Enchanted Rendezvous: A Tangled Hearts Romance (2 page)

BOOK: Enchanted Rendezvous: A Tangled Hearts Romance
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James Montworthy whistled his astonishment. “Would like to have seen that,” he exclaimed. “Man must’ve had good hands. I wouldn’t try controlling a team of mad horses. Not,” he added complacently, “that I ain’t done a bit of driving myself.”

The mist had lifted somewhat, and by the intermittent light of the moon, Cecily noted that her rescuer was possessed of a handsome profile. Moreover, everything from the top of his curly beaver to the heels of polished boots that fit his muscular legs to a fault proclaimed a Corinthian, a top sawyer more suited to racing his friends in his curricle or “playing the squirrel” down London streets than driving through Dorset woods.

That thought led to another. Looking about her at the thick woods through which they were driving, Cecily said, “Mrs. Horris mentioned that these woods were supposed to be haunted.”

The young man shrugged disdainfully. “Local humbug, give you m’word on it. Little people and elves and some sort of female specter who’s supposed to flap about in a sheet. Anyone who sees her is supposed to cock up his toes. That’s Dorset for you.”

A heartfelt sigh rippled through the length of Montworthy’s frame. “You prefer London,” Cecily suggested.

“I wouldn’t be here at all if the pater would lend me some rolls of soft,” the Corinthian said gloomily. “It’s cursed dull, I tell you, ma’am, and the pater’s idea of a rattling good time is to fall asleep
over his port. Luckily for me, Colonel Howard’s a neighbor. Joining his Riders is about the only thing that keeps me sane.”

Only people who truly belonged somewhere could allow themselves the luxury of feeling bored. With all her heart Cecily envied Mr. Montworthy’s ennui.

“In fact, it might’ve been one of the colonel’s men who frightened the mail coach horses,” the young man was continuing. “Don’t know for certain, mind you. Dined out tonight myself.”

As he spoke, the woods ended abruptly, and scattered moonlight fell on a large stone house surrounded by gardens. “There’s Marcham Place now,” Montworthy said, pointing with his whip.

The well-lit house was a friendly sight. Perhaps her aunt was expecting her after all. Cecily felt her heart pound with anticipation and nerves as a groom came hurrying to hold the horses’ heads.

Montworthy jumped down from the curricle and strode across to help Cecily down. “Permit me to accompany you to the house, ma’am.”

She shook her head. “You have been exceedingly kind, and I have kept you long enough. The groom will carry my luggage up for me.”

With an air that bespoke much practice in such matters, Montworthy took her extended hand and bent over it. “Glad to be of service, give you m’word. Honored if you’ll allow me to call on you while you’re visiting Lady Marcham.”

God send that she would be there
to
visit, Cecily thought as, hefting Archimedes’s basket, she followed the groom who was carrying her bag. There was a steep flight of stairs, and then she was lifting the imposing brass knocker on her grandaunt’s front door.

At her first knock the door flew open, and a gray
ing manservant—no doubt Lady Marcham’s butler—stared down at Cecily. A bemused look replaced the differential smile that had wreathed his spare countenance, and his “Yes, miss?” was almost a challenge.

Cecily’s courage almost shriveled, but she announced firmly, “I am Miss Vervain, Lady Marcham’s grandniece. Her ladyship is expecting me.”

He looked even more astonished. “Ma’am?”

“I sent a letter a week ago.” From the manservant’s reaction, this was the first he had heard of it. “Is my grandaunt here?” Cecily insisted. “I should like to speak to her.”

The butler seemed to pull himself together. He bowed and said, “Please to come in, Miss Vervain. Her ladyship has retired for the night, but a room shall be readied for you immediately.”

Cecily almost despaired. Since no room had been prepared, Lady Marcham had definitely not received her letter. Or perhaps she had repented of an invitation that had been issued—and refused—over a year ago.

She looked about the hall. It was dark there, but what she saw made her realize that her grandaunt was a wealthy woman. Portraits in costly frames lined the walls, marble statues graced the anteroom, and a plushly carpeted staircase led up to the second-floor landing. Perhaps, Cecily thought, Lady Marcham is too fine for a grandniece who is as poor as a church mouse.

But such gloomy thoughts disappeared as a servant girl with red hair and a wealth of freckles on her pert nose came tripping toward her. She dropped a knee and announced, “Me name’s Mary, Miss. Mr. Grigg has directed me to make up the fern room for you. If you’ll let me have your bag, and the basket, too?”

Archimedes poked his head out of the basket and hissed so menacingly that the girl backed away. “He is not used to strangers,” Cecily apologized.

The girl looked nervously at the basket and hastily led the way up the carpeted stairs. “It’s for sure you’ve had a long journey, ma’am. I’ll light the fire and then see if I can find a bit of tea and toast for you—and a saucer of milk for himself there.”

The room into which Cecily was ushered was a pleasant surprise. Unlike the dark and opulent anteroom below, it was a study in shades of green. While Mary lit the fire in the big marble fireplace, Cecily admired watercolor studies of flowers and ferns, apple-green hangings and the viridescent shades of the watered silk sofa and matching armchair. Archimedes apparently also approved of his surroundings, for after emerging stiffly from his basket and sniffing the emerald Aubusson carpet, he displayed his one canine tooth in a yawn and lay down.

But though bone-weary herself, Cecily could not rest. When Mary had gone downstairs to see about the tea, she walked to the window and opened it a little. Through that crack she could smell the raw scent of salt and could hear the muted crash of breakers.

“It is very different from Sussex,” she mused. Then, as a soft knock announced Mary’s return, she added, “I wish it were daylight so that I could see where I am.”

“It will be morning soon enough.”

A lady had entered the room. She was tall, slender, and dressed in a moss-green brocaded dressing gown trimmed with swansdown. She had masses of white hair, which had been braided and piled on top of her head, and high cheekbones that gave character to her lovely, almost unlined face. Her
smile was charming, but her green eyes were somewhat guarded.

“Lady M-Marcham?” Cecily stammered.

The lady nodded. “And you are my niece’s daughter.”

She glided forward to embrace her guest, and enfolded by the warm fragrance of verbena, Cecily began to apologize. “I am being a nuisance, Grandaunt. I fear that my coming has disturbed you.”

The lady looked rueful. “I do not like this title of grandaunt. It makes me feel as if I am in my dotage. You will call me Aunt Emerald, if you please.” She stepped back and searched Cecily’s face before adding, “And, no, you are not a nuisance, but I confess that I am surprised, Cecily. Since your refusal a year ago, I have not heard from you.”

“I sent you a letter from Sussex last week, but I collect that you might not have received it.” Lady Marcham shook her head, and Cecily added unhappily, “I know that I should have waited for a reply, but I could not afford to stay on at the Golden George, and try as I might, I could not find a position that would allow me to keep a cat. I had to leave the Netherbys’ quite suddenly, you see.”

Instead of reacting to this news, Lady Marcham mused, “You have your father’s gray eyes and serious expression, but your black hair and that peach-bloom complexion come from your mother’s side. The heart shape of your face reminds me of your grandmother, my dear sister Elizabeth. Now, who are these Netherbys, and why did you have to leave them?”

Cecily blinked at the rapid change of subject. “Because I boxed Giles Netherby’s ears when he tried to force himself into my bedroom,” she replied
frankly. “I was his younger sister’s governess, and he thought that gave him special favors from me.”

Lady Marcham’s green eyes narrowed to emerald slits. “Did you inform Mrs. Netherby about this loose fish?”

“Oh, yes, but she did not believe me.” A dangerous sparkle lit Cecily’s eyes. “I understand that he had played such tricks with my predecessors also and thought me easy game. I should have kicked him down the stairs instead of merely blackening his eye.”

“A great pity,” Lady Marcham agreed. She sat down on the sofa and patted the cushions next to her. When Cecily obeyed, she commented, “So. You look like your gentle mother but are proud like your father. You are independent in your thinking as well and wished to make your bread rather than live on the charity of an ancient relative you never met.”

Cecily’s cheeks flushed, but a wry smile curved her lips. “Alas, ma’am, you have painted my portrait to a fault. Papa always insisted that females should not be weak, clinging creatures.”

She swallowed hard and added, “I hope you do not regret inviting me to come to Dorset. If it is in any way inconvenient that I remain here, you must say so—”

Lady Marcham waved a delicately perfumed hand. “Do not talk fustian, pray. I am delighted that you are here, my dear. But I wish I had sent a carriage for you. That any kin of mine should stoop to travel on the mail coach is the outside of enough.”

Cecily’s relief was so sharp as to bring tears to her eyes. She blinked them back and tried to laugh as she protested, “But my travels were vastly entertaining, ma’am.”

She gave her grandaunt a lively account of the evening’s adventures. Lady Marcham listened carefully, but when Cecily recounted her dramatic rescue, she paled a little.

“The Widow’s Rock is a dangerous place. How foolish of the coachman to press on in spite of fog. As to Colonel Howard, he and his so-called Riders are muttonheads. Why should they bother to hunt for smugglers, when the place is already crawling with excisemen?” For a moment she frowned and then added, “But you are here and safe now, my dear, and Archimedes, too.”

At sound of his name, the cat raised his head sleepily, picked himself up from his place by the fire, and strolled over to sniff at Lady Marcham’s gown. Then, to Cecily’s surprise, he rubbed his shaggy gray head against the lady’s knee.

“I am persuaded that he likes you,” Cecily exclaimed. “How extraordinary! Archimedes usually loathes strangers, and here he has made two friends in one night. The gentleman with the lion ring said that Archimedes walked directly to him—but that was probably because he was foxed.”

Lady Marcham bent to rub the cat’s chin. “You mean young James Montworthy? A good-looking boy, but a perfect sapskull. He can think of nothing but hunting and racing curricles and considers himself irresistible to females. No, my dear, I prefer Trevor, though he can be irritating, too.”

Seeing that Cecily looked blank, Lady Marcham closed her eyes and shook her head. “I
must
be in my dotage. I forgot to tell you that I have another guest here at Marcham Place. Lord Brandon is the eldest son of the Duke of Pershing. The late duchess was my bosom bow, and so Trevor is my godson.”

“Could Lord Brandon have been the gentleman
who rescued us tonight?” Cecily wondered and was surprised when her grandaunt burst out laughing.

“Trevor? Oh, good heavens, no. La, my dear,
what
an idea. When you meet him, you will understand how amusing that is.”

But instead of listening, Cecily was staring at her grandaunt’s feet. As she had leaned back to laugh, Lady Marcham’s dressing gown had slipped up to reveal not bedroom slippers but leather boots. Wet, muddy boots.

Lady Marcham followed her grandniece’s eyes. “You have found me out.” She sighed ruefully. “You see, Grigg has been with me for so long that he has become a tyrant. He glumps at me if I so much as mention a stroll after dinner, and I should never have heard the end of it if he saw me walking in my garden. It’s the best time to gather them, of course.”

“To gather what, ma’am?”

Smiling into her niece’s bewildered face, Lady Marcham explained, “Herbs. Cecily. Did your papa never tell you that my grandmother was accounted a ‘wise woman’? She taught me all she knew about the healing power of plants.” She added thoughtfully, “Of course there were some superstitious cabbage-heads who considered Grandmama a witch, but since she was kind and good and—more to the point—rich and powerful, nobody dared to openly accuse her of sorcery.”

“How idiotic,” Cecily exclaimed.

“That is what I say. But though this is 1814, I am persuaded that a number of want-wit locals are convinced I use bats’ tongues and toads’ warts in my distillations. But enough of such foolishness. You are exhausted and must rest.”

She kissed Cecily, rose to her feet, and in spite of those heavy leather boots, seemed to glide out of
the chamber. Archimedes followed her to the door, twitched his lumpy tail, then sat down to gaze at Cecily out of unwinking golden eyes.

Cecily stared back in thoughtful silence. She was remembering the tone of voice in which Mrs. Horris had spoken of Lady Marcham.

“This is extraordinary,” she said at last. “Archimedes, it seems that we have got a sorceress for a grandaunt.”

Chapter Two

L
ullabied by the sound of distant waves, Cecily slept soundly until her dreams were invaded by a persistent meowing. Eyes still closed, she muttered, “Archimedes, pray go back to sleep.”

Her only answer was a fiendish howl. Cecily sat straight up in bed and for a moment felt disoriented. Then memory of last night’s events came back. She was in the fern room at Marcham Place, and her cat was crouched on the windowsill.

His back was arched, his neck was tensed, and as he stared at some point in the distance, his tail furiously slashed the air. “I collect that you have spied a pigeon,” Cecily said in tones of resignation. “You know very well that you are too slow even to catch a snail, and it is too bad of you to frighten me half to death. Now will you—”

The cat interrupted her by slithering through the narrow opening in the window. “Archimedes,” Cecily shouted, “come back at once!”

She jumped out of bed and ran to throw open the window. It overlooked Lady Marcham’s rose gardens, where, under a cloudy sky, the flowers looked
heavy-headed and out of sorts. In the center of the garden was a marble statue of Cupid holding a basin. Birds of every description were feeding from this basin.

BOOK: Enchanted Rendezvous: A Tangled Hearts Romance
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