In the year and a half since that fateful night, Colin Pearce, the Earl of Ivorwood, had wondered many times what might have happened if he hadn't invited his best friend to his party. Whether, if Nick hadn't met Josephine Cardworthy that night, Colin might himself have had a chance with her.
Since Colin had been away from Greenbrier for years, he hadn't been around to see Josie's transformation from a scamp of a girl into an enchanting young woman. But he'd only been home a few weeks before he'd begun to think he and Josie would be very good together.
He'd been on the verge of declaring himself the night of the party, but Nick had arrived before he'd had a chance. Nick, at whose feet women had so often thrown themselves-why had it never occurred to Colin that Josie, too, would find him irresistible?
Who is that? she'd said at the party, grabbing Colin's forearm. Her sapphire eyes had been sparkling, her sable hair glossy, her creamy skin a persistent distraction, and he'd had to force himself to focus on her words and not the pleasure her touch was bringing him.
Captain Nicholas Hargrave, he'd said. My closest friend.
Her eyes hadn't left Nick in his dashing scarlet uniform. Oh, good. You can introduce me.
And Colin could only watch as his best friend twirled her about his ballroom and talked with her the whole night, and took the place by Josie's side that he'd wanted for himself.
Six weeks later Josie and Nick had become engaged.
Colin had made certain from that day that no one-least of all Josie-would notice he was badly smitten with her.
Left to his own devices, he would have abandoned Greenbrier and stayed far away from her. But Nick had been required to return to Spain before they could marry, and he'd asked a favor.
You live so near, Nick had said. It will be the easiest thing in the world for you to look after her for me, to visit her regularly since I cannot.
As if Josie Cardworthy needed looking after. She was the most self-sufficient woman Colin knew.
But he'd promised Nick, which was why he was currently walking along the path behind Greenbrier that led away from the splendor of his ancestral home and toward Jasmine House, the Cardworthys' manor.
Girding himself for an evening of conversation and the exquisite torment that Josie's presence brought, he passed through the doorway in the high stone wall at the eastern border of his property that led to the Cardworthys' garden. The late May dusk was just settling in, turning the soft yellow brick of their home a rich orange where it could be glimpsed through the thick cover of jasmine and ivy vines that threatened to smother it.
Jasmine House was lit up for the evening, its modest grandeur somewhat diminished by the rioting state of the garden and the clutter of an overturned wooden bench that had been serving as a fort for Josie's brothers earlier that week.
A grin teased his mouth as he remembered how she'd mounted a sneak attack on the two boys, dumping a bucket of water on them as revenge for some misbehavior, her shining brown hair tumbling loose as she laughingly escaped their clutches at a speed no lady for miles could likely have matched.
Josie had a way of stirring things up and making life seem to sparkle.
He let the grin fade with accustomed ease and reminded himself that it would be a mistake to stay very long tonight. At least there would be other guests to distract him from Josie.
He passed a battered doll hanging upside down by a long strand of yarn amid the canes of a raspberry bush and chuckled. The Cardworthys were nothing if not unusual.
Josie Cardworthy knocked a second time on her sister's chamber door, but still there was no reply. She entered, and there was Edwina, sitting at her vanity with a book in her hand, but staring out the window. As Josie pulled the door closed behind her, her sister didn't turn. At least one worry could be put to rest: Edwina was dressed for the evening.
"It's almost time to go down," said Josie, who was wearing her one fancy gown, a shining silver-blue silk satin. "The Biddles will arrive soon."
"I'm sick," Edwina said, not sounding sick at all. As usual, her posture was so stiff a board might have been strapped to her back. She was wearing her lustrous moss-green gown, and her black-as-night hair was dressed in a high, pretty coiffure. From the back, she looked as beautiful and inflexible as a statue.
"You're not sick."
"It's consumption. I've been hiding it. Just tell Mrs. Biddle and they'll leave directly."
The corner of Josie's mouth inched up. Mrs. Biddle worried constantly about sickness.
"You're coming downstairs," Josie said firmly. "It's astonishing that we're even having a little party, let alone one to which an eligible gentleman has been invited."
The evening was a rare attempt by their mother to help Edwina find a husband, and Josie was determined her sister wouldn't squander it.
"I'm old," Edwina said. "That's as good as being sick. Tell them," she began as she finally turned around, but then she gasped.
"Your hair! What on earth have you done?"
Josie laughed. "As you see. Don't you like it?"
"But your hair was so beautiful. Why-" Edwina caught herself. "I mean, it does look nice now with the curls framing your face and that blue band around your head, but why on earth did you cut it all off?"
"I just had a sudden urge to change it." Josie ruffled her fingers through the shiny brown curls that now fell softly against her cheeks and nape. She was mostly glad she'd done it. At least the haircut was a harmless thing to do.
"It reminds me of the time you pierced your ears when you were fifteen and Papa bellowed for an hour." Edwina lifted an eyebrow. "What if Nicholas doesn't like it?"
Josie didn't suppose Nicholas would care-or did she? She considered for a moment that she'd cut her hair as some kind of test for him to pass when he returned, a sort of reaction to his recent letter saying he'd be back in two months.
But no, surely it was just that old recklessness. And thank goodness she was going to be married before long to a wonderful man: being married would stop her from doing impulsive things.
"Never mind my hair. Why are you in here, being a coward?"
Edwina's perfectly shaped lips pressed together glumly. "There's no point in this idiotic party. Men find me pretty but they don't like me. Papa always said I didn't have pleasing ways, and he was right."
Josie came closer and sat on the bed. "Papa liked to say outrageous things to stir people up, as you know very well."
Edwina frowned, as though remembering something unpleasant.
Having spent his life in India until he inherited his estate from a cousin, Mr. Cardworthy had never stopped missing the more exciting life he left behind. When he'd arrived at his new property-then called Hartwood-he'd promptly rechristened it Jasmine House and made it apparent he had no interest in any of the neighbors, whom he called "the locals."
It was partly Papa's fault Edwina wasn't married. Their gruff Papa had never allowed the girls to receive any gentlemen, because he'd had plans for his daughters to marry wealthy nabobs, friends of his from India. But Papa had died four years ago, before that could happen. And Mama had promptly gone into her Decline.
"And you do look lovely," Josie said. "That's always a good start."
Josie knew she herself was pretty enough, with nice blue eyes and a pert nose. But her sister, with her shining black hair and blue velvet eyes and Cupid-blessed rose lips, was beautiful.
Edwina would have long ago been married-she was now twenty-seven-if it hadn't been for her hedgehog personality. Stiff, prickly, and often difficult, Edwina always said whatever she liked. Josie was used to her and knew she had a heart of gold under her peculiar ways. But they knew almost no men, and how could a stranger come to appreciate Edwina if she wouldn't even try? Sometimes Josie suspected her sister had given up on ever marrying.
"Anyway, what do we know of Mr. John Biddle?" Edwina said dismissively.
"He's a lawyer," Josie said.
Edwina rolled her eyes. But then a faraway light came into them. "We were meant to make brilliant matches."
"I know." Josie guessed Edwina was thinking of Mr. Perriwell, but she didn't dare speak his name. Their brother Lawrence had once mockingly called him "the manly suitor of long ago," and Edwina had looked ready to do him an injury.
The dreamy light disappeared from Edwina's eyes. "Well, you've made a brilliant match, and for that I'm glad. It would be piggish to suppose there'd be someone as wonderful as Nicholas for me."
"Maybe John Biddle is someone wonderful," Josie said. "But you'll never know unless you make an effort when he comes." She narrowed her eyes. "You know how it goes when you're not making an effort."
Edwina lifted her chin haughtily. "I simply can't make myself say the things men like to hear."
"Yes you can." Josie tugged the front of Edwina's bodice a half-inch lower to show a little more of her bosom. Though Edwina was the elder by five years, Josie sometimes felt like the leader. "And it shouldn't be hard. Mr. Biddle will surely be kind-he's Vicar's brother, so he's bound to be considerate and thoughtful, as Vicar is."
"Two people can be born into the same family and be entirely different," Edwina said, pulling her bodice back to where it had been. "Look at us. You're sweet and I'm sour. I'm good with numbers and you hate them."
"You're not sour," Josie said generously. "And I don't hate numbers, I just wouldn't get the satisfaction you do from doing the household accounts."
"It would be more satisfying if Mama would stop fretting about every penny when in fact we're practically wealthy. This is the only nice gown I've got, and I've had it five years."
It was true that their clothes were old-Mama insisted that one fine dress each was adequate, and that had proved true since they were hardly ever invited anywhere.
"Here, let me help you with that ribbon," Josie said, reaching for the dark green band around her sister's neck from which was suspended a small cameo. "If it were a little higher, it would draw attention to your lovely neck."
Edwina batted Josie's hands away. "You go. No one will miss me, and anyway, I have things to do. Say I have the headache."
"You're not going to sit in here reading like you do all the time. Just make an effort with Mr. Biddle. You can talk about books-that's an easy topic for you. Ask what he's reading, that kind of thing."
"Men make me nervous," Edwina whispered plaintively, "and I'm too old for this."
Ignoring her, Josie tugged her to her feet. "Smile," she said, ushering her out the door.
"Oh, girls, there you are," their mother said as Josie and Edwina came into the sitting room. Mrs. Cardworthy was dressed for the evening in a gauzy cream gown and frilled cap, her person draped, as it was for all the waking hours of every day, on the aging blue divan she hadn't left since Mr. Cardworthy died.
The maids had made the fading divan look festive tonight, if a tad garish, by draping it with a pink and orange shawl Mr. Cardworthy had brought from India. Fortunately, the sitting room showed to advantage in the kinder light of dusk. The collection of carved sandalwood elephants and Indian brass dishes that had decorated the room for as long as Josie remembered had been neatly dusted and looked, if not charming atop Mrs. Cardworthy's good end tables, then at least interesting. Among the collection was a wooden tiger with fierce yellow and black stripes and red eyes, which had always seemed to Josie to embody the spirit of her father.
If only Rickett had been able to trim the bushes, the view of the garden would have been perfect, but their gardener was getting to be long in the tooth, and it took him a while to see to things.
"Edwina," Mama said, "go find my elixir to strengthen me for the evening. Josie, look down the garden path and see if Ivorwood is coming. Oh, if only your father hadn't left us."
"Mama, you must stop phrasing it that way," Josie said as she made for the door that gave onto the garden, "or people who don't know us will think he deserted us."
"It's the same effect," Mrs. Cardworthy said, though with less rancor. "Dead is just as gone as left."
Mrs. Cardworthy had been forty when she had her last child, and her husband had been a decade older. They'd never been the most lighthearted of people, and losing her strong-willed husband had only enhanced Mrs. Cardworthy's inherent gloominess. New experiences were to be avoided, and new people were suspect.
Though her mother had never admitted it, Josie knew she thought it would be no bad thing if her children never left Jasmine House; what better, safer place could there be for them? Doubtless she also thought it would be best if Nicholas Hargrave never returned from the war to marry Josie and carry her away.
Josie felt there were a number of subjects on which her mother was quite misguided.
"Oh, good," Josie said as she spied a familiar tall gentleman coming along the path, "here's dear old Ivorwood now."
"Really, Josie," Edwina scolded, "you must stop calling him ‘old Ivorwood.' He's an earl, and he's not even old."
"But Colin's such a dear old friend, and I think of that first about him. And he was such a friend to Papa, when no one else was."
In truth, Josie had come to see Colin in recent months as a very close friend. The frequent walks they shared in the garden, often discussing various aspects of history-he was writing a book about the kings of England, and she loved the weird details he found through his research-were an escape from a house that often resounded with her mother's megrims.
Things were not exactly stagnant at Jasmine House; helping see to the household kept Josie engaged, and the daily pandemonium created by her younger brothers provided exasperation and amusement in equal measure. But a visit from Colin had become her favorite diversion.
Colin was different, with his reserved ways, and comfortable, like a favorite stuffed chair. He always had intelligent things to say, and he was as solidly reliable as a boulder. Also, because he was Nicholas's best friend, being with him was in a small way like being with her fiancé-and ever more, lately, she'd needed any reminder of Nicholas she could find.
She pushed away the anxiousness that thoughts of her fiancé had brought and focused her mind on the evening before them and, most importantly, the good it might do her sister.
"But you're right," Josie said as she watched the earl skirt around the bench lying across the garden path, "he's not any older than Nicholas-it's just that he seems older. Perhaps it's because he's reserved."
"He's such a handsome man," Edwina said. "All that glossy black hair, and he's tall and always immaculately dressed. It's a shame he's so unforthcoming, though. I can't imagine him courting anyone. Although maybe he behaves differently with the ladies in London. Not that we would know since we are never to be there."
"Edwina," their mother said from the divan, taking a healthy swallow of her elixir, "you know that London is far away, and not a safe place to visit. Never mind the expense."
Josie watched Colin approach. True, he was handsome-she just never thought about it, perhaps because she'd always known him. From the time she was twelve or thirteen, she could remember him coming to call on their father; they'd held discussions about books and history that often lasted hours. But she'd been too young then to be noticing gentlemen as men.
And then he'd gone away for years, and when he'd returned she'd thought, Well, look at that, Ivorwood is quite smart. But she'd met Nicholas and thought no more about it.
She was planning to talk to Colin tonight about Edwina. Josie was worried about her sister's prospects, and she meant to ask him for help. Because if Edwina didn't find a husband soon, Josie didn't see how she could marry Nicholas without feeling she was abandoning her sister to a spinster's existence.
She and Edwina might joke about how Mama never left her divan, but spending a lifetime attending to a woman who refused to do for herself would be suffocating. Of course no one expected Will, Matthew, or Lawrence-twelve, fourteen, and fifteen-to dance attendance on their mother. They were sons, and it would never be their lot in life.
"Ivorwood, here you are," Josie said as he approached the door.
He looked quite fine, but then he was always well dressed, as if he'd turned his formidable intellect to the consideration of what he ought to wear. His coat was a sharp green satin that made his sage eyes look more vivid. He had no quizzing glass, no large family rings or gaudy buttons; the quality of his clothing was the only thing about his appearance that suggested he was a very wealthy man.
Which wasn't to say he didn't have quite a bit of presence; he was tall and rangy, and his black hair and general lack of lightheartedness gave him a dark, aloof quality that seemed pronounced tonight. Then there was his nose-hawkish, jutting, it gave a hint to ancestors who'd doubtless done all manner of rough things to secure power.
"You've changed your hair," he said, coming inside. "I quite liked it long. But this new style suits you."
"Thank you," she said. "Come take a turn around the room with me while we wait for the guests. You don't count as a guest, of course."
"Well, thank you very much."
She laughed and slipped her arm over the bend of his elbow and tugged him toward the edge of the room. She lived in a house full of boisterous and argumentative people, and space, things, and even sometimes the best bits of food were constantly in contention; Colin, in a way, was something that belonged especially to her.
"Of course you're not a guest-we know you too well. You're as good as part of the family."
He merely grunted in reply. His arm felt stiff against her, and she pressed him encouragingly, to draw him out of his shell.
Colin had no idea what Josie was saying because he was so distracted by the feel of her arm against his. He alternately wished she would not touch him and lived for those moments when she did. They were always accompanied by bitter scolding from his conscience reminding him she was Nick's fiancée, as if he could forget.
She seemed to be waiting for a reply.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?" he said.
She laughed. "I said that you look especially brooding tonight. No doubt your thoughts are caught on some historical old man. King Canute? Edward the Confessor?"
He wished his thoughts were on old men, as idiotic as that sounded. Instead, he was trying not to notice the way her new short coiffure played up the light in her eyes, and directing his arm to stop sending him excited little missives about the delicate curves of her arm.
He made himself think of Nick, off fighting a war while Colin lived a soft earl's existence. How he wished he might change places with him. Nick should be here with Josie, and Colin ought to be out there being shot at. He deserved to be shot for wanting Josie. His fascination with her was wrong for so many reasons, and if there was a way to cut out the part of him that wouldn't stop thinking of her, he wished he might know it.
She squeezed his arm again as if to encourage him. She had no idea.
Lately he'd felt like a powder keg whenever he was around her, ready to explode with the slightest touch. He'd been thinking of a trip to conduct research for the history he was writing, and he knew he'd been putting it off, but he was weak, and he wanted to be with her. He told himself he was only doing as Nick had asked him to do, but that was a lie.
He shouldn't have come tonight.
The door to the salon opened just then, admitting Sally to announce the Biddles: Vicar, his wife, and his brother. Colin hoped they would distract him from Josie, though he had to acknowledge that was not likely to happen.