Nell Armstrong promised her dying grandfather to remain unwed and to care for her aging-and frightfully fitful-aunt for the rest of the elderly woman's life. But when Nell comes across the most loving man who has ever lived, she can't help but doubt her resolve.
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Nell was beginning to think it had not been a good idea to come to Bath. In fact, she was pretty sure it was an alarmingly bad idea. When she had been alone with Aunt Longstreet in the manor house in Westmorland, her aunt had seemed eccentric but harmless. There, one could discount the very odd things she was given to saying to the vicar and the neighbors as merely the whim of a rich woman whose acquaintance understood her queer starts.
In Bath the case was otherwise.
Nell had accompanied her aunt to Bath for the waters, though heaven knew her aunt, at sixty, had the energy of a thirty year old. A mere month ago Aunt Longstreet had frowned over a letter she'd received, then said abruptly, "Gretchen Dorsey insists that Bath is the place to go for any indisposition. Taking the waters has decidedly beneficial effects on any manner of problem--especially gout, she says. I want you to arrange it, Helen."
Well, there was no choice, really. What Aunt Longstreet wanted, Nell was perforce required to do. Not that her aunt had ever taken such a notion into her head before. Nell had lived with her at Longstreet Manor for ten years now, and although her aunt did have a touch of gout from time to time, prior to this start she hadn't shown the least inclination to relocate so far as the nearest spa. She seldom ventured into the village which was half a mile distant, and only attended church in order to discompose the vicar, so far as Nell could see.
But Bath, once decided upon, had become an obsession with her aunt. She sent away for guidebooks, and solicited advice from her more well-traveled neighbors on where to let a house, and how much one should expect to pay. She seemedto have taken it into her head, even before this advice was solicited, that they should be located in or near Queen Square. Nell had never been to Bath, but she could see on the map her aunt spread out on the marble top of the rosewood table that Queen Square was a promising location, and she made no objection to being there.
Perhaps from the circumstance of her never having been anywhere at all, save in the North Country, Nell had thought it would be quite a delightful change of pace. Little had she imagined...
She watched her aunt now, as the older lady thumped her way around the circulating library on Milsom Street. Nell had been especially eager to visit this popular spot, understanding that there were untold quantities of novels to be found here, in addition to such enlightening reading as sermons and histories. Aunt Longstreet seemed to have some other object to her visit, however, than to find a suitable volume to carry home to their rented house.
With her cane acting as both support and weapon, the persistent lady pushed herself through a small circle of conversing women who looked at first surprised and then alarmed. "Make way, make way," Aunt Longstreet muttered. "Flock of chattering birds. Can't you see you're in the way?"
The women did indeed move aside, since Rosemarie Longstreet had her cane raised like a sword, jabbing it in front of her. Nell knew it was of no use to expostulate with the woman, so she did nothing more than flash quick smiles at the dispersing ladies to indicate her sympathy and inability to curb her aunt's reckless passage.
"If they wish to chatter, why don't they do so out on the pavement?" Aunt Longstreet demanded. She raised her cane to drum it loudly on the desk in the center of the room. "Young man! Attend me!"
Though the poor fellow was dealing with another patron, he had the good sense to take in the situation at a glance and instantly excused himself. "Yes, ma'am? How may I be of assistance?" he asked as he cautiously approached.
"You may find me a Peerage," she informed him hautily.
"If perhaps you would indicate where I might find it," Nell interposed, "I'm sure I would be happy to search it out."
The young man turned to her with a slight hesitation. He was a mildly attractive man, tall and thin with a serious mien. "They're along the west wall, miss. Second shelf from the top. We don't circulate them, though. You'll have to study them here."
"Not circulate them!" her aunt exploded. "Never heard of such a thing! And you call yourselves a circulating library!"
"They're a reference tool," the young man informed her stoutly. "Most of our patrons have no need to drag one of those weighty old tomes home with them."
"Well, I don't intend to waste my time in this murky room, ruining my eyes while I look up the information I'm seeking," she informed him. "I had every intention of taking the volumes off with me."
"I'm afraid that won't be possible." Every eye in the room was now on the young man and his challenger. "However," he continued, adjusting his eyeglasses rather higher on his nose, "if you were interested in purchasing last year's set, I would be at liberty to sell it to you for a very modest sum."
"Last year's set? Why would I want last year's set?" Aunt Longstreet demanded.
"The information changes very little," he assured her, looking around at his audience in hopes of receiving some assistance. "You know, there are a few births, a few deaths, that sort of thing. Most of the information remains the same."
"Most of it! As though that would be good enough for me. I want the most current, accurate information possible."
"Aunt Longstreet," Nell said quietly, taking her aunt's arm, "I would be pleased to do any research you had in mind and bring the information home to you. You needn't strain your eyes or purchase an outdated set. Just inform me of your needs, and I shall manage the whole."
Miss Longstreet narrowed her eyes at her niece and said firmly, "That won't do, my girl. It's got naught to do with you. If this facility is unable to accommodate my needs, we shall find one that can."
The young man was unwise enough to say, "But we're the only circulating library in Bath, ma'am."
"Infamous!" she pronounced. "I see how it is! You have stomped upon the competition and now refuse to offer what your patrons demand. Oh, that is always the way. Don't think that I shall darken your doors again!"
Nell distinctly heard someone say, "Thank heaven," but she believed it was one of the women and not the young man, whose face had become suffused with color. "I'm very sorry for it, ma'am," he said, as though to atone for the unfortunate comment.
"Perhaps," said an entirely different male voice, "I might be of assistance to you, Miss Longstreet."
The two women turned to find a man dressed in the first style of elegance approaching them from the doorway. He bowed gracefully and tucked his hat under his arm. "Hugh Nowlin, at your service."
Rosemarie Longstreet glared at the young man and muttered only one word, "Dandy!"
He laughed at her epithet, but did glance down at his Hessian boots. "Do you think so? Perhaps the tassels are a bit de trop, what? I shall have them removed."
"Not on my account," she snapped. "You may dress entirely as you wish, Hugh Nowlin."
"Thank you, ma'am. And this would be your niece, Helen Armstrong, I believe. How do you do, ma'am?"
Nell curtsied but regarded him with curiosity, though his name was familiar enough. She believed that some stigma attached to it--at least in her aunt's eyes. He was of medium height, with brown hair and brown eyes, eyes which were deeply amused at the moment. The sparkle this gave his expression was not at all unattractive. "Mr. Nowlin," she acknowledged.
"Sir Hugh," her aunt corrected, though in no pleasant tone of voice. "My godson."
"And a great favorite with her, as you see," the gentleman offered. "Come, Miss Longstreet, let me escort you down the street to Mollands at number 2. Nothing is so likely to sweeten your disposition as one of their pastries."
He placed her hand on his right arm and indicated that Nell should take his other. Hesitating, she placed her fingers on his jacket sleeve, barely touching him, but glad for the opportunity to leave the premises under something less of a cloud. Aunt Longstreet sniffed and thumped her cane on the floor before deciding that she was willing to allow her godson to lead her away.
Nell had the liveliest fear that her aunt would make one more disagreeable remark about the library before exiting, so she was relieved when their escort inclined his head toward her aunt and said, "I do mean to assist you, you know. I have a set of the latest Peerage at my apartments in the Crescent."
"And why would you have the Peerage?" she demanded. "The Baronetage would be more suitable."
"Oh, I have aspirations," he teased, his eyes merry. "You have no idea what aspirations I have."
Since her aunt's disparagements only seemed to amuse the young man, Nell relaxed a little and allowed her hand to rest more firmly on his arm. It was a pleasant May day outside, with a light breeze to sway her sprigged muslin gown and toy with her black ringlets. Traversing the busy shopping street on the arm of a respectable escort was no disagreeable sensation, either. In fact, she thought, catching the warmth of attentive interest in his expression as he glanced down at her, the sensation was absolutely agreeable.
Reality all too soon intruded. Her aunt, on the doorstep of the pastry cook shop, refused to budge another step. "I don't wish to have a sweet," she protested. "It is only three hours since I broke my fast."
Sir Hugh, undaunted by his stubborn godmother, held open the door. "Indeed, ma'am, but I am convinced that Miss Armstrong is in need of refreshment. Nothing is so restorative as a cup of tea and a Bath bun, don't you agree, Miss Armstrong?"
Nell blinked in astonishment at this appeal to herself. What had she to say to anything? But the young man continued to regard her, his brows raised, and she said, "I should be very grateful for a cup of tea, sir."
"Oh, very well," Aunt Longstreet agreed with poor grace. "Don't know what's the matter with you young folks--forever fading away for lack of a little starch in your spines."
"We can't all have as much starch as you," Sir Hugh murmured as his godmother proceeded into the shop. He gave Nell a quick, commiserating grin as she passed by him. Nell thought perhaps she shouldn't allow herself to side with this stranger against her aunt and kept her countenance noncommittal.
Mollands was not a destination her aunt had previously approved, so Nell looked about her with interest. The wrought iron tables with their marble tops were accompanied by curlicued wrought iron chairs which did not look all that comfortable. Yet the place was full of fashionable people and was filled with the most delightful aromas of baking pastries. Nell's mouth watered at the thought of a tasty treat and she moved carefully to the counter where a variety of baked goods was displayed. Bath buns were the very least of these items, looking entirely uninteresting when compared to the macaroons, the ratafia cakes, and the almond cake.
"I'm partial to the plum cake myself," Sir Hugh said from beside her, "but my sister has always favored the gingerbread."
Nell could see that the thick gingerbread squares were more expensive than the plum cake, but both seemed most unreasonable to her. In the village they wouldn't have cost half as much. Her gaze moved quickly from one item to the next and alighted at length on the Scotch shortbread at only a penny a piece. "I believe I would like the shortbread," she said.
Sir Hugh regarded her searchingly for a moment and said, "Very well. Your aunt insists that she wants nothing but tea. Do you think we could tempt her with a Savoy cake?"
"Well," Nell said frankly, "she would very much enjoy it, but if she has set her mind to having nothing but tea, you may be sure that she would not eat a Savoy cake, even if it appeared in front of her."
"Yes, as I feared," he said gravely.
They retreated to a table where Aunt Longstreet was already seated and Sir Hugh held Nell's chair for her. He claimed the attention of the serving maid, but consulted with the girl in so moderate a voice that Nell was unable to overhear what he ordered. This was partially because her aunt had taken exception to the paint scheme of the room and was expounding on its lack of appropriateness.
"Gold and purple," she muttered. "As though they were pastry cook to the king. What, may I ask, would be amiss with a coat of whitewash and a few bright paintings on the walls? That's the problem with Bath. Everything is overdone. You cannot go anywhere that you see any simplicity. Crescents and Circuses and Squares until you are quite disgusted with such a display."
"Oh, I think Bath is beautiful," Nell sighed. "So elegant. All the buildings of that lovely stone. The architecture so consistent. Why, there's scarcely a building here over a hundred years old."
"Precisely," said her aunt.
Sir Hugh smiled. "Not at all like Longstreet Manor, eh? That old mausoleum must have wings dating from the fourteen hundreds. With all their inconveniences as well, I dare say."
"Tradition, heritage, ancestry," Aunt Longstreet informed him, as she often did Nell. "Nothing could be more important, my boy. All this trumpery modern finery is not to be compared with the solidity of the past."
"All this modern trumpery," Sir Hugh said dolefully, "will become the heritage of the next generations, ma'am. No way to stop the march of progress."
"Progress, ha! Degradation, more like." Aunt Longstreet observed the items which the serving girl placed upon the table and frowned. "I want nothing but tea," she protested. "As I told you."
"Indeed, ma'am. But my own appetite is healthy, and I believe your companion shares my appreciation of fine bakery goods."
Nell eyed the collection of items with something like awe. He had ordered the plum cake, and the gingerbread, and the Scotch shortbread, and a Savoy cake, as well as their tea. She was not quite certain if she was to be allotted more than one choice of these delectables, and she glanced inquiringly at her host.
"Please help yourself," the baronet urged. "Between us we should be able to polish off the whole, don't you think?"
"I shouldn't be at all surprised," she said, a smile blooming on her face at his obvious determination to provide her with what he must know was an unaccustomed treat. Well, so it was! She helped herself to the gingerbread and took a daintily greedy bite. The thick square was still warm and the taste of treacle delighted her tongue. "Oh, Aunt Longstreet, it's better than Cook's!" she exclaimed.
"I doubt that very much," her aunt said crossly.
"Well, just as good," Nell temporized. "And Cook's never comes to the table warm."
"No wonder," Sir Hugh interjected. "The kitchens at Longstreet Manor must be miles away from the dining parlor."
"Oh, you've been there, have you?" Nell asked innocently as she forked another bite.
"Of course he has!" Aunt Longstreet snapped. "He's my godson."
"But I've been with you ten years, aunt, and he hasn't come while I've been there."
"Very true," the young man acknowledged, that wicked twinkle back in his eyes as his gaze held Nell's. She felt an odd little flutter in her breast. "I fear I have displeased my godmother and the open invitation I used to enjoy has been withdrawn. But in the past I spent many happy days at the Manor."
"Hogwash," his godmother said. "You always found it sadly flat there. No chance for the racketing about you delighted in elsewhere."
He nodded. "And I was terrified to bring my cattle there, you know, Miss Armstrong. Shabbiest stables I've ever seen, and if the groom is under fifty I should be vastly surprised."
"He is a trifle old," Nell agreed, "but he's been there forever and knows just what my aunt wishes. Of course, with only the one helper, it's no use Aunt Longstreet attempting to stable a visitor's horses. But then," she said matter-of-factly, "we seldom have visitors."
"Never, I should have thought," he murmured.
"Mind your tongue, young man," Aunt Longstreet said. "I'll have that Savoy cake after all, since Helen doesn't need anything else after that enormous chunk of gingerbread."
Nell hid her disappointment with a perfunctory smile. When Sir Hugh placed the shortbread in front of her, she shook her head. "No, no, that's for you," she insisted.
"Not at all! It's what you asked for to begin with," he said, leaving it where he'd placed it. "Personally I'd prefer another plum cake, and I shall summon one up."
"Pure indulgence," grunted Aunt Longstreet, who was in the process of demolishing the splendid little Savoy cake in three bites.
"Yes, but that's precisely what you can expect of the youth of today," Sir Hugh confided to Nell. "I'm sure your Aunt Longstreet has mentioned that."
The corners of Nell's mouth twitched, but she returned no answer.
"I've had better Savoy cake," Aunt Longstreet announced as she regarded her empty plate with disfavor.
"Naturally," her godson said.
"And better tea. A little on the weak side for my taste," she said mildly, disposing herself comfortably in her chair. "But we'll come again, Helen, for I see that this establishment is patronized by a very good class of people. Better than the pump room, I dare say."
"You've been to the pump room already?" Sir Hugh asked, looking surprised. "I thought perhaps you'd just arrived in Bath."
"We've been here a week," Nell explained when her aunt seemed to ignore his remark. "Aunt Longstreet has taken a house in Queen Square."
"Queen Square! Lovely, I'm sure, but the oldest of the squares in Bath, if I'm not mistaken."
"Which is precisely why we're there," Aunt Longstreet informed him. "Built in 1734 and therefore has some history. No doubt it seems old-fashioned to you."
"No, no, merely quiet and without some of the conveniences of the more recent squares and the Crescent. If you're headed in that direction, I should be pleased to escort you home."
Aunt Longstreet hesitated and Nell did nothing to indicate her preference in the matter. Her aunt was so contrary that if Nell were to say, "Oh, that would be kind of you," her aunt would probably dismiss the young man on the instant! But Aunt Longstreet must have had a reason to accommodate the fellow, for she said at length, "Very well. We were through with our errands for the morning."
The distance between Milsom Street and Queen Square was no more than a few blocks. Aunt Longstreet, despite the cane, was not one to dawdle, so they covered the whole of it in less than ten minutes. Nell would have enjoyed strolling along looking into the shop windows and thus extending for a few more moments what had proved ultimately to be an exceptionally pleasant excursion, but her aunt scorned such a waste of time. Sir Hugh kept up a steady stream of inconsequential chatter about the town and its pleasures.
"I trust you've signed the Master of Ceremony's book," he said as they came within sight of No. 10.
"No, why should we?" Aunt Longstreet demanded. "We're not here for the dancing."
"You don't intend to visit the Lower Rooms?"
"Certainly not. Too expensive, too crowded, too hot. I know what these rooms are, and I cannot think I would find any pleasure in them."
Sir Hugh frowned. "Perhaps you would not, Miss Longstreet, but your companion most assuredly would. Miss Armstrong is young and needs to meet others of her age. You cannot bring her from the wilds of Westmorland to such a lively place as Bath and expect her to do no more than dance attendance upon you."
Nell flushed at such a harsh rendering of the situation. Though it was more or less true, she would never, ever have said anything of the sort. She was wholly dependent upon Aunt Longstreet and she had known from the time the expedition was planned that her aunt could no more be expected to put herself out to chaperone her niece to the assemblies in Bath than she could be expected to fly. At the time the arrangements were made, however, Nell had believed that it would be quite enough for her to see all the glories of the town. She had never suspected how much she would long to partake of the glamorous entertainments.
Aunt Longstreet was unaccustomed to criticism of her actions. She scowled at Sir Hugh and informed him that it was no business of his what she did. "Helen has neither the inclination nor the wardrobe to be gallivanting off to dances in strange towns with strange men for partners. She is of a serious, not a frivolous, disposition."
Sir Hugh turned to Nell, but she lowered her gaze before his intense scrutiny, and said nothing. "I see," he murmured at length. "Well, I wish you a pleasant stay in Bath, Miss Longstreet. Please do not hesitate to call upon me if I may be of any service to you."
"I'm sure we shall not be in need of any services which you could provide," Aunt Longstreet sniffed as she thumped her cane against the door of their rented house.
"Your servant, Miss Armstrong," he said, bowing politely.
After such a pointed rebuff, Nell doubted the would see the man ever again. She felt an unaccountable pang, whether from continuing embarrassment or regret, she wasn't sure. "Thank you for the lovely pastries, Sir Hugh, and for seeing us home."
He turned then, as though easily dismissing them from his mind, and strolled off down the street.
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