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Grey Neville reined in his big bay gelding, taking cover in the shadow cast by an ancient chestnut tree. From that natural concealment he could survey the scene before him without revealing himself. What he saw delighted him--the bright summer sunlight, the varied hues of meadow grass and wildflowers--but the most striking thing in view was the woman.
Barefoot, in country dress, her mulberry-color skirts unencumbered by hoops or petticoats and kilted up to her knees, she was dancing for her own pleasure, reveling in the incandescent perfection of the day. Her light brown hair was unbound, its sun-kissed curls nearly reaching her slender waist. She had no inkling that anyone was watching her, no suspicion that she'd utterly captivated her nearest neighbor.
She made him think of long nights of debauchery.
She made him yearn for his own lost innocence.
Part of him actually envied the quiet, carefree life she must lead here in rural Berkshire. She had a much older husband who doted on her. She had freedom. Peace. And even, in spite of her abandoned behavior in the meadow, respectability.
Startled by his own thoughts, Grey's gloved hands tightened on the reins. Here was an opportunity to enhance his much vaunted reputation as a seducer of women. Why was he hesitating?
The vague, unfamiliar stirring of a conscience made his lips twist into an ironic smile. How inconvenient. This was no time to allow himself to tire of playing the role of dissolute courtier, not when he was so successful at it.
He watched a moment longer. Folly and weakness, he thought. He had no business coveting what belonged to hisneighbor.
With genuine regret, Grey rode away from all the temptations embodied in Mistress Meriall Sentlow.
Two years later
Meriall Sentlow had no choice but to walk the two miles of winding country road between her own home and neighboring Neville Hall. The horses had already been sold to pay the first of her late husband's debts.
A hint of autumn was in the air, and the trees she passed were displaying a palette of brilliant colors, but Meriall did not notice. She was intent on her mission. Neither her determination nor her brisk, sure strides, however, could dispel the awful quaking she felt inside. If Sir Grey refused to help her, she did not know what she would do.
Surely he would help.
She knew already that he was in residence, that he'd arrived from London two days earlier. News spread quickly in rural Berkshire.
It had been Sir Grey's scheme to back a privateering voyage of the ship The Green Rose. He'd talked Humphrey Sentlow into joining his venture, into investing so heavily that Humphrey's death had now left his widow in a perilous financial state.
Meriall did not want charity. She had a proposal to offer that might well make Sir Grey Neville much richer than he already was.
When the manor house finally came in sight she squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and walked a little faster.
Neville Hall was modest for such a house, built early in the reign of King Henry VIII. It stood on a long, narrow, cresting hill, all red brick and timber, surrounded by an impressive display of outbuildings and land. Meriall counted two barns, an ox house, a hay house, and a stable.
Her gaze followed the slope of garden and orchards and saw, in the distance, the wood that divided Sir Grey's property from Sentlow land. Her journey would have been shorter had she come across the fields and through the trees, but because she wore the full trappings of mourning, and a farthingale to hold out her skirts, she'd been obliged to take the road. It offered marginally less treacherous footing, and fewer brambles for her clothes to catch on.
Sir Grey's steward caught sight of her as she crossed the cobbled courtyard and he hurried forward, intent on stopping her from going in. "Mistress Sentlow, you should not be here," the man protested.
Resolute, she kept on. Nothing, no one, was going to change her mind.
"I know that a widow is expected to remain at home." She kept walking toward the door and deliberately misinterpreted the reason behind his concern. "But it has been some weeks now since Humphrey died and I find I must consult with Sir Grey on an urgent matter of business."
"He may not be up yet, madam. That is, he--"
"I understand you perfectly." She glanced at the sky, noting that the sun was almost at its zenith. "If Sir Grey has not yet risen from his bed, then I will wait in the house until he has done so. It is essential that I speak with him today."
Certain that none of Sir Grey's servants would dare lay hands on her, Meriall moved on. The housekeeper was the next to appear. Twisting her hands in her apron, the elderly woman gawked open-mouthed, searching in vain for words to ward off Meriall's advance. She beat a hasty retreat when Meriall brushed past her and, uninvited, entered Neville Hall.
The interior was a surprise to her. It was plainer than she'd expected, with few trappings of wealth, and it appeared to lack a great hall. Meriall started toward a stately stair that led to an upper story shrouded in shadow. If Sir Grey was not still abed, he'd likely be in the gallery or the parlor, both of which doubtless lay above.
"'Tisn't right you be here, Mistress Sentlow." The old woman's worried eyes and fussy voice reinforced her opinion as she hurried along in Meriall's wake.
"I am a widow, not some innocent maid. I doubt I am in any danger from your master." She was well aware of Sir Grey's notorious reputation where women were concerned, but she had come here on a matter that could not be put off.
"Wait in the parlor, then, madam," the housekeeper begged. "Let me warn Sir Grey he has a visitor." She led Meriall into a large, sparsely furnished room and went off. Meriall hesitated only a moment before she followed.
The old woman, unaware that she was not alone, trotted past the open door to a disused chapel and rapped at a door that was closed. When she entered Sir Grey's private study, Meriall was close at her heels.
"Widow Sentlow is here," the housekeeper announced.
"Tell her--" Sir Grey Neville broke off at the sight of Meriall, already in the room. "Never mind, Mary. That will be all. Good morrow, Mistress Sentlow."
"Good afternoon, Sir Grey," she said stiffly.
He did not rise, but remained seated behind a walnut writing desk. Glowering at her, he looked every bit as dissipated as Humphrey had always said he was. He was dressed informally, his shirt open at the collar. His thick, curly brown hair was uncombed, falling across his brow in waves a woman would envy. That disarray and his unshaven countenance and bloodshot eyes gave him an uncivilized air. The single jade earring he wore only added to Meriall's impression that he was a dangerous man.
"Madam?" His soft, deep voice drew her eyes to his mouth. Hastily she glanced away, steadying her nerves by staring for a moment at the linen-fold panels behind him.
"I am busy, Mistress Sentlow," Grey Neville said. "State your business and be gone."
For the first time Meriall realized that there was a second man in the room, standing in the shadows near a bookcase. A tall, almost cadaverously thin fellow with a swarthy complexion, he was more carefully and completely dressed than his host but looked just as world-weary. From Sir Grey's appearance and from the careful way he moved, she'd already concluded that he must have spent the previous night overindulging in drink and other debauchery. She did not allow herself to contemplate what kind of orgy these two men together might have devised, or what sort of women they'd enticed to join them.
"I need only a moment of your time, Sir Grey, but may we not speak in private?"
The stranger gave a nasty, insinuating laugh.
"I think not," Grey replied.
That decision seemed to provide additional amusement to the other man. Meriall concentrated on Sir Grey, though, refusing to let herself be discouraged before she'd even presented her case.
In terse, soft-spoken sentences, she outlined her present difficulties. "And so," she concluded, "my husband's death has left me with debts that must be paid before The Green Rose is likely to return from her voyage to the Indies. I have come here, Sir Grey, to ask you if you will buy his shares in the venture from me."
"You have wasted your time, Mistress Sentlow. I have more than enough shares of my own."
"As a neighbor, I hoped--"
"It was neighborly of me to allow your late husband to invest. My obligation extends no further."
"Sir Grey, I--"
"If you meant to appeal to me next on grounds of kinship, I will spare you the trouble. I can do nothing for you."
Meriall sent him a startled glance. "Kinship? How could I? You and I are not related."
"Ah, but we are. I've had reason of late to consider that very subject." He toyed with the heavy signet ring he wore. Meriall's eyes narrowed. He seemed to be speaking as much to himself as to her when he added, "By the church's convoluted reasoning, relationships by marriage are equivalent to those of blood."
"Lady Dixfield," Meriall said after a moment. "She is the only connection I can think of between your family and mine."
The very name seemed to make him wince. "Aye."
She was beginning to think that too much drink had addled his wits, though she could well understand why thoughts of his stepmother, Lady Dixfield, whose first of three husbands had been Sir Grey's father, might make him shudder. The dowager was a most formidable personage.
"By her marriage to Arthur Sentlow my stepmother gained the same relationship to Humphrey Sentlow that Arthur had, that of cousin. At the same time I became, by affinity, Arthur's son, and thus Humphrey's cousin, also. When you married Humphrey, you likewise became my cousin."
"But Humphrey and Arthur are both dead."
"Death alters nothing, nor do subsequent marriages." Annoyance suddenly sharpened his voice. "If you cannot contrive to manage your household and pay your debts alone, madam, then I can only suggest that you remarry without delay."
"I have neither the need nor the desire for another husband." Meriall was pleased that her own irritation did not show in her voice. "I had hoped you might help me dispose of an asset in order to settle my accounts. Since you were the one who convinced Humphrey to invest in the first place, it followed that you have faith in the profitability of the voyage. You could reap even greater profits if you were to combine my shares with your own."
Sir Grey's scowl made his view on this proposition obvious.
Then the other man, whose presence Meriall had all but forgotten, stepped out of the shadows to join them. He swept off his plumed bonnet, revealing thinning sand-colored hair, and made what passed for a bow in her direction. As he straightened, his gaze raked over her with insulting slowness.
"Might I offer a suggestion?" he asked.
"No," said both Meriall and Sir Grey in unison.
"But, if she does not want a husband," the fellow said with a suggestive leer, "mayhap she will accept a protector. You could do worse, Neville. She's comely enough. Or I--"
"Enough, Collingwood." Sir Grey started to rise at last, winced, and sank back down.
Jackass, Meriall thought. Imbecile. She was unsure herself as to which man she meant.
"When you're through with her," Collingwood continued, including them both in his sneer, "I would not mind taking a turn."
There seemed nothing left to say. Wearily, Meriall mustered what remained of her dignity and turned to go, avoiding eye contact with both men. She would not beg for the wherewithal to keep her home. Neither would she prostitute herself.
This time she cut through forest and field, and well before she'd reached Sentlow land Meriall had conceived an alternate plan for her survival. Sir Grey himself had given her the idea. It was not without flaws, but it did have one shining advantage. It did not involve accepting assistance from any man.
Seven months later
With the aid of a stout walking stick, Lady Dixfield circled the long narrow gallery where she regularly took her exercise.
"Reputation is a fragile flower," she proclaimed as she passed the spot where her stepson stood.
Sir Grey Neville frowned, uncertain of how to reply. His stepmother had ordered him there, to her house in the exclusive Blackfriars district of London, but she had yet to give him any reason for the summons. She'd keep him in suspense a while longer, he suspected, taunting him with thinly veiled hints of what was to come. He'd learned long ago the folly of trying to guess what she was plotting. Eventually, she would come to the point.
While he waited, Grey's deceptively casual survey took note of every detail of their surroundings, from the wall of tall windows to the elaborate pierced screen at the far end of the gallery to the colorful cushions scattered here and there on the tiled floor. With a sense of self-mockery, Grey silently acknowledged that in his slashed doublet of white satin and his high-crowned French hat, he himself was an elegant addition to the decor. On occasion, Lady Dixfield invited him to visit solely for the purpose of showing off the well-dressed courtier in the family to her friends.
The dowager baroness came to an abrupt halt and turned. Facing Grey head-on, she stood directly beneath her own portrait, one of several that hung against the linen-fold paneling and on top of the tapestries that graced the gallery's inner wall. Both the painted woman and the real one were resplendent in widow's weeds, the sumptuous black broken only by the brilliant white of a large ruff, small wrist ruffles, and a long strand of pearls. As when she'd posed, Grey's stepmother wore a tightly curled red wig in imitation of Queen Elizabeth. Beneath the wig, in a far less deliberate imitation of the monarch, Lady Dixfield's hair was also grizzled and thinning.
Blue eyes several shades darker than Grey's flashed indignantly as she glared at him. "You, Grey," she announced in peremptory tones, "must take steps to remedy a situation that has grown well-nigh intolerable."
Though she was small of stature, and almost birdlike in appearance, Grey knew the dowager's delicate features masked an indomitable will. Whatever it was she wanted from him, she would not be easily dissuaded.
"Your reference eludes me, madam," he said cautiously. "You must speak plainly and tell me what remedy you mean."
"Marriage." She jabbed her walking stick in his direction to emphasize the word.
Grey winced. "Juliana's marriage, I presume."
That was the only conclusion that made sense to him in light of Lady Dixfield's enigmatic remark about reputation. Juliana Hampden, the younger of Grey's two stepsisters, had returned to her mother's house in Blackfriars only a few days earlier and already there were whispers at court.
A peculiar look came over the dowager's heart-shaped face as she resumed her pacing. Her walking stick struck the tiles sharply with every step, a sure sign of increasing agitation.
It was obviously Juliana, Grey decided, but if Lady Dixfield thought he was going to repeat gossip--unfounded speculations as to the reason Juliana had so precipitously left the country house where she'd been visiting friends--she had misread him. Grey had no wish to create further difficulties for Juliana and it was possible the dowager as yet knew very little yet about her daughter's scandalous behavior in Staffordshire.
"I do not see how I will be able to help," Grey said. "Juliana has already refused to wed Edmund Upshaw and I cannot say I blame her. Young Upshaw's idea of a pleasurable evening is to spend four hours penning some obscure legal treatise."
"Do not speak disparagingly of the law, Grey. Your own father studied at the Inns of Court. If he be competent, a barrister can earn above six hundred pounds per annum, equal the income of a well-run farm of a thousand acres. Juliana could do far worse."
Grey glanced at Sir George Neville's portrait, an inferior piece of work done posthumously, a short time after Grey's father had been slain in the Battle of Saint Quentin. Grey himself had been a child of three at the time and barely remembered his sire.
Arranged alongside that painting were likenesses of the queen and of Lady Dixfield's two subsequent husbands, each of whom had left her a wealthier widow than she'd been before. The third had been a baron, and for years after his death the dowager's driving ambition had been to marry both of his daughters to peers. Unfortunately, unmarried noblemen were in short supply. The queen had elevated only a handful of men in the peerage during her entire reign, and at present England boasted not a single duke. Lady Dixfield had been obliged to settle for a pair of wealthy Welsh gentlemen with a trace of Tudor blood in their veins. Celia Hampden, Juliana's older sister, had already agreed to a match with the elder brother, but Juliana had stoutheartedly insisted she wanted no part of the younger.
Impatient tapping sounds brought Grey's wandering thoughts back to the matter at hand. His stepmother had reached the far end of the gallery and turned at the screen. Kicking an elaborately embroidered cushion out of her way, she bore down on him again. The faint scent of lavender came with her.
"Enough of Juliana. It was not to discuss her prospects that I sent for you."
"No?" Grey hid his surprise, affecting an air of boredom and toying idly with the single jade earring he always wore.
"You are the one who must marry," Lady Dixfield informed him. "The time has come to find you a bride."
She paused to gauge his reaction.
Although Grey's expression continued to betray nothing more volatile than disinterest, the gallery suddenly seemed overwarm to him, as if all the heat of the afternoon sun pouring through its many windows had pooled in the place where he stood. With an effort, he managed to sound far less taken aback than he felt. "I see no reason why I should rush into wedlock."
"No reason?" Lady Dixfield's delicate eyebrows lifted in disbelief. "Is it not enough that you will soon he nine and thirty? You must give thought to getting an heir."
The hypocrisy behind her words astonished Grey, though he supposed he should no longer be surprised at anything Lady Dixfield said. She'd been extorting money and favors from him for years, holding the threat of exposure over his head whenever he refused to cooperate. Her previous demands, though, had been for things he could grant with little personal sacrifice. This time she asked too much. He was not prepared to take a wife just to appease his stepmother.
Though it was difficult to hide his growing annoyance, Grey maintained his moderate tone. "There's time enough--"
An impatient gesture with the walking stick cut him off. "Your time has run out. You have led a life of idle pleasure for far too long, careless of your good name."
Grey choked back a cry of outrage at that charge. His good name had long been in her keeping. Ever since she'd first revealed the truth about his birth, he'd lived with the possibility that she'd trumpet his secret shame to the world.
Lady Dixfield acted as if she had not noticed the anger in his eyes. "Now there must be an accounting," she continued. "I have some knowledge of your finances, Grey. You are perilous close to disaster."
"I have investments," he objected. "I'll not go begging." More than that he could not say without giving away the scheme he'd set in motion months before. If all went as he hoped, he had only to be patient a little longer in order to be able to free himself from Lady Dixfield's clutches.
"You have a spendthrift nature and a liking for fine things. I do not blame you for this, but I say again that the time has come to take a wife. You need the infusion of money a wealthy bride will bring."
"And sons, madam. Do not forget the sons."
A sense of irony filled his heart, but he did not allow it to spill over into his voice. Only the clenched fist, carefully held behind his back, betrayed the depth of Grey's emotions. After all this time, he knew his adversary well. The last thing he could afford to do was reveal just how much this new demand infuriated him. He'd spent years establishing a reputation as a complaisant fellow, inclined to take the least difficult way out of any situation. It was in character to balk at the suggestion of marriage, but he must be careful not to refuse absolutely. Above all else, he must not lose his temper.
Self-interest motivated everything Lady Dixfield did. Knowing that, Grey could easily see the advantage to her in his immediate marriage. If he wed a great heiress, the whole family would benefit. The new Lady Neville's first task would then be to help Lady Dixfield secure a rich husband--Upshaw, or someone better--for Juliana.
"Well?" the dowager prompted, annoyed by his lengthy silence. The walking stick tapped ominously against the leg of a nearby chair.
"I do not wish to wed any woman."
A pregnant pause followed this statement. Then Lady Dixfield made a delicate snorting sound. "Do you tell me you prefer boys?"
He almost laughed aloud at the idea. "I assure you, madam, that is not the case."
Grey liked women and liked them well. He wondered that his stepmother had not heard rumors of the way he spent his time at his house in Berkshire. He'd have expected Meriall Sentlow, until lately his neighbor there and now the dowager's waiting gentlewoman, to tell her new mistress just how notorious his lavish entertainments were in the area. Apparently the Widow Sentlow was not given to gossip, for had she ever described even one of them, Grey was sure that his stepmother could not have thought to question him about boys, not even in jest. Boys! Grey permitted himself a small chuckle.
Lady Dixfield gave one satisfied nod. "I am glad to hear it. Well, then, you can have no serious objection to wedding and bedding a suitable young woman."
"None save a strong disinclination to burden myself with the responsibilities of a wife."
"Reputation, Grey. Remember how easily one may lose it."
Once more the thinly veiled threat that she would ruin him hung in the air between them.
"I believe Celia can help," Lady Dixfield said after a moment, taking his silence for capitulation. "I will write to her now, and you will deliver the letter to her at Whitehall on your way home to Canon Row." Her lips curved into a cold smile. "I have been thinking that one of the other maids of honor--"
"You know as well as I do that the maids cannot marry without her royal majesty's permission," Grey interrupted, "not even Celia."
The matter of Celia's nuptials was a sore subject with Lady Dixfield. Celia's wedding had been postponed again and again simply because Queen Elizabeth disliked change, especially within the ranks of her maids of honor.
Ignoring the barb, the dowager sat down at her coffin desk and opened the drop front, creating a sloped writing surface and revealing a series of long narrow drawers. She took paper from one coffin, a quill pen from a second, and ink from a third, and began to write.
Grey gritted his teeth, biting back a spate of too-hasty words. He needed to think. No purpose would be served by provoking a violent quarrel with his stepmother.
While Lady Dixfield penned her letter, Grey moved as far away from her as possible, to the end of the gallery that looked down on a small, peaceful garden. Bathed in the clear, bright sunlight peculiar to an English May, two women strolled along the winding paths, talking together with earnest concentration.
His stepsister Juliana was the taller of the two and had to stoop slightly to converse with her companion.
In spite of the fact that she took after her father, inheriting Lord Dixfield's height, his long, horsy face, and his prominent nose, she more than made up for her physical plainness with her style of dress. Today her gown was a brilliant, flame-colored taffeta with a low-cut bodice. Her thick chestnut curls tumbled freely down her back.
Just as everything about his stepsister's appearance proclaimed her unmarried state, the other woman's clothing told anyone who looked at her that she was a widow. At first Grey regarded Meriall Sentlow with only mild interest. She was swathed in black, from the simple, high-necked gown to the stiff silk hood that almost completely concealed her hair. The only hints of color Grey could discern were a tinge of pink high on her cheekbones and a narrow band of light brown hair, parted and pulled back, between her forehead and the front edge of the hood.
Looking more closely, Grey noted that she was slender and of middling height. He already knew that her complexion was pale without being pallid, and unscarred, and that she had fine, regular features, but he found he could not recall the color of her eyes.
He'd watched her once, he remembered, years ago. She'd had no idea he was nearby. She'd been dancing in the meadow that lay between his Berkshire estate and Sentlow land. At the time, Grey recalled, he'd noticed that she possessed as trim a pair of ankles as any he'd ever seen.
With that sharp flash of memory, a possible solution to his immediate problem began to materialize in Grey's mind. He smiled as he concluded that there might, after all, be a simple way out of Lady Dixfield's matrimonial trap.
The dowager completed her letter to Celia and sealed it with a lump of wax and her heavy signet ring. "This will make my wishes clear," she declared, examining the imprint of a bundle of banded arrows.
Grey remained where he was, his gaze fixed on the garden below. He contrived to inject a note of plaintive longing into his voice. "'Tis pity Meriall Sentlow has no great wealth. If I must marry..."
Indignant at the very idea, Lady Dixfield clumped toward him with the aid of her walking stick as he let his voice trail off. "You'd be a fool to consider a match with her! Bad enough you and Humphrey Sentlow both invested in that ill-fated trading venture. You must not compound the error by marrying his impoverished widow."
Grey kept his voice low and pensive, hiding the pleasure he found in taunting his foe. At the same time, he strove to give the impression that he had devoted many hours of thought to the matter of Meriall Sentlow's future. "The Green Rose is a privateer and she may yet return to port. Mistress Sentlow will be a wealthy woman. My profits, combined with hers, could keep us in luxury for years.
All amusement vanished when Lady Dixfield aimed a sharp look in his direction. "There is that to consider."
Had he miscalculated, inventing a sudden passion for Meriall Sentlow? Was his stepmother so anxious to see him wed that she'd break with custom and push a widow into remarriage after less than a year of mourning? Meriall Sentlow attracted him, it was true, but Grey had no desire to be bound to any one woman forever. He repressed a sigh of relief when Lady Dixfield voiced further objections.
"It is not just her present poverty that argues against her. Think on this, Grey. She was married all those years without conceiving a child. You must look for a younger woman, one who is not only rich but fertile."
Deliberately provoking, he said, "Mayhap the trouble was with the stallion and not the mare."
For a moment he wondered if he had gone too far. Lady Dixfield's heats were notorious, and just now Grey knew he lacked the patience to suffer through one of those infamous tirades in silence. A thunderous scowl added more lines to those age had already inscribed in her face, but in the end she chose to ignore Grey's comment. To discuss Humphrey Sentlow, even to defend him, might cast doubt on the manhood of his cousin Arthur, Lady Dixfield's second husband. Arthur had not succeeded in fathering children, either.
Grey said nothing as he made some rapid mental calculations. The crafty old bird had disliked this avowed interest in Meriall, but already she was reconsidering, tallying the advantages in such a match. If Grey did remain childless, he might be expected to name a son born to Celia or Juliana as his heir. Lady Dixfield's posterity would not lose by it if he begot no offspring.
If the dowager was as adamant as she seemed on this matter of his marriage, Grey knew the best he could hope for was a reason to delay the nuptials. He had only to persuade Meriall Sentlow to cooperate and he'd have gained several months, at least until the anniversary of her late husband's death. That should be more than enough time.
By the end of the summer he expected everything to be in place to assure an honest income. Then Lady Dixfield's threat would cease to trouble him. She could expose his secret to the world and be damned. He'd retire to a life of blessed anonymity in rural Kent and never be troubled by the demands of kin, or court, again. Grey had long since admitted to himself that he was looking forward to that time of blissful rustication.
"I see I cannot sway you on this matter," he told Lady Dixfield with an exaggerated sigh that was meant to convey resignation. "Let me have the letter, then. If I cannot have the widow and must go a-hunting maids of honor instead, then I'd as soon begin without delay."
Lady Dixfield placed the thrice-folded parchment in his outstretched hand and made no further comment. She was still mulling over all he had said, no doubt wondering how serious he'd been with his suggestion that he marry Meriall Sentlow.
A courtly bow hid the sardonic smile that flickered across Grey's face as he made his exit. He would indeed begin without delay, but not at Whitehall.
A few seconds later, safely out of Lady Dixfield's gallery, Grey allowed his smile to broaden. His stepmother never seemed to realize that he did not leave her house immediately upon departing her presence. From the moment he'd arrived, Grey had been eagerly anticipating the usual conclusion of one of his visits to Blackfriars, his customary reward for having survived yet another session with the old tartar.
Instead of descending the winding stairs, Grey went directly to the small room that had once been the late Lord Dixfield's refuge, the place he'd gone in order to escape his wife's nagging. Lady Dixfield herself rarely used this chamber, though she left standing orders that it be kept clean. Grey was not at all surprised to find the room had been dusted and aired while he'd been in the gallery, or that Lady Dixfield's maidservant was still within.
"Good day to you, Sir Grey." Nan Blague's familiar voice greeted him cheerfully as soon as he opened the door.
She was waiting for him by the window, posed so that the sunlight danced on her honey-colored hair. Those luxuriant locks were one of Nan's finest features, and she'd already removed the white linen coif that usually covered them. Grey did not blame her for wanting to be rid of that cap. The front border hugged her face, forming two unflattering peaks on either side of her forehead, and the whiteness of the fabric served to emphasize her rather sallow complexion.
His eyes went first to the bountiful tresses, then followed the flowing curls downward to an ample bosom that strained against the confines of the pale blue bodice she wore. The laces were already loosened.
Nan Blague was the sort of woman Grey had always preferred. He'd discovered early in life that females from the lower classes were more to his taste than those of gentle or noble birth. He had little use for self-important maids of honor or bored courtier's wives or even well-to-do young virgins.
Quietly, he closed the door behind him and turned the key in the lock. What Nan offered was uncomplicated. She expected nothing in return but an occasional trinket. Better still, she wore no troublesome farthingale to impede him. He'd only to lift her simple servant's kirtle and chemise and fumble with his codpiece.
Grey was not sure what stopped him.
The wench was willing. They had time enough and privacy. This window did not even overlook the garden where Meriall Sentlow walked with his stepsister. Still, when Grey reached Nan's side, he did not embrace her. Instead, he dropped a platonic kiss on her brow.
"I've an errand for you, Nan."
"Now. Send Mistress Sentlow to me here. You'll find her in the garden with Juliana."
Nan replaced her coif with such excruciating slowness that he had time to notice how her pout destroyed any vestige of prettiness in her face.
His hand landed sharply on her rump to hurry her along. He'd made his decision and he was anxious to set the wheels in motion. Nothing else could go forward until he saw how Meriall Sentlow reacted to his proposal.