Read an Excerpt
Makerham Court, Surrey--July 1783
Evelina jumped as the rose thorn pricked her finger. How timely, she thought, staring at the tiny bead of blood. She had just been thinking that this was the most dangerous activity she undertook; cutting flowers. She sighed. These sheltered ornamental gardens at Makerham summed up her life; ordered, secure, protected. She wiped the blood from her finger and firmly suppressed the vague feeling of dissatisfaction. She had become more aware of it recently, this impression of being stifled. But she was happy, wasn't she, keeping house for her grandfather? He had promised to take care of her, to provide for her. She need not worry about anything.
Evelina picked up her basket of summer flowers and was walking back to the house when she heard the sound of hoof beats on the drive. She looked up to see a rider approaching on a rangy black horse. At the stone bridge that gave access to the ancient, moated house she stopped, her head tilted enquiringly as he rode up. The man drew rein and jumped down. He was very tall, she noted. Strong, too, judging by the width of shoulder beneath his dark riding jacket and the powerful legs encased in buck skins and gleaming top boots. His black hair was caught back with a ribbon and there was a rakish look in his laughing blue eyes. He looked like an adventurer, she thought. Tall and dark and...
'You must be Evelina.' His voice was rich and warm as honey. 'How do you do?'
Without waiting for her reply he reached out, pulled her into his arms and kissed her. Eve was so shocked she dropped her basket. She made no effort to pull away; with his arms holding her so firmly it would have been impossible to do so, even if she had wanted to. She had never been kissed by a man before and the sensation was surprisingly pleasant, jolting her senses alive so that she was aware of the scent of his skin, the mingled smell of soap and spices and horses and...she did not know what. Man, she supposed.
He raised his head and gave her a rueful smile, although Eve thought the glint in his deep blue eyes positively wicked.
'Oh Lord,' he said, stepping back from her. 'That was not meant to happen.'
Eve stared up at him, shaken, and wondered what a well-bred young lady should do in this situation. With some deliberation she brought her hand up and dealt him a ringing slap across the face.
He flinched a little, but continued to smile down at her, mischief glinting in his blue eyes. 'I suppose I deserved that.'
It took an effort for Eve to look away from that hypnotic gaze. Her basket was lying on the floor, roses, irises and common daisies tossed on to the drive. With shaking hands she began to gather them up. The man dropped onto one knee beside her, unsettling her with his nearness.
'You do not seem very pleased to see me,' he remarked.
She concentrated on collecting up the flowers and putting them back into the basket. She said stiffly. 'I do not know you sir.'
'Oh, did your grandfather not tell you?' Laughter trembled in his voice. 'I am Nick Wylder.' He picked up a rose and held it out to her. 'I am the man you are going to marry.'
Eve jumped to her feet. The man rose in one agile movement and looked down at her with pure amusement in his eyes. A devil-may-care man, she thought. His lean, handsome face was too attractive. Dangerous. Instinctively she drew away from him.
'Your jest lacks humour, sir.'
Those mobile black brows drew together slightly. 'Has your grandfather not told you? Then my apologies, Miss Shawcross.'
She regarded his flashing smile with suspicion. 'I see no remorse in you sir. I do not believe you know how to apologise.'
He stepped back, his smile softening into some thing gentler as he said contritely, 'I have truly offended you. Pray, ma'am, forgive me. I did not mean to do that.'
She was not proof against his beguiling look and found herself weakening. She made an effort to maintain her scornful attitude. 'It seems to me, sir, that there is much you do not mean to do!'
He treated her again to his devastating smile and this time she noticed the dimple in his cheek. It was so very distracting.
'Aha, you are not so angry after all. I see the twinkle in your eye, Miss Shawcross. You would laugh, if you were not determined to put me in my place! Am I forgiven, ma'am?'
She turned away that he would not see her smile. 'That depends upon your future conduct Mr...Wylder. Am I to understand that you have come to see my grandfather?'
'I have indeed, ma'am, if he is well enough to receive me. I sent my man over this morning to advise you of my arrival.'
She inclined her head. 'I have not seen Grandpapa since we broke our fast together, so I know nothing of your message. However, that does not mean you are unwelcome. Pray come in, sir, and I will as certain if he can see you.'
She left the visitor in the great hall with its walls lined with armour. Shields, swords and halberds battled for place between the long windows, a reminder of the turbulent period when the hall was built. As she ran up the stairs she glanced back at him. He was standing before the huge fireplace, studying the crest carved into the over mantel. His head was thrown back and she was treated to an excellent view of his profile with its straight nose and strong jaw-line. Powerful. Confident. She thought how well he would fit into those unsettled times.
As soon as she was out of sight at the top of the stairs she stopped and leaned against the wall. Her heart was thudding uncomfortably in her chest. So it had happened; her grandfather had always promised her that one day he would bring home a husband for her. He had told her to trust him to find a suitable gentleman, one who would look after her as he had always done. One who would make her happy. She pressed her hands to her cheeks. She had expected Grandfather to bring home someone like Squire Amos from Makerham village, someone solid and respectable. There was no doubt that the gentleman now standing in the great hall was solid--when he had crushed her to him he had felt very solid indeed--but she doubted very much that he was respectable. Eve was aware that she had led a very sheltered life, but she knew that respectable gentlemen did not kiss young ladies before they had even been introduced! And respectable young ladies did not stay to exchange banter with such scoundrels. Eve wondered why she had not run away when the man released her. Somewhat to her surprise she realised that he had not frightened her. She had been shocked, yes, and outraged, but never afraid. She took a deep breath and smoothed her hands down over her gown. If only it was as easy to smooth her disordered nerves. If Grandpapa discovered the cause of her agitation he would be alarmed; he might even send his visitor away. With a little jolt of surprise she realised that she really did not want that to happen.
Eve found her grandfather in the morning room. His winged chair had been moved to the window and he was sitting now with a blanket across his knees, gazing out over the park.
Sir Benjamin Shawcross had been a good-looking man in his youth, but ill health had aged him prematurely and although he was not much more than sixty, his skin had grown sallow and the flesh hung loosely on his large frame.
However, despite the great effort it cost him every morning, he insisted that his valet, Rooney, should help him out of bed and dress him in his velvet coat and fresh linen. His sparse grey hair was hidden by a curly wig in the old style and there was always a twinkle in his faded blue eyes. It was in evidence now as he looked at his granddaughter.
'Eve, my dear, come in. Rooney has made me comfortable here, you see, where I can look out of the window. I have a visitor, you know.'
'Yes, sir, I do know.' Eve put down her basket and slipped across the room to his side.
As she bent to drop a kiss on his forehead she glanced out of the window. The room looked out over the front drive, but thankfully any view of the little stone bridge was blocked by the bulk of the Gate House tower. Her grandfather would not have seen her first encounter with his guest. She dropped down to sit on the footstool beside his chair and gathered his gnarled old hands between her own. 'Mr Wylder is even now in the hall, Grandpapa.'
'Captain, my love; he is Captain Wylder. He sailed with Admiral Howe against the French and acquitted himself well, by all accounts.'
'That may be so, sir, but before he is brought up I want you to tell me just why he is here.'
'A pretty thing, child, if I must answer to you for inviting a guest to my own house!'
Eve was not deceived by his blustering tone. She saw the consternation in his faded eyes, but she was not to be swayed from her course. 'Please, Grandfather, tell me.'
'I have known the family for years. Nick Wylder is the younger brother of the Earl of Darrington. Of course we are not well acquainted, for he is so much younger than I am and he has spent most of his time at sea. He resigned with Howe in '78, you know. Neither of them thought very much of the government's handling of the American War but before they could return to England they were caught up in the defence of Rhode Island. Clever bit o' work, that.' Sir Benjamin chuckled. 'Outwitted the French all right and tight, and young Nicholas in the thick of it. Commended for his bravery, mentioned in the newspapers. You may remember it--'
'That was five years ago, Grandpapa,' Eve interrupted him quietly but firmly. 'And I do not remember you ever drawing my attention to a Captain Wylder.'
'No, well, perhaps not. In fact I did not recall much about it myself, until young Nicholas sought me out at Tunbridge Wells last month. It was Percy Anderton told me his history. Percy lost his son in the action, you see, and Captain Wylder came to see him as soon as he returned to England, to pay his respects. Percy was very impressed. Captain Wylder has friends in the government, too it appears--young Pitt and Lord North--'
'But you said Captain Wylder sought you out, Grandpapa,' Eve persisted, frowning. 'Why should he do that?'
'Why should he not? Old family friend, after all.'
'Yes, but why should he wait until now to look you up?'
'I have no idea, but I am very glad he did. A fine young man, Eve, and very attentive to me. I invited him to call upon us...'
'But you have not said a word about him to me, Grandpapa.'
Sir Benjamin stirred uncomfortably in his chair. 'No, well, the time did not seem propitious, and after all, I did not know if he would really come.'
'Have you brought him here as a husband for me?' she asked in her direct way.
'He did mention to me that he was looking for a wife, and...'
'And you want me to take a husband.'
'Only if you are inclined to do so, Evelina.'
'I have told you, Grandfather, I have no wish for a husband yet.'
'But you will need someone to look after you when I am gone.'
'Do not frown at me, Eve. We both know that I am failing. Doctor Scott has warned us that my heart is very weak now; the end cannot be far away--'
'You must not say such things,' she said fiercely.
'Ignoring the inevitable will not prevent it, my love. If Nick Wylder wants to wed you I recommend you to accept him. I shall not insist, of course, but I would ask that you consider the matter very carefully.' He squeezed her fingers and released them. 'Now, we must not keep our guest waiting any longer. Have Captain Wylder fetched up, Evelina.'
He waved his hand impatiently. 'Would you have me thought uncivil, gel? Tell Green to show him up.'
The order was given, and Eve went back to stand beside her grandfather. He reached for her hand.
'Trust me on this, love; I am thinking only of you. Ah...' He turned towards the door as the butler announced his visitor. 'My dear sir, you are very welcome! Forgive me for not getting up to meet you, but my legs are very weak today. The baths at Tunbridge did not help me overmuch on this occasion.'
'I am sorry to hear it, Sir Benjamin.'
Evelina watched Captain Nick Wylder stride into the room, his healthy vigour even more in evidence when contrasted with her grandfather's feebleness. He came forwards and bowed to his host, exuding energy. Sir Benjamin smiled and nodded.
'You have met my granddaughter, Evelina?'
Eve found those blue eyes fixed upon her. She had the strange impression that he could read her innermost thoughts. She put up her chin and returned his look defiantly.
'Yes indeed.' Nick Wylder turned and made a fine leg to her. 'That is, we introduced ourselves, but I am glad of this opportunity to be more formally presented, sir.' His eyes laughed at her. 'I fear Miss Shawcross disapproves of me.'