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RURAL SOMERSET, ENGLAND, 1813 . . .
“I can’t help you, Lady Eleanor.”
Anne Paxton Smythe stared at the elegant noblewoman sitting across from her, hoping she seemed courteous but firm. She struggled to exhibit a serene smile, but could barely keep from fidgeting.
It was folly to refuse an aristocrat’s request, and she had to wonder if she was putting herself at risk, if all she’d achieved would be rent asunder simply because she’d stood her ground.
From the instant the exalted lady’s coach-and-four had rumbled up the lane, Anne had been wary. She’d recognized that nothing good would come from the visit, and now that an outrageous entreaty had been tendered, she could tell that her intuition was on the mark.
Assistance was out of the question.
“At least hear me out,” Lady Eleanor cajoled.
“You can’t change my mind.”
The warm June breeze fluttered the curtains, and a titter of feminine laughter wafted in an open window. The voices were sultry and relaxed, and they conjured images of summer nights, of lovers, intrigue, and romance.
Uneasy, Anne shifted, praying that her guest hadn’t heeded the sounds, but they were difficult to miss. Over the years, she’d grown accustomed to the odd articulations, had listened to so many strange utterances that she didn’t notice the occasional outburst of pleasure. Yet, to anyone else, they might appear peculiar, disconcerting. Downright lustful.
She blushed. “As I was saying . . .”
The giggling came again, from very nearby, and she glanced up as a naked female tiptoed by on the outside walk. Like a forest nymph, her hair was down, and her voluptuous breasts were exposed to the afternoon sunshine. A second woman, as naked as the first, darted along behind.
Extremely dismayed, Anne peeked at Lady Eleanor, but her chair was positioned so that she couldn’t have seen.
Praise be! There was no way she could explain the spectacle, and the last thing she needed was to spur the prim, proper paragon into a swoon!
Exuding calm, she rose. “Would you excuse me?”
“But I just arrived, and I—”
“I’ll hurry.” She departed before Lady Eleanor could command her to stay.
Placid and graceful, she slipped out, but once she was down the hall, she ran to the rear door. Her friend and aide, Kate Turner, was trimming flowers in the garden, unaware of the indecent romping. After much frantic pointing from Anne, Kate nodded in comprehension and meandered down the shrub-lined path to confront the recalcitrant duo.
Nude gamboling in the yard was not permitted!
“Check their picnic basket for me,” Anne hissed. “If you find any wine, they’ve had enough. Confiscate it!”
Intoxicating beverages weren’t allowed, either. Despite how her patrons insisted that spirits added to their enjoyment, Anne couldn’t relent. Many were overwhelmed by the invigoration they experienced while bathing in her hot springs grotto, and she had to keep a tight rein on all behaviors, lest the merriment spin out of control.
Rumors were rampant as to the beneficial qualities of the water—that it was mysterious, magical—and she didn’t dare encourage further obfuscation or distortion.
She went inside, even as she pondered whether Kate would have the gumption to seize the liquor. Kate was efficient, pragmatic, gifted at many tasks, but she wasn’t adept at dealing with Anne’s affluent clients. Kate steered clear of the snobs and society types, while Anne had to welcome and politely interact with all of them, if she wanted to put food on the table.
At the door to the receiving parlor, she slowed, took a few deep breaths, and the delay gave her a chance to assess Lady Eleanor. She was a regal beauty, with a pleasingly plump figure, big blue eyes, and fabulous blond hair that was pinned up in an intricate chignon. Her skin was smooth, pearly white, the kind that the very rich could afford to maintain with expensive creams. Her sapphire gown was constructed from an expensive fabric that crinkled and shimmered when she moved.
In comparison, Anne was dowdy and drab, garbed as she was in her gray, functional dress, her starched apron. Water had splashed on her skirt, and there were stains on the hem. While her brunette hair was braided and bound, heat and sweat from hours of toil had caused several strands to fall.
Hard work, a healthy diet, and her petite frame had combined to thin her torso. Next to the stunning, buxom noblewoman, she felt gaunt, too skinny, underfed. Her body was unfashionably tanned from too much laboring in the sun, her hands rough and chapped from an excess of chores. Her business was thriving, and cash was available for frivolous lotions and pampering, but there was never an idle moment in which to indulge herself.
She was constantly busy, and gazing upon Lady Eleanor made her feel tired and decrepit.
Lady Eleanor had traipsed to the window and was gaping out, wanting to determine what had drawn Anne away. Luckily, the scandalous pair was no longer visible. Anne couldn’t conceive of what lies she’d have had to concoct if Lady Eleanor had espied them.
If only Lady Eleanor had advised in advance that she’d be stopping by! Anne could have prepared, could have locked the gate and declined to admit the bevy of unrestrained bathers.
Well, there was naught to be done except to conclude their discussion and send the stubborn female on her way.
As she entered the salon, Lady Eleanor spun around, embarrassed at being caught snooping, but she covered her lapse well. Anne gestured to the chairs, and they seated themselves, once more.
“Now then,” Anne began, “where were we?”
“We were talking about my brother, Stephen.”
“Ah, yes.” The infamous Captain Stephen Chamberlin. Man-about-town. Libertine. War hero. Why would such a distinguished knave have his sister traveling about the countryside and making solicitations on his behalf? Had he no manners? No shame?
“He was wounded in Spain.”
“Was he?” Anne queried blandly. The rich and powerful had no monopoly on the miseries of warfare. Her own brother, Phillip, had almost been killed at Salamanca. She refused to show any sympathy for the Chamberlin family.
“Did I mention that our father is Robert Chamberlin, the Earl of Bristol?”
Four times, already!
“You did.” But Anne wasn’t impressed by the earth-shaking news. She wouldn’t give two pennies for any lord in the land, and if Lady Eleanor was planning to shock or dazzle by alluding to her sire, she was preaching to the wrong choir. Anne couldn’t care less.
“So if you’re worried about my ability to remunerate you for his treatments, I can assure you that you’ll be fully compensated.”
“It’s not the money.”
Anne had so many reasons that she couldn’t tabulate them all. Primarily, she couldn’t have a male on the property. What would her clients say? What would neighbors think of the impropriety?
The nearest large metropolis was Bath, which drew multitudes who sought convalescence. The most wealthy and influential personages in England made regular pilgrimages, but many of the feminine celebrities preferred the privacy of Anne’s farm.
The ancient Roman bath, which she and Kate had renovated, was a godsend, a priceless boon, and she wasn’t about to spoil everything by having Captain Chamberlin on the premises. No matter how badly he was hurt, she couldn’t risk her livelihood.
“My visitors are all female,” she clarified. “It wouldn’t be fitting.”
“Are you afraid you’d lose customers?”
“I’m positive I would.”
Lady Eleanor opened her reticule, retrieved an envelope, and passed it over. “I don’t know what income you earn, but this should more than offset any costs you might sustain.”
Anne peeked inside, amazed to spot a stack of what had to be hundreds of pounds. “This is too much. I couldn’t—”
“That’s for the initial six months,” she interjected. “If it takes you longer to get him on his feet, I’ll double the amount.”
Anne closed the seal on the small fortune and tried to return the pouch, but Lady Eleanor wouldn’t accept it, so she laid it on the table between them.
“Please, Mrs. Smythe. I’m begging you.”
She was distressed, convinced that Anne could successfully intervene, which left Anne terribly uncomfortable. Her true name was Anne Paxton, and the surname of Smythe was false. She pretended to be a widow, for reference to a deceased husband gave her legitimacy, and quashed questions about her background and skills.
In reality, she was a fraud, a twenty-eight-year-old spinster, who’d nursed her ailing mother, then Widow Brown, through their final illnesses. Her depth of medical knowledge was no more extensive than the assorted methods she’d developed through trial and error. To observe Lady Eleanor desperate, pleading for her assistance, mortified Anne.
She couldn’t help Stephen Chamberlin. Save for a few tinctures, dietary modifications, and bathing in the grotto, she hadn’t the faintest notion how. Nor did she want to tend a spoiled, arrogant aristocrat. The very idea had her stomach roiling.
“What you’re asking is too difficult for me to consider.”
“How could I make it easier?”
“You can’t. If you feel he could benefit from therapeutic waters, there are spas in Bath. Any of them would be suitable.”
“I couldn’t parade him into a public establishment!” Anxiety creased her brow, and she searched through her bag, once again. “Look at him. This is how he used to be.”
She handed over a miniature, framed portrait of Stephen Chamberlin. With dark hair, and mesmerizing blue eyes, he was the most handsome knave Anne had ever seen. He was attired in his military uniform, the red of the coat adding a dashing flare. Smug, conceited, overconfident, he was ready to challenge Napoléon all by himself and win.
Foolish men and their foolish fighting!
Phillip had been dapper and gallant, too, when he’d marched off. She’d implored him not to go, to stay with their father at Salisbury where he’d be safe, but he hadn’t listened any better than Stephen Chamberlin. They’d both been mangled and maimed, leaving the women in their lives to deal with the aftermath.
She didn’t want to be affected by his plight, yet she scrutinized the picture, wondering about the man, the soldier, intrigued even though she didn’t wish to be.
“He doesn’t look like this anymore,” Lady Eleanor proclaimed. “He was always such a proud peacock, so vain about his appearance. I couldn’t let anyone behold him as he is. That’s why I thought your farm would be best. It’s so quiet here, so isolated. He’d have the privacy he needs to heal.”
Just then, laughter sounded from directly outside, and Lady Eleanor whirled around. At that exact moment, the breeze ruffled the curtains, and she was able to view a naked woman flitting by.
“Oh dear . . .” she murmured.
“Pardon me,” Anne said, gnashing her teeth, and she rushed from the parlor, down the hall, and out the back, where she glimpsed the bare bottom of the interloper as she scampered into the pool. She hunted for Kate, who—the traitor!—was nowhere to be found, so she had to handle the situation, herself.
A dozen customers were lounging, on the rocks and on the banks surrounding the pond. They were slothful members of the ton, whom she didn’t know, but Lady Carrington had recommended them. Not wanting to offend, Anne had permitted their visit but, hoping to dissuade them, she’d suggested an exorbitant price, and without hesitation, they’d agreed to pay it. Feet submerged, their hair rolling off their shoulders, their breasts thrust out, they were arrayed like a band of frisky mermaids.
There was a certain element who enjoyed the naughtiness of the out-of-doors, who liked the wantonness of loafing in the altogether, who reveled in the prospect of being detected, although the opportunity for discovery was slim. Her acreage was fenced, the grotto shielded by thick ferns and bushes.
They also wanted to be able to brag that they’d been at her facility, which was currently all the rage. Incessant gossip abounded: that Anne was a sorceress with restoratives and remedies, that she could cure anything from insomnia to feminine ailments, that her hot springs had special characteristics not possessed by the other spas in the vicinity.
There were even claims that the water had a sexual energy, that when a woman immersed herself in it, she was overcome by lustful urges and insurgent passions.
Anne didn’t attempt to quell the scuttlebutt. She was in commerce, and owned the home and the acreage she’d inherited from Widow Brown. With her mother dead, and her father estranged, the legacy was all she had in the entire world, and she would do whatever it took to succeed.
Insolent and disdainful, the promiscuous group watched as she approached, and she champed down on her irritation. There were bottles of wine and expensive goblets strewn about on the grass. Several were empty, evidence of their imbibing, which would account for their nude treks around the house.
She loathed them, but they had money and could purchase her services, which provided her with the leeway to treat the poor who couldn’t, so she trod a fine line. She had to be fawning and deferential, but she was in charge, owner and operator, and she couldn’t have them running roughshod over her.
“Ladies,” she called, “you’re flouncing about in the yard. I reviewed the rules with you. Once you’re finished in the dressing cottage, you have to remain in the pool area. You can’t be traipsing about the property. Especially unclothed. You must wear your bathing costumes at all times!”
“But it’s so much more fun to go without,” one of them responded. She was Camilla Warren, a young, snooty widow, whose elderly husband had recently died, but she didn’t seem to be in mourning.
“I have a guest, and you’re disturbing our discussion.”
“Yes, we saw,” Camilla replied. “Is it Eleanor Chamberlin Dunworthy?”
“No,” Anne fibbed.
“Really? I could swear the coach has the Bristol crest on the side.”
“Is Stephen with her?”
“I have no idea about whom you’re speaking.”
Lady Camilla stretched, arching up, smoothing her palm across her breast, her stomach, intending—Anne was convinced—to startle and dismay, so she evinced no reaction. In the years she’d managed the emporium, Anne had seen it all, and nothing surprised her anymore.
“I hear that Stephen’s gone mad as a hatter.” Camilla glanced over at her companions. “Wouldn’t it be amusing to learn the truth for ourselves? What tales we could tell, hmm?”
A malicious chuckling rippled through the group, and Anne had to bite her tongue to contain a snide remark. Who were they to jest over Lord Chamberlin’s condition? He’d fought for God and country. The least they could do was show some respect.
“If you disregard the rules again,” Anne warned, “I’ll have to deny you privileges.”
“You wouldn’t,” Camilla pouted.
“I would.” Anne met Camilla’s calculating stare with one of her own, and the harridan was easily cowed.
“Oh, all right,” she grumbled. “We’ll behave.”
Anne turned and headed toward the house, and behind her, Camilla grouched, “Spoilsport.”
The others snickered, but Anne kept on. As she climbed the stone pathway and rounded the hedge, she literally bumped into Lady Eleanor, who had followed, curious as to what was occurring. From her pallor and blatant anguish, it was obvious she’d eavesdropped.
“Come with me!” Anne commanded. “Don’t grant them the satisfaction of witnessing your distress.”
Anne ushered her inside, poured her a glass of sherry, then sat patiently, waiting while she sipped.
“He’s not mad!” Eleanor insisted once she’d finished it. “He’s . . . he’s . . .”
Tears surged and began to fall, and Anne couldn’t bear them. She didn’t want to pity Lady Eleanor and her brother, didn’t want to be saddened or swayed, didn’t want to be apprised of what afflicted him, wouldn’t display any concern, wouldn’t commiserate, console, or comfort.
Yet, she caught herself inquiring, “What is wrong with him?”
“He was terribly wounded. In the legs and back. With saber slashes, as well as pistol shots. His limbs are still attached, but he can’t walk, when there’s no reason he can’t. The doctors say it’s as if he doesn’t want to get better.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t. You can’t force a person to improve if he’s dead-set against it.”
“But he’s only thirty! Should I throw up my hands? Give up? Give in?” She swallowed, shaken. “The quacks advising my father are demanding to cut off his leg! If he attacks his physicians again, my father will send him to Bedlam!”
Anne shuddered. She’d been in the asylum, on a dreadful occasion, when she’d rescued Kate after Kate’s husband had had her committed. She’d never wish such a penalty on man or beast.
“He wouldn’t,” Anne contended.