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Surrender Becomes Her
By SHIRLEE BUSBEE
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Shirlee Busbee
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDevon, England Spring, 1808
"That woman!" Marcus Sherbrook snarled in tones of ill-concealed temper as he paced the library of Sherbrook Hall.
His mother looked up from her embroidery, a faint smile on her lips. "I presume you are speaking of Isabel Manning?" At his curt nod, she asked, "And what has poor Isabel done now to put you in such a taking?"
Stopping his perambulations before one of the long windows of the library, he stared out at the impeccable expanse of grounds, garden, and wooded area. April was a lovely month in England and this April was proving to be no different. The roses were budded, some blooming; pansies in a bright array of purple, yellow, blue, and white turned their sweet faces up to the sun; and in the distance he could see the white and pink clouds of blossoms that ringed the apple trees in the orchard.
It was a tranquil view, a view worthy of a wealthy gentleman's estate, the carefully planned garden and woodland rolling out serenely to meet the undulating Devon hills green with spring grass. Normally he took pride and satisfaction in the view but not today. Today, Isabel had managed to once again disrupt his orderly life and he wished, not for the first time, that having made a runaway match with Hugh Manningthirteen years ago and blithely sailing away to India that she'd had the good sense to stay there.
Marcus's fists clenched at his sides, a faint memory of searing anguish sliding through him. He never again wanted to feel the ripping pain he experienced when he realized that it was true: Isabel had run away and married Hugh Manning. He'd been dazed, full of disbelief when he'd first learned the news from her agitated uncle, Sir James, but as the truth had become known, something deep within him, some fragile emotion he hadn't been aware of, shriveled and died. Fury had come later, and he had spent several months after Isabel's marriage hating her and damning her to hell. Eventually, his own good common sense had asserted itself. In command of himself once more, he reminded himself calmly how much he had loathed the guardianship and in time convinced himself that he was quite satisfied with the way the affair had turned out. His tiresome ward was safely married to an honorable man; her fortune was in Hugh's capable hands and they were half a world away from him. Where she should have damn well stayed, he thought bitterly.
Marcus winced. He wasn't being fair and he knew it. One would think, he admitted, in the decade since Hugh had died and Isabel had returned to England, her two-year-old son toddling at her side, that he would have become accustomed to Isabel living right under his nose. He hadn't, and he'd discovered almost immediately that the easiest way for him to deal with Isabel's disruptive presence in the neighborhood was simply to ignore her. It wasn't hard for him to do. At any social affair that they both attended, after doing the polite thing-and Marcus was always polite-he promptly disappeared into the card room set aside for the gentlemen. He did not reappear until time to bid his host good night, and if his mother had accompanied him, and she often did, escort her home. He had also become adept at avoiding any small gathering in which he would come face-to-face with Hugh's widow. He couldn't explain his tactics, but he wasn't unaware that it had something to do with the gaping wound her marriage had caused him. Stunned by the depth of pain he'd felt at that time, he was determined to never feel that way again, which meant he kept Isabel as far away from his well-ordered life as possible.
Avoiding Isabel Manning had become habitual for him and it helped that he was frequently out of the area, sometimes gone from home for weeks or months at a time. Unlike Isabel, whose movements were hampered not only by the simple fact that she was female, but by her son's need of her as well, Marcus could and did come and go as he pleased. He was most comfortable in his own home but he often traveled to visit friends and relatives and even undertook the occasional brief trip to London when it suited him.
One of his favorite places to visit was the home of his cousin, Julian, the Earl of Wyndham and his charming countess, Nell, and their growing brood of children. Another of his cousins, Charles Weston, lived near Julian and, while there had been some constraint between Charles and Marcus in the past, these days he found Charles's company very agreeable. In fact, he had returned not long ago from attending Charles's wedding to a charming young lady in Cornwall. Everyone who knew him agreed that Charles's marriage to Daphne Beaumont would be the making of him. After the wedding, while most of the guests had departed, Marcus, Julian, and Nell had remained at Beaumont Place for an extended visit with the newlyweds. Thinking of that visit and what they had uncovered in the bowels of the ancient house, once a Norman keep, caused a ripple of unease to pass through him. There had been some ugly events that he would not ever forget, and as for the ghosts ... He shook himself. Here at home, surrounded by the calm and familiar, the normal, Marcus wondered if his memory of what had transpired during those last days of his visit wasn't a bit faulty. Living at Beaumont Place, with Charles and Daphne insisting it was true, it had not been difficult to believe the place was haunted by a pair of ghosts, but staring out at the sunny expanse before him that belief was shaken. Did he really believe in such things? Spirits of the dead capering about? Ghosts floating mistily in the air? Before his visit to Beaumont Place he would have sworn not, but ...
A sudden vision of Isabel's vivid face flashed across his mind. She wouldn't have hesitated a moment in believing that Beaumont Place was haunted. She would have enjoyed immensely grappling with ghosts and such. He almost smiled as he pictured the excitement that would have glittered in her eyes but then he remembered that he had a grievance with Mrs. Hugh Manning and scowled. Why the devil couldn't she stay out of his life?
She'd hated being his ward and he'd not found the experience an unalloyed pleasure either. At least when she'd returned to England and stepped off the ship from India a decade ago, he reminded himself, she hadn't been his responsibility any longer. In those days old Lord Manning had had the joyless task of dealing with her fits and starts and thank God for that, he thought with suspect piety.
Of course, Manning didn't consider having Isabel and her son underfoot a burden. Their arrival, Marcus admitted, had probably saved the baron from simply wasting away with grief. Through a series of dreadful events, Lord Manning lost his eldest son, Robert, and his son's pregnant wife in a boating accident and then, not four months later, news of Hugh's death in India reached him. The letters, each with their terrible news, had likely crossed each other on the ocean. The old man had been shattered and Marcus feared his will to live had died with his two sons.
Isabel and Edmund's return to England had brought about a remarkable change in Lord Manning. Though grieving over Robert's death and Hugh's demise from a cobra bite while in the back country of India inspecting goods destined for the East India Trading Company warehouses in Bombay, Lord Manning had been beside himself with joy to welcome Hugh's widow and only child into his home. Isabel's fortune would have allowed her to live where she pleased, but there had never been any question of her living anywhere but at Manning Court with her late husband's father. She'd wanted to return to the neighborhood of her youth, and her son, Edmund, was the elderly baron's heir and sole link with his dead son; he adored the boy. And there was no denying that Edmund was the very picture of his father at the same age. Marcus's expression softened and his mouth twitched. And as charming a blond-haired, blue-eyed scamp as he'd ever seen, he thought affectionately.
When she wasn't disrupting his well-ordered life, and putting aside the tragic loss of her husband, Marcus considered Isabel's return to the neighborhood ten years ago a happy occurrence for his neighbor. Like a welcome spring breeze, she and Edmund had swept into Manning Court and pushed out the crushing sadness and heavy shadows that would have, no doubt, sent Lord Manning to the grave. Within weeks of her arrival, there was a spring in milord's step once again and a twinkle in his faded blue eyes and Marcus was grateful for that. He scowled. But he bloody well wasn't grateful for Isabel's unwarranted intrusion into his carefully arranged life!
"Are you going to tell me what Isabel has done?" asked his mother, interrupting his thoughts, "or are you simply going to stand there glaring out the window?"
"I was not glaring," Marcus said austerely. "I was merely admiring the view."
"Of course you were," his mother agreed, smiling. "But tell me: what has Isabel done now to put you in such a taking?"
He sighed, his anger dissipating "It's that horse of hers-Tempest. He jumped the fences, the same fences I have warned her needed to be raised if she was going to keep a stallion in that paddock, and I found the beast this morning sporting with a half dozen of our mares. Worse, Jasmine, the chestnut with the wide blaze that I intended to have bred this afternoon to Nonesuch, had already fallen to his charms. It's possible Tempest may have covered another mare or two, there's no telling at this point."
His mother kept her eyes on her needle. "I seem to remember, oh, years ago, you mentioning that you wished you'd bred him a few more times before you sold him to Isabel when she returned from India."
He shrugged. "I would have, but once she returned to England, I didn't have much choice but to turn him over to her-immediately!"
"Well, it was the only fair thing to do; after all, she did discover him first."
"I know that, Mother," he said dryly. "I would have suggested she buy him from me myself once she settled into Manning Court, if she'd given me a chance to do so."
Something suspiciously like a giggle escaped Mrs. Sherbrook. "If you could have seen your face when she found out you owned him and stormed in here accusing you of stealing him while her back was turned."
Marcus grinned. "She was in rare form, wasn't she? I had to feel the top of my head afterward to make certain I still had hair and that I hadn't been scorched bald."
Selecting a pale green thread, his mother rethreaded her needle. "What did she say when you told her about Tempest, ah, sporting with your mares?"
His lips thinned. "She was not a bit sorry or contrite! Looking down her nose at me, she very graciously told me that if any of the mares turned up in foal that she'd be happy to either buy any mare that became pregnant from Tempest's, ah, visit or the foal when it was weaned-whichever I preferred."
"And you told her?"
He sent his mother a look and this time she did giggle. "Oh, Marcus! If you only knew how happy I am to know that something can shake the stuffiness from you."
"Stuffy!" he exclaimed, ruffled. "Why is it that just because I don't flaunt a different opera dancer on my arm every week, habitually drink myself under the table, gamble my fortune away, or spur my horse up the steps of the chapel, that everyone thinks that I am a dull fellow? Is there something wrong with preferring a calm, well-ordered life? Or something deviant to liking peace and tranquillity and seeking not to have one's life constantly in an uproar?"
He looked so mystified that Mrs. Sherbrook shook her head in despair. Her tall, handsome son was nearly forty years old, and even she thought it unnatural that he had never caused her a moment's despair. There had been no wild scrapes or daring romps even when he had been a young man. He had been ever affectionate, courteous, and dutiful and could be depended upon to do the right thing and keep a calm head in the midst of crisis, for which she was devotedly thankful ... most of the time. He was a son to be proud of, and she was. Very. The problem was that she rather thought that he should have, at least once in his life, thrown caution to the wind and plunged into some sort of scandalous escapade. Not so very scandalous, she reminded herself cautiously, just enough to add a little excitement to his life and shake him from the staid, stolid path he seemed destined to follow. When he continued to stare at her with that same mystified expression, she admitted, "No, there is nothing wrong with wanting the familiar. And I am truly blessed that you have never caused me to hide my face in shame. Quite the contrary, I have always been very proud of you, but Marcus, you are not in your dotage. Yet you have always behaved and acted like someone twice your age." Almost wistfully she asked, "Have you never wanted to escape from the humdrum of country life? Ever longed for adventure or felt a need to kick over the traces and leave behind the common, the routine?"
"Are you saying you want me to be a libertine?" he demanded incredulously. "Shall I set the neighborhood gossiping by risking life and limb by racing my curricle against the mail coach and fill the house with rakes and gamesters and squealing bits of muslin while you hide yourself away upstairs to avoid being accosted in your own home? A fine fellow I should look!"
"No! Oh, no," cried Mrs. Sherbrook, horrified by the image he conjured up. "Of course not," she said more calmly a second longer. "It is merely that you have always been such a good son-I could not ask for one better-but your father's death when you were so young and the responsibilities it placed on you ..."
"I was twenty-three, Mother, not a schoolboy." He smiled at her. "Old enough to know my own mind. If I had yearned for the delights of London there was nothing stopping me from enjoying them." He grinned at her. "And I have from time to time. Enjoyed them immensely." He sat down on the sofa beside her. Taking one of her hands in his, he kissed it. "Mother, why is it that you, everyone-Julian and Charles included-find it so hard to believe that I am quite content with my life?" he asked, puzzled. "Understand me: if I were not, I would change it. You must believe me when I swear to you that I enjoy living in the country. I even enjoy escorting you on your yearly trek to London for the Season and-"
"And you hotfoot it back to Sherbrook Hall just as soon as you decently can," his mother murmured.
"Guilty! But the whirlwind of parties and balls that so appeal to you bore me to death. And as for chasing after opera dancers or playing deep in some hell on Pall Mall or drinking myself under the table ..." He snorted. "Those rakish pastimes have never held any allure for me." He smiled whimsically at her. "Don't you see-I'm content with my life."
Her gaze rested thoughtfully on him. "I don't know that I'd want to settle for 'content,' if I were you."
"What? You would have me miserable?" he teased. "Dissatisfied? Unhappy?"
She sighed inwardly. Marcus was everything a mother could hope for: affectionate, generous, honorable, a most worthy man, but ... One could be too worthy. Staring at him, her heart couldn't help but swell with love and pride. He was tall and broad-shouldered, yet leanly built, and she knew he commanded attention whenever he entered a room. Women admired him; she'd seen the speculative glances sent his way, glances he wasn't even aware of, she thought dispiritedly. But for all the attention he attracted, he was not traditionally handsome. His features were too bold, his jaw and chin remarkably determined, but the frankly carnal curve of his full bottom lip made the female of the sex forget about those imperfections and dwell on the implicit promise of that tempting mouth. His mother often thought it a shame he hadn't inherited the color of her own emerald eyes, but looking into those intelligent gray eyes his father had passed on to him, she was not displeased; they were striking in his dark face. But for all the intelligence in those gray eyes, he couldn't see that there was something very wrong about a handsome, virile man being "content" to live the life of a monk, buried in the country! Her gaze narrowed. Of course, she could be wrong about the monkish part; her son, for all his virtues, was hardly likely to tell her if he kept a mistress in town.
Excerpted from Surrender Becomes Her by SHIRLEE BUSBEE Copyright © 2009 by Shirlee Busbee. Excerpted by permission.
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