Authors: Laura Landon
“Our sisters?” He thought a moment. “They must have been three and four. Or Estelle may have been five.”
“You really were terrible. They were just babes.”
“That’s what Mother said. She always shielded them from our antics. My brothers and I thought it was just because they were girls and we were boys.”
“I’m sure that didn’t have anything to do with it,” Hannah said.
He looked surprised. “Then what reason do you have for her protectiveness?”
“I think she chose to protect them because they were defenseless and you and your brothers were bullies.”
“You wound me again, Miss Bartlett.”
Hannah laughed. “Have they forgiven you?”
“Who? My sisters?”
“Of course,” he said, focusing on her. “Haven’t you realized by now that it’s impossible for anyone to stay angry with me for long?”
She couldn’t help but smile at him. “That, Lord Rafe, is the first statement you’ve made with which I can wholeheartedly agree. I don’t doubt at all that you have a talent for winning hearts. That you have remained unmarried this long is a miracle.”
“Bachelorhood is a state in which I’ve practiced very hard to remain.”
Hannah studied him more closely and wondered how many hearts he’d shattered in his past. She quickly brushed the thought away. She didn’t want to consider anything that personal about him. “What other sights would you show me?” she said, needing to stop the direction her thoughts wanted to go. Unfortunately, she was enjoying herself more than she had in a long time. He really was a delightful man.
“Well, next I would show you the brewery.”
“Yes, have you ever been to one?”
“Then that is something we must do. I’m sure we won’t lack company when the others discover our plans. Bradford Brewery is one of the finest around, and it’s not too far away.” He stretched out on the grass beside her. “And, of course, we have to have a picnic in the gazebo near Hunter’s Lodge.”
“Yes. Every Wedgewood guest votes Hunter’s Meadow the most beautiful sight around. I’m sure you will too. Then we will—”
Hannah stopped him with a lift of her eyebrows. “You don’t think Lady Wedgewood has events planned for her guests?”
“Oh, I’m sure she does, and I’ll look forward to attending those with you too. But it’s in my best interest to find opportunities to enjoy your company without my sister-in-law’s gigantic family at hand.”
Hannah rolled her eyes heavenward in an attempt to ignore his antics. “You really are terrible, my lord.”
“Rafe,” he said. “Please, call me Rafe.”
Hannah considered his request. “I think I should continue to call you ‘my lord’ for at least a day or two longer. We don’t know each other well enough to be on a first-name basis.”
“Does that mean I’m to call you Miss Bartlett instead of Hannah?”
She put the sternest expression she could muster on her face. “Yes, Lord Rafe. That’s exactly what that means.”
“You’ve dashed my hopes again, sweet lady.”
“You’ll survive. I have no doubt of it. Now, I’ve been gone from the house long enough.” Hannah reached for her shoes, then sprang to her feet. “It’s time I returned, or Caroline will assume I got lost and send someone to search for me.”
“It’s not that late,” he said, getting to his feet. He reached into his pocket to pull out a watch. “Only a little after four o’clock.”
Hannah looked at the watch in his hand. “Oh my,” she said, lowering her gaze to get a better look at his timepiece. “What an exquisite watch.”
“It was my grandfather’s. It was his father’s before him. He gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday.”
He handed it to her so she could get a better look.
She cradled it in her palm and held it with the greatest care. She’d never seen anything so remarkable. Gold filigree etchings covered the lid of the pocket watch creating a tastefully simple design.
“Turn it over,” he whispered.
She did. The same gold etching covered the back, except in the center. A saying was inscribed there. She tilted it slightly to read it.
N ALL THINGS, BE
“That’s beautiful,” Hannah whispered.
“Press here,” he said, pointing to a tiny jeweled knob on the side of the watch.
Hannah pressed the knob and the lid opened. Her breath caught. The face of the watch was inlaid with the most exquisite mother-of-pearl she’d ever seen. Larger rubies marked every quarter hour on the face of the watch, and in the center a gorgeous sapphire held the hands of the watch.
“Oh, my lord, I’ve never seen anything so remarkable. What delicate workmanship.”
“My father was a little upset that Grandfather handed it down to me instead of leaving it to him. But he explained that he wanted me to have it and if he gave it to him, he would hand it down to Thomas, who was next in line for the Wedgewood title.”
“He didn’t intend for your brother to have it?”
“He told me I was better suited to live up to the saying on the back than Thomas.”
Hannah lifted her gaze and looked at him. “That was a very heavy burden to place on a sixteen-year-old’s shoulders.”
“Perhaps. I’ve never thought much about it. I treasure the watch because it was my grandfather’s and I was extremely fond of him.”
A strange emotion washed over her, a warm and comforting sensation that seemed to connect her to him. She wasn’t familiar with such a reaction. She’d never experienced bonding with anyone before and it confused her.
“I need to go,” she said, feeling a desperation to separate herself from him.
“Allow me to escort you?”
She held out her hand to stop him. “No, thank you. I can find my way alone.”
He stepped closer to her. “At least let me help you with your shoes.”
Before Hannah could object, he took her shoes from her hands.
“Sit here.” He pointed to a large rock nearby.
“I’m capable of putting on my own shoes, my lord.”
“Of course you are. I can tell you are a very capable woman. But pray, allow me to exhibit a small bit of chivalry so when my dear sister-in-law expounds on my misbehavior, you can point out that you witnessed a different side of my character.”
“Are you always so eloquent with words, my lord?”
He laughed. “Always. Now sit.”
He reached for her hand and helped her to sit on the rock. He wasn’t wearing gloves, and she tried to pretend that, when his flesh touched hers, a sudden surge of heat didn’t travel up her arm and through her chest.
Just as when he knelt at her feet, she tried to pretend that her heart didn’t shift in her breast.
And when he put first one shoe on, then the other, she tried to pretend that one molten wave of fiery passion after another didn’t rush to her core and set her ablaze.
When he finished, he placed her foot on the ground, then stood and reached for her hand.
She placed her palm in his and rose.
“Are you certain I may not escort you back?”
Hannah concealed the ball of her cast-off stockings as discreetly as possible in the palm of her left hand and tried to speak, but no words would come. No man had ever affected her like this. She hadn’t allowed one to. So how had this one broken through the barriers she’d erected to guard and protect her emotions?
She made a second effort to speak, but resorted to shaking her head.
He smiled. “I’ll see you later, then. At dinner?”
She nodded, then turned. She needed to escape the net he’d thrown around her. Needed to do everything in her power to avoid being pulled in like a hungry fish snapping at the worm on the end of a hook. But most of all, she needed to avoid giving in to emotions she thought had long been dead and buried.
She had no right to allow them to surface. She was a whore, she reminded herself. A bloody whore!
“I—I have to go,” she stammered, then turned and nearly ran in her effort to escape.
She stopped and turned.
“I enjoyed this afternoon.”
She took in the warm smile on his face, recognized the sincerity in his voice, and knew she was in more trouble than she’d been in since she’d arrived in London at fifteen—ragged, broken, and abandoned.
afe arrived for dinner early. He told himself it was because he hadn’t seen his brother yet or thanked his sister-in-law for inviting him, but that wasn’t the reason. He wanted to arrive early so he would be there when she entered the room, so he could glimpse her before she noticed him.
He couldn’t wait to feast his eyes on her again to see if she was as beautiful as he remembered.
He paused in the doorway of the drawing room and found his brother Thomas, Marquess of Wedgewood, deep in conversation with the Duke of Raeborn and Viscount Carmody. He wasn’t sure what they were discussing but prayed it wasn’t some boring measure that was before the House of Lords. His least-favorite topics were anything being debated on the floor of the House. He didn’t have the patience for anything serious tonight. He wanted to focus on only one thing. But she hadn’t arrived yet.
“Rafe,” Thomas said, motioning for him to join them. “Come help me. I’m outnumbered. Raeborn and Carmody both think Squire Robbins’s thoroughbred can run six furlongs in under a minute, and I say it’s impossible. He doesn’t have the speed. What do you say?”
“I say it would easily take him a minute and a half, if not more. The squire hasn’t dedicated half the time he used to spend in training his stable since his wife passed away. All his horses have lost their speed.”
“I forgot Robbins lost his wife,” Raeborn said. “You seldom saw one without the other.”
Carmody nodded. “They were very devoted to each other. I can understand how the man would lose interest in everything.”
“Word has it, though, that Robbins’s youngest son and his family are returning to the abbey,” Rafe added. “They intend to help with the running of the estate.”
There was a short silence. Then Carmody said, “I’d hate to think of having to live even one day without Josalyn. When our time comes, I hope I go first.”
None of the men said anything for a few moments. Then Rafe waved his hand in front of him. “This conversation has turned much too maudlin. We’ve come for a party. I refuse to have our two weeks start out on a somber note.”
“Good for you,” Carmody said.
“Yes, Rafe. I knew I could count on you to bring life to our gathering.”
“So what plans has your wife made to keep us entertained?” Rafe asked, then turned his gaze to the doorway so not to miss a certain lady’s arrival.
“It’s not what Caroline alone planned, but what she and her sisters have concocted. They’ve been closeted in the Blue Room since everyone arrived, and we’ve heard nothing but laughter.”
“Well, I refuse to play another game of charades,” the Duke of Raeborn said with a grimace. “Especially if we
have to act out animals like we did at Baldwin’s. Deuced frustrating trying to act out a rhinoceros, when none of you have ever seen or heard one.”
Wedgewood laughed. “It wasn’t that we didn’t know what a rhinoceros was. It’s just that your imitation of one was so bloody horrible.”
“I beg to—”
“Save your breath, Raeborn,” Carmody said. “You have to admit that when it comes to parlor games, you come up short on the talent end.”
Raeborn laughed. “You have a point. You’ll understand, then, when I excuse myself from a game of charades if any of the ladies suggest it.”
“I’ll support you wholeheartedly.”
“Now, what about you, Rafe?” his brother said, slapping him on the back. “Have you come prepared to partner the half dozen single young ladies my wife has invited to draw your attention? She intends to parade a different candidate in front of you nearly every other day for the entire two weeks.”
Rafe groaned. “Tell me she hasn’t,” he said, knowing that Caroline undoubtedly had.
“Oh, I’m afraid tonight will be your only free night. You’re on your own for dinner. But I believe Miss Estelle Warden will arrive tomorrow to keep you company for the day. As you remember, her father is a small landowner and well respected in the area.”
“I will have to make every effort to enjoy this free evening, then.”
Rafe tried to keep his frustration from showing. He didn’t need his sister-in-law’s help in finding someone to accompany him every day. He’d already met the only person
with whom he wanted to spend time. And she wasn’t one of the local ladies.
During their conversation, Baron Wexley, Baron Hensley, the Earl of Baldwin, and the Earl of Adledge arrived. Their gathering was complete. They stood in two small groups after they’d helped themselves to the refreshments provided. It wasn’t long before the gay laughter of feminine voices filled the air. Their conversations stopped, and the men turned toward the door.
Rafe stepped to the side of the group of men to make sure he could see her when she entered. He experienced a strange sense of excitement that wasn’t at all usual.
One by one, Lady Wedgewood and her six sisters entered the room. Their gowns provided a rainbow of colors, and the smiles on their faces seemed to compete with the noonday sun.