In the country visiting his twin brother, Viscount Rawleigh longs for a little diversion and beautiful young widow Catherine Winters seems like easy prey. But Rex’s target is a lady of virtue, and when she roundly rejects his improper proposal to become his mistress, Rex finds himself faced with a delectable challenge.
Catherine knows she must fight the indecent feelings the Viscount arouses within her—feelings that bring to life a past she had sought to escape—even as the handsome lord refuses to relent in his amorous attentions.
But even though she knows one kiss could bring her to ruin, temptation proves an insurmountable foe—and Catherine can not ignore the beating of her treacherous heart....
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Also by Mary Balogh
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ONE sure sign of the coming of spring was the return of the Honorable Mr. Claude Adams and his wife to Bodley House, their country home in Derbyshire.
There were other signs, of course. There were snowdrops and primroses and even a few crocuses in the woods and along the hedgerows beside the road, and there were a few shoots of green in otherwise bare gardens. There was a suggestion of green about the branches of trees, though one had to look closely to observe the delicate buds. The air was warmer than it had been and the sun seemed a little brighter. The roads and laneways had dried after the last heavy cover of snow.
Yes, spring was coming. But the surest sign of all, and the one most welcome to many of the inhabitants of the small village of Bodley-on-the-Water, was that the family was returning to the house. Almost invariably they left soon after Christmas, sometimes before, and spent the winter months visiting various friends.
Their absence was a trial to many of the villagers, for whom winter would have been dreary enough anyway. But for those two months they were forced to live without a sight of Mrs. Adams driving through the village, often nodding regally through the window at a fortunate passerby, or of the same Mrs. Adams, a vision of fashionable elegance, entering church and sweeping down the aisle, looking neither to left nor to right, to sit in the padded front pew. The poor and sick and elderly had to live without her personal conveyance of their food baskets—though a footman always carried them from the carriage to the house—and her gracious condescension in inquiring after their health. Those of some social stature had to live without the occasional flattering visit, during which Mrs. Adams would sit inside her carriage, the window down, while the favored recipient of her attention was summoned from the house by a liveried footman in order to stand on the path curtsying or bowing to her and asking how Master William and Miss Juliana did.
Even the children were rarely seen during the winter months, though they were not often taken visiting with their mama and papa. Their nurse was firmly of the belief that winter air was bad for children.
This year Mr. and Mrs. Adams had stayed for the past month at Stratton Park in Kent with no less a personage than Viscount Rawleigh. He was Mr. Adams’s elder brother, as everyone knew. The fact was equally well-known that his lordship was Mr. Adams’s senior by twenty minutes, a singular stroke of good fortune for him since he was now in possession of the title while the younger twin was not. They might have had a viscount and viscountess living at Bodley, some of them often said wistfully during sessions of gossip, if the situation had been reversed. But then perhaps the maternal grandmother would have left the property to the other brother and they would still have had a mere mister living there.
Not that they minded the fact that the family had no title. They had all the other trappings of gentility, and any stranger was soon apprised of the fact that the owner of Bodley was an Honorable and the brother of Viscount Rawleigh of Stratton.
The Honorable Mr. Adams and his wife were returning home within the week. One of the footmen at Bodley brought word to the village inn, where he drank his ale nightly, and from the inn the word was spread through the village. They were bringing houseguests with them, the head groom told the blacksmith, and speculation became rife.
Was Viscount Rawleigh to be one of the guests?
Viscount Rawleigh was to be one of the houseguests. Mrs. Croft, the housekeeper at Bodley, brought the news to Mrs. Lovering, the rector’s wife. And there were to be several other ladies and gentlemen too as guests. She really had no idea if there were any other titles among them. She would not have known about his lordship except that Mrs. Adams’s letter had referred to her brother-in-law, and Mr. Adams had no other brother except the viscount, did he? But one could be certain that any company that included Viscount Rawleigh must be distinguished company.
It was almost worth having been without the family for two dreary months, it was generally agreed. Two years had passed since Mr. and Mrs. Adams had brought home guests with them and it was many years since Viscount Rawleigh had visited his brother in the country.
Anticipation ran high in the village. No one knew the exact hour or day of the arrival, but everyone was on the alert. There was bound to be more than one carriage for the family and visitors and a whole fleet of carriages to bring their belongings and their servants. It was a sight not to be missed. Fortunately there was no way for them to come from Kent except through the village. One just had to hope that they would not arrive after dark. But surely they would not when there were lady travelers and one never knew when highwaymen would be lurking on darkened roads.
Spring was coming at last and with it new life and vigor and splendor—splendor in the woods and hedgerows and splendor of another, even more exciting kind at Bodley.
• • •
DESPITE herself, Mrs. Catherine Winters, widow, found that she glanced far more often than she normally did through the front windows of her little thatched cottage at the southern end of the village street, and that she listened with heightened senses for the sound of approaching carriages. She loved her back garden more than the front because of the fruit trees with their branches hanging over the lawn and the shade they offered in the summer and because the river flowed and gurgled over mossy stones at the end of the garden. But she found herself more often than not in the front garden these days, watching the crocuses come into bud and a few brave shoots of the daffodil bulbs push through the soil. Though she would have scurried indoors fast enough if she really had heard carriages coming. She did so one morning only to find that it was the Reverend Ebenezer Lovering returning in his one-horse cart from a visit to a nearby farm.
She had mixed feelings about the return of the family to Bodley. The children would be happy. They had been longing for weeks for the return of their mama. She would come laden with gifts when she did come, of course, and spoil them for weeks, so that their classes would be disrupted. But then, children needed their mother more than they did lessons of any description. Catherine gave them music lessons at the house twice a week, though neither child had a great deal of aptitude on the pianoforte. Of course, they were young. Juliana was only eight years old, William seven.
Life was marginally more interesting when Mr. Adams and his wife were at home. Occasionally Catherine was invited to the house for dinner or for a card party. She was aware of the fact that it happened only when Mrs. Adams needed to even numbers and was one female short. And she was very aware of the condescension with which she was treated on such occasions. Even so, there was something treacherously pleasant about the opportunity to dress her best—though her self-made clothes must be woefully unfashionable by town standards, she was sure—and to be in company with people who had some conversation.
And Mr. Adams himself was always amiable and courteous. He was an extremely handsome gentleman and had passed on his looks to his children, though Mrs. Adams was rather lovely too. But Catherine had learned to avoid his company at the house. Mrs. Adams’s tongue could become decidedly barbed if the two of them fell into conversation together. Foolish woman—as if Catherine’s behavior had ever indicated that she was interested in dalliance of any kind.
She was not. She was finished with men. And with love. And with flirtation. They had brought her to where she was now. Not that she was complaining. She had a pleasant enough home in a pleasant enough village and she had learned how to occupy her time usefully so that the days were not unbearably tedious.
She was glad that the family was returning—partly glad. But they were bringing houseguests with them—plural. Viscount Rawleigh she did not know. She had never met him and never heard of him before she came to live at Bodley-on-the-Water. But there were to be other guests, doubtless people of ton. And there was the chance that she might know one or more of them—or, more to the point, that at least one of them would know her.
It was a remote chance, but it filled her with unease.
She did not want the peace of her life disturbed. It had been too hard won.
They came in the middle of one brisk but sunny afternoon when she was standing at the end of her front path, bidding farewell to Miss Agatha Downes, spinster daughter of a former rector, who had called on her and taken tea with her. It was quite impossible to scurry back inside so that she might cower behind the parlor curtain and observe while remaining unobserved. All she could do was stand there, without even a bonnet to shield her face, and wait to be recognized. She envied Toby, her terrier, who was safe inside the house, barking noisily.
There were three carriages, if one discounted the baggage coaches, which were some distance behind. It was impossible to see who rode in them, though Mrs. Adams leaned forward in her seat in the first of them in order to raise one hand and incline her head to them. Rather like a queen acknowledging her peasant subjects, Catherine thought with the humor that carried her through all her encounters with Mrs. Adams. She nodded her head in reply to the greeting.
There were three gentlemen on horseback. A quick glance assured Catherine that two of them were strangers. And the third was no threat either. She had smiled at Mr. Adams and curtsied to him—something she always avoided doing whenever she could with his wife—before something in his bearing and in the cool, unsmiling, arrogant way he looked back at her alerted her to the fact that he was not Mr. Adams at all.
Of course, Mr. Adams had a twin—Viscount Rawleigh. How humiliating! She could feel the color rising hotly to her cheeks and hoped that he had ridden on far enough not to have noticed. She also hoped it would seem that her curtsy had been in general acknowledgment of the whole group.
“My dear Mrs. Winters,” Miss Downes was saying, “how gratifying it is that we happened to be outside and so close to the road when Mr. Adams and his dear wife and their distinguished guests returned home. It was most agreeable of Mrs. Adams to nod to us, I am sure. She might have stayed back in the shadows, as I am certain she was inclined to do after the tedium of a long journey.”
“Yes,” Catherine agreed, “traveling is indeed a tiresome business, Miss Downes. I am sure they will all be thankful to be at Bodley House in time for tea.”
Miss Downes stepped out through the gateway and turned in the direction of home, eager to share what she had just seen with her aged invalid mother. Catherine looked after her down the street and saw in some amusement that everyone seemed to be out of doors. It was as if a great procession had just gone past and everyone was still basking in the glory of having seen it.
She was still feeling mortified. Perhaps Viscount Rawleigh would have realized the mistake she had made in singling him out for her curtsy—and her smile. Perhaps, she thought hopefully, other people in the village had done the same thing. Perhaps some of them did not realize even yet the mistake they had made.
His looks were almost identical to Mr. Adams’s, she thought. But if first impressions were anything to judge by—and she judged by them even though she realized that she was perhaps being unfair—he was quite different in character. This man was haughty and lacking in humor. There had been a coldness in his dark eyes. Perhaps it was a difference that twenty fateful minutes had wrought. Lord Rawleigh had all the consequence of a title and a large fortune and a rich and vast property to live up to.
She hoped she would not have the embarrassment of meeting him again. She hoped that his stay at Bodley would be of short duration, though it was altogether probable that he had not even noticed her more particularly than anyone else in his regal progress along the street.
• • •
“WELL,” Eden Wendell, Baron Pelham, said as they progressed along the single street of Bodley-on-the-Water, feeling rather as if they were part of a circus parade, “at least we were wrong about one thing.”
His two friends did not ask him what that one thing was since they had talked specifically about it before deciding to rusticate for a while in Derbyshire and during their journey there.
“But only one among the three of us,” Mr. Nathaniel Gascoigne said with mock gloom, “unless there are a few dozen others hiding behind the curtains of these cottage windows.”
“Ever the dreamer, Nat,” Rex Adams, Viscount Rawleigh, said. “At a guess I would say that every villager and his dog is out on the street to gawk at us going by. And by my observations there has been only one looker among them.”
Lord Pelham sighed. “And she had eyes for no one but you, Rex, damn your eyes,” he said. “My blue eyes have been called irresistible by more than one lady of my acquaintance, but the village looker did not even glance into them. All she saw was you.”
“It might have been as well if one lady had not found your eyes so irresistible, Eden,” Lord Rawleigh said dryly. “If I had been in town, perhaps she would have looked into mine instead and you would not have been forced to rusticate for a few months, including the whole of the Season.”
Lord Pelham winced while Mr. Gascoigne threw back his head and laughed. “A hit, Ede,” he said. “Come, you must admit it.”
“She was new to town,” Lord Pelham said, scowling, “and had a body to die for. How was I to know that she was married? You two may find the idea of being discovered in bed by a husband and in the act, so to speak, to be uproariously hilarious, but I did not and do not.”
“In truth,” Mr. Gascoigne said, one hand to his heart, “I feel for you, Ede. The timing was wretched. He might at least have had the decency to wait in the shadows until you were properly—or improperly—finished.” He threw back his head and laughed again. Fortunately they were beyond the confines of the village street and in progress up the oak-lined driveway that led to Bodley House.
“Well,” his friend said after pursing his lips and deciding against taking up the gauntlet—after all, he had been putting up with this ribbing for several weeks now, “I am not the only one forced to rusticate, Nat. Shall I drop the name Miss Sybil Armstrong onto the breeze?”
“Why not?” Mr. Gascoigne said with a shrug. “You have done so often enough lately, Ede. A Christmas kiss, that was all it was. Beneath the mistletoe. It would have been churlish to have resisted. The chit was standing there deliberately, pretending she had not noticed either it or me. And then brothers and fathers and mothers and cousins and uncles and aunts—”
“We see the picture with painful clarity,” the viscount assured him.
“—coming through doorways and walls and ceilings and floors,” Mr. Gascoigne said. “All looking at me in expectation of an imminent declaration. I tell you both, it was enough to put the wind up a fellow. Make that a hurricane.”
“Yes, we already have on more than one occasion before today,” the viscount said. “And so you descended upon me, the two of you, like a pair of frightened rabbits, and I am expected to rusticate with you and miss the Season myself.”
“Unfair, Rex,” Mr. Gascoigne said. “Did we say anything about you missing the Season and all the young hopefuls and their mamas? Now, did we? Tell him, Ede.”
“We offered to keep Stratton warm and lived in while you were gone,” Lord Pelham said. “Come, you must admit it, Rex.”
The viscount grinned. “It serves you both right,” he said, “that my sister-in-law invited us all here and that I decided we would come rather than stay at Stratton and be dull. And it serves you right that the village appears to boast only one looker and that she fancies me.”
There was a chorus of protests, but they were incoherent and quickly silenced by their arrival at the house. They dismounted and handed their reins to waiting grooms and proceeded to help the ladies down from the carriages.
She certainly was a looker, Viscount Rawleigh thought, though she was no young girl and looked rather too genteel to be a milkmaid or a laundry maid or someone else who might be tumbled for a few coins. She had been standing in the garden of a small but respectable-looking cottage. The odds were high that there was a husband to go along with that cottage and to lay claim to that beauty.
A pity. She was definitely a beauty, with her dark hair and regular features and creamy complexion. And she had a pleasing figure, neither too thin nor too voluptuous. Unlike most men of his acquaintance, he did not favor voluptuous women. Neither was she all crimped and curled and frilled. She allowed her beauty to stand on its own merits, unassisted by art. And her beauty had many merits.
Of course, she was a bold woman. His eyes had found her when she was nodding to Clarissa. He had not failed to notice, then, how her eyes had passed over Eden and Nat before coming to rest on him. She had smiled and curtsied, the baggage, quite pointedly and exclusively for him.
Well, he was not averse to a little discreet dalliance if it should happen by some miracle that there was no husband to find them in compromising circumstances, as poor Eden had been found. Certainly he was not interested in either of the two unattached ladies who were part of Claude’s house party, one of them Clarissa’s sister. Or in any other matrimonial prospect. If Clarissa only had a brain in her head, she would realize that it was more in her interest to keep him single than to foist her sister on him. Claude was, after all, his heir, and after Claude, Clarissa’s own son.
But perhaps she feared that he would allow himself to act on some whim and take on a leg shackle with some other female while she was not present to keep a proprietary eye on him.
She need not entertain any such fear. His one close brush with matrimony had been quite enough to last him a lifetime as well as all the raw and painful emotions that had been part of the experience. Miss Horatia Eckert might go hang for all he cared now, though he had cared a great deal once upon a time. And she had made overtures recently—another reason why he was quite content to come to Bodley with his brother and his friends rather than go to town for the Season. His jaw hardened for a moment.
“Rawleigh.” His sister-in-law rested a hand on the sleeve of his greatcoat after he had handed her down from her carriage. She always addressed him by his title, although he had invited her to use his given name. He believed it gave her a greater feeling of consequence to be closely related to a title. “Welcome to Bodley. Do escort Ellen inside. She is very fatigued. She is of such a delicate constitution, you know. Mrs. Croft will be waiting to show you to your rooms.”
Clarissa appeared to be of the firm opinion that the more delicate the female, the more attractive she must be as a prospective bride. Certainly she had spent the last couple of weeks, ever since Miss Hudson joined her at Stratton at his suggestion, describing her sister thus to him.
“It will be my pleasure, Clarissa,” he said, turning to offer his arm to the younger sister. “Miss Hudson?”
Miss Ellen Hudson was afraid of him, the viscount thought with some irritation. Or in awe of him, which was more or less the same thing and quite as annoying. Yet Clarissa seemed to believe that the two of them would enjoy being irritated and awed together for a lifetime.
Was she married? he wondered, his thoughts straying from the young lady on his arm.
And how soon could he decently find out?
• • •
MRS. Clarissa Adams’s cup of joy was running over. There were guests at Bodley for an indeterminate length of time—eleven in all, and there were no fewer than three titles among them, four if she considered her sister-in-law Daphne, whose husband, Sir Clayton Baird, had made her into Lady Baird.
There were Rawleigh and his two friends; his and Claude’s sister and her husband; Ellen; Clarissa’s dear friend, Hannah Lipton, with Mr. Lipton, their daughter, Miss Veronica Lipton, who was one year longer in the tooth than Ellen and not nearly as pretty or of as delicate a constitution, and their son, Mr. Arthur Lipton and his betrothed, Miss Theresa Hulme. Miss Hulme was only eighteen, a dangerous age, but she was unfortunately quite insipid with her pale auburn hair and pale green eyes. But then, she was safely betrothed to the younger Mr. Lipton, and one did not wish to be unkind.
There was only one fact to mar Mrs. Adams’s joy. They were an uneven number. All her hints to Mr. Gascoigne, Rawleigh’s untitled friend, had gone for naught and he had accepted the invitation she had felt compelled to extend to him as well as to Baron Pelham. And her attempt to persuade a young widowed friend to be taken up in their carriage as they returned to Bodley had failed when an answer to her letter had brought the news that the friend was newly betrothed and was to be married within the month.
And so Mrs. Adams felt all the embarrassment of being a hostess who had so mismanaged matters that she had an uneven number of ladies and gentlemen. It was most mortifying. She racked her brains for some suitable female not too far distant from Bodley to be summoned as a houseguest for a few weeks, but there was no one. And so she had to fall back upon the expedient of issuing frequent invitations to some unattached local female who could not reasonably be asked to stay. There was no point in considering with any care who that might be. There was really only one possibility.
Mrs. Catherine Winters.
Mrs. Adams did not like Mrs. Winters. She put on too many airs, considering the fact that she lived in genteel poverty in a small cottage and had a wardrobe of extremely limited size. And no one seemed to know quite where she had come from five years ago or who her husband had been. Or her father, for that matter. But she assumed an air of quiet refinement and her conversation was equally refined and sensible.
It annoyed Mrs. Adams that everyone should assume the woman was a lady merely because she behaved like one. And it irritated her to have to invite Mrs. Winters to dine or to make up a table of cards occasionally when she was the children’s music teacher. Not that she would accept any remuneration for that task, it was true, but even so it was lowering to have to consort socially with someone who was almost, if not quite, a servant.
If Mrs. Winters did not dress so unfashionably and style her hair so plainly, she might almost be called handsome. Not as handsome as Ellen, of course. But there were those airs she put on. And Rawleigh’s mind must not be distracted from Ellen. He had shown some well-bred interest in the girl during the last two weeks, she was sure.
Interestingly enough, she was never too worried about Claude’s eyes straying. Claude was devoted to her. She had had some misgivings about marrying such a handsome and charming young man nine years before, being a girl with some sense as well as a measure of vanity. She did not believe she was the type to smile and affect ignorance while her husband took his pleasure with whores and mistresses. And yet it was such an advantageous match for her—he was after all heir to a viscount. And she liked his looks. And so she had decided to marry him and to hold him too. She had deliberately become both his wife and his mistress, encouraging him to do with her in the privacy of her bedchamber what would have caused most wives of tender sensibilities to die of shock. And she had shocked herself—she liked what he did.
No, Mrs. Adams was not afraid of losing her husband to the likes of Mrs. Winters, even though she did not encourage the woman to get too close. But she would have liked a female who was somewhat—plainer to invite to make up numbers with her guests.
Unfortunately there was no one else.
“I shall send for Mrs. Winters to come to dinner tonight,” she told Mr. Adams the morning after their return home. “She will be grateful enough to elevate herself in society for an evening, I daresay. And she can be depended upon not to disgrace the company.”
“Ah, Mrs. Winters,” her husband said with a warm smile. “She is always agreeable company, my love. Did I keep you awake too late last night after such a long journey? My apologies.”
He knew that none were necessary. She crossed his study to his side of the desk and bent her head for his kiss.
“I shall seat her beside Mr. Gascoigne,” she said. “They can entertain each other. I do think it provoking of him not to have returned to London after imposing on Rawleigh’s hospitality for all of three weeks.”
“I think it’s a splendid idea to seat them together, my love,” he said. There was amusement in his smile. “But I think you waste your efforts trying to pair Ellen with Rex. He is not to be had, or so he says. I begin to believe that he is serious. He was badly hurt by Miss Eckert, I am afraid.”
“No man is to be had,” she said scornfully, “until he is made to see that a certain lady was made for him. The first one was simply not the right one.”
“Ah.” He smiled again. “Is that what you made me see, Clarissa? That you were made for me? How perceptive you were.”
“Ellen and Rawleigh were made for each other,” she said, refusing to have her attention diverted.
“We shall see,” he said, laughing.
“IT is extremely obliging of Mr. and Mrs. Adams to invite Mrs. Lovering and me to dine at Bodley,” the Reverend Ebenezer Lovering said as he handed Catherine down from his cart and turned back to lend assistance to his wife. “And they have done you a singular honor to include you, Mrs. Winters. Especially when they have Viscount Rawleigh as a houseguest.”
“Yes, indeed,” Catherine murmured. She lifted her hands to smooth over her hair and check that the evening breeze had not ruined her coiffure, simple as it was. She tried to ignore the thumping of her heart. She had decided a hundred times not to accept the invitation, but she had accepted anyway. There was really no point in staying away. She could not hide until all the guests had returned to their various homes. They might be here for several weeks.
She had dressed with some care, wearing a gown of green silk that she knew looked good with her hair. And she had dressed her hair less severely than usual, allowing tendrils to curl at her temples and along her neck. And yet she knew as soon as she had handed her cloak to a footman and had been shown into the drawing room by the butler that she looked woefully plain and unfashionable. Of course, it befitted a poor neighbor who had been honored with an invitation only because for some reason there was one more gentleman than lady to look slightly shabby, she supposed with a flashing of the old humor. But in truth she could feel little amusement.
“Ah, Mrs. Winters,” Mrs. Adams said, sweeping toward her, all flounces and sparkling jewelry and nodding plumes, “how good of you to come.” Her eyes swept over her guest and registered clear satisfaction that she was not likely to outshine any other lady present. She turned to greet the rector and his wife.
“Mrs. Winters, how kind of you.” Mr. Adams was smiling warmly at her. It was definitely Mr. Adams, she thought before allowing herself to smile back. He was wearing his habitual good-humored expression. Besides, he had called her by name. “Allow me to present you to some of our guests.”
She did not have the courage to let her eyes sweep the room. It seemed very full of people. But she looked at each separate person as she was introduced and felt relief each time. None of these people was familiar, except for Miss Ellen Hudson, Mrs. Adams’s sister, who had been a guest at Bodley several times over the past five years. She was looking very pretty and grown-up and was dressed in what Catherine guessed was the first stare of fashion. She was a younger version of Mrs. Adams, with her rich brown hair and green eyes.
Everyone greeted her politely. She saw admiration in the blue eyes of Lord Pelham, who took her hand and bowed over it, and in the lazy gray eyes of Mr. Gascoigne. Both were handsome young men. It did feel good to be admired, she admitted to herself, although she would never again court admiration or be beguiled by it.
At last there were only two people left to whom she had not been presented. But she had been aware of them—or of one of them at least—with an inward squirming of discomfort since she entered the room. But it had to be faced. Perhaps he had not even noticed her with any particularity yesterday or, if he had, perhaps he would not recognize her now. Or perhaps he realized she had mistaken him for his brother.
“May I present my sister, Daphne, Lady Baird?” Mr. Adams said. “Mrs. Winters, Daph.”
Lady Baird was as fair as her brothers were dark, but she was as amiable as Mr. Adams and greeted Catherine with a smile and a few courteous words.
“And my brother, Viscount Rawleigh,” Mr. Adams said. “As you can see, Mrs. Winters, we are identical twins. The fact has caused other people embarrassment and us amusement all our lives—has it not, Rex?”
“And they have been known shamelessly and deliberately to exploit the likeness, Mrs. Winters,” Lady Baird said. “I could tell you stories to fill the evening and still have enough left for tomorrow.”
Lord Rawleigh had made Catherine a stiff bow. “Not now, Daphne,” he said. “Maybe some other time. Your servant, Mrs. Winters.”
Yes, they were identical, Catherine thought. Both were tall and handsome with dark hair and darker eyes. But they were different. Although she had made that initial mistake in the village, she did not believe she would do so again. They were apparently of the same build and yet it seemed to her that the viscount was more athletic and stronger than Mr. Adams. And his hair was longer—surely unfashionably long. And his face was quite different. Oh, the features were indistinguishable from those of his brother, but whereas Mr. Adams had an open, amiable countenance, Lord Rawleigh’s was arrogant, hooded, cynical.
She liked Mr. Adams. She disliked this man—an opinion that might well be colored by the fact that she had embarrassed herself before his eyes, she was ready to admit to herself.
“Mister Winters?” Lady Baird said, looking about the room with brightly curious eyes.
“Is deceased, Daph,” Mr. Adams said quickly. “Mrs. Winters is a widow. We are delighted that she chose Bodley-on-the-Water in which to make her home. She reads to the elderly and teaches the children and keeps the church supplied with flowers from her garden during the summer. She teaches Julie and Will to play the pianoforte, though they are displaying all the symptoms of tone deafness that afflict their father, I am afraid.”
“Mrs. Winters is what one would call a treasure, then,” Viscount Rawleigh said, his eyes looking her up and down and undoubtedly coming to the same conclusion that Mrs. Adams had appeared to come to earlier. Well, it did not matter, Catherine thought, swallowing her mortification. She had not dressed to impress his almighty lordship. If he saw her as a woman of moderate means, living far from any center of fashion, then he was right. That was exactly what she was.
“Beyond all doubt,” Mr. Adams said with a smile. “But we are embarrassing you, Mrs. Winters. Tell me how my children have progressed in the past two months. The truth, now.” He chuckled.
Catherine was annoyed to realize that she really had blushed. But it was not so much with pleasure or embarrassment at the compliment as with anger that it had not been meant as such. There had been a certain boredom in the viscount’s voice. What he had really been saying was that she was a dull woman. Well, she was that too.
“They have both been practicing daily, sir,” she said. “And both are developing a competence at their scales and the simple exercises I have set them.”
Mr. Adams laughed again. “Ah, the consummate diplomat,” he said. “But I suppose that with Julie at least we must persevere. The thought of a young lady growing up without that particular accomplishment is enough to give one the shudders. At least she shows some promise with her brush and watercolors.”
“I do not play the pianoforte with any degree of competence either,” Lady Baird said, “and I have not been a social pariah since my come-out. Indeed, I believe I did very well for myself in snaring Clayton as a husband, even setting aside the fact that we were head over ears for each other. All one does during a party when asked to play a piece, Mrs. Winters, is smile dazzlingly, hold up both hands, and say something like, ‘Look, ten thumbs,’ and everyone laughs as if one is a great wit. I assure you it works.”
“Perhaps Mrs. Winters should teach your children diplomacy rather than music, then, Claude,” Lord Rawleigh said.
“It must indeed be tedious to teach children who are not interested,” Lady Baird said with some sympathy.
“Not so, ma’am,” Catherine said. “And it is not interest they lack, but—”
“—talent,” Mr. Adams supplied when she stopped abruptly. He chuckled again. “Never fear, Mrs. Winters. I love them none the less for their lack of musical aptitude.”
“Ah, dinner,” Lady Baird said, looking across the room to see the butler speaking with Mrs. Adams. “Good. I am famished.”
“Excuse me,” Mr. Adams said. “I must lead in Mrs. Lipton.”
“Where is Clayton?” Lady Baird looked about her.
Catherine quelled an inner surging of panic. Oh, no, this was too embarrassing. But she was saved, as she might have known she would be, by the arrival of Mrs. Adams, who of course had everything organized.
“Rawleigh,” she said, taking his arm, “you will, of course, wish to lead Ellen in.” She looked with almost comic condescension at Catherine. “I have asked the Reverend Lovering to lead you in, Mrs. Winters. I thought you would be more comfortable with someone you know.”
“Of course,” Catherine murmured, amusement replacing the panic. “Thank you, ma’am.”
The rector was already bowing at her elbow and assuring her that he would consider it a singular honor to be allowed to take her in to dinner and seat her beside him.
“Mrs. Adams knows,” he said while that lady could still hear him, “that a man of my calling favors a table companion of good sense.”
Which was wonderful praise indeed, Catherine thought, laying her arm along his, and would undoubtedly confirm Viscount Rawleigh in his opinion of her as a dull woman. Not that she gave the snap of two fingers for his opinion.
She settled philosophically into what was bound to be a dull hour. Mr. Nathaniel Gascoigne sat to her left and appeared to be a pleasant gentleman as well as a handsome one. But she had little opportunity to converse with him. The Reverend Lovering monopolized her attention as he always did when seated beside her, a common occurrence when they were both guests at Bodley. He assured her throughout the meal that they must both feel humble gratitude for the honor bestowed on them by their invitations to be in such illustrious company. And he assured her too of the superior quality of every dish set before them.
Catherine lent him half an ear and enjoyed observing the company. Mr. Adams at the head of the table was the genial host. Mrs. Adams at the foot was the regal hostess. It always intrigued Catherine that they were apparently quite contented with each other when they were so very different in character. They were, of course, both beautiful people. She noted that Ellen Hudson, seated beside the viscount, made a few nervous attempts to engage his attention. Yet when he gave it, she became mute and noticeably uncomfortable. He would turn his attention back to the conversation of Mrs. Lipton on his other side. Mrs. Adams was noticeably annoyed. Catherine guessed that Mrs. Lipton would be seated far from the viscount in future. She noticed that Lady Baird and Mr. Gascoigne flirted with each other in what was very obviously a harmless manner. She noticed that Miss Theresa Hulme exchanged several longing glances with Mr. Arthur Lipton, her fiancé, who was too far from her at table to be engaged in conversation. She appeared to have little conversation and was soon largely ignored by the gentlemen to her left and right, poor girl. Lord Pelham was deep in conversation with Miss Veronica Lipton throughout dinner.
Catherine enjoyed being an observer rather than a player, though it had not always been so. Being an observer lent amusement to life and saved one much heartache. It was far more pleasant, she had discovered gradually over the years, to guard one’s emotions, to keep oneself at one remove from life, so to speak. Not that she did not involve herself in a number of busy activities, and not that she did not have friends. But they were safe activities, safe friends.
She found her eyes caught by Lord Rawleigh’s at a moment when half her mind was listening to the Reverend Lovering’s eulogy on the roast beef, just consumed, and the other half was woolgathering. She smiled into the familiar face a split second before she remembered that it was not familiar at all. He was a stranger. And she had done it again soon after assuring herself that it could never happen again. Her eyes slid awkwardly away from his and her fork clattered rather noisily on her plate.
But what was wrong with smiling at him when their eyes met by chance across the table? They had, after all, been presented to each other and had conversed in a group together for a few minutes before dinner. There was no reason at all why she should have looked away in confusion. Doing so had made her appear guilty, almost as if she had been stealing admiring glances at him and had been caught in the act. She frowned in chagrin and looked determinedly back at him.
Viscount Rawleigh was still observing her. He raised one dark and haughty eyebrow before she jerked her eyes away again.
And now she had made matters worse. How gauche she was! Merely because he was a handsome man and she felt the pull of his attractiveness as any normal woman would?
She smiled at the Reverend Lovering, and thus encouraged, he launched into praises of the superior discernment Mr. Adams had shown in the choice of chef.
• • •
SHE was a widow. Interesting. Widows were always many times more desirable than any other type of female. With unmarried ladies one had to tread carefully—very carefully, as Nat had recently discovered to his cost. If one was a man of fortune and some social standing, one was seen as a matrimonial prize, to be netted at all costs by interested relatives, even if not by the young lady herself. Besides, unmarried ladies were quite unbeddable unless one was prepared to pay the ultimate price.
He was not. Only that once. Never again.
And married ladies were dangerous, as Eden had found within the past few months. One could lose one’s life in the face of an irate husband’s bullet or have to live with the guilt of having killed a man one had wronged. Even if the husband was too cowardly to issue a challenge, as appeared to have been the case with the man Eden had cuckolded, there was always the censure of the ton to be borne. That meant absenting oneself from London, and even perhaps from Brighton and Bath for a year or so.
Females who were not ladies were generally a bore. They were necessary for the slaking of one’s appetites, of course, and they were often marvelously skilled between the sheets. But they were too easily had and they generally had nothing at all to offer except their bodies. They were a bore. It was several years since he had employed a regular mistress. He preferred casual encounters if the choice must be made. But they posed their own danger. He had brought his body more or less safely through six years of fighting in the Peninsula as well as through Waterloo. He had no wish to surrender it to a sexual disease.
No, widows were perfect in every way. He had twice had affairs with a widow. There had been no complications with either. He had left each when he tired of her. Neither had put up any fuss. Both had moved on to the next lover. He remembered them with some fondness.
Mrs. Winters was a widow. And an extraordinarily lovely one. Oh, not in any very obvious way, perhaps. Ellen Hudson was dressed far more richly and fashionably. Her hair was styled far more intricately. She was younger. But it was in the very absence of such lures that Mrs. Winters’s beauty shone. In her rather plain and definitely unfashionable green gown, the woman became apparent. The eye did not linger on the appearance of the dress but penetrated beyond to the rather tall, slender, but shapely form within. It was an eminently beddable body. And the simplicity of her hairstyle, smooth over the crown of her head and over her ears, caught in a knot behind, with only a few loose curls to relieve the severity, drew attention, not to itself, but to the rich dark sheen of the hair. And the hair was not fussy enough to draw attention from her face, regular-featured, hazel-eyed, intelligent. Beautiful.
She was a widow. He silently blessed the late Mr. Winters for having the courtesy to die young.
The stay in the country promised to be tedious. Oh, it was good to be back in what had been his grandparents’ house. It revived many pleasant childhood memories. And it would be good to spend a few weeks with Claude. They shared the unusual closeness of identical twins and yet their lives had taken quite separate paths since Claude had married at the age of twenty. They no longer saw a great deal of each other. He could not ask, either, for more congenial company than that of two of his three closest friends. They had been close since they were cavalry officers together in the Peninsula. They had been dubbed there by one wag of a fellow officer the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he, Eden, Nat, and Kenneth Woodfall, Earl of Haverford, because it had seemed that they were always in the thick of action.
But the stay was going to be tedious. He could not like Clarissa, though to give her her due, she seemed to be keeping Claude happy enough. It was very obvious to him, though, that she had set herself a mission to be accomplished during the next few weeks. She wanted him for her sister. And so there was all the tedium to be faced of being polite to the girl while giving no false impression that he was courting her. He knew he would be up against Clarissa’s determined maneuvering.
Sometimes he cursed himself for a fool for feeling such an obligation to Eden and Nat. Did he have to feel obliged to rusticate with them just because they had no choice but to do so? Could he not leave them to keep each other company? But he knew that they would have done as much for him. Besides, Horatia would probably be in town for the Season. He would be as happy to avoid seeing her.
And so he was stuck here for a few weeks at the very least. He needed more diversion than a brother and two close friends could provide. He needed female diversion.
And Mrs. Winters was a widow.
She had signaled as much more than once. Quite unmistakably. Her behavior was entirely well-bred throughout the evening. She appeared quiet yet charming, just as a woman of her apparent position and means would be expected to behave. She neither pushed herself forward nor hung back with false modesty. In the drawing room after dinner she conversed with Clayton and Daphne and Mr. Lipton and appeared to be doing so with some sense, if their interested expressions when she was talking were any indication. After Miss Hudson, Miss Lipton, and Miss Hulme had favored the company with pianoforte recitals and songs, she was invited by Claude to play for them and did so without fuss. She played well but did not linger after the one piece as Miss Lipton had done. When Mrs. Lovering rose to leave, Mrs. Winters joined her without hesitation, bade Claude and Clarissa a courteous good night, and nodded politely at the company in general. She waited quietly for the pompous ass of a rector to pile effusive thanks on his hosts, to commend them on their distinguished guests, and to praise the meal they had all enjoyed. Almost ten minutes passed before the three of them finally took their leave, Claude with them to hand the ladies into the rector’s conveyance and to see them on their way.
Oh, but she had signaled her availability. There had been the smile and the feigned confusion and the lowered lashes at dinner—beautiful long lashes they were too, as dark as her hair. And there had been the several covert glances in the drawing room, most notably the one she had given him after she had finished playing the pianoforte and was smiling at the smattering of applause. She had looked directly to where he was standing, propped against the mantel, a glass in one hand, and she had blushed. He had not been applauding, but he had raised his glass one inch and had lifted one eyebrow.
Yes, she was definitely available. As he stretched out in bed later that night, having dismissed his valet and extinguished the candles, his loins ached in pleasurable anticipation.
He wondered if the late Mr. Winters had been a good teacher of bedroom skills. But no matter. He would just as soon teach her himself.
SHE had just walked back the three miles from the small cottage elderly Mr. Clarkwell occupied with his son and daughter-in-law. She had been reading to him as she tried to do at least once a week. He could no longer get about without the aid of two canes, and sitting indoors or even in the doorway all day made him peevish, his daughter-in-law claimed.
Catherine scratched an ecstatic Toby’s stomach, first with the toe of her shoe and then with her hand.
“Foolish dog,” she said, catching him by the jaw and shaking his head from side to side. “Anyone would think I had been gone for a month.” She laughed at his furiously wagging tail.
It was a chilly day despite the sunshine. She poked at the embers of the fire in the kitchen grate and succeeded in coaxing it back to life. She put on more wood and then filled the kettle and set it to boil for tea.
It always felt good to come back home and close the door behind her and know that she did not have to go anywhere for the rest of the day. She thought about last evening and smiled to herself. Such evenings were pleasant and she had found the company congenial despite several moments of embarrassment. But she did not crave them as a general way of life.
Not any longer.
But it seemed the rest of the day was not to be all her own after all. There was a sharp rap on the door. She hurried to answer it, sighing inwardly while Toby went wild with barking. It was a groom from Bodley.
“Mrs. Adams is coming to call on you, ma’am,” he said.
Mrs. Adams never called upon those she considered beneath her socially. What she did do was summon a person to the garden gate, regardless of the weather or of what that person might have been busy at inside the house. And there she would speak for a few minutes until she chose to signal her coachman to drive on.
Catherine sighed again and closed the door on an indignant Toby before walking down the path to the gate. It was not the carriage approaching this time, though, she saw immediately, but a group of riders—Mr. and Mrs. Adams, Miss Hudson, Miss Lipton, Lady Baird, Lord Pelham, Mr. Arthur Lipton, and Viscount Rawleigh. They all stopped and there was a chorus of greetings.
“How do you do, Mrs. Winters?” Mr. Adams said with a cheerful grin. “Clarissa decided that she must call you outside in case you missed and failed to admire such a splendid cavalcade of horses and their riders passing by.”
Mrs. Adams ignored him. She inclined her head regally. It was a head covered by a very fetching blue riding hat with a feather that curled attractively beneath her chin. She wore a matching blue riding habit. It was new, Catherine believed. And expensive.
“Good day, Mrs. Winters,” she said. “I trust you did not take a chill from riding home in the vicar’s dogcart last evening? It is a pity you do not keep a carriage, but I do not suppose you would have much need for one.”
“Indeed not, ma’am,” Catherine agreed, entertaining herself with a mental image of a carriage house in her back garden—twice as large as her cottage. “And it was a very pleasant evening for a drive, provided one was dressed appropriately.”
“What a delightful cottage,” Lady Baird said. “It is in a quite idyllic setting, is it not, Eden?”
“There are many people in London,” Lord Pelham said, his blue eyes twinkling down at Catherine, “who would kill to have property on the river, as you have, Mrs. Winters.”
“Then I must be thankful I do not live near London, my lord,” she said.
“I do not believe such a small property would be of interest to anyone in town, Pelham,” Mrs. Adams said. “Though it must be admitted that the river makes a pleasing setting for the village. And the stone bridge is very picturesque. Did you notice it when we arrived two days ago?”
“We will ride on and pay homage to it,” Mr. Adams said, “and allow Mrs. Winters to return to the warmth of her cottage. You are shivering, ma’am.”
Catherine smiled at him, and generally at all of them as they bade her farewell and proceeded down the street toward the triple-arched stone bridge at the end of it. Yes, she had shivered. And yes, it was chilly standing outside without her cloak and bonnet.
But it was not the cold that had been her chief discomfort. It was him. Perhaps it was nothing at all. Perhaps she was being girlishly silly over a handsome man. She would be very annoyed with herself if that were really the case. She had thought herself past all that. She was five-and-twenty years old and she was living quietly in the country for the rest of her life. She had resigned herself to that, adjusted her life accordingly. And she was happy. No, contented. Happiness involved emotion, and if one was happy, then one could also be unhappy. She wanted nothing more to do with either. She was content to be content.
Or perhaps she was not just being silly. Perhaps there really was something. Certainly he had spent a great deal of last evening looking at her, even though he had made no attempt to converse with her or to join any of the groups of which she was a part—except before dinner, when he had had no choice. It surely could not be coincidence that every time she had glanced at him he had been gazing back. She had felt his eyes even when she was not looking at him. And whenever she had looked, it had been unwillingly to try to prove to herself that she was imagining things.
The same thing had happened today. He had not spoken a word to her but had hung back behind the rest of the group. While they were all glancing about them at her cottage and garden, at the village, and at her, his own eyes had not faltered. She had felt them even though she had not once glanced at him.
And that was ridiculous, she told herself, letting herself back into the house and suffering the excited assault of Toby, who had been denied the pleasure of barking at strangers. She had looked quite easily at all the others, including the other three gentlemen, and had felt no awkwardness or embarrassment at all even though Mr. Adams and Lord Pelham were equally handsome as Viscount Rawleigh and Mr. Lipton too was a good-looking gentleman. Why should she feel embarrassment? They had called on her. She had not presumed to invite them.
Why had she found it impossible to turn either her head or her eyes in the direction of the viscount? And how could she know that he had looked steadily at her with those hooded dark eyes of his since she had not looked to see? And how would he construe the fact that she had not returned his look at least once—coolly and courteously?
She felt like a girl from the schoolroom again, struck dumb and brainless by the mere sight of a handsome male face.
No one had mentioned last evening how long the guests were to remain at Bodley. Perhaps they were there for only a few days. Or for a week or two at the longest. Surely it would not be much longer than that. There was still some time before the Season started in London, but young blades would want to be there before all the balls and routs and such began in earnest. Viscount Rawleigh, Lord Pelham, and Mr. Gascoigne definitely qualified as young blades. Though not so very young either. They must all be close to thirty. The viscount was Mr. Adams’s twin, and Mr. Adams had been married long enough to have produced an eight-year-old daughter.
She tried desperately to stop thinking about the houseguests at Bodley and about one of them in particular. She did not want to do so. She liked her new life and she liked herself as she was. She made her tea, poured it after it had steeped for a suitable time, and sat down with one of Daniel Defoe’s books, lent her by the rector. Perhaps she could lose herself in an account of the plague year.
She eventually succeeded in doing so. Toby stretched out on the rug at her feet and sighed noisily in deep contentment.
• • •
SHE really was beautiful. She was one of the rare women who would look so even dressed in a sack. Or in nothing at all. Oh, yes, definitely that. He had sat his horse outside her cottage unclothing her with his eyes while she exchanged small talk with everyone else. And his mental exercise had revealed long limbs, a flat stomach that did not need the aid of corsets, firm, uptilted, rose-peaked breasts, creamy skin. And with his eyes he had let down her hair from its plain and sensible knot and watched it cascade in a dark mane down her back to her waist. It would wave enticingly—he remembered the tendrils that had been allowed to remain loose the evening before.
He had not failed to notice that she did not once look directly at him. Neither had he failed to sense that she was more fully aware of him than of any of the others, at whom she looked and with whom she conversed quite easily. There had been an invisible thread drawn tautly between them and he had pulled on it only very gently. He had no wish to be teased again by Eden. He had no wish for anyone else to notice, especially Claude, between whose mind and his own there was a strange bond.