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'Miss?' The head carpenter poked his head Into her workroom. 'Would you have a moment? You might wish to see this.' He jerked his head in the direction of the weapons wing.
Clutching her correspondence, Chloe instantly left her desk. 'What is it, Mr Forrest?' She groaned. 'Not the gallery floor again, I hope?'
'Now, miss,' the carpenter said with a chuckle, 'it does no good to always expect the worst.'
Plaster dust swirled about her skirts as she followed the man, ducking under scaffolding and stepping around stacks of wood. But there were far fewer obstacles than in months past, and in only a minute he paused to wave triumphantly at one of the niches set into the first-floor walls.
'Ooohh.' She sighed in delight.
Forrest nodded. 'That Italian you brought over talks as fast as a river floods, and I vow he's as tetchy as a cat with a sore tail but he does beautiful work.'
That he did. The scalloped levels of the domed top beautifully echoed the colours of the ceiling, pillars and floor, while the framing and the interior panels had been covered in gorgeously ornate plasterwork. A large blank space awaited the installation of a specially designed display case.
'That does end the day on a good note, doesn't it?' Mr Forrest grinned. 'I'm the last straggler here, miss, save yourself. Do you want to lock up after me?'
'Oh, yes. Of course.' With a last lingering look, she tore herself away. She bid the tradesman a good evening, then, closing the heavily panelled doors after him, she leaned against them and took in the results of two years of hard labour.
Nearly complete. It seemed an impossibility. Yet Lord Marland's wing stretched out before her, a dusty, slightly cluttered promise of magnificence. Only details remained to be completed: the niches, a bit of work on the second-floor gallery, the intricate trim and moulding about the walls. Then, of course, the displays would need to be arranged and set upoh, who was she fooling? There were still a hundred small tasks that needed doing, but the end was drawing undeniably near.
The thought had her pulling out her crumpled letter. Her old friend knew that the wing was nearly finishedand he hinted that it was time for her to leave Northumberland.
She looked up again, taking in marble and stone, pillars and dome, and clutched a fistful of buttons on her formidable jacket. She'd been so fortunate in this projectand in this position. Here, she had the best of all worlds. Tucked up safe behind her spectacles and boxy skirts, she'd also been utterly challenged and completely absorbed. The work had brought her closer to her stepfather in his last days and provided an outlet for grief and an escape from loss when he'd passed on, mere weeks after Lord Marland's return.
Never could she have imagined such a perfect hiding spot. She'd thrown herself into both the collection and the construction, reinforced her persona and buried her true self deep, far beyond the chance of discovery. She'd proved herself to the marquess, too, and they had gradually developed a quiet bond of respect. She'd found herself as close to that elusive statehappinessas she'd been in a long, long time.
'Hardwick!' Lord Marland's voice echoed like thunder from the passage beyond the wing. 'Hardwick?' The door swung open and the marquess leaned in, his dark gaze meeting hers across the vast chamber. 'There you are.' He strode in, and the wrench inside her was both familiar and surprisingly strong. He was garbed casually, as if he'd come from his work, in waistcoat and shirtsleeves rolled high. He'd left his coat behind again. It was a familiar sight, yet it hit her hard, a bubbling rush of pleasure and pain that bloomed in her chest and raced with frothy abandon through her veins.
What was wrong with her? She shook her head and, tucking her letter away, moved to meet him midway. 'Good evening, my lord.'
'And to you. I wished to tell you ' His words trailed off as he caught sight of the completed niche. Silent, he went to stand in front of it. When he turned away, long moments later, he was grinning. His eye roamed about the room and then back again. 'It truly is going to be magnificent, isn't it?' he asked softly.
'It truly is,' Chloe agreed. She stared at him, caught by the light in his eyes and the way that the sun's last rays burrowed in his long hair, carving lighter channels along certain strands. He was her employer. He was pleased. She was also, of course. Hadn't she just stood in that same spot and sighed over the intricate beauty of the stuccatore's work? Yet the the marquess's euphoria irritated her. She shook her head again. She was being irrational.
He met her gaze at last. 'About that Druidic dagger.' he began.
'I don't recommend that we pursue it,' she said abruptly.
He paused. 'I was going to say the same thing. I have it on good authority that it's a fake.'
She nodded. 'I had heard the same.'
His gaze wandered again, travelling about the room, fixing on the marble veining of a pillar here, a delicately turned newel post there. This was nothing unusual. They often discussed business here at the end of the day and the marquess was often distracted, cataloguing the progress made. Chloe was used to it; preoccupied as he might seem to be, he never missed or forgot a single detail of their conversations.
And yetthere was that phrase again. Something had changed, but she could not quite get her finger on the pulse of it. She only knew that her heart rate was ratcheting, her skin felt tight and she realised suddenly that tonight she could not stand here, calmly talking about the collection while his attention fixed on everything but her.
'Would you mind walking as we talk, my lord? If you have more to discuss, that is.' She made her request with a lift of her chin. 'I promised Mr Keller I would find a sketch of a certain Roman medallion in the library.'
'Of course.' The marquess looked surprised, but trailed obligingly along. He had a few more questions about displays and possible acquisitions and Chloe felt a certain guilty satisfaction when his focus remained on her.
In the library, their discussion wound down. She'd just found her illustration when the marquess stood to take his leave. 'That should be enough to occupy you for a day or two,' he said with a wry twist of his mouth. 'I'll be busy for a few days with the bailiff's latest idea to keep the sheep from wandering into the mud flats. I'll check back with you then, if there isn't anything else.'
He stood, the scrape of his chair sounding loud in the quiet room. He clearly expected that there would not be anything else. And why wouldn't he?
He turned to go without another glance and Chloe marvelled at the differences that existed between them. For her, isolation was a necessitythe price she was willing to pay for the security of a respectable position and the blessed feeling of safety. Lord Marland, on the other hand, seemed to revel in his solitudeand to actively encourage and increase it. Chloe didn't know if this behaviour originated with some pain in his past or from simply never having experienced otherwise. Either way, her heart ached for him.
But she would never break his trust by allowing him to know of it. The marquess was an intensely private man, she'd discovered, and nothing displeased him more than someoneanyonetrying to edge past the barriers he kept firmly in place. So instead, she did what she did best. She watched him closely, learned all that she could and became exactly what he needed most. She took on his burdens and eased his mind about the project closest to him. In short, she became the absolute best Hardwick she could be.
Sneaking another glance at him, she suppressed a sigh. Sometimes being Hardwick was very hard indeed.
He pivoted on a heel, brow arched in surprise. She knew how he felt. She'd shocked herself.
'Ah, could you wait a moment? There is something, actually.' She twisted her fingers around each other to keep them away from her buttons.
'It's just the new wing is so nearly complete and the collection is in splendid shape and I know you are not interested in opening the collection to outsiders.'
'No. I am not,' he said flatly.
'I didn't mean to argue the point.' Chloe ducked her head. Reaching into her pocket, she touched the letter from her oldest friend. 'It's onlyit's been suggested that I might seek another position. That you might not require my services any longer, after the project is finished.'
'What?' He reared back. 'Who's been spouting such nonsense?' His shock and outrage were sincere, to her utter gratification. 'Not Mrs Goodmond, I hope?'
Surprised, Chloe shook her head and placed her book on the table between them. 'No, it was'
She stopped, her mouth open, unable to continue, when the marquess took a seat directly across from her. He stared up at her with a kind expression of sympathy and understanding. 'Your position must be an awkward one, Hardwick. You've talents that put you beyond a woman's normal sphere. No doubt you will run into more than one narrow-minded fool who will push you towards a more accepted mould.'
He reached out suddenly and grasped her wrist. Chloe's mouth dropped again in wordless shock, even though her coat covered the spot. Her bones felt small and fragile beneath his large hand. His grip was both firm and tender. Warmth radiated from his hand and she could not suppress the shiver that ran through her.
'Don't listen to them, Hardwick,' he said, insistent. 'Any woman can run a household or pop out a parcel of babes, but your skills are unique. You have a fine, clear mind, a gift for retaining and arranging information, and the damnedest ability to inspire people to meet your high standards.' He shook his head. 'This wing, this collection, they are incredibly important to me, and neither would be in so grand a shape were it not for you.'
He gave her arm a squeeze and, sitting back, let her go. Chloe flushed with surprise and pleasure. He'd given her compliments before, on a job well done, but this level of warmth and approval was newand intoxicating.
'Not everyone is meant for the intimacy of marriage or the rigours of child-rearing,' the marquess reflected. He smiled at her. 'Embrace your differences, Hardwick. Don't allow anyone to make you feel inferior.'
Elation abruptly drained away. Stricken, Chloe blinked at the marquess. Inferior? She might have spent the last months moulding herself to best fit his needs, but she'd never considered that the process would render her unfit for anything else.
She cleared her throat. 'I'm afraid you've misunderstood, my lord. It is not Mrs Goodmond, but a friend of mine who worries. He fears that there soon may not be enough work for me here.'
He leaned back. 'What sort of friend?' He frowned. 'And what could he know of the state of my collection?'
Incredulousand a little exhausted from the constant swing of her emotionsChloe narrowed her gaze. 'An old family friend. And he possesses the same scant information that the rest of the antiquities community does.' Seeing his frown deepen, she leaned forwards, her hands on the table. 'And no, I have not been talking out of turn.' She raised a brow. 'Surely you've realised the curiosity our work here has stirred? With tradesmen and specialists coming and goingnot to mention the aggressive number of acquisitions we've madeit's caused a stir.'
'I don't like to think of people speculating about me.' He shot her a conciliatory glance. 'Or you.'
'Well, I'm afraid a certain amount of speculation is unavoidable, my lord.'
He sighed and climbed to his feet. 'In any case, tell your friend that his concern is premature. Such a notion is absurd. Put it from your head, Hardwick. No one could display this collection like you willyou've designed half of it yourself, for God's sake. And the collection is far from complete.' He gave a curt nod. 'There's plenty more work to do here.'
Uneasy, she watched as he nodded a dismissal and left the room.
She bit down on her lip hard to quash her wildly fluctuating feelings. Forcibly, she unclenched her fists and turned back to her illustration. She should be thrilled. She was thrilled, she told herself firmly. Against all odds, this position had given her exactly what she wanted: a perfect blend of safety and responsibility, anonymity and respect. Truly, she was grateful that there was no need to contemplate leaving it.
She sneaked a peek over her shoulder, after the marquess.
Yes. She had exactly what she wanted. And if she were wise, she would keep reminding herself of the fact.