Authors: Diane Farr
A touch of cynicism curled Chloe’s rosebud mouth. The worldly-wise expression sat oddly on her elfin face. "That was then. He blames me now."
"Why, for the love of Heaven?"
"I am of age. Should I choose to do it, I could hand my property over to him. I could give him Grandfer’s mill, or the glassworks, or one of the Harrowgate properties. I could make him a present of Brookhollow, for that matter. Well, I don’t choose to do so."
Gil was appalled. "Good God, no! Why should you?"
She lifted one rosy shoulder in a slight shrug. "Why, indeed? And of course Father would never demean himself by asking me for anything. But I know exactly what he is thinking, and why he is so surly to me. I bought Thunder for him, you know, but he hasn’t thanked me. And I don’t believe he’s even ridden the creature yet."
Gil clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "If your father was five instead of fifty, I’d call that behavior pouting."
Chloe smiled. "No one could accuse Father of pouting! His manner is far too elegant."
may be elegant, but his
leave something to be desired."
She threw up her hands in mock horror. "How can you utter such heresy? No son of Lady Maria Littlefield—
Gil!—can be apostrophized as ‘ill-mannered!’"
Gil eyed her grimly. "Yes, he was reared to think too well of himself; that’s the largest part of his problem. Westwood, my eye! I’ve no patience with it. I’ve witnessed the Turkish treatment he gave his wife and daughter—"
"Now, Gil, really—! Anyone would think he beat us regularly, or locked us in our rooms. He was never brutal, you know."
"Aye, that’s true. Just cold, and distant, and disapproving of everything you did. Or said."
"Or thought. Or was." Chloe’s soft smile turned slightly bitter. "I have never understood how anyone could disapprove of my dear little mother. Mama had the most affectionate nature, and the sweetest ways! I daresay she wasn’t very clever, and I know she wasn’t well-born, but still . . . " Her voice trailed off, and she stared into the fire.
"Her birth was perfectly respectable," said Gil firmly. "And if your father thought her connections were too deuced low for a man of his breeding, he ought not to have married her. A man should show his wife more courtesy than to criticize her day and night."
Chloe sighed. "Yes. My poor mother thought the sun rose and set in my father. And he felt nothing but contempt for her."
Gil eyed his friend shrewdly. "I’ll say this for you, Clo—whatever he thought of your mother, he feels a healthy respect for her daughter! You’ve handled him very skillfully for a chit fresh out of the schoolroom. I was half afraid you’d let him browbeat you, but no such thing! I’m proud of you."
She blushed. "Thank you," she said, with difficulty. "I couldn’t let him overpower me. I couldn’t bear to think of him squandering Mama’s money on his latest mistress, or—or anything like that. I wanted to put some heart back into the land, and do good works, and keep the fortune safely out of the Westwoods’ hands. I owed that to her memory. And Grandfer’s."
"Well, if your father ever tries to come the ugly over you, Clo, I hope you know you can always turn to me."
Her blue eyes widened in surprise at this unnecessary statement. "Of course."
Gil grinned. That was the best part of having a friend like Chloe. Each knew, without question, that the other could be counted on in any extremity. But that put him in mind of something. He slapped his forehead with an exclamation.
"Dash it all, I nearly forgot! I need a favor from you, Clo."
"It is just like you, Gil, to spend the better part of the day chasing me down, and then forget to tell me what you needed!"
"Yes, well, it puts a man out, to have so many adventures piled on top of him. But I did have a good reason for seeking you out."
"Very well: what is it?"
Gil frowned, and did not immediately answer her. "It’s a rather delicate matter. Now that I must come to the point, I find it a bit difficult."
Chloe waited expectantly while Gil’s eyes traveled round the room as if seeking inspiration. Finally he gave a little sigh and returned his troubled gaze to Chloe. "It’s Tish," he said simply. "I’m worried about her."
"Tish! I thought she was perfectly happy."
"She was. She’s not any more."
Chloe’s eyes widened in alarm. "Oh, do not say so! I haven’t written to her for ages, but we are both such wretched correspondents, you know, that neither of us thinks anything of it when we do not hear from one another. And she was so
at her wedding, I expected her to live in untrammelled bliss forever after! I am sure she expected no less. Poor Tish! Is Robert unkind to her?"
Gil snorted in disgust. "Lord, how would I know? If that’s not just like a female, to ascribe every misery to the state of someone’s marriage!"
"Well, for heaven’s sake, Gil! What is it, then?"
"That’s just it. I don’t know. On the surface she’s very gay; dashes about town as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Well, she’s shamming it. Don’t ask me how I know. I just do."
Chloe nodded. Gil always knew when one was shamming it. "Have you asked her what’s amiss?"
"I’ve tried. She won’t confide in me, which makes me deuced uneasy. What I mean to say is—Tish! Keeping secrets!" He shook his head.
Chloe, well acquainted with the former Leticia Gilliland, was as alarmed by this departure from the norm as Gil had evidently been. "Gracious! It sounds most unlike her. Tish, of all people! She was never one to hide her feelings."
"No. Well, there you have it. Makes my hair stand on end, thinking of all the things it
be, and not knowing what it
But I’m only her brother. Perhaps she’d confide in you. I’d give a great deal to be able to set things right." He leaned forward and placed a beseeching hand on Chloe’s linen-swathed knee. "I thought if you paid Tish a visit, you could learn first-hand what’s what. I daresay between the two of us, we’d be able to steer her away from point-non-plus."
Chloe looked anxiously at her friend’s worried countenance. "I know you would never ask me to come to London if you did not believe it to be important. But I can’t be spared just now."
"What, from Brookhollow? A rubbishing
Chloe, I need you!"
"It’s a very
farm," she protested feebly.
"I daresay! But the crops will grow, or not grow, whether you are here to coax them along or not."
"Oh, Gil! If you knew the first thing about land management—"
"Don’t come for my sake, then. Come for Tish."
"I would do anything for either of you, or both of you! You know that."
"Well, then? Will you return to London with me?"
Chloe hesitated, biting her lip. It was very hard to turn Gil down. He had come to her rescue time and again over the years, and he rarely asked her for anything.
He reached for her knee again, and gave it a friendly shake. "Clo. Don’t let Brookhollow steal your girlhood. Are you never to have a life of your own?"
She straightened indignantly. "Not
again! Are we speaking of Tish? Or of me?"
Gil’s grin was wholly unrepentant. "Both! You can’t expect me to see both my girls in the suds, and make no attempt to pull you out. You can take my word for it, Clo: London will do you a world of good. And Tish needs you, too."
Chloe’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, but Gil looked completely guileless. "Very well," she said at last. "I will think on it."
"I leave tomorrow. With or without you."
"Tomorrow! Then it will have to be without me. I can’t possibly be ready in one day."
Gil’s aspect became stern. "Are you thinking you need time to pack your things? You may rid yourself of the notion. Trust me, Clo! If you parade through London in those ghastly frocks Gertrude Tewksbury made for you, you’ll be laughed out of Town."
Chloe blushed. "The muslins aren’t so very bad," she said defensively. "And poor Miss Tewksbury needed the work. She won’t take charity—"
"Nor should you! I saw you in that monstrosity she called a dinner dress. Looked like something from the bottom of the missionary barrel. Yes, I see you are laughing, but
weren’t obliged to sit at table across from the thing, and look at it by the hour! Enough to put anyone off his dinner. It was all I could do to keep my tongue between my teeth."
"You did not do so, as I recall," said Chloe, twinkling mischievously. "You read me a lecture on the evils of frumpery the instant we were alone."
"Did I? I wish you had taken it to heart! It’s more than flesh and blood can stand, seeing you in those frightful clothes of yours day after day. Besides, dash it all—people know you for a friend of mine! I daresay the knowing ’uns blame
for allowing you to go about looking such a figure of fun. Here I am, fancying myself a man of taste—I say! What’s so deuced funny?"
"I? Why, I was never more serious in my life! Leave your things behind, Clo. Never saw anyone who needed a new touch more than you do. And it’s not like you can’t afford it! You’re as rich as Croesus."
"That’s all very well, but I still cannot be ready tomorrow! Nor can you, Gil. We are here, stuck in Barlow’s cottage. What if we must stay the night?"
A brief silence fell, while the two friends listened to the rain drumming steadily on the roof. It was a sobering sound. Gil turned a little pale. "We can’t stay the night. That
throw the cat amongst the pigeons."
"Well, what else are we to do? Our clothes won’t be dry for hours."
"I shall have to sleep in the shed," said Gil gloomily.
"Oh, Gil, no!"
Exasperated, Gil raked a hand through his hair. "There’s only one bed, Clo. I daresay you see nothing wrong with us sharing it!"
She dimpled. "Well, no. Not in any
sense. But I suppose you are right that we ought not."
Gil spluttered wordlessly. Chloe favored him with a kindly smile. "You worry far too much about the proprieties, Gil. After all, there is no one here to frown at us! I suggest we simply take it in turns to sleep. We must keep the fire going, since we are dressed in Barlow’s only sheets and I haven’t found an extra blanket anywhere. So one of us takes the bed, and the other tends the fire. Then, halfway through the night, we trade places."
Gil attempted to argue the point with Chloe, but her steadfast refusal to listen to reason, coupled with his own natural reluctance to bed down in a cow shed, resulted in his eventual capitulation.
He argued far more hotly over her insistence that she take the first watch. It seemed ungentlemanly to him to go to bed while she sat up, but Chloe finally convinced him that she actually preferred to sleep later, when she supposed she would be more tired. So Gil, grumbling, stretched out on the rickety wooden bed in the corner of the room and disposed himself on its straw mattress as comfortably as he could. He was certain he would not be able to sleep a wink, and said so.
And that was the last he remembered until morning.
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