Authors: Laura Landon
“Have you ever seen so many beautiful women gathered in the same room?” the Duke of Raeborn said in a hoarse whisper.
“Never,” Wedgewood added. “All seven of them.”
“Eight,” Rafe commented, unable to look at anyone but Miss Hannah Bartlett.
“There are eight,” Wedgewood said, slapping his brother on the back. “Leave it to you to notice that we’d miscounted.”
“You didn’t miscount,” Rafe said, giving his brother a knowing grin. “You’re all so smitten with the women you married that you overlooked the most beautiful woman in the room.”
The second the words were out of his mouth, the look on his brother’s face altered. The change wasn’t drastic,
and if Rafe hadn’t always been able to read his brother’s nuances so well, he wouldn’t have noticed it. But the slight narrowing of his gaze sent a stab of forewarning he couldn’t explain.
“Are you referring to Miss Bartlett?” Wedgewood asked.
“Yes.” He returned his gaze to where she stood.
She was even more beautiful than she’d been this afternoon. She wore a gown the most vibrant shade of green. Her neckline wasn’t high, yet it wasn’t too low. It was just perfectly placed to allow a hint of the creamy skin should one be inclined to look—which, of course, he was. How could he not?
She wore little jewelry, only a single strand of pearls around her neck. Her wheat-colored hair was loosely pulled from her heart-shaped face, and thick ringlets cascaded down her back. A narrow ribbon that matched the green of her gown twined its way through her hair, making every golden glimmer glow with more radiance.
Their gazes met—and held. A smile lifted the corners of her lush lips. His heart shifted in his chest. Such a reaction was very unlike him. That in itself made her effect on him more startling.
Rafe turned a smiling grin on his brother. “Remind me to thank your wife for inviting Miss Bartlett. Her presence promises to make this summer party most enjoyable.”
His brother’s expression darkened again, but any concern Rafe had concerning his brother’s reaction didn’t last long. His concentration shifted to the women following Lady Wedgewood into the room.
“Rafe,” Caroline said, walking toward him. She wore a smile that reinforced his opinion that his brother was one
of the luckiest men on the face of the earth. “I’m so glad you decided to join us tonight. I was afraid you wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow.”
“Thank you for the invitation,” he said, leaning toward her to kiss her cheek. “I was actually excited to have an opportunity to attend.”
“Marvelous!” she said. “I’ve invited several local young ladies to join us for the next two weeks. I hope you’re agreeable to that.”
He shifted his gaze to where Miss Bartlett stood next to the Duchess of Raeborn. “That wouldn’t have been necessary, my lady. I see there’s a female guest without a partner here already. It will be my pleasure to fill in where I’m needed.”
His sister-in-law’s gaze moved to Miss Bartlett’s, then darted to her husband’s. The arch of Wedgewood’s eyebrows reinforced a warning, but Rafe refused to consider it. His meeting with the woman earlier had been far too enjoyable to heed any admonitions.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, raising his sister-in-law’s hand to his lips in farewell, “I think I’ll make certain Miss Bartlett feels welcome.”
“Have you met Miss Bartlett before?” Lady Wedgewood asked with a questioning frown.
“Yes, earlier this afternoon, on my way over. We had a lovely conversation.”
He didn’t wait to see the reaction to that statement, but nodded his farewell and walked across the room. The smile on Miss Bartlett’s face was encouragement enough when he neared her.
“Your Grace,” he said, greeting the Duchess of Raeborn. “Miss Bartlett.”
“My lord,” the duchess said. “It’s nice to see you again. It’s been far too long since you attended one of our gatherings.”
“Yes. I believe the last time was Christmas.”
The duchess laughed. “Oh, yes. What a time that was.” She turned to Miss Bartlett. “You’ll be glad you didn’t accompany us then, Hannah. We were all here, like now, and were prepared to leave. We’d been here for two weeks already, and I’m sure Caroline and Thomas were more than eager for us to depart. The night before our scheduled departure, Adledge made some ridiculous wager with Baldwin about…” She looked to him for help in remembering what that wager had been about.
“I believe Lord Adledge wagered that he was a better shot than the Earl of Baldwin,” he added.
“Oh, yes. That was it. So, it was decided that we would stay one more day until the wager was settled. But, when we awoke, there was a mountain of snow already on the ground, and the storm that raged outside showed no sign of letting up anytime soon. We ended up imposing on Caroline for another two weeks. And we were housebound for most of the time!”
Miss Bartlett laughed. “Oh, dear. I can’t imagine your brothers-in-law being confined for one week let alone two.”
“It was difficult indeed. All that saved us was Lord Rafe,” the duchess continued. “Every afternoon he occupied the children for an hour or more with stories he would make up.”
“Only a few were my own creations. Mostly, I told tales I remembered from my youth.”
“Well, your talent was a godsend. The children, down to the babes, were on their best behavior for fear they wouldn’t be allowed to take part in the storytelling.”
“I think it was more that they didn’t want to miss out on the delicious sweets Cook sent up when I finished.”
“That may have played a small part in their good behavior, but not the most influential one.” The duchess turned to Miss Bartlett. “Once you become acquainted with our storyteller, you’ll realize he has a gift.”
“Oh, I would never doubt his gift. Lord Rafe impressed me with his ability in telling tales earlier this afternoon.”
The duchess’s eyebrows lifted.
“Yes,” Rafe rushed to explain. “It was my good fortune to meet Miss Bartlett on my way here this afternoon.”
“Yes,” Miss Bartlett continued. “I’d gone for a walk, and we met by the stream. He regaled me with the most flattering stories. I was quite captivated.”
“See, my lord? Even Hannah realizes your talent. It’s no wonder that as your life’s calling you chose to—”
Rafe was thankful the butler chose that moment to announce that dinner was ready.
There was a time when he’d been more than eager to reveal his life’s vocation, but that was no longer the case. He was consumed with doubts that hadn’t been there a few years ago and consumed with an emptiness that gnawed at him—that left him hollow on the inside.
“Allow me to escort you in to dinner,” he said, offering Miss Bartlett his arm.
He knew when she placed her hand on his arm he’d feel her warmth through the material of his jacket. However, he had no idea the slight pressure of her fingers would leave such a vivid impression. Nor was he prepared for his body’s reaction.
A molten heat spiraled throughout his entire being. A weight settled in his chest, then traveled low to his belly. His heart shifted, and he had to take a breath to recover.
He turned his head, and his gaze locked with hers.
The smile on her face captivated him like no woman’s smile had ever done before. He felt that, with that slight connection, she’d wrapped her essence around him and possessed a part of him that no woman had claimed before. He read her thoughts as if she’d intentionally opened them up to him. She was attracted to him the same as he was attracted to her. Only, she fought the attraction whereas he welcomed it.
“I’m glad that you have agreed to join us for the next two weeks. Do you join my sister-in-law’s family often?” he asked when they were seated at the table.
“Are you?” she answered. “I’m seldom able to come, although not for Lady Wedgewood’s or the Duchess of Raeborn’s lack of invitations. They are most generous in their offers to include me.”
“And the reason you are unable to come is because…?”
There was a hesitation in her eagerness to respond. She paused as the first course was being served, a warm cream soup, and Rafe knew she was using the interruption to decide what to say. From the look on her face, she was debating whether or not what she said would be the truth. Or a lie.
Her hesitation lasted a moment longer. “I have personal responsibilities that keep me in London,” she answered finally.
Rafe breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn’t lied. She’d avoided disclosing anything revealing about herself, but she hadn’t lied to avoid the truth. A ray of sunshine filled his chest. She hadn’t been able to lie to him.
He lifted his glass of wine and took a small drink. He felt like celebrating. “Ah, Miss Bartlett. You are indeed one of the most interesting people I have ever met.”
His words halted her soupspoon halfway to her mouth. “I assure you, my lord, I am one of the least interesting people you will ever meet.”
“Hardly.” He placed his wine glass back on the table. “I find I am very intrigued by you. I intend to use the next two weeks to show you how intrigued I am.”
Before he could register what happened, she changed. The glint in her eyes turned sharper, the smile that lifted her lips turned less sincere, and the expression on her face lost its pleasant disposition.
“I would like to discourage you from wasting your time and efforts. There is nothing about me that should intrigue you.”
She slowly reached for her wine glass and brought it to her lips. Rafe noticed her hand shook ever so slightly. “You are quite wrong about that, Miss Bartlett,” he whispered as he took a spoonful of soup. “Quite wrong.”
She lowered her glass and, without looking at him, whispered, “For your own good, my lord, don’t read more into our meeting than what happened. We will at times during the next two weeks be in each other’s company. Then I will go back to my life in London, and you to your life here. I’m sure we will remember our time together with fondness. But nothing more.”
Rafe took another spoonful of soup. “Are you certain?”
She looked surprised. Maybe his confidence shocked her. Or, maybe she realized that he was indeed serious.
And that he intended to be a formidable opponent.
Rafe smiled as he finished his soup, then placed his spoon on his plate. He was ready for the next course.
he following morning the sun rose to herald a perfect day to be in the country. Hannah sat at one of the tables randomly placed on the terrace and watched the various activities enlivening the lawn. Both adults and children were thoroughly enjoying the games Caroline had planned.
The children scampering about ranged in age from seven years to toddlers barely able to walk. Even the nurses had the babes out in their perambulators.
Hannah couldn’t help but smile as a gathering of the younger children caught a ball some of the adults rolled toward them, or played with the six puppies that were new to the Wedgewood Estate. A group of older children sat around Lord Rafe as he told them a story.
Grace was right. He had a gift for storytelling. The children were mesmerized with whatever tale he was telling them. And, if she wasn’t mistaken, the book he was reading from was a…Bible.
She tried to keep her emotions from rebelling, but doing so was difficult. She’d grown up clutching a Bible in her hands more hours than she wanted to remember. Memorizing chapters from the scriptures was her punishment whenever
she did something wrong—and according to her father, she did very little right.
She couldn’t imagine what story he’d found that was so captivating, but from the looks on the children’s faces, the tale was a fascinating account. Even the female Caroline had invited to accompany Lord Rafe for the day was engrossed in what he was saying. Or perhaps she was only spellbound by the amazingly handsome and unbelievably charming man telling the story. Although, truth be told, he wasn’t that young. He’d told her earlier that he was thirty years old—a year older than she was.
Hannah studied him again and wondered how he’d escaped marriage so long. And why. He obviously loved children. He was a perfect candidate for marriage—too perfect not to have every eligible female within traveling distance vying for his attention, and his name.
Which was no doubt why Caroline had invited the lovely Miss Estelle Warden to join them today.
Hannah found herself frowning. She’d only known Lord Rafe for one day, but that was long enough for her to realize that he and Miss Warden were totally unsuited to each other. Where he was vibrant and bursting with life, she was quiet and inexpressive. Hannah couldn’t imagine any two people more opposite.
Hannah reached for the lemonade she’d taken from the refreshment table and took a swallow. It tasted good, refreshing—clean. She looked at the glass filled with pale liquid.
suddenly struck her as an odd choice of word to use, but one she realized fit how she felt since she’d left the city behind her. Clean.
wasn’t a word she could use to describe how she felt when she was in London. It wasn’t a word she could use to describe how she’d felt even one day since her father had dumped her on the road outside her home and left her to die.