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"A beauteous widow," his friend continued, "unprotected and seeking your patronage. If you made no attempt to ravish her, you're a disgrace to your title."
With a laugh, he said, "I don't dispute that. I'm naught but an upstart earl, whose claim to all these dignities was so remote that it took more than a year for the lawyers to prove me the rightful heir."
Andrew ran ink-stained fingers through his shaggy, honey-brown locks. "Never did I guess when we were Bristol schoolboys that someday you'd live at Bevington Castle."
"Neither did I," Cass admitted. "But I don't live here yet."
Luis materialized in the doorway. "Excelencia, is a gentleman here to see you. Senhor MonCreeve."
The servant nodded vigorously.
Lifting his brows, Cass murmured, "An unexpected development. Yes, I'll receive him."
The gentleman whose abilities the Widow Pinnock had disparaged was most unimpressive. His bow lacked polish, and his Scots brogue was thicker than the fog outside when he said, "Lord Bevington, I pray my lack of punctuality hasn't offended you. I was misled by an unreliable postilion."
"I didn't specify an hour for our meeting, merely the day. Mr. Moncrieff, I present to you Andrew Searle, a poet of increasing repute." And decreasing sobriety, added Cass silently, troubled by his old schoolmate's bloodshot eyes and droopy lids.
The Scotsman nodded. "Honored, sir. Now then, my lord, I have here examples of my work. Shall I lay them out for you?"
"By all means."
Moncrieff opened his portfolio and spread several sheetsacross the desktop. "My designs for the Marquess of Gillingham's seat at Evensloe. In order to add picturesque features to the landscape, we chose tothat is, I personally advised him to eliminate the parterres and fill in the empty space with earth and turf. I also suggested planting these well spaced trees in the near distance. His lordship was vastly pleased with the result."
Cass nodded absently.
According to the Widow Pinnock, Moncrieff had resigned from the firm. Presumably he'd traveled here to compete against her for the commission. A risky move indeed, if the lady was truly the artist responsible for all these excellent drawings. There was an endless supply, and Cass had ample time to look them over during his visitor's long-winded presentation.
"This is my plan for the grounds of Sir Antony Coney_s Italianate villa near Roehampton. At my recommendation, firs and cedars were grouped to resemble the views painted by Claude of Lorrain."
"The designs bear your signature," he observed. "What contribution did your partner make?" Moncrieff flushed. "I'm solely responsible for all designs. The late Mr. Pinnock," he said stiffly, "was merely a figurehead, whose taste and methods I oftentimes questioned." Abruptly gathering some pictures together, he uncovered a watercolor of a flower-filled border.
Cass picked it up. Drawn by a female hand blunt, businesslike Moncrieff couldn't possibly be capable of such fine, delicate brushwork. The initials at the bottom confirmed his impression. Pointing at them, he asked, "Have you an apprentice, Mr. Moncrieff?"
"That sketch belongs in a different file." The Scotsman tugged at the picture so forcefully that it tore.
Definitely not his creation, thought Cass.
Moncrieff offered an architectural rendering in exchange, and said a shade too heartily, "You'll want to see this Temple of Adonis I created for Mr. Hamish Renfrew of Aberdeen."
"Exemplary. Now I have something to show you, sir." Cass opened a desk drawer and removed a thin, rectangular volume bound in red leather. "Humphry Repton produced this plan. Can you devise a better one?"
While Moncrieff paged through the Red Book, Cass exchanged glances with Andrew, who was evidently puzzled by his cavalier treatment of the landscape gardener.
"Mr. Repton," said Moncrieff reverently, "is a master. He prudently elects to fell the avenue of oaks, as any man of taste would do. I cannot argue with his choice to demolish the antiquated walled gardens and replace the canal with a meandering stream. Yet I believe my own firm will serve your lordship far better._
"Your firm," Cass repeated. "I understand your partner has passed away. Will the enterprise continue to bear his name?"
"Not for long. As soon as his widow becomes my wife, I shall make the necessary change."
Marriage? The lady had not only testified to a rift, she'd made clear her disdain for Mr. Moncrieff. Recalling her earnestness, the hint of vulnerability about her mouth, and the steady gaze of her fine brown eyes, Cass chose to put no faith in anything this man told him.
Andrew Searle's sleepy voice called him out of his reverie. "Cass, didn't you say the vicar was expecting you on the half hour?"
The words were no sooner out than the long-case clock in the corner chimed a single long note.
"Quite right," he said, rewarding his shamelessly untruthful friend with a smile. "Mr. Moncrieff, I wish I could review your past triumphs more thoroughly. If you leave your card behind, I'll inform you as soon as I've made my decision."
"I neglected to bring any cards with me. But I have many more drawings. I would most gladly return later in the day. Or even tomorrow."
"I'm off to London in the morning." It was no lie.
Unlike Mrs. Pinnock, Fingal Moncrieff accepted his dismissal without argument or demands for money. He gathered up the sketches and replaced them in the portfolio. With another bow, even stiffer than his first, he exited the library.
"I do believe," Cass commented to his friend, "that I'm now acquainted with every garden de signer in the land. I've gazed at enough pictures to fill a gallery. But I'll be damned if I can say which one of these fellows is most capable of satisfying me."
"If it's satisfaction you crave, look to the lady."
Cass shook his head, in no mood to be teased.
He remembered the little widow's boast that she was more capable than any of the gentlemen he'd summoned to his castle. His difficulty in banishing her lively image from his mindhair the color of darkest mahogany, almond-shaped brown eyes, a complexion like a lily, rose-petal lipsdidn't mean wanted her for his landscape gardener. And he refused to be swayed into a foolish decision by the fact that she was, undeniably, by far the most attractive of the many applicants for the position.
Copyright ) 1998 by Margaret Evans Porter