling of him had literally stopped him in his tracks.
Allowing Perkins to remove the rose gauze and put away the pearls that had been a bride gift from her elderly husband, she donned the sheer muslin nightrail she preferred for the warmth of summer nights.
Secure in her bed she considered the hours since her arrival at Kenyon Hall. Surely meeting Lord Thornbury had to be the highlight. Well, on the morrow, she would concentrate on her drawings and let his lordship conduct a flirtation with the more than willing Selina Woodburn.
In the east wing of the house Lord Thornbury entered his room to find Musgrave awaiting him along with Martin, Thornbury's estimable valet.
"Clever bit of a girl," Musgrave said without preamble. "Don't think this is going to be the piece of cake you believed."
"That is an insufferable grin, Musgrave," the earl replied, looking as out of sorts as he felt.
"She informed us that you were most civil to her," Musgrave continued, undaunted by the look in his friend's eyes. "Egads, Jason. Civil?" A whoop of laughter followed this conclusion to the speech.
Jason motioned toward the door with a jerk of his head.
Musgrave rose from the comfortable chair near the window and sauntered toward the doorway with a wicked light in his eyes. "What do you plan for the morrow? More civility?"
Jason glared at his friend. "It just so happens that civility is most disarming. Put her at ease, you suggested, I believe? Well, she quite enjoyed watching the glowworms and considered the scent of the roses to be enchanting. I believe the saying is that Rome was not built in a day, is it not?"
"Agreed," Musgrave replied, reaching for the doorknob. "Pity it would not be the thing to place a little wager on the outcome of your attentions. Wouldn't do that to a nice person like Lady Ware. But it ain't going to be a snap, my friend." Musgrave chuckled, then let himself out before a well-aimed shoe hit the door behind him.
Martin eased Thornbury from his corbeau coat so lovingly crafted by the master hand of Weston, then helped remove the cravat with equal care.
Jason strolled to the window, gazing blankly out at the moonlit gardens below, he fingered the seal on his watch chain while thinking furiously. Civil! She had declared him to be civil? Those were challenging words. Come morning he would seek her out, perhaps be a trifle more than civil. No matter how Musgrave might chuckle, Jason felt that a cautionary approach to the wary widow would be the most productive. That she was as fetching a piece as he recalled seeing in a long, long time was added incentive.
He fully intended that soon, quite soon, the wary widow would be his!