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Joanna hunched over the beautifully illustrated book that she'd taken from the library shelf. She didn't dare remove it entirely, so she sat perched high on the mahogany ladder and carefully turned the pages, admiring each piece of work. She had to say one thing for Guy de Salis: He had fine taste in reading matter, and his collection of art books was extraordinary. She'd availed herself of them for the last two weeks, lacking anything better to do.
Two long weeks and not a word from the high-and-mighty Lord Greaves. Two long, wasted weeks in which she'd found out nothing about the manner of Lydia's death. The servants looked at her blankly every time she mentioned their late mistress's name, and when she'd asked Ambrose how the marchioness had died, he had blanched.
"You had best ask the marquess," he'd said, and that was the end of that.
She'd made no progress with Miles either. Her frustration ate away at her, keeping her up at nights. She had no idea what to do, how she might reach out to him in a way he would respond to.
She sighed and glanced out the tall latticed window, where rain dripped down the glass and pooled on the sill.
Miles trudged along beside Mrs. Loppitt, his head down as usual, small hands hanging limply at his sides, his coat padding his thin frame against the cold.
Poor little boy; he led such a regimented life that his nanny took him out at precisely twelve o'clock no matter what the weather, walking him like a dog on a leash.
She imagined that his eyes held their usual lifeless expression. His eyes had been the first thing about Miles to alarm her--that and the way he cowered away from physical contact. Justas alarming had been her next discovery: Mrs. Loppitt herself.
She'd never forget the afternoon following her arrival when Mrs. Loppitt finally saw fit to present the boy in the drawing room. Joanna had waited all day, the request to visit Miles that she'd sent via a footman first thing in the morning refused. The return message from the nursery was firm: Lord Wycombe would be presented at four o'clock and not a moment sooner.
Joanna nearly choked at the audacity of the nurse, but she'd had no choice--she had no authority over Miles, certainly none over his despotic keeper.
When Mrs. Loppitt brought Miles in, Joanna's first impression was that of a sweet little boy with knobby knees beneath his frock and pinafore. His dark hair had been wet down and combed relentlessly into order, and his rounded cheeks were pink from a recent scrubbing, she guessed. His cheeks aside, the rest of his body looked far too thin.
Poor child--little wonder. Lydia had been his entire world.
Miles's huge brown eyes opened wide as he took her in. "Mama?" he said, stumbling backward, a flicker of what she could have sworn was fear in his eyes.
"No, darling, not your mama," she said gently, kneeling before him, wishing she'd remembered the resemblance that had caused the same reaction in Ambrose. Obviously it had grown far stronger over the years. "I am your cousin Joanna. Perhaps your mother mentioned me to you? We were great friends, she and I, and I imagine you must miss her very much. I certainly do."
He gave her such a piercing look that she had the odd feeling he saw straight into her. Then he averted his eyes and looked down at the floor. One finger went to his mouth.
Joanna's heart squeezed in her chest at the sight of him. He looked so small and vulnerable, so lost somehow. Examining him more closely, she could see that he was like Lydia only in his eyelashes, which were as long and sooty black as hers had been, and in the dark eyebrows that traced the same gentle arch. The line of his mouth was unfamiliar to her, the bottom lip slightly fuller than the top, and at the moment it trembled. Only his chin showed a certain determination in its squared shape; everything else about Miles indicated trepidation.
"I've waited a long time to meet you," she said, tentatively stretching her hand out to him.
Miles responded by inching away until his back pressed against the edge of a chair behind him.
She threw a questioning glance at Mrs. Loppitt, who just shrugged. "The boy is impossibly shy," the woman said in a voice as rigid as her posture. "At least he behaves himself, don't you, my little lord?"
"Has he--has he always been so withdrawn?" Joanna asked, rising and drawing Mrs. Loppitt away, not wanting Miles to hear them talking about him.
"As I said, he's shy. What the child needs is strict discipline and a strict routine--that's how he'll get over it. He'll have to, won't he, if he's to be the marquess one day."
Appalled by the cold brutality of that speech, Joanna said nothing. If this was the sort of caretaker Lord Greaves had chosen for his small son, who obviously still suffered from losing his mother, she could scarcely imagine what the man himself was like. Heartless was too good a word.
"I--I would like to see Miles each day, if you please. Perhaps I could read to him or play with him in the nursery--anything to give him a little pleasure," she said, forcing firmness into her voice.
"I am sorry, your ladyship, but his routine is not to be disturbed," Mrs. Loppitt said, her tone brooking no argument. "I have no objection to bringing him downstairs at this time each day; this is his lordship's usual fifteen minutes for visiting with the marquess when he is at home. Other than that, we maintain our schedule without fail. That is what Lord Greaves wishes." She turned, her back ramrod straight, her stiff black dress crackling as if to emphasize her point.
That had been that. Miles was marched back out of the room, and the only times Joanna had seen him thereafter had been at the appointed daily hour for the appointed fifteen minutes.
Since Miles did not wish to converse, Joanna decided that she'd read to him--she'd had to go into town to the local bookshop to find her childhood favorites.
Each afternoon she read to Miles as Miles sat on the sofa next to her, his gaze fixed on his dangling feet, his hands motionless in his lap. He never looked her in the eye, never said a word, not even in greeting or farewell. With each passing day, Joanna's concern grew.
This was not the child Lydia had described so glowingly--a little boy filled with mischief, the precocious son who showed signs of a keen intelligence and promising physical prowess despite his tender age. Joanna recognized absolutely nothing about the Miles of Lydia's letters in the Miles she found before her now.
Joanna massaged one knuckle hard into her forehead, wishing she could think of a way to break through the barrier Miles had created between himself and the world. She knew how it felt to be so overwhelmed by grief that one willed oneself into numbness. She also knew what had brought her back to life and to hope, both after her parents' untimely deaths and, later, her husband, Cosmo's: Bunch.
Bunch and her never-ending pragmatism. Bunch, who refused to allow her to isolate herself once Bunch had decided that Joanna's allotted time for grieving was up. Bunch had practically forced her to return to the business of life.
Perhaps, Joanna thought, one finger tapping the corner of her mouth, perhaps that was what Miles needed. Someone to remind him that life was a joyful thing. The question was, how? What might entice a child of five back to the land of the living?
She glanced back down at the book spread in her lap. This illustration showed a marble relief of Orpheus and Eurydice.... she remembered their story well, it being one of Bunch's favorites.
She traced her finger lightly over the figure of Orpheus, the great poet and musician, who married his true love, Eurydice. And here, the lovely Eurydice, who was tragically bitten by a serpent and died.
Joanna smiled, hearing Bunch's voice even now. "Silly man that he was, in his grief Orpheus journeyed down to Hades, hoping somehow that he might bring his Eurydice back. So charming a man was he that he was given a chance to rescue his beloved, and he proceeded to do so..."
Joanna quickly turned the page, for the ending was not so pretty. Typical of Bunch to read her young charge stories with cautionary overtones. Just on the brink of the rescue, Orpheus lost his wife to the underworld forever by breaking the rules he'd been set.
No, Bunch never left her with any illusions at all if she could help it. On the other hand ... Joanna lifted her head, a sudden thought occurring to her. The underworld--Orpheus had charmed his way in, hadn't he, through his gifts of music and poetry. Well, she was certainly no poet, and God help her if anyone ever heard her sing, but she did understand the medium of painting. Better yet, it was a silent art, fit for a silent child.
Maybe, just maybe, this might at last be a way into Miles's world and a way to let him out into the light, to let him breathe the air the rest of the world breathed.
She covered her face with one hand and drew in a deep breath, then released it. God, please let me be worthy of this task, she prayed with everything she had in her. I have nothing else to give, no better understanding, no other road I know how to follow. Please, oh, please, will You show me the way?
For one shocking moment she thought God had actually deigned to reply, for a voice boomed like thunder through the silence of her meditation.
"I do not wish to hear it--nothing, do you understand? Leave me in peace, will you!"
Joanna's head shot up and she blinked. Surely God wouldn't be quite so harsh, not if He bothered to answer--and that she highly doubted.
She needn't have worried. It wasn't God but the devil himself in the form of Guy de Salis, Marquess of Greaves. He stormed into the library and slammed the door behind him.
"Bloody cursed fool," he muttered, throwing a folder of papers onto the ormolu desk in front of the window and flinging himself into the chair behind it, oblivious to her presence.
Joanna, who had frozen with horror in her spot high on the ladder, thanked not only God, but all the gods and goddesses that she'd ever heard of for that one piece of luck. She thought that maybe, if she stayed as still as a statue, she might go undetected. Maybe he was just depositing his papers and then he would leave....
Holding her breath, she barely opened the eyes she'd squeezed shut and peered at his imperial magnificence through tiny slits, trying to get an impression of what the devil actually looked like in human form.
She couldn't help herself. Her eyes shot wide open, completely of their own accord. Dear heaven, but he was the finest-looking man she'd ever laid eyes on in her life, and that was saying something. Italy was filled with men who might have been models for Michelangelo's "David."
Not one could compare to Guy de Salis.
It wasn't that he looked anything like the "David." It was simply that he possessed an innate grace and power that she'd seen in no one else.
His face had strong character in its own right, yet its symmetry made it beautiful at the same time. A natural wave of thick dark hair rose from his brow and fell back to sweep behind one well-shaped ear. Straight brows slashed over his lowered eyes, which she guessed were probably the same dark shade of sherry as his son's. His nose, the bridge narrow, ran in a straight line to the tip, the nostrils finely drawn.
His mouth was Miles's--wide, the lower lip slightly fuller--but oh, how different the shape looked on this man. There was no softness here, no innocence, and the firm, square chin indicated a will of iron.
Joanna shivered as if a cold wind had just run down her back.
He suddenly stood and turned to the window, his head slightly bowed, one hand pushing back his coat and resting on his hip. Joanna's gaze traveled with a practiced, unembarrassed ease over the broad shoulders that created a perfect triangle when drawn in geometric proportions down to his lean waist and hips. Strong thighs finished off the entire impression of symmetry, once again the proportions just right compared to the more slender but equally muscular length of calf.
She had to forcibly push away the automatic awe that her artist's eye induced--he was a cad and a blackguard, and on top of that a terrible father, she reminded herself firmly.
For the first time Joanna understood why her cousin had fallen head over heels in love at first sight: Guy de Salis was just the sort of man Lydia had been looking for, the prince among princes, dark and powerful, vaguely dangerous.
Lydia had just forgotten about the darkest and most dangerous of princes when she'd gone seeking, and Joanna wished to heaven that she'd been there to warn her.
Exhaling loudly, he moved back to the desk and slumped into the chair, the heel of his hand pressed against his forehead.
If Joanna hadn't known better, her heart probably would have gone out to him; he looked so defeated and miserable that any person with an ounce of compassion would have been tempted to comfort him. But anger also showed in the tight line of his mouth, the tense set of his shoulders.
He picked up the heap of paper in front of him, staring down at it, then abruptly tossed it down again, his fist striking the pile as if he wished to pound it into oblivion.
"Damn you, Lydia!" he roared. "Dear God, will you never leave me in peace?"
Joanna stared, horrified. If she'd needed confirmation that Lydia's husband despised his wife, he'd just given it to her. Fury surged through every fiber of her being until she, too, shook from head to toe. If she'd had a gun in her hand, she'd probably have shot him dead on the spot.
"How dare you?" she cried, forgetting in her rage that she was supposed to be hiding from him. "I ought to throw this book directly at your head, but I have too much respect for good artwork!"
His head shot up and he looked straight at the bookcase, his hands gripping the edge of the desk as he half-rose, his gaze steadily climbing until it settled full on her face.
Joanna was prepared for anything but what happened next.
First came the impact of his eyes when they met hers. Dark as a moonless night, they lacked no inner fire. For one suspended second of time she thought they might burn straight through her, consume her with their intensity. She felt utterly stripped, as if his gaze had peeled away her skin, turned her bones to ash, exposing her unwilling soul to his view.
Next came the realization that she'd imagined it all--the truth was that he'd turned white as a sheet and looked as if he might be sick.
"Lydia?" The single word came out in a ragged whisper. He rose and moved over to the bookshelf, his eyes never leaving hers. "Oh, God--Lydia? It cannot be.... I--I must be dreaming." He clutched the bottom of the ladder with both hands.
She managed to resist the temptation to play Lydia's ghost, despite how instructive it might have been. "No, Lord Greaves," she said from her seat. "Not Lydia."