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"Drat," Harriet murmured as a cloud drifted to obscure the bright, early-summer sun. She glanced upward, absently taking note that the cloud was rather dark and most likely promised rain.
Turning back to the project at hand, she forgot about a possible wetting to concentrate on the lovely example of a blue gentian. The least she could do for her dearest aunt was to make her watercolor rendition of the bloom as accurate as could be. Aunt Cornelia wished her collection of wildflower paintings to be as complete as possible. As she said, she could identify any plant, she simply couldn't paint a blue gentian--or anything else--to save her life.
When dearest Aunt Cornelia offered a home and warm welcome, Harriet had eagerly accepted and had not had even one sorry moment. Except ... there had been a dearth of gentlemen her age in the area. Either the men were too old or too young, or like the lanky, bespectacled fellow who had a tendency to tag along when least wanted. He had desired to go with her today. After catching a glimpse of Harriet's momentary expression, Aunt Cornelia firmly banned such a notion, saying, "Harriet does not like to be distracted from her painting."
Pleased that he might be considered a distraction by anyone, the poor fellow went, at least for the present. That sort never gave up.
It had been kind of her aunt to extend an invitation to stay with her while Harriet's sister Charis and her new husband sailed off on their honeymoon. Marcus issued her an invitation to join them, but Harriet didn't think she could stand their mooning about all hours of the day. If ever she fell in love with a gentleman, she would be more circumspect forcertain.
Mama was available, of course, but Harriet didn't have the heart or inclination to impose herself on her newly wed mother. That dear lady was deeply involved in redecorating her new home, to the general's delight. Harriet was so overjoyed to see her mother alert and interested in life again after the death of Harriet's father that she felt her own presence quite unnecessary.
The first drop of rain fell just as Harriet applied the final touch of shadow to a fringed blue petal. Hastily gathering up her painting equipment and the still-wet completed blue gentian, she dashed madly for the nearest structure, a storage barn.
Inside, it was dry and clean. The hay from last year was almost gone, and the barn awaited another crop. Dust motes floated in the air, bits of hay littered the rough wood floor, and the structure had the air of waiting ... for something. It was rather removed from the main house and outbuildings. The estate manager said it was useful, being so handy to the road and all.
Harriet spotted a small wooden shelf upon which she could safely place her materials. She knocked something to the floor as she did. Curious, she picked it up, examining the object with a frown. It was a pretty little thing made of wood, and elegantly carved. She held it while brushing raindrops from her old percale dress.
Suddenly she heard a sound, the soft mewling of a kitten. So this was where the kitchen cat had gone to produce her litter! Scrambling up a ladder providentially leaning against the loft, Harriet was entranced to see three balls of gray fluff nestled close to the mother cat. The cat gave Harriet a superior look, as though demanding admiration for her offspring.
Harriet tucked the little carved box inside her bodice, then crouched down to examine her discovery. How very dear the little ones were--blue eyes peering at her with trust.
"Katy-cat, I'll be most careful of your children," she confided to the concerned mother. She suited her words with actions, scooping up one kitten with gentle hands to admire the little one, murmuring soothing words to mama cat all the while. Was there anything so precious as a tiny kitten?
Cuddling the ball of gray to her bosom, she lightly ran a finger over it before she heard the noise. Someone was coming.
Harriet froze in place. A horse and carriage dashed along the narrow lane. They slowed, stopped at the open barn door. Within moments, someone led that horse and carriage right into the barn! Who?
Doubtless the driver wanted shelter from the rain. But since this was a lane that went nowhere--other than Aunt Cornelia's house--who could it be? Harriet edged forward to peer down from the loft, moving silently on the hay.
A man. A gentleman from his appearance. He saw to his horse first, then he removed his hat, knocking it to remove the raindrops. Dark hair curled attractively about a well-shaped head. But then, Harriet was some distance away. He probably was nothing to admire when close.
Looking about him, he brushed off his coat much as Harriet had done her dress. Only those broad shoulders offered a firmer foundation for his coat than did Harriet's slim frame for her dress. He began to walk about, and she followed his progress with increasing curiosity.
To her surprise, he prowled around the barn as though hunting for something. She knew when he spotted her painting paraphernalia. He had the nerve to study her painting, too. What a nosy snoop!
He continued his prowl after setting her painting aside. She wondered what he thought of her work. Most likely he considered her work amateurish, and deservedly so. But she thought herself a decent amateur and had received many kind words on her watercolors. Harriet frowned, wondering what on earth he expected to find in a dusty old barn. She did not recognize him in the least. Aunt Cornelia had invited quite a number of local gentry to meet her, and Harriet knew that no one of this man's stature had been among them.
When he disappeared from her view, she--still clutching the kitten--leaned forward to see if he chanced to find whatever it was he sought. What that might be puzzled her greatly. A trustworthy stranger would know of nothing concealed in an unfamiliar barn. Surely he did not think there was anything remarkable about this building!
Her unfortunate move had a disastrous effect. In one fell swoop and with a cry of alarm, she and the kitten, along with a generous bunch of hay, slithered to the floor below to land not far from the horse that had been munching on a convenient pile of hay. Clearly affronted, the poor horse backed away, giving Harriet a baleful stare.
The stranger whirled about to stare at Harriet as though she was some manner of ghost. "What the...?"
His rush to her side to assist her to her feet brought mixed emotions. He asked, "Are you all right?" On one hand it was comforting to have someone so concerned for her well-being. On the other hand, it was most embarrassing to discover a very handsome gentleman gazing at her as though she was an unwelcome apparition.
"Only my dignity," Harriet replied dryly. "Amazing how hay provides ample cushioning in a fall." She brushed bits of hay from the skirt of her gown, turning her gaze to the kitten rather than the man. What would she find in his eyes? Contempt for such a hoyden as a girl who climbed to a loft? Or possibly concern? Or perhaps total disinterest such as she assuredly deserved. It was difficult to imagine how she could be at a worse disadvantage. Between her wretched dress and bits of hay everywhere, she must look an absolute disaster.
His abrupt remark, uttered in such a bland tone, brought her curious gaze to his face at last. What she found there sent her heart to her toes. Here was a man as might frequent any maiden's dreams. Handsome did not begin to cover his qualities. Double drat! Those dark brown eyes, so rich and lively, held vast amusement. His firm lips curved in an engaging smile, while she could not fail to observe there was nothing the least displeasing in his entire appearance. Confound it!
"Well, I am pleased to offer you entertainment. Usually a downpour is so dreary," Harriet snapped.
Her annoyance only served to make him laugh. He extended a beautifully gloved hand to her bare and somewhat paint-stained one, offering belated assistance.
Giving her hay-bedecked, rumpled dress a rueful glance, Harriet brushed off what she could, then faced the man with her backbone firmly in place. Wouldn't you know, the stranger had to be the most attractive man she had seen since she left London? But she must remember his suspicious behavior. Sensible, well-mannered people didn't snoop about strange barns. Holding the kitten close to her bosom, she said with as much calm as she could manage, "Precisely what are you doing here?"
"Retreating from the elements. In case you had not noticed, it is raining buckets out there."
Blast it, why did he have such an appealing grin? And was it solely because of her dishevelment or did he simply find her query amusing?
"I am aware of the rain; I could scarce not be as I sought refuge in here as well. You are a stranger hereabouts. I am curious what you are doing traversing this lane, since it goes nowhere other than to my aunt's house." There, she had put him on the spot. How would he wiggle his way out of this?
"Is it, now?"
What he might have added was not to be known, as the rain ceased as abruptly as it had began. Water could be seen and heard dripping from the eave and a nearby tree. The deluge appeared gone.
"The shower is over."
"So it is," Harriet allowed. She bestowed a helpless look on the kitten. Should she climb up the ladder to replace it where it belonged, thus affording the stranger an improper glimpse--or worse--of her ankles while doing so? If she deposited the kitten on the hay, it would make much work for Katy-cat to fetch it. With a small sigh of resignation, Harriet walked to the bottom of the ladder and gingerly placed one foot on the first rung. She turned to cast a disgruntled look at the stranger. "If you had any manners, you would leave now."
He chuckled. It was one of those rich sounds that delighted the ear. "Why do not I restore the kit to its mama? That would solve your dilemma, would it not?"
"It would be a help," she admitted gruffly, and then castigated herself when he gently took the kitten from her outstretched hand and made short work of climbing to the loft to leave the kit with its mother.
After offering polite thanks, she walked to the shelf to retrieve her belongings, wishing that she had thought to wear a decent bonnet instead of this ancient wreck she wore when out painting. "Good day, sir. It was interesting."
She could scarce say they had met. As was proper he had not offered his name, nor had she given hers. Although as nosy as he was, he might have seen her name written on her paint box. He gave no indication he knew who she was, nor did he ask. What a lowering reflection that was.
"It could start raining again, you know," the stranger offered, his manner civil, but no more.
Clearly, he had not the slightest interest in her! Not that she wanted to further her acquaintanceship with him, mind you. Sometimes being proper was a dratted nuisance.
His behavior was dashed smoky. She glanced around the barn, trying to see it from his point of view. There was not one thing that could be labeled unusual or worthy of investigation. So why had he peered at every corner as though expecting to find a treasure? Exceedingly peculiar behavior, to her way of thinking.
"What I mean to say is that it could commence raining again whilst you are on your way to the house, wherever that is. I would hate to see you drenched and possibly catch cold."
"You would know nothing about it if I did," she pointed out logically.
"Allow me to escort you to you destination," he insisted. Looking at the painting she held so carefully, he added, "I would not like to think that your lovely water-color was ruined because you were afraid of me. I promise I am quite trustworthy." His persuasive manner was the sort that could likely charm the paper from the wall. "Do join me."
"Said the spider to the fly," Harriet muttered. He was right, however. She was quite pleased with her painting, and it would be a shame to lose it because she was too cowardly to chance a ride with the stranger for the short distance to her aunt's house.
Giving him a look that promised she could bonk him over the head with her paint box if necessary, Harriet nodded ever so briefly. "Very well, I accept your offer. But only because I would not wish to have my painting ruined. That was a particularly fine specimen of blue gentian. My aunt wished to add it to her collection."
"So," he continued quite as though she went with him happily, "your aunt has an interest in wildflowers?"
Settling on the seat after he had helped her into the smart curricle, Harriet merely nodded. Since he had turned away, she decided to add, "Indeed, she does. She grows them as well."
He managed to guide the horse and curricle from the barn, then swung up to join Harriet on the seat. It seemed to her that the curricle had shrunk. Was it necessary to be so close? She inched sideways and missed the little smile that crossed her companion's lips.
"Only a clever gardener manages to successfully transplant wildflowers to a garden." He gestured to the right, and Harriet nodded in reply. They set off at a prudent pace.
"As to that," Harriet replied honestly, "she has a marvelous gardener who can do about anything. She just tells him what she wants. But I believe she could do it if she wished, for she is a very determined woman."
"As are you?"
"A gardener?" Harriet asked, deliberately misunderstanding him.
He chuckled again, and she felt the warmth of it clear over to where she so uneasily perched. "No, determined. I believe you are one of those people who know precisely what you want from life, and seek after it. Am I wrong?"
Harriet nibbled at her lower lip. "I've not considered the matter. However could you reach that conclusion, anyway? You have barely spoken with me." She ought not have asked such a question, she knew that. But she also thought his conclusion an intriguing deduction.
The horse trotted along at a gentle pace. It wasn't the dashing clip she fancied he usually went. The thought improved her view of the situation a bit. At least he wasn't risking their necks to be rid of her company.
"Your painting is decisive. Your manner is such that I feel you are sure of yourself--that you know what you want in life. As to what that might be, I can only hazard a guess."
He drove with a sureness and skill Harriet could not but appreciate. She knew of drivers who were so inept they shouldn't be allowed out on their own. She considered his words while admiring his expertise with the reins.
"I really am not sure," she admitted to her surprise. "I suppose a young woman is to want a husband, a home, and children."
He glanced at her, a slight frown on his forehead. She turned her head so she could no longer see even a bit of his face. She found the sight disconcerting.
Continuing, she added, "I feel certain this is an exceedingly strange conversation for us to have. I cannot recall exchanging views on the matter with anyone before."
"I suppose gently bred young ladies do not admit to deeper thinking."
At this remark Harriet did look at him. "What a dreadful thing to say. You must know full well that a girl must not be considered a bluestocking sort. Rest assured that were I truly seeking your interest and approval, I would be very demure and not venture an opinion on anything." She folded her hands in her lap and tried to appear as prim as she might.
He laughed. "I don't know whether to be insulted or relieved." He sought her eyes and smiled when she didn't reply.
"There, ahead, the gates to my Aunt Cornelia's house." She shifted as though she was about to leave the curricle as soon as possible and found his hand restraining her. She gave him an inquiring look.
"If you think I shall deposit you like so much baggage and allow you to walk up the avenue to the house, you are sadly mistaken. I would like to meet your aunt."
"Oh?" Harriet wondered why.
"Besides, it is only proper, you know."
"Hmm," she replied, wondering what her aunt would think of the stranger and his nosing about the storage barn.
"In spite of the situation, I imagine you are a proper young miss."
Harriet thought back on some of her escapades and decided not to answer that remark. Prevarication always found one out, she had discovered over the years.
They drew up before the front of the neat Georgian structure. Harriet gave an admiring look at the pretty place her aunt had acquired. How obliging of her father to give her this refined gem of a house after her fiancé had been killed in an accident and Aunt Cornelia decided not to wed anyone else. She had decorated it with her elegant, simple taste, and Harriet thought it quite the loveliest house she had seen. That it was also extremely comfortable was an added plus.
"Very nice," the gentleman at her side commented quietly. "I have always thought that this style was attractive, particularly with the columned portico."
"Wait until you see the interior. My aunt is possessed of a delicate sense of beauty."
Carefully holding her watercolor and paint box, Harriet allowed her escort to assist her from the curricle.
A young groom whisked around the corner of the house, evidence that their approach had been noted. He took the reins in hand and slowly began to walk the horse.
Harriet concealed a smile. The servants had calculated the guest's intentions to a nicety. They left the carriage in capable hands and crossed to the front entry.
Her aunt's dignified housekeeper opened the door, giving Harriet a wary look before turning an approving gaze on the stranger. "Your aunt is in the drawing room, Lady Harriet."
Noting the gentleman's quick expression of surprise, Harriet went to the drawing room that was on the ground floor, as was customary in many of the newer country houses.
Aunt Cornelia rose from where she was seated, reading by a window. She was an older version of her niece, auburn hair peeking from a white cap and astute blue eyes. She hurried to Harriet exclaiming, "My dear, what has happened? Your dress...?" That she doubtlessly noticed the bits of hay and Harriet's disheveled look without additional comment was a blessing.
"Blame it on the rain. I sought refuge in that storage barn by the lane and couldn't resist finding Katy-cat's latest litter. That accounts for the hay and my rumpled appearance--and this gallant gentleman at my side."
Aunt Cornelia rightly assuming that the gentleman had not introduced himself, turned to him and offered a dainty hand. "Lord Stanhope, how pleasant to see you again. I fancy you are just recently returned from London? Allow me to present my dearest niece, Lady Harriet Dane. She is my sister's child and staying with me for an extended visit while her sister and mother settle into new houses." At his look of inquiry, she added, "Both married recently."
"I am charmed to meet Lady Harriet. It was a lucky thing that I chanced on that barn. I'd have been soaked otherwise. And I enjoyed meeting your niece, even under such unusual circumstances. Fancy two painters caught in the rain and seeking shelter in the same barn."
"You are a painter, sir?" Harriet couldn't resist asking. He didn't look like one.
He replied with a modest bow, "I am a painter of sorts. That is why I was out and about, looking for a picturesque place to paint."
Harriet shot him a look of disbelief. He wasn't the least like any of those artistes she had met who ambled off in what they claimed was a "search for picturesque" beauty that deserved preservation. And why did he prowl about once in the barn? It was scarcely worthy of notice.
"The barn is old, but solid, I believe," Aunt Cornelia inserted, likely to cover Harriet's silence.
"So it seemed," he said with absentminded politeness. "Your niece is talented with her paintbrush. She said you have collected her paintings?"
"Indeed, you may see them sometime if you wish."
"Aunt Cornelia," Harriet said in a warning tone, "I doubt if Lord Stanhope is the least interested in my paltry daubs." She smoothed down the skirt of her dress, wondering if it would ever be wearable again, for it seemed hopelessly crushed to her eyes. Perhaps her maid could do something with it?
"You are too modest, my dear girl," her aunt protested. "I feel certain that the earl will find them delightful. I do not recall seeing any of your paintings, my lord. I trust you brought a few with you when you came from London? Your dear mother said you intended to be there for an extended stay."
"Something came up that needed my attention here."
Harriet had the oddest feeling that he had not wished to confess to that last bit of information. Why not? Had he been summoned home for some reason? Of course it was none of their business, whatever the reason be. But it added to his sense of mystery.
"I am indebted to Lord Stanhope for his courtesy in bringing me home." Harriet spoke with the same sort of civility he had exhibited earlier.
"I would expect nothing less from the gentleman." Aunt Cornelia smiled at him, and Harriet thought it somewhat fatuous.
"She is now safe, and I may return home in good conscience. Dare I hope that you would both join us for dinner one evening soon? I know Mother would be delighted to see you. She mentions you often."
"Indeed, we would." Aunt Cornelia walked with him to the entry hall and lingered as he let himself out to where the groom waited. Harriet followed her.
Closing the door, she turned to cast a reproving eye on her niece. "Harriet, I cannot believe you met Lord Stanhope looking like that! That must be your worst dress, and if I ever see that bonnet again, I shall do violence to it. Naughty child, to be so neglectful of your appearance."
"I cannot be wearing something good to prowl about the estate while painting flowers. Normally I do not see anyone--save for a worker in the distance. My budget is improved, thanks to Marcus giving me such a generous allowance, but I'll not squander it on gowns to be ruined while sitting on a rock!"
"Your new brother-in-law is to be commended, my dear. However, I doubt he would wish you to be badly garbed."
Tired of the subject, Harriet turned to one more interesting. "Where does Lord Stanhope live? Close by?"
"I've not been to visit his mother since you came here." An amused gleam entered her eyes, and she continued, "I cannot wait for you to meet her. He has a, er, rather unusual family."
Now definitely intrigued, Harriet led her aunt back to the drawing room, where a small fire burned to remove any chill from the damp air. "Do tell me all."
Settling herself into a comfortable armchair. Aunt Cornelia smiled. "Well, as to his mother I shall let you judge for yourself. His brother. Lord Nicholas, is golf mad. I am told he is creating his own golfing course somewhere on their property. The marquess is nutty about birds. I shall say no more on that matter, either, less I spoil the acquaintance for you. His aunt and uncle Plum reside there at present, and both are collectors of a sort."
"They sound a trifle eccentric to me."
"A trifle? I suppose you might put it that way. Everyone has a different reaction to them. The Marquess of Lanstone is a compelling person, fascinating, to say the least. His wife is also, in her own way."
"And Lord Nicholas? I should think someone who is 'mad' about something as unusual as golf would be considered a bit peculiar. I have met gentlemen who have mentioned they play an occasional round, I think they call it. But to be mad over it? How strange." Harriet held her hands to the fire, realizing she was more than a little chilled. Heaven only knew if she might have caught a cold wending her way back to the house. "I think Lord Stanhope seems fairly normal at any rate. But he was prowling about the barn before I fell off the loft."
That statement was ignored in her aunt's horror at Harriet's fall. She had to be told all the details, and shook her head over them. "Harriet, dear, I hope I do not have to admonish you. I should dislike that very much. Of course you could not have imagined that Lord Stanhope would take refuge from the rain while you were there. But dearest, the sensible woman is always prepared. Try to remember that, will you?"
Harriet nodded. How could she disagree with such common sense? She rose, murmuring something about changing from the ruined dress into something more presentable, and left the drawing room.
In her bedroom her maid fussed over the dress, commenting she doubted she could repair it. Harriet put the little wooden box into a dresser drawer, and turned to be helped into a clean gown.
"I suppose it is beyond all hope," Harriet remarked while slipping into a simple cream gown that went well with her auburn hair. A blue riband accented the front of the gown, just below her bust. It matched her eyes, so she was told by a few of the doltish swains she had met in London. Perhaps she had been too particular? But her brother-in-law was such a fine example of manhood, she had held him up as a pattern the others would have to follow.
"Well, now, I guess I could do something with it." The maid gave the crumpled dress an assessing look, then left the room once satisfied that Harriet had no need for her ministrations. The bonnet was to be burned--even Abby didn't want it!
Gathering her needlework in hand, Harriet went down the stairs to join her aunt. The day was not so dark that she couldn't set a few stitches without a work candle. She accepted her aunt's admiration for her improved looks, then plunged her needle into the delicate lawn to embroider while she considered the stranger.
Why had she never seen Lord Stanhope while in the City? Obviously he must be of the highest ton. Yet, not even in Almack's had she caught sight of his impressive form, nor had she heard a word of gossip about him. That was distinctly odd. It was a pity Aunt Cornelia wouldn't know, because she rarely went to Town--only when she desired to select a new gown or a piece of furniture for her home.
Immersed in her consideration of the stranger, she failed to take note of her aunt's speculative watch.