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"Mark my words, he is a dangerous man, my dear, and never forget it! And he has come home!"
An ominous roll of thunder crashed through the house following the sharp spear of blue-white lightning that lit up the dull gray afternoon. The nicely plump woman who had been standing by the large window hastily moved away as though afraid she might be struck. Her auburn curls were in slight disarray as she smoothed the front of her dress in some agitation. She turned to face the other occupant of the room--the slim blonde seated neatly at a small desk, a pencil in hand and wearing an expression of patience.
Claudia, Lady Fairfax, put aside the drawing on which she had been working to tilt her head in a considering way. "He does not frighten me in the least. Come, Olivia, what can he do? Granted, he is Edward's other guardian, but he hasn't been in the area for over a year. Why should he bother us now?"
"Your year of mourning is up--that is why." Olivia Greene stared with concerned eyes at her benefactress and cousin by marriage. "I am not the least surprised that he returned from London ... or wherever he has been." She implied all manner of wicked things in the tone she used, to Claudia's amusement.
Claudia left her small desk, placing a sheet of paper over her drawings to protect them from smudging. She straightened the pillows on the sofa before seating herself in anticipation of tea.
Olivia joined Claudia on the sofa, looking as though she wanted to continue her dire predictions.
"What utter nonsense! That is too silly for words." Claudia thought she sounded quite brave and matter-of-fact. However, inwardly she trembled just a trifle.That man, as she had thought of him, was too like a hawk about to swoop down on her innocent head. Without conscious thought, she reached up to adjust the confection of lace and cambric that perched on her blond curls. Olivia scolded that she was too young for a matron's cap. At twenty-seven Claudia felt ancient. Perhaps small boys did that to one. The sound of steps thumping down the stairs presaged the arrival of her stepson.
"Mama," Edward cried as he dashed into the sitting room where the ladies of the house preferred to gather, "Did you hear that thunder? It was ferocious!"
Claudia gathered the seven-year-old boy to her side. She smiled at her stepson before bestowing a hug around his slim, restless person. "Indeed, I did. I thought it rather awesome." If his hug was a trifle anxious, she gave no indication of it. "It isn't anything to worry about."
"Do you suppose Lord Hawke heard it too?" The boy gazed up at her with a shrewd expression on his face.
"I imagine he did. He lives not too far from here, as you know." Claudia guessed what was to follow.
"Perhaps he will come to cheer us up. This is a very gray day and I am tired of my toys." He gave his stepmother an ingenuous smile. "He always brings me something fun."
"Edward," Claudia cautioned after a glance at Olivia, "we do not like people merely because they bring us things."
"But he does, and I do like him. He is my other guardian," the boy added with irrefutable logic.
There was no argument to this line, for indeed, Noel Clifford, Lord Hawke, their wealthy, handsome, intimidating, and infuriating neighbor, had been named as the co-guardian for Edward, now the young Lord Fairfax, when his father had been killed. That he had in the past brought clever toys to amuse his ward could not be denied. And that Edward had longed for his presence this past year could also not be disputed. Only Claudia, and perhaps the peace-loving Olivia, did not wish him to visit the Fairfax home.
It wasn't that Claudia regretted the death of the previous Lord Fairfax. She had been relieved that she no longer had to deal with her much older and very wayward husband. But he had been a barrier of sorts against the world.
"True, dearest. But you must be aware that Lord Hawke is a very busy gentleman and you cannot expect him to call on us when he has barely come home. Perhaps in a few days he may come." She wondered if she could count on such a thought. She was well aware that his lordship would do whatever he pleased. He was not one to abide by conventions. He skirted impropriety by the simple fact of his wealth and handsome visage. Ironic, how a man might do the indecorous with impunity. If she dared to step a foot beyond what was fitting, she would have the wrath of all the local gossips on her head within minutes.
Mrs. Tibbins, her stalwart housekeeper, marched into the room. The prim expression on her face told Claudia that she was about to receive some unpleasant news.
"Lord Hawke is here, madam. I expect you will wish to see him?" Her tone indicated she knew that her mistress had little choice but to invite his lordship into the sitting room.
She dared not refuse him, and the sitting room was their most pleasant room on a rainy day, with a fire burning merrily in the grate and two Argand lamps to take away from the gloom. It would be disagreeable to move to the more formal and only slightly warmed drawing room. While the weather was not as chilly as it had been the previous August, the house felt dampish during a rainstorm.
"Best bring tea and cakes," Claudia said, troubled at this invasion of his hawkish lordship.
"Tea," said the gentleman in question, following on Mrs. Tibbins's heels. His voice sounded very satisfied. The deep, rich tone always sent a tremor up Claudia's spine. She had fought the effect he had on her, but his lazy regard did not make it easy for her. "What better way to spend a rainy afternoon." He strolled into the room, quite at ease in the Fairfax residence. Indeed, when the previous Lord Fairfax had been alive, Lord Hawke had been here often. He followed the housekeeper into the sitting room, certain of his welcome in his ward's home.
Claudia hastily rose, bowed just enough to be proper, then gestured for her guest to be seated. How good it was that Olivia remained to serve as a buffer. Edward was hardly chaperon enough for a man admittedly handsome and too impressive for Claudia's peace of mind.
"I vow I am surprised to see you out and about on such a day as this." She glanced at the view beyond her window where rain still streamed down the panes, although it had lessened some. The thunder had faded to a mere rumble and no more lightning stabbed the earth below.
"A little wet never hurt anyone. I thought to see how Edward is getting along. I knew he would be indoors on such a day, so likely to be available for a chat." His gaze settled on Claudia as though he knew how he affected her and how reluctant she was to have him here. No matter that he unsettled her, he generally sent Edward into transports of delight that were hard to contain. His lordship quirked a brow at her stare.
Claudia collected her wits, nodding in agreement. "True, true. I would not wish him to catch a cold in the rain. You never know what might develop."
A lazy smile lit up his eyes before he dropped his gaze to his ward. "And you, my boy, are you preparing to head off to Eton this autumn?"
Edward looked to his mother. "I do not think so, sir. Mama said I have plenty of time before I need leave here for school."
"Is that so?" Lord Hawke pinned Claudia with a cold look that was almost tangible.
The three words struck dread in her heart. Even though Edward was not her own son, she loved him as dearly as though he was born of her body. She had heard too many things about the difficulties for boys at Eton. She wanted Edward to be a little older, better able to defend himself against the bullies likely to pick on him. He was slender, almost feminine with his auburn curls and wide brown eyes, and a dreamer--just the sort of boy most apt to be a target of nasty teasing.
"Olivia and I teach him, with the vicar giving him lessons in Latin. Edward is doing very well right here at home." She hated the defensive note in her voice. She was the properest judge of what was right for the boy. What did a bachelor know about raising children, pray tell?
"The vicar? Hmm. That is the new chap recently installed, is it not? The handsome fellow with the red curls and languishing looks that the village maids sigh over?"
"True, the vicar is new, but appears to be well taught. Edward likes him very well." Claudia prayed her son would not add any comments on the subject.
"He likes Mama. I heard Mrs. Tibbins say so." Edward gave a satisfied sigh. "Everyone likes Mama, 'specially her fine blue eyes."
"Another one of Mrs. Tibbins's sayings?" The viscount lounged back in his chair, very much at his ease while he cast measuring glances at Claudia.
No reply was given as the housekeeper bustled into the room with a large tea tray complete with all needed for a splendid afternoon tea. Betsy followed with a tray that held a bounty of delights: scones, seed cake, plum cake, and slivers of sandwiches in the event the earl was hungry. Edward eyed the latter with a hungry gaze.
"How any child can eat as much as that boy and still stay as slim as a reed I do not know," Olivia said with a smile after accepting a steaming cup of tea. Her own plump self was evidence that she struggled with her desire for scones and cake.
"He dashes up and down the stairs and heaven knows what else," Claudia said, smiling fondly at the lad.
"He should be going off to school to join other boys his age. There is more to being at Eton than education, you know. He has to learn how to get along in this world. Plus he would be given a wider exposure to what he needs to know." Hawke cast her a look that dared her to disagree with him.
Claudia steeled herself to resist his arguments, for she was well aware they had merit. "In due time. His father wished him to attend Eton, and provision has been made for that day. I believe he still has much to learn first that we are able to teach him. My father, the Reverend Herbert, coached boys going to Eton until they were ready. Edward is not ready."
"Edward," the viscount said abruptly, "there is a package in the entry hall for you. I think it is something you will enjoy." He watched while the lad bowed and expressed his thanks before dashing from the room following a glance at his mother to see if she approved.
"That is most kind of you. Lord Hawke," Claudia said with formality masking her feelings regarding his gifts. "But please do not think you must bring Edward something each time you come. He has a great many toys as it is."
"You restrict the boy." He dismissed the notion that Edward didn't need more toys with a wave of his hand. "He needs a man's influence in his life." His voice sounded harsh. He looked harsh in the delicate environs of the feminine sitting room, decorated in cream and rose. He was like a hawk in a bed of pansies about to pounce on a wayward mouse.
Claudia barely refrained from a shiver at the intensity of his gaze on her. She had forgotten the intense blue of his eyes. They seemed to see to her very heart. At her side Olivia sputtered a denial totally ignored by the infuriating man.
"I admit it is difficult without his father here. Not that his father was around all that much," Claudia added reflectively. "I still say Edward needs another year or two before he goes off to the hazards of Eton."
Olivia sought to ease the tension by offering the plate of sandwiches. The viscount took the entire plate, setting it on the small table at his side while he proceeded to demolish one after another. He glanced up to catch Claudia's wide-eyed look, then laughed.
"I haven't eaten since breaking my fast early this morning. What a good thing it is that Mrs. Tibbins hasn't forgotten what a man needs."
Claudia's mouth went dry at his expression. She was not an untutored spinster, although her husband had visited her bed rarely once he decided she wouldn't bear him a second son. Still, she could read desire in that look. She would have to be on her guard from now on. As Olivia had pointed out, the year of mourning was up.
"Mama! Mama! Look what Lord Hawke brought me!" Edward cried, dragging a large rocking horse into the room. It was gaily painted and irresistible to any child.
Claudia leaped to her feet to help. The thing was almost larger than Edward. She gave his lordship a flashing look, then shook her head in dismay.
"See, Mama! I can ride it!" The slender child clambered onto the large wooden steed to pick up the reins in a most masterly fashion. Then he rocked back and forth with great determination.
"Indeed, love, I can see you will be a topping horseman."
"He has his own pony, does he not?" Lord Hawke had set aside the now-empty plate to join Claudia by the rocking horse. His words were innocent enough if you didn't pick up on the challenge in them.
"Ah, no, he does not. There isn't a horse in the stable that is proper for a lad his age. I haven't sought a pony for him." Oh, how she hated to admit her delay in obtaining a pony. Somehow, after her husband's death while coming home from the village she couldn't manage it. The accident was the result of a shying horse toppling the carriage. Lord Fairfax had died instantly. The thought of Edward on even a pony was abhorrent.
"I shall take care of it for you."
Claudia turned to look at her nemesis. All she could see in his eyes was sympathy. He knew nothing of her personal life with her husband. Perhaps Hawke thought she pined for Fairfax, mourned his passing. Well, in a way she did, but not in any romantic manner. It was like missing the flu once it's over. You were thankful for its departure.
"Indeed, that is not necessary. Lord Hawke. I can have Jem Groom locate a suitable mount for Edward. He has a way with horses and knows what is available locally." Claudia licked her suddenly dry lips. The man next to her exuded power, a force that swept all in his wake. She was determined not to succumb to any blandishment he might offer in any way.
"We shall see. I'll have a chat with Jem."
Claudia firmed her lips lest she say something ill-advised. This man rattled her to the point of rashness on her part. "Yes, I imagine you would do that regardless of what I might say--or object. It is not necessary for you to interfere in our lives. Lord Hawke." If only she might persuade him of that; the peace would be so lovely.
He bestowed a lazy grin on her that made her pulse gallop. "Someday," he said very quietly, "I shall hear you say my name. Somehow, I believe Noel would sound very sweet on your lips." He quirked a brow as though he knew how this sort of teasing upset her. His gaze settled on her lips, and she swore she could almost feel his burning touch on them.
"It would be most improper, my lord." Claudia was determined to be demure and amiable, even if it killed her.
"Well, that is a handsome gift. Lord Hawke," Olivia inserted into the thickened atmosphere. She left the sofa to admire Edward's latest acquisition. Casting a shy glance at Claudia, she added, "You will need a strong man to carry the rocking horse up to Edward's room."
With great haste, Claudia replied, "He can have it here for a time. Then we can admire his horsemanship."
"Coward," Lord Hawke murmured just loud enough for her to hear him.
"Not in the least. I shall derive great pleasure from watching him," she insisted.
Lord Hawke failed to respond to this. He glanced at the neat stack of papers on her little desk close to where he stood. Without asking permission, he shifted the top paper aside.
"Still drawing flowers, are you? Delightful work, my dear."
Claudia longed to scream at him to go away, leave her alone, and stop harassing her with his veiled remarks and cunning looks.
From his perch atop his new wooden horse Edward thought to add to the conversation. "Mama draws fairies, too. She sees them at the bottom of our garden." He nodded for emphasis before resuming his determined rocking.
Claudia suspected her cheeks burned. "One does entertain with fairy stories, you know." She did see the fairies, but thought it prudent not to reveal the fact. Hawke might have her declared incompetent to care for Edward.
"Do they have happy endings?" he asked, the threat of a laugh lingering in his voice.
"All Mama's stories have happy endings," Edward replied on her behalf, evidently deciding he was well equipped to answer any questions dealing with fairy tales.
Olivia turned to face the enemy. "She paints flowers on china, and soon she plans to paint the fairies as well."
"Ah, she will be 'my lady faire'--is that it?"
"Such nonsense," Claudia sputtered. "I enjoy my painting. And if I add a fairy now and again to amuse my son what is there to it?" She tilted her chin, giving him a challenging look.
"More tea, anyone?" Olivia urged.
"By all means," the viscount replied, guiding Claudia back to the sofa and this time seating himself at her side, much to her discomfiture.
Olivia poured each of them another cup of tea. Mrs. Tibbins appeared at the doorway, that prim look fixed to her face once more. "The vicar, ma'am."
"Show him in, by all means, Mrs. Tibbins."
The housekeeper nodded, looking like a satisfied cat.
Within minutes the young vicar arrived, his red hair tousled and the languishing looks Lord Hawke had mentioned in evidence. "Good afternoon. I have come to see how Edward is doing with his lessons." He turned his attention from Claudia to the man seated next to her, narrowing his eyes a trifle as he did. "Good day to you. Lord Hawke. How pleasant to see you once again."
"The attractions of London pall after a time. There is much to be said about the charms of the country." He sounded amused.
Claudia sensed his gaze upon her and wished he would not tease so. "Will you join us for tea, Vicar Woodley?"
"With pleasure, dear lady." He drew up a chair with the ease of one who does that sort of thing often.
Claudia happened to glance at her friend and noted Olivia's cheeks were flushed and her manner slightly flustered. Olivia nurtured a tendre for the vicar, poor dear. Olivia poured from the fresh pot of tea brought in by the vigilant Mrs. Tibbins, offering a cup to the vicar with hesitant admiration.
"How do you like living in the country, vicar?" The smooth tones coming from Lord Hawke would have lured anyone less sharp into possibly making an indiscreet comment. Not Vicar Woodley.
"This is a charming community with much to admire. Lady Fairfax is the leading light roundabout. If you want something done, one only needs to apply to her gracious person and she sees that it is done." His smile was obsequious.
"Except for ponies, perhaps," the viscount murmured.
Fortunately Olivia chose that moment to inquire about the coming social at the church to raise funds for repair of the steeple. Edward got down from his steed to sneak a pastry.
"The dear ladies of this church intend to make it a fete champetre. Mrs. Alcock attended that sort of elaborate breakfast while in London and thought the idea commendable."
"Pity you do not have a lake to use. A water party would have been charming," Lord Hawke inserted. "Although perhaps a river serves more admirably for those affairs," he concluded with a reflective tone.
Claudia longed to poke him with her elbow. He was sitting close enough to her to make it a simple matter. "I think the desire to raise funds for the steeple repair a worthy one. I trust you will attend the fete, my lord?" She turned to bestow a smile on him that was quite as false as that silly reflective attitude he assumed.
It was not the smartest thing she had done in a while. He seemed to move closer to her, although she would have sworn he remained still. Those intensely blue eyes bore into her with faint amusement. "I shall be pleased to escort you--all."
The vicar looked disappointed.
"Will they have donkey rides?" Edward inquired in his high fluting voice.
"That is a good thought. I will mention it to one of the committee." The vicar set his cup down, then rose. Taking Edward by the hand he began to lead him to the door. "I suppose we had best go over your Latin, my boy."
"I could show you how well I ride on my new rocking horse," Edward said in an effort to stave off the inevitable.
"It is a fine one, to be sure," the vicar agreed.
"Lord Hawke brought it for Edward. He is always so kind and generous," Olivia said after quickly rising to her feet as well.
She walked to the door with them. "I will help with Edward's papers. You know how boys can be--not always tidy."
The three left the room together, their voices fading as they went up the stairs to the boy's rooms.
The snapping of a log in the fireplace broke the utter silence that descended at their departure.
"I find it hard to believe that your dragon would leave you to my not-so-tender mercies, Claudia." Lord Hawke shifted so he might better converse with her. His movement brought his knee in contact with hers.
She jumped like a shy virgin. Ignoring the smirk that briefly crossed his lips, Claudia shifted away from him. Then she rose to her feet turning back to gaze at him with what she hoped was a demure smile. His use of her given name did not escape her notice. "Sir, you are too familiar. What would the good vicar think should he hear you?"
"He would assume that our many years of association, as well as my being Edward's guardian--"
"Co-guardian," Claudia inserted swiftly.
"Co-guardian," he amended, "would permit friendly terms between us." His eyes gleamed with wicked mischief.
"Be that as it may, I will not have you bandying my given name about." She gave him an obstinate look.
"I have given you leave to use mine," he pointed out, sounding like a boy bargaining for a sweet.
"I refuse to use it. It isn't seemly, and you know it." Claudia felt like stamping her foot in annoyance. Dear heaven but this man could drive her mad.
He rose, paused at her side as though debating a point, then bowed slightly. "I shall bid you good day, my dear Lady Fairfax. Edward shall have his pony within a week. But I shall return. To see my ward, of course."
Claudia hoped that was all he had in mind.