Authors: One Starlit Night
Ten years away from Doyle’s Grange isn't quite long enough for Viscount Northword to forget Portia Temple, or their passionate adolescent affair. Portia, however, is about to marry another man. Northword tells himself it is wrong to interfere in her life at this late hour, but interfere he cannot help, with his words, his body, and the truths of his heart.
March 13, 1813, the rear lawn of Doyle’s Grange, Somerset, near the Exmoor hills, England
stood to one side of the lawn and prayed for a miracle. None arrived. He remained unable to summon a blessed word. He twitched with the need to do something besides stand mute. Words, any words, would be better than his damnable silence. Action, any action, would be better than inaction. He managed to force a smile. A minor miracle, then. Hallelujah.
Naturally, a woman was involved in his present difficulties. A particular and specific woman. Was any man’s heart ever brought to its metaphorical knees except by a woman? Minor miracle or no, he needed to say or do something to convey how unmoved he was by her.
He tapped the side of his left leg with two fingers. Next, he cleared his throat. Portia sent a questioning look his way. Of course, words failed him. He affected what he hoped appeared to be mild interest in the proceedings; practically nonexistent. He coughed again and dug into his store of conversational inanities. “A fine day.”
“Mm.” She arched her eyebrows. “A touch cold for me.” Her attention returned to the sapling that was the reason he was standing out here in the first place.
He’d known Portia Temple since he was a boy of eight and she a girl of six. Twenty-one years. For the first ten years he’d never thought of her as anything but a friend and companion who by a quirk of fate happened to be female. Pity for her when boys were so superior, and how annoying that she’d disagreed.
For the second ten years he’d managed to set her neatly into a box in which she was devoid of femininity yet continued to exist as his best friend’s sister. A woman he avoided, but with whom he kept a friendly correspondence. Friendly. Nothing more.
He did his best not to think about the time between those bookends of decades. Silence reached out and set fire to his nerves. “It’s spring,” he said. Oh, Jesus. Had he really said that? “One ought not be cold in spring.”
That got him another careless glance, and he was convinced that she, unlike him, had found a way to forget. But then, in all their years of friendship, he’d always been the one who felt more deeply.
She stared at the sapling, head tilted. “You’ve been away too long. You’ve forgotten our weather.”
Resentment boiled in him, and he required a monumental amount of sang-froid to let that pass. Forgotten? He bit back a retort but could not quash the sentiment that came with the impulse. He’d not forgotten a damned thing. It was no accident that this was his first visit to Doyle’s Grange in ten years. Nor that this was his first time socializing since his wife’s passing nearly two years ago. Outside the circle of his most intimate friends and women of a certain reputation, that is. He straightened the lay of his coat and said with sharp intent, “I’ve not forgotten anything.”
“We’ll disagree on that.” If he’d not been watching her so closely, he might have missed the distress that briefly replaced her pleasant smile. But he had been watching, and he did, and it ripped him to shreds.
Jesus. They’d made their peace in letters and it was all a lie, all those words they’d written to each other were now stripped of that fantasy pax now that he was here. Instead of the two of them moving on in person as they had in letters, they were mired in the past.
She put a hand on one of the slender branches of the sapling. One would think that in ten years she’d have changed more than she had. He had. Her brother Magnus had. She was remarkably unaltered. Smiling, too-tall-for-a-woman, auburn-haired, full of life. It was—almost—as if those second ten years had never been.
While he watched her, she lifted the hem of her muslin skirt and tamped down the last shovelful of dirt around the tree she’d just planted. She was wholly unconscious of his stare. No. He’d not forgotten anything.
Mud coated the bottom and sides of her plain leather half-boots. Spatters of dirt clung to her hem. She’d not been careful when she pinned her hair this morning, for there were curls, and not the fashionable sort. Hers came loose every which way. In daylight, there was no disguising that her hair was more red than brown, and of all things, that was what doomed him. That dark red hair.
To no avail, he reminded himself she was Magnus’s younger sister. He had years of correspondence from her. He’d not realized how her spirit had stolen into the pages and words she’d written. Every time he’d read one of her letters, she’d filled a space in his heart he ought to have closed off. He’d not even known it was happening until now. Far too late.
“What do you think, Crispin?” She wore thick gloves of the sort ladies wore when they gardened, and when she swiped a wisp of hair out of her face the careless motion left dirt on her cheek. The breeze sent the curl free to dangle at the side of her face. An undeniably red wisp of hair. Most women with hair that color insisted it was brown. Hers was a deep, dark, secret red. Soft in a man’s hands, a river of curling, mysterious color that glinted with strands of gold.
He had been careful, over the last two years, never to make love to a woman with red hair.
“Well? What do you think?”
“About?” His query came late enough that she laughed at him.
“You didn’t have to come out here. I told you you’d be bored.” She put her hands on her hips. “What do you think about my tree?”
One afternoon, one unforgettable day—God, they’d been so heartbreakingly young—she’d changed him forever, while she went on being Portia. She knew him better than anyone. Still did. For God’s sake, she knew him better than the woman he’d married. She hadn’t blamed him for his choice. Never a reproach for his decisions, never a hint that she understood he had been avoiding her these last ten years. She knew, of course. She was too intelligent not to know. When it came right down to it, he wasn’t blameless either. Not entirely.
“Well.” He pretended to study the tree, but he was really looking at her. Her gown was a striped muslin with no bows, no lace, no fancy trim to direct a man’s attention to the curve of a breast or the column of a throat. Yet here he stood remembering his hand sliding down smooth skin, the bang of his heart against his ribs because he had never touched a naked woman before, and, Lord, how sinfully luscious she was. Had been. Still was.
He still wanted her. There was nothing so surprising about that. Men lusted after women all the time. But his lust and desire had got mixed up and confused with more powerful emotions.
“It’s a tree, not a Venus in marble.” She peeked at him, then returned to her study of the tree. “There is no meaning to divine other than God was right to make them like this.”
“I like oak trees. An oak is a proper English tree.” In London, her serviceable frock would have been thought plain two seasons ago. This season? The fact was, no woman of his set would be caught dead in such a gown. But Portia had never been farther from Doyle’s Grange than the village of Aubry Sock, some twenty miles distant. He was guiltily aware that he’d never invited Magnus
Portia to London before or after he was married. The reasons were legion, and not all them were to his credit. He’d wanted to think of her here at Doyle’s Grange. Safe. Unchanging. Here in sight of the Exmoor hills where she would always love him with a passion that moved better men to poetry.
“I’m glad you like oaks, but this isn’t an oak. It’s a rowan.”
“What?” He could not stop staring. Before long Portia was going to take offense.
She rubbed at her cheek, frowned and pulled off one of her gloves. “Have I got dirt on my face?”
She handed her spade to Hob, the man who served as Doyle’s Grange’s general servant; footman, groundsman, groom, butler, and performer of any other work there might be. Hob stood several feet back, idly tapping the side of his boot against the bucket of water at his feet. The man had looked a weathered forty-five or a well-preserved sixty for as long as he could remember.
The servant came forward to take the spade from Portia. He retreated a respectful distance.
Portia made a few more swipes at her cheek and missed the dirt each time. So like her. Northword knew he ought not stand there like the sexually stunned lump that he was. She’d know something was wrong, and he didn’t see how he could possibly tell her that absolutely nothing, and everything, had changed. He wanted nothing more than to take her to bed again, and to do it as a man, not a green boy who didn’t know his way around a woman. He took a certain piquant satisfaction from imagining the results of his mastery of that.
Thank God Hob was here because the Lord only knew what he might say or do. He had made his peace with Portia in words, if not in his heart, and as he stood here, seeing her for the first time in ten years, his very soul resonated with all that had never been spoken or put to paper. Better, he thought, if they had done. They ought to have screamed and shouted and accused instead of burying everything beneath a veneer of pleasantness.
“Hold still.” He pulled out his spare handkerchief and walked to her. He could, and would, control his base urges. He put one hand underneath her chin, turned her face to the side, and wiped at the dirt. The smudge proved more stubborn than was safe for him. Her lips were full, that bottom lip so tender. Yet another delicate curve. Once, he would he have stolen a kiss. Taken it. Shared it.
“Hurry,” she said. “It’s cold.”
“It is.” She blinked while he worked at the smudge. He remembered the way her eyes had fluttered closed when he had somehow managed to bring her pleasure during their mutual discovery and clumsiness. Too quick the first time. But slow and tender the next. Oh, the enthusiasm and quick recovery of youth during those weeks that he thought, stupidly, they would continue to escape consequences. All that against the deep, wide landscape of loving her.
“What do you think, Hob?” She seemed oblivious to Northword’s stare and his memories.
“Well and good, Miss Temple.” The man’s Exmoor accent was as thick as ever, but, as it happened, Northword had not unlearned how to listen to that accent and make sense of it. “Well and good.”