Amaryllis Gibson is an unlikely debutante. She favors fact over fashion, cares not for "proper" conversation and is haunted by ghostly visions which could land her in the madhouse! Marriage is definitely the last thing on Rilla's mind
But when she's caught in a compromising position with Viscount Wyburn, suddenly she finds herself betrothed! And worse, his powerful presence only increases her visions. By shedding light on the viscount's past, can Rilla gain his trust and win him round to her more unconventional traits?
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'This sounds like yet another of your ill-advised schemes,' said Paul Lindsey, Viscount Wyburn, with as much patience as he could muster.
'Piffle,' his stepmother retorted, shaking her grey ringlets. 'It would be a crime to allow such delightful girls to languish in the country.'
'But hardly incumbent upon you to rectify the situation.' Paul stood by the mantel. His gaze drifted from the china figurines to the requisite pink, dimpled Cupids depicted across the drawing-room ceiling.
'Who else will take them in hand? Their dear mother is dead, and Sir George has a predilection for horses and cards. Very sad.' Lady Wyburn bent with apparent diligence over her needlework.
Turning, Paul sat across from his relative and studied her more closely. He drummed his fingers on the low rosewood table. Lady Wyburn was the only person on God's earth he gave tuppence for, and he'd not allow some sticky-fingered squire to rob her blind.
'Stepmother.' He leaned forward on the ludicrously low sofa. 'People tend to take advantage of you. If you recall, your young nephew'
'Not the same thing.' She fluttered her hand in front of her face as though shooing a non-existent pest. 'Rilla and her younger sister, Imogene, are charming. Imogene's looks are exceptional and Rilla is refreshing. Not beautiful exactly, but exotic and interesting.'
'Admirable attributes in a book or a flower.'
'Don't be flippant, dear.' She waved her needlepoint, a colourful object of pinks and purples with no discernible pattern. 'Anyway, Sir George hasn't a clue how to find them suitable husbands and lacks the funds'
'And sees you as a lucrative prospect, I suppose.' Paul shifted his legs, moving them away from the fire's warmth, again drumming his fingers. He stopped. The noise irritated and revealed an emotional response he would not allow.
'Nonsense. Sir George is an academic of repute. The only prospects that interest him involve ancient Greeks or Romans.'
'Except for the occasional English racehorse. What about their dowries? Will you contribute to that charity?' he questioned.
'Dear Sir George would not agree. Besides, Rilla would create a rumpus. She is proud and not at all keen on marriage.'
'That will be a change. Rilla? An unusual name.' 'Short for Amaryllis.'
'How unfortunate. Her mother was in a botanical mood, I presume.' But the name was unforgettable. He'd heard it before.
'Not that girl who rode the pig through Lady Lockhart's garden at that party we attended before I went to the Continent?' he asked with dawning comprehension.
'A goat, actually. And she was younger then.'
'You plan to present this urn, young lady?' A smile tugged at his mouth.
'Rilla is much improved. And we all fall into scrapes in our youth.'
'I do not remember riding stray barnyard animals.'
'You were always a responsible youth. Besides, as I recall, you said it was the best part of the day.'
'That was a long time ago.' Paul stood and walked to the window, stifling a yawn.
'You're tired.' Lady Wyburn spoke sharply. 'You did not sleep well.'
Of course he had not slept well. He'd been at Wyburn, hadn't he? He never slept well at his estate. Or within a ten-mile radius of that cursed lake.
He rolled his shoulders. 'It is more likely the heat in this room and not my sleeping habits which make me yawn. Might we return to the subject of your neighbours?'
'Generally people you find delightful prove unscrupulous.' He turned from the window with sudden decision. 'I will pay my respects to the Gibsons this afternoon. I trust you will take note if I am dissatisfied with their character.'
'I always listen to your insights. Ride over now, dear.' Lady Wyburn waved a hand in the direction of the French window as if expecting him to leap through it on his mission.
Paul preferred a more conventional exit. 'Goodbye, Stepmother,' he said, kissing her cheek. 'Enjoy yourself.'
'As I would a visit to the tooth extractor,' he muttered, striding from the room.
Miss Amaryllis Gibson sat on the wooden swing that hung from the lowest limb of the chestnut tree. She scuffed her feet. This was her favourite spot on the estate. She liked the view of their solid red-brick house. She enjoyed the ramshackle shapes of the dairy, wash house and stable. She even appreciated the smell, a sweet mix of soap, grass and horses.
But today, none of this helped. She poked the toe of her shabby black-buttoned boot into the earth.
She'd woken with one of her feelings.
Rilla hated her feelings. No, hatred would be a far preferable emotion. She feared them. They made goosebumps prickle her arms and her shoulders tense. She wanted to run or gallop, as though with enough speed she could escape from her own mind.
Pushing the swing higher, she breathed deeply. Her petticoats billowed as she stretched too-long legs, gaining height and speed. Loose strands of hair tickled her face and the fields blurred.
Briefly, her stomach lurched as she hung at the highest point, only to fly down in tumultuous descent. Momentum, it was called. Momentum fascinated her.
Many improper things fascinated Rilla: Roman aqueducts, force, gravity, Sir Isaac Newton's theories and her mechanised butter churn. Unfortunately, no one appreciated such items, and her water-powered churn had only succeeded in flooding the dairy.
Rilla frowned. Of course, in London she'd have little time for her inventions. Proper ladies did not develop churns.
Or flood dairies.
Or have feelings.
Sliding to a stop, Rilla jumped from the swing. Even thinking about London bothered her. She had no desire for the city with its meaningless social niceties and the constant pressure to find a husband, which was, of course, the one thing she must not do.
How she'd always loved this tree. She liked its thick, sheltering canopy of green and the feeling of her own strength and invulnerability as she pulled herself, branch by branch, through its foliage. It was even the site of her first pulley. She could see it now, the wooden wheel and rope partially entangled within the twigs and leaves.
Could she? Just once more? After all, the rope should be removed for safety's sake. With a thrill of forbidden pleasure, she looked about the still garden and drive.
Nothing and no one.
Stepping forward, she touched the trunk. The bark was rough under her fingertips. She inhaled. The air smelled wonderful, of wood, and earth, and mushrooms.
Scooping up the loose cloth of her skirt, she tucked it into the sash around her waist and grabbed the lowest branch. With strong, quick movements, she reached the pulley and, leaning forward, untangled the rope and tossed it to the ground below.
Done. She exhaled, allowing herself a moment to relax in this world of green light and dappled sun. A late-spring breeze touched her cheeks and the leaves rustled.
She would have stayed longer if she hadn't heard the rhythmic clip-clop of a horse's hooves. She stiffened. They seldom had guests, unless they were of the card-playing variety, but Father had given that up two months since.
Bending, she squinted through the leaves.
A gentleman approached along their rutted drive. He stopped his horse under her tree and dismounted with elegant, long-limbed grace. He was tall and lean with hair so dark it looked black.
Then it came.
The sensation was of loss and pain so intense her world spun. Branches and leaves joggled in a blur of green. Rilla gulped for air.
The world turned dark, as though night had descended.
Dimly she saw a lake, ink black and spattered with raindrops. She was cold. So cold her fingers numbed and her grip loosened. She reached out, snatching a twig. She missed and, with a cry, fell through the sharp, splintering branches to the ground below.
She landed with a jarring jolt and gasped in shock and pain.
'What? Miss, are you all right?' The voice came as from a distance.
She opened her eyes. Daylight reappeared.
A man bent over her, a man different than any she had met before. The straight dark brows, unyielding jaw and mouth gave her the confused impression of harsh strength. Briefly, his stark silhouette seemed mythicalHades searching for Persephone.
'Are you hurt?' he asked again. 'Let me move the horse away.'
The prosaic words shattered the illusion. 'I'm fine, I think.' She sat up.
He crouched beside her, putting out his hand. 'Can you stand? Let me help.'
His grasp was strong, his fingers long and firm. Her stomach tightened and she felt a pulse of something akin to fear, yet not. Their gazes met and she felt a narrowing of focus that made the horse, the tree and the solid brick outline of their house inconsequential.
She jerked back, scrambling to stand. 'Who are you? Why are you here?'
'Lord Wyburn. I came to visit Sir George Gibson.' He stepped back, watching her closely. 'You are Miss Gibson?'
Of course, Lady Wyburn had mentioned an overprotec-tive stepson. But Rilla hadn't imagined
'Sorry, I thought' She paused, inhaled, making a conscious effort to collect herself. 'It's a pleasure to meet you, Lord Wyburn.'
Her stomach tightened again, likely a natural reaction. The last thing she needed was for Father to get riled up or on his high horse. He'd hated the idea of accepting charity and she still worried he might gamble in some last-ditch effort to secure funds.
'Miss Gibson, are you still dazed from your fall?' 'No, not at all.' Rilla jerked her attention back to her visitor. 'I will get Thomas for your horse.' 'Your father is in?'
'Umyes,' she said and whistled for Thomas.
The lad responded promptly, his eyes irritatingly wide at the sight of Wyburn and his mount. Bending, she picked up the remnants of her pulley and handed this also to the lad.
With the horse under Thomas's care, Rilla smoothed her dress, which she belatedly realised was still partially tucked up, and nodded towards the house.
'This way, my lord.'
Paul walked alongside Miss Gibson, covertly assessing her as they neared the residence. Her fall from the tree had dishevelled her gown and dirtied her face, yet she exhibited no embarrassment.
Indeed, had he been feeling charitable instead of irritated by his errand, he might have found her calm assurance impressive. She walked briskly, with confident strides. Everything about her tall physique spoke of energy and practicality of purpose which was good, he supposed. He had no tolerance for female moods. But he did not favour hoydens either.
The house proved a pleasant building of Tudor origin with brick walls half-hidden in wisteria and punctuated by mullioned windows. But the family's poverty could not be missed. He saw it in the overgrown shrubbery, the peeling strips of paint dangling from window frames and the haphazard appearance of loosened slates.
The girl pushed open the door and Paul blinked as he stepped into the dimness of the hall after the brightness outside. No servant greeted them, nor did the girl seem to expect one. Instead, she took his hat and then removed her bonnet.
He watched, briefly fascinated as her red hair escaped in a wild cascade of colour. Paul didn't know if it was beautiful or ugly and, strangely, it didn't matter. It had such life, such vibrancy.
The goat girl all grown up.
'I'll announce you to my father,' she said. 'He's in the study. May I bring refreshments? Tea, perhaps?'
He dragged his gaze from her hair. 'Tea would be fine.' 'I'll go to Father.'
Paul nodded, looking about the entrance. Sun shone through an octagonal window, forming a patchwork of golden squares on a threadbare runner. Floor wax, flowers and dog hair scented the air in a not-unpleasant combination. Indeed, there was something cosy, almost comfortable about the place.
A load of codswallop! He would do better to concentrate on Lady Wyburn's financial interests and not on the unlikely delights of floor wax.
Glancing up, he found Miss Gibson had not yet withdrawn, but studied him, her head to one side and eyebrows drawn together. She inhaled deeply. The bodice of her gown stretched tightly.
Her figure was not flat.
'Miss Gibson, was there something else?' He met her gaze. Her eyes, he noted, were an unusual grey-green and fringed with dark lashes in contrast to her fiery hair.
'I trust you will not upset my father.' For the first time, she seemed uncertain.
'It is not my intent. Is Sir George distressed by social calls?'
Perhaps he was an eccentric academic, comfortable only with dry texts. And card games.
'No, but' She frowned, and then squared her shoulders. 'You have come to discuss Lady Wyburn's plans for my sister and myself, and I want to make sure you are under no misapprehension about us.'
'I am not prone to misapprehensions and I believe my business is with your father.'
'Lady Wyburn mentioned that you worry about her and I want you to know that you need not. We intend to pay back'
'Miss Gibson, this discussion is hardly proper.'
The girl needed a set-down or she'd not survive her own come-out.
Surprisingly, she laughed. 'We left propriety when I fell out of the tree. It is only that I'd prefer you did not worry my father about such matters. I can answer any questions you might have.'
She spoke earnestly, the love and worry for her father evident in her gaze.
He was not unmoved. 'I will keep that in mind.'
She nodded, twisting a fiery ringlet of hair about her finger. 'I also wanted you to know that I we care greatly for Lady Wyburn.'
'I also care for her ladyship, Miss Gibson.'
'Then we are of perfect accord.'
Their gazes met. Hers was like an ocean with depth and movement. She spoke softly but with firmness, and he felt again that peculiar mix of irritation and admiration.
He also found he believed her.
'Good,' he said, after a moment. 'Now that we have clarified our mutual admiration for my stepmother, might we proceed, provided I agree not to unduly distress your father?'
'Of course. This way, my lord. Follow me.'
Good Lord, her tone was positively chivvying. Again Paul wanted to smile. He hadn't been chivvied since nursery days and never with success.
Miss Gibson led him down the hall and pushed open a dark, wood-panelled door. Sir George's study was small and full of books piled not only on shelves, but in haphazard stacks on the floor and desk. A fire crackled but did not draw properly and smoke hung in blue-grey wisps, scenting the air. A clock ticked, the steady, methodical beat of an old timepiece.
'Father, may I present Lord Wyburn? He is Lady Wy-burn's stepson,' Miss Gibson said.
Sir George sat at a desk in the far corner. He wore a shabby, ill-fitting nankeen jacket and appeared small, although that might have been the effect of the books and papers piled about him.
'A timely interruption.' He stood, running his hand across his balding head and looking at Paul over gilt-framed half-spectacles. 'Just managed to finish a particularly difficult passage. But most edifying, most edifying. Now what can I do for you, my lord? I'd wager you want to reassure yourself that I have no evil intent, eh? Not likely to run off with the family silver?'
Paul's eyebrows rose. Sir George's sharp eyes, mobile face and the quick movements of his hands gave the impression of considerable energy coiled within his small frame.
Moreover, the Gibson family had breached, in one afternoon, more rules of etiquette than he'd experienced in years of Continental travel.
'I wouldn't be quite so blunt,' he said.
'I would. I would. No point beating about the bush, I always say. Time's too precious. And I don't blame you in the slightest. Lady Wyburn's much too generous. Much too generous. Do take a seat and I'll answer any question you care to pose. Fire away while Rilla fetches tea.'
With a wry smile, Paul sat.