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The young woman summoned to the library couldn't have been far away, for she appeared at once in response to her father's request. Her gaze was questioning, but she merely said, "You wished to see me, Papa?"
"Tabitha," the rector intoned in his kindly manner, "Baron Latham has a project to place before you. He would like your assistance to catalogue a collection of books he has acquired. I expect you will be only too pleased to assist him." There was no question in his voice. He assumed she would do as suggested without hesitation.
Hugh, Lord Latham, watched as Tabitha Herbert stood meekly before her father, listening to the proposal offered her. She had placed her hands behind her, but her chin tilted upward as if in challenge. The light from a window gave Hugh a good look at her porcelain skin, sweetly curved lips, and soft blue eyes that flashed with hidden thoughts. The sun picked out highlights in her silver gilt hair. He'd never seen hair so unusual and beautiful. What, he wondered, was going on behind those glittering eyes? His only interest in her was her ability--should she actually have such. His hopes were not terribly high.
Tabitha clenched her hands behind her. She dared not look at Baron Latham--the Black Baron! She was being offered a position to catalogue his acquisition of books, nothing more perilous. Merely because she thought the baron aloof and too conscious of his title was no reason to deny herself the pleasure of dealing with his books. His dark hair and eyes had made him seem somewhat sinister, especially with his air of reserve. Now he appeared almost cordial. He was not at all like his former neighbor, the late Baron Rothson.
ClearlyBaron Latham couldn't find a man to do the job or she would never have been asked. She loved handling books. To have access to a great collection was more than she had ever anticipated coming her way. If she chanced to glance at him, he would see the gleam of hope in her eyes. It might be as well if he thought she was doing him a favor--perhaps even reluctantly. She was meticulous in her care. Working for him would not be easy; he would demand much.
Little had she dreamed that her penchant for reading would bring her into the proximity of the man she'd dubbed the Black Baron. He was a mystery, his dark eyes revealing nothing. Yet he was a polished gentleman, one to admire.
She had watched from a distance as he had added to his home--wings to either side of the central block. It was said that one wing was a picture gallery, the other a library. She didn't care much about the pictures, but she ached to have access to that vast library. And now she could!
"I would be pleased to assist the baron with his books." She was surprised at how calm she sounded, quite as though she was agreeing to help with something ordinary.
"How soon could you come?"
Tabitha pretended to consider the matter. "I could come tomorrow if it is agreeable with my father." She glanced at Papa, not the least surprised at his answering nod. The baron had contributed handsomely to the new roof on the church and Papa appreciated his support.
The baron rose from his chair by the fire, said all that was proper, casually informing Tabitha what time she would report come the morning, and left the room, brushing past Tabitha with a tantalizing trace of scent.
Crossing to the window, she watched him mount his splendid black horse, then canter down the drive. His estate stood at the far end of Rustcombe. While Tabitha didn't disdain his vast and beautiful park and the handsome buildings, it was the man who intrigued her. What went on in his head? What thoughts lurked behind his dark eyes?
He was a tall, dark, romantic figure, the dashing sort of man Tabitha often daydreamed about. Her sisters teased her about her fanciful notions, laughing with sisterly affection at her love for dramatic tales and Byronic heroes. The Black Baron had often figured in her dreams.
The following morning she was ready to leave the rectory far too early. Her mother examined her appearance with a tolerant eye while Tabitha fiddled with the neat white bundle she carried.
"I see you are being sensible. While that is not a dress you might wear to tea, it will do for unpacking books, I dare say." She met Tabitha's hesitant gaze.
"I shall put my apron on once I am in the new library." Tabitha held up the small white bundle for her mother to see. "I fear I cannot spare any dresses."
"We shall be able to afford several new gowns for you, my dear. It will not do for you to be seen at the baron's home looking like a servant!"
"Well, I suppose I might be considered in the light of one, you know. I have no illusions, Mama. Just because my sister has married exceedingly well does not mean I nurse ambitions to marry the baron."
"What will be, will be, dear child."
"Mama, I am nearing twenty years of age." Tabitha smiled fondly at her mother. It must seem odd to her that only her youngest remained at home when merely months ago the house was full of feminine chatter. Even her brother Adam stayed away, enjoying an end to his studies. He said he wanted to look around his father's ancestral village, perhaps even meet the famous Earl of Stanwell.
"I wonder if I shall eat luncheon alone, and where?"
"While I have it on good authority that Baron Latham has no more than seven and twenty years to his dish, I am quite certain he will have better manners than to allow that. Perhaps he may wish to consult with you regarding the arrangement of the books?" Mrs. Herbert eyed her daughter with speculation and not a little hope in her gaze.
"It is far more likely that I will have need to consult with him, and only about the books." Tabitha's voice and manner was dry, as was her mouth. Her nerves, while usually strong, were on edge. "Best not to nurture any hopes, dear Mama. I doubt the baron has the faintest of matrimonial thoughts in his head. If he does, they would be far more likely to go in the direction of Lady Susan Booth." With this Tabitha turned to stare out of the front window in the direction of the road.
"True." Mrs. Herbert had to acknowledge the reality of that remark. But she did so with a regretful sigh. Lady Susan was the daughter of an earl. She was lively and pretty, and her father's land marched with the baron's property on the far side. She was the most appropriate candidate for his wife.
The baron had said he would send a carriage for Tabitha, knowing it likely the rector would probably need his. There was as yet no sign of any vehicle. She would have to make it clear that she intended to be at work early in the day, not waiting until noon!
"I intend to ask the mantua-maker to bring a selection of fabrics over. You do need at least two new dresses."
Tabitha gave her parent a fond smile. "I think a nice greenish-blue, perhaps a yellow like moonlight, or I should think a lovely plum India mull would be nice."
"I shall see what may be had. I do not expect much, but we have some lace left from what your sister sent. I trust you will be at hand for fittings at the very least?"
Tabitha nodded. "Evenings free, for certain. I doubt I would ever work late--the light, you know. And weekends as well. The baron always attends church."
The smart curricle that turned into the rectory drive was not being driven by a groom. Baron Latham handled the reins with expert ease. She had not anticipated that he would come for her, and in his dashing new curricle!
Darting an anxious look at her mother, Tabitha made her way to the entry hall. She would not keep her new employer waiting. She opened the door, prepared to leave at once, only to be foiled. He nodded, then brushed past her to stride across the hall to where her mother stood.
He bowed over her mother's hand before saying, "I wish to be clear that Miss Herbert will have a woman around her at all times. There is no danger of her being compromised while in my house, ma'am." A faint smile curved his lips.
"I expected nothing less, my lord," Mrs. Herbert said in a practical voice and manner.
Tabitha was glad that her parents had become so accustomed to dealing with titled people that a mere baron had no power to overset them. Nothing would be worse than to have a parent fawning over a gentleman who was inclined to be as reserved as Baron Latham.
He turned to Tabitha. "If you are ready to leave?" He gestured gracefully to the open door beyond which awaited his curricle.
Tabitha nodded and marched ahead of him, keeping her thoughts to herself. But for him to act as though she kept him waiting when it had been his notion to assure her mother that all would be proper was so much nonsense.
Accepting his hand, she climbed into the curricle, then sat with demure patience while he strode around to join her. She said not a word. If he was going to be so pompous, so top-of-the-trees, she had nothing to say.
They rode along in silence, with only the sound of the horse clopping on the hard road and the jingle of the harness to disturb their peace.
Hugh was thankful to have recalled that the rector or his wife would wish to be assured their daughter would be quite safe in his house. He wouldn't have had that worry if a man were coming to catalogue his books. This entire business was becoming fraught with complications he had not heretofore considered, one of which was her beauty.
It was Crowder who had murmured a few words to reassure the baron that all proprieties must be observed. The raising of his butler's wispy brows and the meek folding of hands across his portly form reminded Hugh as nothing else might of what was due the rector's daughter.
Crowder had remarked upon the excellence of the rector's connections as the nephew of the Earl of Stanwell. She was of fine gentry, not some nonentity.
Still, the young woman at his side exhibited no signs of coquetry, indeed, none in the least. The thought that he might not merit such irritated him for a moment, then he sensibly decided that she might truly be bookish and not inclined to flirtatious nonsense.
"What have you read of late?" he inquired in a manner to depress any thoughts of charm had she cherished such.
"I read a travel guide to Switzerland. The Countess of Stanhope lent it to me. She supplements my reading, you see. Papa tends to buy very learned tomes. They might be uplifting, but a novel occupies the time more agreeably. I enjoy novels. Have you read Pride and Prejudice?"
Hugh admitted he had not had the pleasure. He thought he might look into the book, however. If the rector's girl thought it worthwhile, perhaps it might be of interest.
"You are interested in travel?" he inquired, turning to a safe topic. Somehow novels spelled danger.
The topic of world travel and where they might like to venture occupied them until they turned up the grand avenue that wound through the well-landscaped park to the house.
Tabitha gave the noble house an admiring look. The new ells gave it a grand appearance. Stately columns added to this look, as did the fine stone and splendid set of steps. She waited while a groom ran to stand by the horse while the baron strolled to her side of the curricle to assist her. She thought it quite handsome of him when he might have turned her over to a servant without a qualm.
The stout butler opened the front door in a rather majestic manner. She had seen him at the rear of the church after services so she happily nodded to him and inquired how he was in her usual manner.
"This is Crowder. He will take care of anything you may need." The baron sounded disapproving of her geniality.
So, Tabitha thought, she had been right. She would see little of the elusive baron. Well, it was fine with her. She did not need the distraction he was sure to offer.
She was escorted into what appeared to be a music room to their left, then on through to the vast library beyond.
The library smelled faintly of paint and newly laid carpet. There was an imposing walnut desk at the far end of the room, situated so the person who sat there might have the satisfaction of surveying the room's entire contents.
Tall, many-paned windows were set between the book stacks. Several of them appeared to be doors, opening onto the terrace. She approved of the crisp white paint on the shelves, so easy to keep clean. A vast number of wooden crates littered the fine multicolored Axminster carpet.
"I shall leave you to begin as you see fit." The baron bowed with exquisite manners, then disappeared the way they had entered, leaving her to stare at the unopened crates.
Tabitha took a deep breath before turning to Crowder. "Could someone help me pry the lids from the crates? I question whether I could attempt it."
"Naturally, Miss Herbert." He sailed from the room to return shortly with a small, spare little man who had a pry bar in hand. In short order Price, as he was introduced, had all the crates opened and ready for her.
It was then the enormity of her project really hit her. There were hundreds and hundreds of books in those crates. Maybe over a thousand! Could she use the system she had used for her father?
"Oh, dear me." Her softly spoken words fell into the silence of the room like omens of doom. "Well," she said briskly, "the first thing is to unpack them all, then sort by author and topic. Following that..." She gave a frowning look at the many crates and the modest collection of books that were already on the shelves. "Well, I shall cross that bridge when I get there. If I ever do," she concluded with less optimism than she had felt yesterday.
A plump little maid slipped inside the door, seating herself on a wooden chair while trying to look unobtrusive.
Tabitha glanced at her, then realized this must be what the baron meant when he told Mama that Tabitha would be chaperoned. "You may as well make yourself useful if he thinks you ought to be in here," Tabitha said dryly.
"Yes, miss." The maid cautiously made her way around the crates of books, giving them the awe and respect that a reliquary would deserve.
"I want you to take the books from this crate one at a time, and hand them to me. I will begin to create piles according to my system." She didn't need to explain her system. Indeed, she wasn't entirely certain what system she would end up using.
Meow. The sound came from the open door, causing Tabitha to pause. She turned to see a handsome cat. Suspicious green eyes stared at Tabitha with mistrust. Its gray and white fur fluffed out as it took exception to the intrusion of a stranger into its domain.
"That be Septimus, his lordship's cat."
"I daresay it was the seventh kitten?" Tabitha gave up her attempt at humor when the maid gave her a blank look.
"Well, I be told peers do favor odd names."
The cat wound its way carefully around the various crates until it reached Tabitha.
She gazed down at it, somewhat unnerved by the unblinking green gaze. "Good morning, Septimus. I trust you shall not find any mice in these crates. That is, if you deign to hunt for such creatures."
"That be the kitchen cat what hunts for mice."
Tabitha half smiled. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me, given his expression of lofty disdain."
The cat settled down precisely where Tabitha wished to walk, necessitating a detour to the other side of a crate, now half unpacked.
They kept at it at a steady pace. But when Crowder entered to request that Miss Herbert follow him to have her nuncheon, only one crate had been emptied, a second barely begun. Clearly, this would take longer than she expected.
Tabitha removed her white muslin apron, smoothed her hair, and then followed the portly butler. He led her along the central hall to a charming yellow dining room.
The baron stood by the window, staring out at the view beyond. Tabitha glanced out of the window to note that no flowers were to be seen, only a great variety of shrubbery and trees. A masculine scene, to be sure.
"It is a soothing view, is it not? Every shade and tint of green imaginable as far as you can see." Tabitha gave him a hesitant smile, not wishing to seem forward, but wanting to be at least mildly friendly.
His turn was abrupt and he looked at her as though he couldn't quite place her for a moment.
Tabitha suppressed a grimace. "I beg your pardon. Crowder said that nuncheon was to be served." She stood her ground, refusing to retreat from this intriguing and somewhat intimidating gentleman.
The baron cleared his throat, then gestured to a simple chair. The unpretentious table sat near the windows, decked in crisp white linen with attractive china set for two. Tabitha was not to eat alone--at least not today.
"Tell me how you go on," he invited after seating her, seeming to unbend a little, his dark eyes hooded.
"I do not imagine I have to tell you that there are an enormous number of books in those crates." Her words were cautious, not wanting to receive that blank look again.
"I suppose so," he answered politely. "I was not given a count. I trust all the books I purchased were delivered." He spoke with the assurance of one who was accustomed to being treated with all due deference.
"Perhaps there is an inventory list in one of them?" She hoped there was. It might give her an idea how the previous owner had arranged them on his shelves.
"I'd not thought of that. Let me know if you come across one, will you?" He spoke absently, as though his thoughts were elsewhere. Yet, he watched her.
Tabitha assured him she would do precisely that, then fell silent as Crowder and his minions served a light but delicious meal. If this was a sample of his nuncheons, it was unlikely he would become fat. The clear soup had a delicate flavor she found pleasing, while the rest of the meal was an equally subtle blending of tastes and textures. The baron was definitely a man of discriminating taste.
She didn't venture into another attempt at conversation. There appeared to be a gulf between them that would be difficult to bridge. If a gentleman had come to do this work, they would likely have had something to discuss.
"You like gardens?" he inquired, again rather abrupt.
"I do. Although, I confess I like flowers better than shrubbery. Do you have any topiary? I have seen a few and admire them. That would fit in with your shrubbery."
"You know, I have seriously thought of attempting a topiary garden. What do you suggest I have done first?"
Tabitha glanced down to where Septimus sat by the window, looking quite as aloof as his master. "A cat?"
"A crouching cat or one sitting up?"
"One of each," she said with an impish manner.
He also looked to where the cat sat and grinned. Tabitha was stunned at the charm of that grin. He became a different person when he smiled.
He smoothed his expression to one of politeness and replied, "I shall have a worthy model at any rate."
"What happened to the other kittens--seeing that Septimus is the seventh."
"Primus is now the kitchen cat, being--I am told--an excellent mouser. The others found homes-elsewhere."
"I'm glad. Septimus seems a proper cat for a lord, being rather lordly himself." She had spoken without consideration for her choice of words. When he withdrew she scolded herself for her lack of tact. Apparently what she had said was wrong. Well, she could scarce apologize, for she thought her sentiment quite acceptable.
The baron smiled, albeit a bit restrained. "I imagine you are right. Now, I have an appointment with my bailiff so if you will excuse me?"
"Naturally." She turned in her chair to watch him leave the room, his tall figure rapidly disappearing.
Once alone, she consumed her pudding while deep in thought. "This will never do, my girl," she admonished. "It would be far better were you to eat alone by the books than disturb his peace." And hers as well!
Hugh strode along the hall to the rear of the house, then down the stairs to the small office where he met with his bailiff. He was early, so he stared out at the green view, wondering if he ought to attempt a topiary. She thought a cat to begin. He was trying to maintain a proper distance, but the appealing young woman didn't make it easy. He would strive to keep busy.
Although--he supposed he ought to check on her at least once a day? He nodded, satisfied he had the answer before turning to greet Jamison as he entered.
"Jamison, what do you think of doing a topiary?"