Enchanted Rendezvous: A Tangled Hearts Romance (5 page)

BOOK: Enchanted Rendezvous: A Tangled Hearts Romance
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Mention of Mrs. Horris’s son turned the direction of Cecily’s thoughts. “Colonel Howard seems like quite a Captain Hackum,” she declared.

“Captain Hackum—’pon my honor, that’s a part the good colonel could play.” A lazy grin curved Lord Brandon’s mouth. “Mind you, the world’s a stage with more villains than heroes in it. And knaves and care-for-nobodys and gull-catchers, too. This mornin’s business, now, could’ve been put on at the Asley Amphitheater.”

The thought made Cecily smile, but then Lord Brandon added, “I hope Howard leaves Cully alone. It wouldn’t do to have Mrs. Horris too upset to do her duty by Lady M. Miss Vervant, do you think there’s hope the estimable woman will be installed in time to produce lunch?”

For a few moments he had sounded almost like a normal human being. “I have no idea,” Cecily replied shortly.

“My constitution will be quite ruined otherwise.” Lord Brandon sighed. “The balance between stomach and man is so delicate that I—but I see that all is not lost. Help is on the way.”

They had come within sight of Marcham Place, and Cecily could now see two horses being walked by the grooms. One was a mettlesome gelding and the other a more sedate gray.

“The geldin’ belongs to young Montworthy,” Lord
Brandon said. As Cecily drove the trap into the courtyard, he added, “He must’ve had a bruisin’ ride to arrive before us.”

Cecily felt a sinking in her heart. “Does the gray belong to Colonel Howard?” she asked.

“No, that’s Sir Carolus’s nag. Young Montworthy’s father, you know. He cooks.”

Lackadaisically his lordship descended from the trap and strolled over to help Cecily. Before he could even reach halfway, she had stepped smartly down and was asking, “Did you say that this Sir Carolus is a
cook?”

“He would like that above all things, ’pon my honor. The squire esteems the art of cookin’.”

As Lord Brandon spoke, they reached the house, and there Grigg informed them that her ladyship and her guests were in the violet room.

“Lady M. must be restless, the way she keeps moving about,” Lord Brandon complained. Then he called, “Andrews!”

A dapper individual with a sun-darkened face and ramrod-straight carriage materialized at his elbow. “M’lud,” he murmured.

“Will this coat do for the violet room, Andrews?”

“In my humble opinion, m’lud, yes. Certain shades of lavender and purple go well with blue.”

Lord Brandon frowned doubtfully down at his coat. “You wouldn’t be bammin’ me, Andrews? It’s been a tryin’ day, ’pon my honor. Not only did I accompany Miss Vervant into the village on a mission of great importance, but I had to prevent Montworthy from being too zealous. Fellow was about to arrest Mrs. Horris’s son.”

The valet murmured deferentially. “If those sap-skulls had upset Mrs. Horris, she mightn’t have consented to be Lady M.’s cook. We’d have starved to death, Andrews.”

In his own way, Cecily thought, the valet could look as bored as his master. “And where is young Horris now, m’lud?” he murmured in tones of complete disinterest.

“He’s bringin’ his mother to Marcham Place. Best tell him to keep out of the colonel’s way for a time,” his lordship continued vaguely. “Go out to sea and catch crabs, or somethin’. Well, well, brush me down, man.”

Cecily frankly stared as Andrews produced a brush with long, soft bristles on one side and a sponge coated with some sticky substance on the other. “One side’s for brushin’, the other’s for lint,” Lord Brandon explained. “Though I’m not one to ring my own bell, it’s my own invention. Prinny has been beggin’ me to present him with a copy, so when I return to London, I must look to it.”

He was impossible. About to step past him to the violet room, Cecily glanced up and caught Lord Brandon exchanging a glance with his valet. For a fleeting second the hooded eyes were wide open, and Brandon looked neither lazy nor foppish. Then the moment passed. No matter how hard Cecily stared into his countenance, she could find nothing there save the most killing ennui.

Thoughtful, she preceded him into a room decorated in various shades of purple. There were grape-colored silk hangings, a Persian rug woven in hues of lavender, and furniture done up in violet upholstery. Even the marble mantelpiece showed a faint purplish tinge.

James Montworthy had been leaning against this mantel. When he saw Cecily, he straightened and strode across the room to bow to her. “Miss Vervain,” he exclaimed. “Your most obedient, ma’am. Our meeting this morning was unfortunate. Has
tened here to offer you my homage, give you m’word on it.”

Cecily reminded herself that the handsome young Corinthian had rescued her last night. Trying to set aside the unfavorable impression she had formed of the colonel’s Riders, she said cordially, “I must thank you again for your assistance, sir.”

Montworthy took Cecily’s hand and raised it to his lips. “How could any man abandon a lovely lady in distress?” he murmured.

There was the sound of jaws cracking. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, Cecily saw Lord Brandon struggling to conceal a prodigious yawn. “It seems very early for you to be callin’, Montworthy,” he declaimed in a die-away voice. “Thought you’d still be ridin’ about the colonel’s business or doin’ somethin’ equally repulsive.”

James ignored the interruption and continued to gaze down at Cecily. “Thoughts of the dangers you had to face kept me awake, ma’am,” he said. “Wish I’d been there when those horses did a bolt—”

“Spare us, Montworthy,” Lord Brandon cut in. “Lady M. has already told me the tale of Miss Vervant’s narrow escape. Extremely fatiguin’, I thought it.” He perambulated slowly across the room and bowed over his godmother’s hand. “I’m glad to report success, ma’am. By now Mrs. Horris must be awaitin’ your orders below stairs.”

Lady Marcham looked relieved. “I will go and see her at once.”

She rose to her feet, and a plump gentleman who had bounced up from a mauve armchair exclaimed, “I congratulate you, dear Lady Marcham. How worried you must have been over this difficult situation.”

“And you are reprieved. Now you will not have to descend into the kitchen to prepare rabbit-and-
oyster pie.” Lady Marcham smiled as she added, “Cecily my dear, let me present you to Sir Carolus Montworthy. Will you be so good as to play hostess?”

She glided to the door, and the plump squire shook his head plaintively. “I cannot get over how Lady Marcham reads one’s thoughts. One had
meant
to offer whatever small skill one possesses in the preparation of luncheon, but one never said anything about it.”

“Well, you didn’t have to, did you?” growled his tall son. “You’re always nattering on about sauces and stuffings and venison and hare pie. People are going to think you’re hare
brained,
give you m’word on it.”

Sir Carolus looked rebuked. “Quite so,” he muttered. Then he recovered, pattered across the room, and pressed Cecily’s hand. “Your most obedient servant, Miss Vervain. I beg you to excuse my zeal, which springs from one’s interest in the culinary arts.”

Sir Carolus was a very small gentleman, hardly more than five feet one. His hair had long since departed, leaving only a memory of a fringe about his protuberant ears. Even so, there was kindness in his mild brown eyes, and his smooth face was as guileless as a child’s.

“Lady Marcham was explaining the problem of Mrs. Horrifant’s departure,” he was saying. “Such a tragedy. Had one but known, one would have brought some viands from Montworthy House. There is in the larder at this moment an excellent baked ham with a walnut-and-mushroom stuffing just barely kissed with the liver of a goose—”

He was interrupted by a rude noise from James. “I cannot see what is objectionable about cookery,” Sir Carolus said plaintively. “One must
eat,
my boy.
Besides, the Roman philosopher Lucullus made his own salads.”

“Those old Romans were foreigners, weren’t they?” James retorted. “I tell you, Pater, any Englishman who rattles pots and pans has got a leak in his upper works. If you don’t care whether you’re a laughingstock or not,
I
do.”

Sir Carolus looked dashed again but brightened as Lord Brandon inquired, “The goose liver you mentioned, Sir Carolus. Pâté de foie gras, as the Frogs call it—is it ground or chopped?”

As Sir Carolus happily launched into a recipe, James said, “You’ll have to forgive the pater, Miss Vervain. He’s always been lacking in the brain box.”

“I never heard that an interest in cooking indicates a feeble mind,” Cecily replied coolly.

“Fact is, the pater gets embarrassing. My late mother couldn’t abide him mumbling on about pies and such fribble. She’d give him a sharpish set-down whenever he started, I can tell you! And our cook has given notice that he’ll leave if the pater sets one foot in the kitchen.” James paused to add gloomily, “Maybe it’s because he was born and bred in Dorset. Live here long enough, and your brains turn soft.”

“Perhaps that accounts for Colonel Howard’s terrorizing the villagers,” Cecily suggested, and James looked wounded.

“Ladies don’t understand that some things need doing.”

“What things, for instance?”

James was somewhat taken aback. He was not used to having females—especially females who had neither rank nor fortune and were of an age that almost rendered them ape leaders—regard him so steadily out of such forthright gray eyes. Had it not
been for the fact that Cecily Vervain was the best looking woman he’d seen since his gaming debts had forced him to rusticate in this benighted part of the world, he would have abandoned the idea of flirting with her.

Perhaps a change of approach was needed. Montworthy turned a melting smile on Cecily and bent close to murmur, “Permit me to say, your dress brings out the color of your eyes. Ain’t throwing the hatchet, Miss Vervain, when I say you’ve haunted my dreams.”

“Indeed, I am sorry to hear that.”

“I don’t mean haunted, like that ghost thingummy that’s supposed to walk in the wood, mind you. It’s just that since you appeared out of the mist last night, couldn’t get you out of my mind. Made an indelible impression, give you m’word on it.” James’s eyes kindled with enthusiasm. “Most ladies’d have been in hysterics meeting up with a dashed smuggler, but not you.”

“What’s this about smugglers?” a new voice demanded.

“Enter Captain Hackum,” Lord Brandon murmured.

Even without Brandon’s introduction, Cecily would have recognized Colonel Howard. No one else could have had a voice that was at once harsh and compelling. Then there was the military shortness of his graying hair, the florid, square face set with intolerant protuberant blue eyes, and the sheer size of the man. Six feet and more, broad of chest and shoulder, Colonel Howard looked like a latter-day Goliath of Gath.

“What’s this about smugglers?” the colonel repeated as he advanced into the room. He nodded to Sir Carolus and barely acknowledged Lord Brandon before fixing his attention on Cecily. “Mont
worthy,” he requested, “be so good as to introduce us.”

Looking uncharacteristically meek, the Corinthian obliged. As Cecily curtsied, she noted the three stripes of gold braid on Colonel Howard’s right sleeve.

Abruptly he said, “I am told that you are newly come to Dorset and that you are Lady Marcham’s niece.”

“Are you looking for me?” Lady Marcham had glided back into the room and was regarding the colonel without much enthusiasm. “What unexpected pleasure brings you here, Colonel Howard?”

“I was riding in this direction, and decided to stop and see how you were, Lady Marcham,” the colonel replied. “These are unsettled times.”

“How kind of you,” Lady Marcham murmured. She smiled at her guest, who grinned back, showing white, square teeth. It was plain to Cecily that they shared a cordial dislike of each other.

“I also wished to be acquainted with your niece. I hoped that Miss Vervain would tell me more about her adventures. Village gossip says that she met a smuggler last night.”

Lord Brandon groaned. “Been havin’ these delusions long, Howard?”

The colonel frowned. “I do not take your meaning, sir.”

“I mean that nothin’ can happen out of the ordinary but you immediately assume there’s a smuggler mixed into it. You’ll find the brutes hidin’ under your chair next, ’pon my honor.”

The colonel’s florid skin turned a shade darker, and his brows drew together in a frown. “Do not mock at things you don’t understand,” he warned. Then, to Cecily he added, “I understand that you
had a narrow escape, Miss Vervain. The horses that were pulling the mail coach bolted?”

“They were frightened by a pistol shot,” Cecily began.

“You are familiar with firearms?”

The colonel’s tone was condescending in the extreme. Cecily was hard put to answer civilly, “My father taught me to hunt and shoot.”

The colonel pushed air through his nose. “Teach such things to a lady? I find that difficult to believe.”

“I was my parents’ only child. Besides, my father believed that men and women have equal capabilities.”

Cecily was interrupted by an odd, grating sound. The colonel was laughing. “I’ll take my oath that your father was an original. I have a daughter, ma’am, but if I ever let that sheep-brained chit near a pistol, I’d see myself in Bedlam.”

“What you are saying,” Cecily retorted, “is that a female has no business even knowing that firearms exist.”

“I didn’t say that, ma’am—
you
did. Now, admit it. Could not the sound you heard have been a signal sent from a lookout on the Widow’s Rock? Take your time, ma’am, and give me an accurate account.”

The man was odious past bearing. Hot words rushed to Cecily’s lips, but before she could utter them, a cool hand clasped hers, and Lady Marcham suggested, “Perhaps James can tell us what happened. I collect that it was he who brought you here last night.”

Montworthy was delighted to oblige. As he embroidered the tale, Cecily saw Colonel Howard’s eyes take on an almost fanatical glow. “I thought so,” he grated. “Obviously the man was a lookout
for the smugglers. Why else would he have been skulking about the Widow’s Rock at such a time?”

“Amazin’ thing,” Lord Brandon commented to no one in particular. “Clever fellows, these smugglers, guidin’ their ship into the most dangerous waters in Dorset. In the fog, too.”

BOOK: Enchanted Rendezvous: A Tangled Hearts Romance
7.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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