Married to a Perfect Stranger

Married to a Perfect Stranger

by Jane Ashford

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Overview

Brand new Regency romance from RT Book Reviews Lifetime Achievement Award Nominee Jane Ashford

Time and distance have changed them both...

Quiet and obliging, Mary Fleming and John Bexley marry to please their families and John immediately leaves on a two-year diplomatic mission. Now John is back, and everything they thought they knew about each other was wrong...

It's disconcerting, irritating-and somehow all very exciting...

Celebrate the 80th birthday of Regency Romance with great books from Sourcebooks Casablanca!

"Charm, intrigue, humor and just the right touch of danger." -RT Book Reviews, on Charmed and Dangerous
"Jane Ashford is an excellent writer-her prose is a joy to read." -Regency Retro Reads
"Jane Ashford's romances are bewitching, filled with those elements that delight a reader: good story, intrigue and dynamic tension." -Romance Communications

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492601906
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 03/03/2015
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jane Ashford discovered Georgette Heyer in junior high school and was captivated by the glittering world and witty language of Regency England. That delight was part of what led her to study English literature and travel widely. She's written historical and contemporary romances, and her books have been published all over Europe as well as in the United States. Jane has been nominated for a Career Achievement Award by RT Book Reviews. Find her on the web at www.janeashford.com and on Facebook. If you'd like to receive her monthly newsletter, you can sign up at either of those sites.

Read an Excerpt

One

John Bexley stood at the rail of the HMS Alceste and watched the gray water race by. Foam streaked the waves under an overcast sky. The sails belled out in a fresh wind, and the current in these narrowing straits, halfway across the world from England and home, pushed them even faster. It wasn't a full-fledged storm, but the weather was certainly what the navy men called "lively." And the roll and heeling of the ship made the small cabin he shared below feel like a cage being shaken by gigantic hands. Far better to brace yourself on deck, endure the salt spray and the roar, feel the full thrill of their swift progress. It was like flying.

He tightened his grip on the rigging as a gust tilted the ship farther toward the sea. Rushing water gurgled and hissed along the timbers. The exultation of this run before the wind was a scrap of compensation for the failure of their mission. They were heading home with nothing accomplished, due to the intransigence of the Chinese emperor. As a junior clerk on the diplomatic mission, he'd had no great role to play in their thwarted attempt to sway the monarch. Still, he'd seen and experienced things he would never have been able to imagine. His mind teemed with new ideas. John grinned in the teeth of the wind. The huge expanse and buffeting energy of sea and sky matched his mood. He had the oddest sense that something had come to life inside him on this long voyage.

There was a crack like a cannon shot. The ship shuddered all along its length and stopped dead in the water, throwing John to his knees. Then the vessel slewed around until it wallowed broadside in the waves, sails snapping like pistol fire. John sprang up and looked wildly around for the source of the attack. The masts shook. There was a grating splintering sound, as of tortured wood. They'd hit something in the sea.

Clinging to rail and ropes, John peered over the side. Foam sucked and surged over a rock just below the surface. The wind pushed at the sails and shoved them harder against it. He could see that the hull was breached, water pouring in. They must have veered out of the channel through the straits. He straightened. Sailors swarmed the deck, some getting in each other's way. Where was the captain? The first mate? Someone should do something, give orders.

He remembered that the senior officers were dining with Lord Amherst and the top members of the diplomatic group. But why hadn't they come up on deck? John looked to the helmsman. He was leaning against the big ship's wheel. The impact had apparently stunned him.

The prow of the ship sagged and dipped. They were sinking. He was going to die thousands of miles from home, his fate unknown to his family and friends for weeks. And Mary. He and his newlywed wife were just beginning to get acquainted when they'd been separated by this voyage. Now, pulled down into these cold foreign seas, he would leave her a widow. John clutched the rigging so tight his nails dug into his palms.

By God, he was not! Denial rose in John, fierce and fiery, along with a surge of confidence stronger than any he'd ever felt before. He knew what to do. The Lyra was following not far behind them. It could pick them up. "Ready the dinghies," he shouted to the nearest sailors. "Everyone must get off the ship. We're going down."

Some of the crew had already gone to the pulleys. At his command, others joined them. John ran for the hatch to see what was keeping Lord Amherst and the others.

The moment he entered the narrow gangway, his fellow clerk Edmund Fordyce careened into him. "Where is Lord Amherst?" John asked.

"How the devil would I know?" replied Fordyce. He pushed John against the wall, trying to get by him. "Get out of my way, you idiot. There's water pouring into my cabin."

"We've struck a rock. We have to find the..."

"All I'm finding is a way off this crate." Fordyce shoved harder, squeezing past John and heading for the hatch.

"Fordyce! We need to..."

"I need to not risk my neck. You can do as you like." His tone suggested that he thought John was a fool. Fordyce staggered as the ship leaned, and then he lunged out onto the deck. The hatch slammed shut behind him.

John pushed off the wall and moved farther into the ship. Timbers groaned, and the floor heaved under his feet. Water sloshed out of a cabin on the left. At the end of the corridor, the door to the captain's cabin was shut. A long sliver of wood had somehow become jammed under it, John saw, preventing it from opening. Fists pounded on the inside. A chorus of voices shouted for aid. A knife jabbed through the boards at shoulder height, once, and again.

"Wait a moment," he called. He bent and yanked at the piece of wood. At first, it wouldn't shift, but when he kicked it, it moved and finally came loose. John jerked it free and pushed at the door.

The panels burst open. The captain surged out first, cursing. His first mate and other crewmen were right behind him. Then came Lord Amherst and the senior diplomatic staff. En masse, they jostled toward the hatch. "We hit a rock," John said. He wasn't sure whether anyone heard.

When the knot of men had rushed past, John followed. Water coursed over the toes of his boots. As he went, he checked quickly inside the cabins that lined the corridor. All were empty except the last. Reynolds, one of the troopers accompanying their group, was there, dazed and bleeding from a knock on the head. John put an arm around him and helped him up to the deck.

The scene there had become a more organized chaos. The captain was shouting orders. The helmsman had recovered. The ship's dinghies were being lowered into the thrashing sea. John saw Lord Amherst climbing down into one. The deck was listing badly now, the stern rising as water filled the front holds. John helped Reynolds across the shuddering planks. The grating of timber on rock was even louder now, audible even over the confused shouting.

A crewman gave him a hand with Reynolds. And then John was sliding down a rope into a heaving longboat. He could see their sister ship, the Lyra, standing off not far away, waiting to take them aboard. Dinghies dotted the waves, rowing toward her. He grabbed an oar himself as the last men dropped into the boat, and they pulled hard toward rescue. Curiously, along with relief, John felt a rising excitement. He was intensely aware of the pull of his muscles as he rowed, the lash of spray, salty on his lips, the whistle of the wind. Had he ever felt this alive, this clear and certain? All his senses united to tell him there would be no turning back from this profound moment. From now on, everything was different.

Minutes later, they made it to the Lyra. Crewmen reached down to help them climb to safety. John vaulted over the rail and turned to look back at the Alceste. The ship that had carried them from England to the ports of China, and partway back again, was going down. Most of his possessions, including gifts he'd purchased for people back home, were going with it. Waves washed over the foredeck. Spars and coils of rope floated free. The prow went under. The hull tipped and seemed to hesitate and then slipped beneath the surging sea. It seemed fitting to bow his head briefly, as if saying farewell to a friend.

"Well, I had to see to it that we got everyone off, sir," said a voice behind him. "Couldn't leave anyone behind."

John turned and discovered Fordyce, speaking to Lord Amherst.

"One has to do one's duty, whatever the risk," added his fellow clerk.

Lord Amherst nodded, eyes on the spot where the Alceste had disappeared. John stared at Fordyce, amazed at the man's effrontery. Surely someone had seen him, rushing to the dinghies ahead of everyone else?

As if sensing his gaze, Fordyce's pale blue eyes flicked at John and then away. "I suppose it's just bred in the bone, sir," he said to Lord Amherst. "Family tradition and all that."

John didn't hear what Amherst murmured in response. He was distracted by the captain of the Lyra, ordering his helmsman to steer well away from the hidden shoals.

* * *

The small Somerset manor house lazed under the June sun, its red brick mellow with age, its bow windows and ruddy chimney pots aglow. Bees hummed in the garden, where summer blooms perfumed the air. Foliage hung heavy in the small park; lawns glowed green.

But in a pleasant parlor at the back of the house, Mary Fleming Bexley felt far from peaceful. Though she had asked her mother to come, indeed insisted that she must, the visit was not going well. "I've been living with Aunt Lavinia for eighteen months, Mama," she said. "I know what she..."

"Well, we had to put you somewhere," said her mother indulgently. "Married a month, and then your husband goes haring off to China." She said it as if the mission that had taken John away was Mary's fault somehow.

What would she have answered, Mary wondered, if John had said, "Will you marry me and then go live with your great-aunt for months and months while I sail off on an important diplomatic journey to China?" Her reply might have been a bit more complicated than "yes." She'd had less than a month as a wife, actually, and then he was gone to the other side of the world and she was packed off to Somerset.

Packed off; there was the crux of it. It seemed she was always being packed off in one way or another. As if she was a misaddressed parcel or a stray shawl left behind at the end of a house party. "I'm twenty-four years old," she began. "A married woman..."

"At last," interrupted her mother. "Thanks to me. Well, and Mrs. Bexley, of course."

Of course, thought Mary. Their families had come up with the match and pushed for it in a united front. Mary understood now, as she hadn't then, that the Flemings and the Bexleys saw their offspring as two of a kind. She, the least promising of five sisters, short on common sense. John, overshadowed by his three brothers' loud accomplishments, stuck in a junior position at the Foreign Office. Mary had actually overheard her mother and John's discussing their similar shortcomings, not long after he'd departed on his voyage. That had been when they were deciding what to "do" with her. She and John had been hustled into marriage like backward children being sent off to school. Why had she let that happen? "Aunt Lavinia is not herself," she tried.

"Really? Who is she then?" Her mother laughed. "Do you remember how your father used to compare her to a frigate under full sail-‘prow jutting well out, a nose fit for cleaving waves.' I had to scold him so. I was afraid one of you children would repeat it."

Mary did remember. Her four sisters had feared Lavinia when she visited, sweeping in like a scudding ship, shedding pronouncements and odd gifts and errant barks of laughter. Mary alone had been fascinated, trailing in the older woman's wake like an inquisitive seabird. But sadly, this was not the Great-Aunt Lavinia she'd found when she arrived to stay here. "She's older," Mary said. "And...confused." Worse than confused-uncharacteristically anxious, a shell of her former, formidable self.

Her mother frowned. "Confused about what? She seemed fine to me. A bit tired, perhaps, but as you say, she's nearly eighty. I'm sure her nap will restore her."

Aunt Lavinia had been having a good day. Mary could not regret this, though it did make it harder to convince her mother.

"Really, Mary, don't you think you're the one who's confused? You call me here at a moment's notice, saying I must come, and I still have no idea why. I'm quite busy at home, you know."

Her mother was always busy. She descended like a striking hawk whenever the least disorder threatened. Mary searched for the right words. But in the face of Mama's all-too-familiar impatience, she couldn't find them. "Let me show you something." Her hand trembled slightly as she reached for her sketch pad.

"Oh, Mary." Her mother sighed and shook her head. "I don't have the time to look at drawings. Please tell me you did not drag me thirty miles over bumpy roads to show me a book of sketches. It's all very well for a child to be slow and dreamy and lose herself in fancies, but..." She rubbed her forehead.

Mary felt an old despair. She couldn't stop drawing, any more than she could stop eating. Her mother would never understand this; Mary had given up arguing with her about it years ago. She started to put the sketchbook away. But no. Then her mother would leave without agreeing to her plan. And what would become of Great-Aunt Lavinia when Mary left this house? John had to come home sometime. "Please, Mama, if you would just look."

Her mother's tone grew sharper. "Mary, as you have pointed out, you are grown up. You must stop wasting time on such stuff and settle down to more useful pursuits."

Part of her wanted to wilt and slink away, hide the drawings, hide herself, as she had so often done back home. Then, from somewhere, rose a determination that would not be denied. Mary had learned something important in these last chaotic months. In fact, her enforced sojourn in Somerset had brought her a revelation. She'd finally understood that in order to truly understand a situation, she had to draw the people involved. Drawing was her key to understanding the world. Only then did she see the truth of things. Only then could she figure out what to do and find the proper words to communicate it.

She'd known that her drawings captured emotion as well as appearances, through contrast perhaps, or juxtaposition. She couldn't explain how it happened. Sometimes, she had a hint about the feelings already. Other times, she had no idea until the drawing was done. For some reason, she learned subtle things with her hands, as they moved. Not through books, or lectures. No matter how hard she tried, words slipped out of her mind, while shapes and shadows illuminated it. Her mother, her sisters, could look and grasp and comprehend words all in a moment. They could remember all they read with ease. Her sisters found her inability to do so hilarious. Her mother just found it irritating. She looked vastly irritated now. But though Mary trembled under that well-known glare, she had to take the leap. "No, you must look."

Before her mother could object again, Mary flipped open the sketchbook and put two drawings side by side before her.

The first was a watercolor portrait of a middle-aged woman. The face gazed out at the viewer with calm authority. Determination edging toward stubbornness showed in the lines bracketing her lips; pride and imagination in the fashionable cut of her gray curls. Mary had caught a subtle twinkle in the blue eyes, a persistent curiosity in the tilt of the head. More than the sum of its parts, the painting conveyed the essence of a strong personality.

The second portrait showed the same woman, and yet not the same. In this one, the sharp eyes had blurred; though painted, they seemed to shift with uncertainty under the viewer's gaze. This woman's mouth looked ready to quiver with doubt. The skin sagged not just with greater age, but with an uncomprehending anxiety as well. Around this face, the well-kept gray hair and modish lace cap seemed incongruous.

Mary looked from one image to the other, her heart aching for her great-aunt.

"Yes, very well," said her mother. "You've drawn Aunt Lavinia. What do you wish me to say? That it is a good likeness?"

"Can you really look, Mama? Please? Try?"

The pleading in her voice seemed to reach her mother at last. She considered the pages again. Her stare went from one portrait to the other. Back again. Gradually, she began to frown.

And Mary felt freed to speak. "She's very forgetful, even of familiar people's names or her own history. The servants were at their wits' end when I arrived." It had been daunting, to be tossed into a floundering household, suddenly surrounded by people looking to her for leadership. She'd had to fumble her way to the idea that she could take charge, if she did it in her own way. "I believe we must find her a companion. Someone who is more than a housekeeper, though she will have to manage the household, too. Someone...patient and kind. We should pay quite well, I think, well enough to attract just the right sort of person." She would fight for this plan, Mary thought. Great-Aunt Lavinia deserved the best.

"We?" said her mother.

"Well, it would come out of Aunt's income, naturally. But as she is not really capable of approving the expenditure, I thought I should speak to you. As her only close relation."

Her mother was looking at her oddly. "You have considered this."

Now that Mary had begun, the words poured out. "I drafted an advertisement that sets forth just what we need." She took the folded paper from the pocket of her gown. "The butler says there is an agency in London that provides ladies' companions. We must be very clear that we require someone...special." Mary unfolded the page and extended it. She was pleased to see that it did not shake in her hand.

Her mother took it and read. "Well expressed," she commented, sounding surprised.

"I thought, if you agreed, we could send it right off."

"Perhaps I should talk to Aunt Lavinia before..." Her mother paused, looked down at the portraits again. "No. That is, I shall talk to her. But I daresay you are right. You may put it in the mail." She looked up. "Or...what do you intend to do with the replies?"

"I...I thought I would invite the best candidates here for a visit." Mary faltered a bit under her parent's close examination. "Unless you would prefer to interview...?"

Her mother cocked her head. "You would have to pay their coach fares."

Mary nodded.

"They must be asked about their previous positions and show a complete set of references."

"Yes, Mama."

"Do you really think you can find the proper person?" Years of doubt tinged her tone.

Mary sat straighter and met her skeptical gaze. "I do."

The pause that followed went on longer than Mary would have liked, but at last her mother said, "Very well. I shall let you try."

"Th-thank you, Mama," Mary replied, her spirit swelling with triumph.

"I'll give you a list of important questions," her mother added sharply. "And I shall expect a full report on each possibility before the final decision is made."

Mary nodded, her elation a little dimmed. How odd that this success made her feel more lonely, rather than less so.

* * *

John Bexley strode down the gangplank onto the Southampton dock and paused to look over the busy port town. For the first time since he'd left English shores in February 1816, everything felt familiar-the shape of the buildings, the faces and dress of the people, the sounds and scents and voices. And yet, they also felt strangely changed. His twenty-month journey to the other side of the world had reduced England to just one corner of a vast globe. A noble corner, without doubt, a corner with a proud history and admirable ideals, but still just a smallish island among continents. And so his home looked not only natural and welcoming but also a bit...constricted.

Speaking of constricted, John wiggled his shoulders, trying to get more comfortable in a coat that no longer fit. He'd gained more muscle than his clothes could accommodate. The binding cloth contributed to the mixed emotions of this moment. He'd outgrown his raiment. What about his old routines, or the wife he'd left behind?

John looked at the English faces on the docks around him, pale even under the August sun. For almost two years, he and Mary had led separate lives-his active and public, hers domestic and small. So many things had happened to him that she would never comprehend. And a thousand domestic details that newly married persons usually shared had gone by on opposite sides of the world.

Worse, John wondered now whether he'd done the right thing, giving in to his family's plan for him. The young man he'd been before this voyage had let his family urge him into a lifetime bond without really thinking. If the foreign secretary's letter about the China mission had come a few weeks sooner, would he have offered for Mary? The answer was too uncomfortable to contemplate.

John looked out over the town. His world of two years ago seemed like a dream to him now, pale and insubstantial, the people distant shadows. Swept away on a grand journey, he'd found inner continents as surprising as the discoveries of ancient explorers. The impulses that had risen in him and answered the challenge of storm-wracked seas still burned-more vibrant perceptions, fiercer ambition, a determination to make his mark.

But a suitable wife-one with important connections and social skills-was practically required for advancing through the ranks of the Foreign Office.

A bale of silks rose from the ship's hold, pulley creaking as the navvies hauled on the rope. The heavy cargo swung out over the dock and plunged down just as a street urchin emerged from between two stacks of crates. John took three steps, snatched the boy from its path, and pulled him well out of the way. "Careful there," he said.

Pale and wide-eyed, the grimy child nodded his thanks and scampered away.

The planks of the dock vibrated as the bale thumped to the boards. A brawny dockworker rounded the corner of a warehouse and hefted it-no easy task, John knew. He should head into town, find transport, and begin the last sixty miles of his journey. To Mary. But his tumbled thoughts kept him standing near the ship.

He remembered his first sight of her at the Bath assembly. Neither of them came from the sort of grand families who went to London for the Season; Bath was the center of their social world. She'd stood with her mother by the wall-a small, delicate girl with chestnut brown hair and huge dark eyes; a full lower lip that seemed made for kissing; pretty little hands. She'd looked as sweet and timid as a sparrow. In that moment-which now seemed long ages ago-his family's mandate that she was the wife for him had seemed no burden at all. He'd walked over, been presented. Mary had smiled at him...

After that, events were a bit of a blur. They'd danced, walked the streets of Bath together, taken teas and dinners at their families' tables. He had offered for her; that moment had been between the two of them. At the time, it hadn't seemed as if he had a choice. But once the words were spoken and she had accepted, their mothers had swooped in and taken over. He didn't remember being consulted about a single item after that. He was simply told things. Mary's father had lectured him about how the combination of their two inherited incomes would allow them to live very comfortably, as if John couldn't work that out for himself. His brothers had teased him relentlessly, as usual. He'd overheard his parents agreeing that this was a good enough match-for him, for Mary-and for some reason, incomprehensible to him now, he'd made no remark.

There'd been a whirl of a wedding and a seaside week in Weston-super-Mare, with dolorous rain and intimacies that had been clumsier than he'd have liked. Then the Foreign Office summons had arrived to take over his thoughts and change his life.

John sighed. His life, not Mary's. What would a little sparrow like Mary think of the intricacies of Foreign Office etiquette? What would she think of him, now that he'd...come alive? He took a deep breath of the seaside air. That's how it felt-as if he'd been half-asleep for years and finally woken. Now, he intended to plunge into the drive for advantage and jostling rivalries he'd generally ignored in his three years on the job. Work was going to occupy much of his time. Where did Mary fit in all this?

John loosened his shoulders, chafing at the tightness of his coat once again. Done was done. Mary was his wife. She would have to fit. She was young, unformed, eager to please. Though she didn't have the family connections that were so useful in government work, she was a taking little thing. She'd welcome his guidance. Indeed, she would probably be awed by his new sophistication. There was a curiously attractive notion.

John fell into a pleasant reverie. In the long months at sea, men had talked, and inevitably one of their topics had been women. John had heard a lot of nonsense and endured a load of empty boasting. But some of it had been eye-opening and, when one winnowed through the sources and considered the characters of the speakers, quite intriguing. He looked forward to trying out some of the...

"Ah, here he is!"

John stiffened at the sound of that affected voice. He'd thought he was the last passenger off the ship.

"Bexley can deal with the trunks," the voice drawled on. "It's just the sort of thing he's good at."

John turned to face the two men stepping off the Lyra's gangplank. Beside Lord Amherst's admirable, capable private secretary sauntered the recent bane of John's existence, the Honorable Edmund Fordyce.

Since the shipwreck, Fordyce had made it his mission to harass John. Before that, they'd had little to do with each other, despite the smallness of their party. Fordyce, equally junior in the diplomatic group, had pursued more exalted company. A foppish, supercilious son of an earl-as John had learned in recent weeks-Fordyce had constantly dropped names and attempted to reminisce with Lord Amherst about lavish country house parties and fashionable town balls.

But following their encounter in that narrow gangway of a sinking ship, the man had focused almost obsessively on John. He'd created opportunities to highlight the difference in their backgrounds or cast doubt on John's abilities. It was wildly irritating. And ridiculous. What did he think John was going to do-run and tattle about his cowardice like a sniveling schoolboy? Try to tell their superiors that he, John, had made sure the Alceste was clear? That Fordyce had misrepresented his own behavior? There was no way to initiate such a conversation, even if he wished to.

John had even tried to say something like this to Fordyce, with no effect. It was as if the fellow didn't even hear him. By this time, the mere sound of his voice affected John like the screech of tortured metal.

"If you wouldn't mind, Bexley," said the secretary. His expression showed a certain amount of sympathy. "I must follow Amherst to London immediately, and there are a number of confidential items still in the hold."

"John will be happy to play footman," said Fordyce. "Won't you, John? Oh, I didn't think. Are you familiar with footmen? They stand about front halls in important houses, waiting to run errands and carry packages, that sort of thing." He smiled, the picture of toothy falsity.

Fordyce laced his arm with the secretary's as if they were bosom friends. The secretary didn't quite shake him off. But John read distaste in his face, which took some of the sting out of Fordyce's words. Confidential items required careful handling, by someone who could be trusted. The task was significant, whatever Fordyce's silly prejudices. "Certainly, sir," John said.

The secretary nodded his thanks as the two men moved off down the dock. "See you in London, Bexley," he added.

John's spirits rose at this acknowledgment. More than his own inner landscape had changed with this voyage. He was known now; from among the vast army of junior functionaries in the Foreign Office, he'd been noticed. His future prospects were immeasurably brighter than they had been before this journey. That, and Fordyce's sour expression, considerably lightened the job of seeing that each trunk was properly labeled and sent off with a reliable carrier to its correct destination.

* * *

Sitting at her easel in the back parlor of her great-aunt's house, Mary was swept by a wave of loneliness so strong it made the brush tremble in her hand. How long was this "visit" to go on? she wondered. It already felt eternal. In this household, she had no one to talk to or laugh with. No one within a decade of her age. Instead of a house of her own with a husband and perhaps by now a tiny addition to their family, she had a group of elderly...charges. There was no other way to look at it.

A shriek rent the air. Mary's brush twitched. A streak of yellow flicked across the painted face, muddling one eye, slashing across a cheek like war paint.

Mary lowered her brush, sat back, and sighed. Apparently, she would never become inured to these disturbances. Who could? Yes, she no longer leaped to her feet and ran, heart pounding, to discover the emergency. But she couldn't help reacting when Alice the housemaid screamed. It could only be Alice; past forty, and she still delighted in shrieking at the least excuse. Setting her brush in a glass of water, Mary rose and went to see what it was this time.

She found her Great-Aunt Lavinia, Alice the housemaid, and Voss the aged butler in the morning room, looking down at a shattered vase, a scatter of pink roses, and a puddle of water. The once formidable Lavinia Fleming was wringing her hands and trembling. Humid August air wafted through the open French doors.

"Drat that boy!" said Voss.

Mary didn't question his attribution because...well, there simply was no question about the origin of the disturbance.

"Something must be done," Voss added, clearly addressing Mary.

Mary looked back at him with wry resignation. When she'd first arrived, into this household that had lost its rudder and fallen into chaos, she'd hung back, of course. She was a guest, and anyway she hadn't known what to do. But then it had risen in her, like a great wave looming from the sea, an irresistible need to set things right. Perhaps it was an inheritance from her mother-not an entirely comfortable thought. But she found she could no more resist than she could alter the deep brown color of her eyes. The household had been like a workbasket jammed with snarled thread. She'd been forced, really, to discover her own way of untangling it. She'd been surprised at her daring and then amazed at how eagerly her intervention was welcomed.

"Ma'am?" said Voss, waiting for her to solve the household's most recent problem.

"I'll go and speak to him," Mary said, and she walked into the hall toward the front door of the manor.

Outside, she scanned the parkland for her quarry. There was no sign of him on the lawn or in the front garden. Mary turned toward the stables, rounded a corner, and there he was.

Ten-year-old Arthur Windly squatted at the edge of the stable yard, searching for more round pebbles. Here was the one remaining source of mayhem in her great-aunt's household.

She walked over to Arthur, who pretended to ignore her. The son of Great-Aunt Lavinia's supremely competent estate manager, Arthur was a constant conundrum. Mr. Windly was vital to the workings of the manor and must not be offended. He was also a prickly, distant man, especially, Mary had been told, since his wife's death three years ago. Her attempts to speak with him about Arthur had confirmed this characterization. He'd treated her like a nuisance and a busybody, and she was certain he hadn't listened to a word she said. Using her own newly discovered skills, Mary came to understand that Arthur was desperate for his father's attention and that the boy would take a whipping if that was all the notice he could contrive.

Trailing from Arthur's pocket was a length of brown cord with a woven pouch in the center, the source of many recent disasters. The local vicar had taken it into his head to show his young parishioners the instrument that had vanquished Goliath. The man had a passion for practical demonstrations of biblical subjects and seemingly no notion of the havoc a slingshot could wreak in the hands of a mischievous little boy. Mary sometimes thought her great-aunt's entire neighborhood was barmy. She held out her hand. "You'll have to give me the sling, Arthur."

The boy sprang to his feet and glared at her. "No, I don't."

"That was our agreement-the last time."

"I never agreed!" Arthur's lower lip jutted out; his hazel eyes narrowed. Rebellion showed in every line of his skinny little body.

Suppressing a sigh, Mary stood and thought. She could threaten to go to his father, and Arthur would dare her to do it, and they would repeat a cycle of punishment that accomplished nothing. Arthur wasn't a bad child. Still, he couldn't be allowed to break vases, or knock ripening apples from the trees, or crack glass windows on the upper stories. Providentially, a scrap of overheard conversation came back to her. "I understand the hayricks in the north field are infested with rats."

"What?" Arthur frowned at the non sequitur.

"Still, I don't suppose you could kill a rat with that sling."

Arthur stiffened in outrage. "'Course I could."

"Really?" Mary strove to look merely interested. "Your father is desperate to be rid of them. Indeed, the idea of a whole colony of rats..." Her shudder did not require much acting. "But it must be much more difficult to hit a moving target than, oh, a vase or a window."

"I could, though." Speculation and hope passed visibly over the boy's triangular face. "I could do it!"

"I'm sure everyone would be very grateful," Mary replied.

Without another word, Arthur rushed from the stable yard. Mary walked back to the house with some bounce in her step and cautious optimism in her heart.

Inside, all was quiet once more. Great-Aunt Lavinia dozed on a sofa, the strings of her lace cap fluttering with her breath. Mary returned to her painting to see what could be salvaged but found herself picking up her sketchbook instead. She wanted to capture the image of Arthur sifting through stones in the stable yard, with his intent expression and irrepressible cowlick.

She opened the drawing pad and came upon a portrait of John, done during their brief honeymoon journey to the shore. For a disorienting moment, memory wavered in Mary's mind. But that was ridiculous. Of course she remembered her own husband. Here he was. Medium height, wiry, with reddish brown hair, a broad brow, straight nose, and crystalline blue eyes. The direct gaze of those eyes had been one of the first things she noticed about him.

She stared at his image. He'd been away longer than all the time she'd known him. And with the great distances involved, they'd had only occasional dispatches to let them know he was alive and well. What would it be like when she saw him again? Mary's heart beat faster at the question. With anticipation, or worry? She felt nothing like the heedless girl who had married him. She didn't know what she felt like as she gazed at the man she was expected to live with for the rest of her life. The rest...that might be forty years, fifty, all resting on one unconsidered choice.

Pushing such unsettling thoughts aside, she turned to a blank page. At once, her fingers itched to draw. Under the golden afternoon light slanting through the open casement, her soft pencil moved over the paper as it so often did, as if it had a mind of its own.

She didn't know why she'd loved to draw since a teacher first put a pencil in her hand and explained some of the principles of art. She didn't know why she had a talent for capturing human figures, particularly faces. Her landscapes were wooden and characterless, her still lifes stiff and uninteresting, while people sprang to life on her pages. The process held a kind of magic that she was reluctant to probe.

Using her pencil and the tip of one finger, Mary shaded and sharpened, added detail, and clarified line. A sharp, foxy little boy emerged on the page, scrabbling for stones to fill his pouch, ready for any sort of mayhem. He looked as if he would leap up in the next moment and set off on yet another escapade.

When she felt finished, she surveyed the result. Arthur's likeness was accurate, the expression true to life. It was good.

Sadness jumped from the page. Although she'd been thinking of the Arthur who continually disrupted the smooth workings of the household, her pencil had found more in the angles and lines of him. The poignancy of the boy's life tightened her throat and stung her eyes. A kindred loneliness plucked at her. It was time-past time-for her real life to begin. But had she chosen the right life? Looking back at the...girl she'd been, she didn't feel as if she'd chosen at all.

Mary set the drawing of Arthur aside, along with the self-pity. Done was done. She'd made her vows. And right now there was plenty of work awaiting her, chiefly readying quarters for the housekeeper/companion she'd hired for her great-aunt. The woman was due to move in next week, and Mary wanted everything perfect for her arrival. Mrs. Finch had seemed the perfect solution to the problem of Great-Aunt Lavinia and all her household. She wanted her to feel warmly welcomed and pleased with her situation.

Alice came in with a letter, brought by courier, she said. Mary opened it quickly, fearing bad news, then caught her breath. "John's ship has landed at Spithead. He's home."

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