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"I shall find a way to get what I want, somehow, in some manner. To call me a rogue and a vagabond is truly the outside of enough."
Katherine Penn argued her case with the family donkey as it pulled her little cart across the Silver Street bridge. The River Cam flowed lethargically south toward Sheep's Green, where she suspected her brother was taking time from his studies to indulge in a welcome swim. If only the Cambridge city fathers would do something about the shortage of water within the central portion of the town. Katherine detested the necessity for her meager sponge baths and envied her brother, Teddy, his splash in the river.
She sighed with longing at the thought of a truly magnificent bath, one that might cover every bit of her body. It seemed wicked, and sinfully wasteful of water, but utterly delicious. Glancing at her companion, who perched rather precariously on the wooden seat at her side, she said, "I wager you would adore a good swim as well, my friend. I promise you shall have a wonderful paddle when we get to Fairfax Hall. Near the Gothic Tower is an excellent pond, just right for you. If only I dared to jump in as well."
Her companion gave a muted honk, then nudged his mistress with an affectionate touch of his orange beak. Gabriel was a magnificent goose, mostly white with patches of dark gray. Dull orange ringed his intelligent eyes, and they peered ahead with what seemed to be anticipation.
"For the present I shall ignore my problem and gather some flowers to press. I have near run out of them," Katherine confided to her pet. "There ought to be no difficulty, what with his lordship being away. No word has reached town of his presence, andheaven knows Melly would have spread the news immediately once she heard. We shall be safe." Amelia, Bonner, or Melly, was the daughter of the greatest gossip in the county, and if she didn't know a thing, it had not happened.
Katherine urged the donkey to take the turn at the next corner, heading north to the entrance leading to Fairfax Hall. Once there, she intended to veer off toward the Gothic Tower, a charming bit of a folly done under the supervision of Capability Brown some years past. It suited her mood precisely. She had just completed writing a play, a satire on the current rage of the theater, the gothic melodrama.
"And to think they can carouse from dinner to dawn and no one points out their want of behavior," she reverted to her original complaint. "Some fine example those old men set for the undergraduates. Hmpf." Katherine did not include her father, who was the Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College. He was known to indulge upon special occasions, but never to excess. Since her mother died, he had spent more and more of his time at the college, making a rare appearance at home when he recalled his two children and their possible needs.
"Scandalous," Katherine declared to Gabriel at her side, thinking of the university officials and their continued opposition to theatrical productions. "As though those precious students might be corrupted by a mere play when they have everything from cockfighting to bearbaiting at their disposal." She firmed her lips with anger. No theater was permitted in town, and no plays performed for the general public except for the three weeks during Sturbridge Fair.
The goose bobbed his head up and down as though he quite understood the impossible ways of the fellows, professors, and other officials of the university.
The cart wobbled as it bumped along a rutted lane toward the Gothic Tower. Once within walking distance, Katherine persuaded the donkey to halt beneath the shade of a spreading oak. She tied the reins to a branch, then scooped the protesting goose beneath her arm and set off toward the point.
After letting Gabriel down at the water's edge, she began to collect perfect specimens of the flowers that grew in such abundance. How lovely of Mr. Brown to set this area aside as a tranquil reserve. Gabriel honked his apparent agreement from the pond, where he blissfully swam about with no competitors for the tasty treats he enjoyed.
Katherine had a respectable number of flowers neatly positioned between the heavy papers of her portable press when she was startled nearly out of her wits by a male voice, deep and resonant.
"Good day, miss. I trust you found all the flowers you desire?" She could not fail to catch the trace of sarcasm in his voice.
Katherine stood up so quickly she nearly lost her balance. Heart pounding and mouth suddenly dry, she relaxed a trifle when she discovered a nonthreatening gentleman watching her. At least he did not have a stick in his hand, nor did he frown at her like an irate landowner. A tall, slender man possessing an excellent form and rather nice gray eyes, he sent her heart thumping for reasons other than fear. Dark-brown hair tumbled over his brow in heedless disorder, negligent but engaging.
"Yes," she said frankly, doing her best to ignore her peculiar heartbeats. "This place has the nicest flower-gathering spot for miles around; the cattle cannot munch them for dinner and few ducks or geese seem to be around." Then she observed a large tan dog gamboling about the edge of the pond. Gabriel serenely paddled to the center of the water, keeping a careful eye on the dog. "Usually."
"You come here often, then?" He ignored the dog, who was yapping at the goose, concentrating his attention on Katherine, to her increasing discomfort.
"As often as weather permits and I can get away. There always seems so much to be done, you see." She darted a cautious glance at Gabriel. He kept a prudent distance from the dog. Katherine had no real fears for the large goose, for he was quite able to defend himself in a contest.
"Weather?" The man glanced up at the clouds that had gathered overhead since Katherine left Cambridge to jaunt out to the countryside.
"Oh, dear." She looked at the sky, noting how dark the clouds had become. "I'd best be going. I fear I get preoccupied when gathering blooms." She placed her neat collection of pressed flowers on a rock, then marched off to the pond to collect her feathered friend. "Gabriel, we must head for home now. Come." She snapped her fingers and succeeded only in bringing the tan dog to her side. She glanced down to note its curious eyes and sighed with disgust. Turning to the stranger, for whom, oddly enough, she felt not a shred of fear, she requested, "Please call your dog so that I might get my pet from the pond. Gabriel is not precisely afraid of the dog, but does prefer to keep a good distance."
"Hector," commanded the man.
The animal ignored his master's summons. Rather, the dog jumped up on Katherine, grinning at her. Normally this would not create a crisis, but she stood on the slippery bank of the pond. His weight was all it took to throw her off balance and into the water.
"Oh," she cried, her arms waving frantically, as over she went. The cold water engulfed her with a sudden shock. Had she actually wished she might have a bath in this frigid liquid? She bobbed to the surface of the shallow pond, then waded to the rim with great difficulty. Pond weed and long grasses combined with her gown to tangle about her legs, making each step an effort.
Then she noticed the man. The wretch tried not to laugh, with little success. He was standing not far away, his shoulders shaking with mirth at her predicament. At his heels the dog peered around those elegantly long legs encased in nankeen pantaloons and polished boots to cast a worried look at Katherine.
She gave the man?no gentleman could behave thus?a derisive glare, then tried to pull herself up the bank. Between her clinging, sodden skirt, the slippery grass, and the distance from the pond bottom to the bank, she was lost.
"You might at least give me a hand," she muttered through clenched teeth while grasping at the slippery grass. Her earlier opinion of the man was abruptly revised. He was not kindly in the least.
"If you promise not to pull me in with you, I might." The teasing note in his voice failed to favorably impress the young woman in need of help.
"You think me such a rudesby as that? I assure you that I, at least, possess some manners." Her lofty tone of address was somewhat marred by her bedraggled appearance. Mercifully she had no mirror at hand to see the effect of her plunge. Several strands of pond weed clung to her once-pretty yellow muslin, while one green string hung down from her hair to add a bizarre touch to her untidy coiffure.
Cautiously the man offered his hand. It was well-shaped, strong, and more than able to provide her with purchase on the pond edge. Katherine welcomed his warm touch, not to mention leaving the cold water.
When she at last stood a short distance from the pond, she called to her goose, hoping that for once he would not take a notion to become the haughty creature he sometimes fancied himself. "Come, Gabriel," she called. She shivered as a breeze whipped about her, raising duck bumps on her tender skin.
"Here, you are taking a chill," the stranger said, suddenly aware of her condition. His gaze traveled over her slender form draped in wet muslin. "Best ignore the bird for the moment. Come into the house and I shall see that you get dry."
Katherine shot him a startled look, wondering where he lived. Glancing behind her, she recalled the cozy house behind the church that stood on the property. She turned in that direction, only to find his hand staying her.
"This way, please."
He was leading her to the great house. Katherine stopped in her tracks, a feeling of dread slipping over her. "Who are you?"
He ignored her question. "I assure you that my sister is in residence with me, so all will be proper. Actually, you might be a welcome diversion. I fear she is still in a melancholy following the death of her husband two years ago. The sight of you with pond weed draped about you could cheer her immensely."
"Thanks, ever so much," Katherine muttered in a soft aside. Then she repeated her question, her suspicions having grown considerably since the first asking.
When he still failed to reply, she voiced her own conclusion. "I suspect you are Lord Ramsey. And I very much fear I am trespassing on your property."
They were over halfway up the broad path to the house. Lord Ramsey had picked up Katherine's pressed flowers. He now glanced at the awkward parcel the press made, then at Katherine. "If you do no worse than pick a few wildflowers and allow your pet goose a swim, I daresay there is no problem. I do not mind in the least. Come, now, before you catch your death of a cold, or worse."
Realizing he was being most sensible, for she felt truly quivery, Katherine obediently followed along, a rising excitement at actually going inside the imposing hall beginning to take hold of her. She had seen the place from a distance a great many times. Never had she thought to view the interior.
They hurried up broad steps to the terrace. He guided her to a French door that led into a small saloon. Just outside the door Katherine paused to wring out some of the water from her gown, hoping Lord Ramsey would be gentleman enough to look the other way. When she glanced up, he was staring off toward the tower. A smile lurked about his lips that made her wonder a trifle.
He held open the door, ushering her inside as though she was a proper guest. As it closed behind them, a gentle rain began to fall. Katherine glanced outside with dismay. How was she to get home in her little cart without another soaking?
"Philip, what have you done?" A woman who looked to be somewhere in her thirties crossed the room to stand at Katherine's side, giving her a look of sympathy mixed with a tinge of amusement. She was of medium height with dark-brown hair much like Lord Ramsey's. Katherine thought that, for her age, the lady looked rather attractive.
"I found her near the Gothic Tower and she is mine. I lay claim to all the strays that wander onto the land, you know." He grinned, and Katherine did a sudden reversal in her opinion of him once again. He had an entrancing smile. And those gray eyes sparkled with devastating effect, even if he spoke airy nonsense.
He reached out to touch Katherine's pert nose, coming away with a speck of green on the tip of his fingers. "I believe nothing short of another bath, this time a proper one, will do the trick. The pond weed has gone to seed and you are covered with green spots. Looks like a rare case of the green measles," he said solemnly, that twinkle peeping out once again in those rather nice eyes.
The woman chuckled. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Gisela Cheney, Lord Ramsey's sister. You seem to have a severe effect on his memory and manners."
Katherine shot a cool look at her savior. Then she turned to face Gisela again, adding, "I am Katherine Penn. My father is a professor at Trinity College."
"You are creating puddles on the floor," Lord Ramsey inserted?a bit nastily, Katherine thought. "We had best hustle you up the stairs before Mrs. Stedman has an attack of spasms."
Contrite, for she well knew the effect of water upon wood, Katherine followed the others across the saloon into what appeared to be a breakfast room, through another door, and up a flight of stairs.
"This once was an open courtyard until my father decided to turn it into a plunge bath," Lord Ramsey announced. "You may elect to take a shower bath if you prefer, although I suspect that nothing short of a total immersion will do the trick properly. I shall leave you to my sister's tender mercies." Turning to his sister, he added, "I trust you can find something for her to wear."
"Leave her to me," Gisela replied, her amusement still clear in her voice.
Katherine thought she heard him murmur something to the effect he would much prefer to do the job himself, but that had to be nonsense. A gentleman such as Lord Ramsey would never say something like that.
The plunge bath was a delightful little room with a lofty ceiling. Katherine cautiously walked down the curved staircase until she reached a narrow stone shelf.
"I shall leave you to your ablutions. Here are several towels for when you come out. If you will place your gown near the steps, the maid can tend to it later." Gisela gave Katherine a warm smile, then added, "Do enjoy yourself."
By the time the door closed behind Mrs. Cheney, Katherine had discarded her ruined half-boots and dipped a toe into blissfully warm water. From what she knew about plunge baths, they were infrequently used and the water only changed periodically. But this water was still warm, so someone had filled it recently.
She hastily peeled off her wet garments, then ran down the remaining steps into the bath to submerge herself. What a difference from the pond! The warm, silken water caressed her body in a sensuous flow as it rippled about her. She dived beneath the surface to cleanse her hair of the green seeds, then lazily splashed about from one end to the other of the immense tiled bath. One could grow to adore this sort of thing quite easily, she decided. Perhaps she might even learn to swim.
She could well understand why the boys from the university loved to jump into the Cam from Sheep's Green or Coe Fen. Her brother confessed they swam in the nude, a situation accepted by one and all, and a scene assiduously avoided by proper young ladies.
She left the bath with great reluctance. How heavenly to loll about in warm water in such privacy. If she possessed such a delight, she would spend time in it every day. Lord Ramsey probably used this bath, she reflected. The image of a naked male flashed before her. Katherine shook her head to rid it of such an improper vision. One might find it impossible to ignore the Greek statues viewed occasionally, but a true lady did not consider their likeness to a living male.
Wrapped in the luxury of a Turkish towel of a size such as she had never used before, Katherine cautiously peered around the door at the top of the stairs. Across the room a fire blazed away in the hearth. She hurried to it, warming her now-chilled body. The door opened and she looked up with a trace of alarm. While she doubted Lord Ramsey would return, it was not impossible. She did not know him, after all.
Mrs. Cheney entered with a pretty blue muslin gown over her arm, together with an assortment of underclothes. A pair of blue morocco slippers similar to ones Katherine had eyed with longing while shopping dangled from one hand.
"I believe these will fit, for we are of a size. I am not as slender as you, but I daresay it will make little difference. As soon as you are dressed, come through the door on your left to my room."
It took but a short time to slip on the pretty clothes loaned to her. Shortly Katherine, feeling very strange and not a little awkward, opened the door. There was another short flight of stairs, most likely used by the servants. Making her way to the top, she opened the door to find herself in a small room. Beyond this sitting area or possibly a writing room was a bedroom decorated in pink. Mrs. Cheney hurried through to join Katherine when she heard the door click shut.
"How charming," Gisela commented, studying the effect of blue muslin combined with corn-gold hair. "Let me see what I can do with those curls."
A half-hour later the two women, grown much closer through the efforts of drying and arranging Katherine's hair, retraced their steps to the saloon.
Lord Ramsey rose from his chair to greet them as they entered. "Still raining out. You must stay here until you may safely return to town. If I may be so curious, how did you travel out here?"
Katherine gave him a wary look, wondering how he might feel about her donkey tied up beneath the oak tree. The silly animal would most likely be grazing his head off in delirious abandon.
"Donkey cart," she replied.
He nodded. "1 noticed there are few horse-and-carriage rigs about town."
"The doctor has one," she offered, before recalling that Lord Ramsey most likely possessed an elegant carriage with a pair of magnificent horses to boot, if not several.
Katherine blushed, something she rarely did, at the amusement in his voice. "It is not a very large town and there is little to do unless you count a trip to the market as something exciting."
"Is there not a fair coming up shortly?" Mrs. Cheney queried.
Animation returned to Katherine, bringing a natural pink to her cheeks. "Yes, indeed. Sturbridge Fair comes near the end of September. We actually get three weeks of drama then. I wonder the residents can bear it."
"They still allow no plays to be performed during the rest of the year?" Lord Ramsey asked.
It was a topic dear to Katherine's heart and she waded in with less than her usual caution. "Aside from the few plays put on by students for students, there is no theater. I long to see a play acted in a real theater someday. This year we hope for something a bit different." Then she realized precisely to whom she spoke, and abruptly ceased.
"Yes?" Lord Ramsey settled back in his chair to study the delightful young woman perched on the sofa opposite him. Her rich gold hair, now free of pond seed, was a wispy halo about her head. Those speaking blue eyes conveyed far more than she realized. That pert nose tilted up even when she glanced down, and her mouth ... My yes, her mouth was a sweetly curved pink bud when she compressed it as she did now. Said more than she'd intended, he'd wager.
"Well," she temporized, "do we not always hope for something a bit different?"
"I, for one, look forward to some entertainment. The country becomes dreadfully dull after a time." Gisela tossed her brother an apologetic look. "Not that your hospitality lacks, Philip. However, this is not London."
"I thought we came up to rusticate a bit," he replied dryly.
"And so we did. I am persuaded Miss Penn could be of help if we chose to do a bit of entertaining. Does one encounter trouble with precedence when dealing with the university officials?" Mrs. Cheney artfully inquired.
Katherine gave her a rueful grimace. "Indeed. The heads of houses rank by the dates of the founding of their respective colleges. In Trinity, after the master comes the regius professor and the other professors according to the dates of their chairs. I have a terrible time recalling whether Greek or Hebrew takes precedence. They are very touchy about it, should one get mixed up. Father seldom has dinner parties, and then fortunately confines the men to ones who are easy to peg."
"Only men?" Mrs. Cheney countered, smiling a little at this delightful girl.
Here arose another of Katherine's peeves. "I cannot believe that in this day and age the fellows and professors are not permitted to marry. Only the provost, the regius professor, perhaps one or two others, all most ancient."
"It sounds as though you find one of the younger fellows rather appealing," teased Mrs. Cheney.
Since this was precisely the case, Katherine blushed a delightful pink again and refused to answer the gentle query. "Well," she managed to say, "it means they must find a good living and give up the university post, which many find difficult to do. Rarely is it possible to combine the two." She darted a look at Lord Ramsey, knowing full well he had it in his power to grant three of these livings.
"You have several livings in your disposal, do you not, Philip?" Mrs. Cheney's eyes conveyed her amusement and curiosity.
"Yes, my dear, all well occupied at the moment."
Katherine had hoped that perhaps one of them might have recently become vacant. While Michael Weekes showed no inclination to move in the direction of a church living he might combine with his fellowship, Katherine aspired to such for him. The other fellows eagerly discussed the possible vacancies so that they might earn sufficient to support wife and family. All except Michael.
A plump country maid bustled in at that moment carrying a tray with a plate of tiny sandwiches and a steaming pot of tea.
"Good," Gisela said approvingly. "Nothing like tea to set things to right. I am certain you shall feel more the thing after a restorative cup, my dear."
Katherine hid a smile behind her hand. Mrs. Cheney sounded most motherly. Katherine wondered if she had any children, but hesitated to ask. It could be a painful subject if she had wanted children and had none.
"The rain has stopped," Lord Ramsey observed.
"So it has. I suspect it will take some time to dry your gown, however," Gisela added to Katherine. "Such a tiresome thing, laundry."
"I ought to go," Katherine said in a subdued voice. She had relished that simply marvelous bath, and had thought it a great treat to know such luxury as being fussed over and waited upon, if only for a brief time. She was not eager to depart.
"Does anyone ever call you Kate?" Lord Ramsey inquired in a desultory manner, as though he was only mildly curious. Katherine gave him an affronted look. "Certainly not."
"What does your brother call you?"
Giving a sigh that might be interpreted as being long-suffering, Katherine replied sedately, "Kitty."
"Hm. Feline. Yes, I can see that."
"Philip," declared his sister, sounding shocked. "What a thing to say to a stranger."
"Oh, not quite." He flicked Katherine an intimate smile that sent shivers down her spine. She recalled how she must have appeared when she crawled from the pond, her gown clinging to her body in an indecent way, exposing every curve and angle of her from head to toe, including a bosom she considered indelicately bountiful.
Swallowing nervously and thinking that Lord Ramsey had a most peculiar effect on her, Katherine said, "Occasionally things happen that speed up the process of becoming acquainted." At his look of amusement, she wondered what she had said that brought that expression to his face.
"Since you are interested in the theater, you must see Philip's collection of memorabilia. Did you know we have our own stage at Fairfax Hall?" Mrs. Cheney said.
Katherine stared at Lord Ramsey, eyes wide with surprise. "Really?" Melly had never mentioned this in her gabbling about the hall. "I truly ought to get home," she murmured with halfhearted propriety.
"You run the house for your father? Dear girl, what a charge on your shoulders. I know, you must come another day and spend some time looking over the theater and Philip's collection. Perhaps your father would care to view the library? And do not worry about your gown. I am certain we can arrange to return it to you once it is dry. You know the humidity during rainy weather."
"It stopped some time ago, Gisela," reminded Lord Ramsey in a dry aside.
"Yes, well, I feel Miss Penn knows very well what I mean, having to tend to a household," Mrs. Cheney concluded.
Katherine rose from the sofa, extending her hand first to Mrs. Cheney. "Thank you ever so much for looking after this very bedraggled girl. I have no doubt I would have caught my death had I not had that marvelous bath and dry things to put on, not to mention that excellent tea."
"You enjoyed the bath, did you? I do, too. Soothing?in a sensuous way." Lord Ramsey smiled, raising one eyebrow.
Katherine's mouth went dry at his look. She suddenly decided it was far better that she escape from this house and that man, than to remain talking with his lovely sister. Lord Ramsey cut up her peace of mind far too much. Why, he completely drove Michael from her memory. Kate, indeed. Did he believe her an incipient shrew who needed taming?
"Good day, Lord Ramsey. And thank you for your kindness." She was taken aback when he uncurled himself from his chair and made to follow her out the door. " 'Tis not necessary to go with me, sir," she protested.
"Nonsense," he replied. "I must see how you get that goose back to the cart. Is it quite docile?"
Feeling more at ease discussing an impersonal topic, Katherine nodded. "Usually. He enjoys a ride in the cart so I anticipate little trouble. I expect he has had a glorious time paddling about in the pond."
"Bring it again."
"Tomorrow," inserted Mrs. Cheney promptly. "Come for tea at two in the afternoon. Do bring your father as well."
"Gisela, did I ever do this to you?"
"No, dear, but then you did not need to, did you?"
At sea as to what they meant, Katherine stepped from the saloon to the attractive stone terrace, then headed toward the pond. The first thing to do was retrieve Gabriel.
Lord Ramsey appeared at her elbow, seemingly bent on assisting her in her quest. This time, the goose came promptly, evidently having consumed its fill of pond seed and other delicacies.
When they reached the cart after a leisurely stroll?for Gabriel refused to be hurried?Katherine paused and curtsied politely. "Again, I thank you for your gracious hospitality, Lord Ramsey. It was exceedingly kind of you to be so good to someone who, after all, trespassed."
"Not at all. Stray, perhaps, never trespass. You will come tomorrow, will you not? Do not permit my sister's somewhat whimsical sense of humor to put you off."
"I shall with pleasure, sir." His sister was not the only one with a frivolous wit. Katherine thought of how envious the beautiful Melly would be at a second invitation to the hall, and smiled. It was nice to have this special treat even if his lordship made her feel all quivery inside.
"I intend to learn more of your interest in the theater." After undoing the reins from the tree and handing them to Katherine, he turned to leave. Then he paused, adding, "And do not forget what I said about strays."
With that puzzling remark he strode off toward the hall, his long legs eating up the yards in a hurry.
Katherine sat in quiet bewilderment for a moment, then absently urged the donkey to a trot. Scattered drops of moisture cascaded down from the beech trees as she continued down the lane to the main road.
At the turning, her face cleared as she recalled what he had said to his sister earlier about strays. Any that wandered onto the land was his. So where did that place her?