Authors: Gina Conkle
The way she spoke with purpose, even slight disdain for watercolor, caught his ear. Edward turned around, idly rolling his lead stick in his palm. Her soft lips pressed in a line, as if she braced for the worst, then they opened with a bold request.
“I’d like to find a room with plenty of sunlight and make that my studio, one with all this wonderful natural light.” Then she grinned cheekily. “Like your greenhouse.”
“Oh, no, you’ll not work in my space.”
She winked. “Don’t worry, too balmy in here.”
But he had the distinct impression she was testing the waters of proximity and invasion of his domain.
“That would certainly help me to abide by your ground rules for places off-limits.” Some of her hair slipped past her shoulder, and she finished quietly, “This was the nature of my request last evening. At the inn. I’d like to paint.”
“That’s your request? To paint?” He leaned a hand on the table, stunned.
“That’s why I came to see you this morning.” She clasped her hands together. “I need supplies.”
“Canvas and wood…I can make my own frames, mind you.” Her hands slipped from the self-imposed vise grip and became animated as she listed her needs. “Oils, pigments, brushes, a small, sharp knife or two, some tripod stands, since what I have at my aunt’s…”
He stared at her, tuning out the rest of what she said. Miss Montgomery looked away, apparently recalling mental pictures of certain items, tapping one finger after the other while listing out loud her artistic needs. Of all the requests she could have made—
That she didn’t say jewels, new wardrobe each year with all the fripperies, or her own carriage with matching four shocked him. Edward made a conscious decision to close his mouth.
“Painting supplies. Nothing else?” He crossed his arms and stared a second longer, looking for deception, but her eyes were open green orbs.
“Yes, that’s it,” she said, folding her hands at her waist. “If I may, milord, you seem surprised.”
A disbelieving burst of air escaped him. “Previous negotiations with another woman were extensive, to say the least. Like establishing a small kingdom.”
Her fingers plucked at a wrinkle in her skirt, and though Miss Montgomery faced him, her head tipped down a bit. She eyed him cautiously. “Then, my
shouldn’t be a problem for you to support.”
“Greenwich Park has a hundred rooms thereabouts,” he said, glancing at the grand edifice that made the back of his home. “You’re sure to find something that works.”
She rewarded him with a broad, glowing smile. A niggling voice in his head prodded him to ask more about her painting. There had to be more there, but at face value, this turned out to be so easy. Making her happy pleased him.
She picked up her coffee mug and cupped her hands around the old crockery. Wearied of so much talk, Edward longed for the gratifying solitude of work. Their morning exchange was more than he gave most people in a week. Plants, thankfully, never demanded conversation.
“At some point, I would be happy to give you a tour of Greenwich Park.”
Now where did that come from? He had a treatise on plant placenta theory to finish. Even working after dinner was not uncommon for him. When did he expect to find time to escort her about the place? Her beaming smile warmed him, but work beckoned.
“I need to get back to work. Give Claire”—he caught himself and tipped his head toward the house—“I mean my housekeeper, Miss Mayhew, the list of art supplies, and she’ll take care of it.”
A curious blankness filled her face at the mention of Claire. “Of course, Miss Mayhew the housekeeper.”
She raised the mug and studied him over the rim. He took a step to escort her to the door, but she didn’t budge from the stool.
“Miss Mayhew’s quite a stunning woman for a housekeeper,” she said and took a careful sip. “Very beautiful, in fact.”
“Many have commented as much.” He went tight-lipped, almost certain of the vein Miss Montgomery wanted to open.
Her green eyes searched his for an answer to the breadth of questions about Claire. Questions, he was sure, lurked in her mind. Something inside Edward sank with disappointment.
Women never ceased their inquisitions as to the nature of Miss Mayhew’s relationship to the Greenwich family. In the years prior to his scars, when female houseguests came and went, women gave their comments on Claire, running the gamut from snide slurs to the outright catty: the natural response to fighting for and gaining territory with available wealthy, titled men. Some sought status, the desire to be the pinnacle beauty in the room. None of that mattered. Claire deserved his protection.
That Miss Montgomery would slip into the banalities of feminine competition proved a grave disappointment. Edward frowned as he turned his focus on a stack of pamphlets. He pulled one from the pile and flipped it open to the desired page. He tapped the lead stick on the workbench and glanced over his shoulder at Miss Montgomery.
“I’m sure you’ll want to arrange your painting supplies and find that room. Ask Miss Mayhew, or if you prefer, Miss Lumley, for assistance.” Then he finished with cold dismissal. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“Turned out so soon?” She cocked her head.
“I’ll not discuss loyalties, household staff, anything, or anyone else.” He spoke with—What had Miss Montgomery called it?—
. So be it.
“You are a puzzle, my lord.” She enunciated each word. “A very private sort that has nothing to do with your injury.”
His gut clenched: she spoke the truth, but this meeting was at an end. He tapped the lead stick on his journal.
“I’ve much work to do.”
“I thought we were making progress toward some kind of understanding.” She set the mug on the table and slipped off the stool with decidedly less spark. “I’d hoped to spend a little time with you, but I can see you’d like me gone.”
She looked small and vulnerable, and he was sorely tempted to let this pass and allow her to stay.
“Perhaps another time,” he said, turning to his workbench.
“Very well, then, my lord. I’ll see you at dinner?”
Edward flipped the journal’s pages. Behind him, Miss Montgomery’s shoes beat a slow retreat. Out of the corner of his eye, he followed her as she slipped into her cloak and quit the place without looking back. He should have escorted her to the door, at least; that would’ve been the gentlemanly thing to do. Edward tossed the lead stick on the table and turned around to stare out the window where a light mist fell.
His sister often said he was his own worst enemy. He rubbed his scarred cheek, catching his faint reflection in the glass. The dim likeness echoed the way he used to look—a smooth-skinned visage that appealed to the fairer sex. Long ago he took that appeal for granted, never valuing that currency with females. What he valued little then mattered not at all now.
Or did it?
Glancing at the greenhouse door, Edward duly noted that Miss Montgomery didn’t act repulsed on seeing him in full morning light. His gaze followed the—What was it Huxtable said?—
woman. The red-cloaked form moving over the verdant lawn was certainly that and much more.
He would even go as far to say his lively new housemate was a little flirtatious in the most interesting way. The coming seventy-eight days might prove interesting indeed.
Every path has its puddle.
“Could he be any less interested?” she said, stomping into the wretched pink palace and tossing her cloak over a chair. “Perhaps if I were a plant, I’d warrant a bit of his time and attention.”
Lydia flopped on the pink-and-yellow-striped settee near the hearth, slumping ungracefully. She wanted to learn more about the arcane man, but that door had shut firmly on her moments ago. Oh, and forget trying to ascertain Miss Mayhew’s role at Greenwich Park, other than housekeeper, of course. Housekeeper, indeed, she huffed in the silence and rested her chin on her palm. Lord Greenwich got prickly when Miss Mayhew’s name came up in conversation. That didn’t bode well.
What an off morning this turned out to be; nothing went as planned. Lydia stretched her legs across the seat and dangled shod feet over the cushion’s edge. She ought to be in search of that solicitor’s office on Lower Ormond Street, pursuing her own plans, not waiting on someone else’s plans; instead, trapped she was, her wet hem smearing grass on the furniture.
No stranger to the inner workings of household cleaning, she swiped the green blades into her cupped hand and slid off the settee to drop them over the fire.
“Just as well I didn’t find Lower Ormond Street,” she said, consoling herself. “The blighter I was supposed to meet is probably one of those solicitors who can’t keep his hands to himself.”
Miss Lumley poked her head around the corner and spied Lydia’s shoes. “Want your shoes cleaned, miss?”
Lydia lifted her hem for a better look at the offending items. “I’ve tracked in grass and greenery.” She made a face. “Sorry.”
“Not to worry on that score.”
The maid entered and bent to the task of removing the shoes. The odd sight of someone removing her footwear made her feel childish.
“Please don’t, Miss Lumley,” she said. “The last time anyone tended my shoes, I was just out of leading strings. I can clean them myself. Sorry to have troubled you.”
“Pish posh, miss, and call me Edith.” The maid tapped a tarnished buckle and chuckled. “You’re no trouble at all. This is my job. Best get used to having others take care of you, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
When was the last time anyone made an effort to take care of her? So often it was the other way around.
“Thank you, Edith.” Lydia perched on the settee again.
“Speaking of greenery, you visited his lordship in the greenhouse?” Edith said, cleaning a shoe with rapid swipes.
Lydia smiled at the busy maid. The whole household probably wanted to know what was going on between the earl and the unlikely woman he brought home. All and sundry must’ve recognized Lydia wasn’t countess material. Of course they’d be curious belowstairs about what happened in their place of employment.
“Yes,” she ventured cautiously. “Very impressive. The whole place.”
“Certainly is from the outside, I mean.” The gray-haired maid took her time rubbing the cheap buckle. “I’ve not had the occasion to be in there much.”
Miss Lumley could be a potential ally in times of need. Or did the staff charge her with scouting duty on the dark-haired interloper occupying the pink palace? Lydia smiled wider on that score. Give a little, get a little. But how much to divulge? Her ears near twitched from the kitchen gossip she assumed they bantered. In the interest of budding friendship, she tossed out a crumb.
“The magnification glass was quite interesting, as were some of the plants.” She shrugged and slumped against the settee’s back cushion, curling stocking feet underneath her. “I wasn’t there long enough to learn much.”
…about his lordship, that is…
“You were in his lordship’s laboratory longer than Miss Blackwood ever was.” Edith’s voice grumbled, and her rag shimmied across the shoe.
“Miss Blackwood?” Lydia hugged an ice-pink pillow to her stomach, hoping Miss Lumley would rise to the bait. Her fingers flip-flopped a corner tassel. “She would be…”
The dancing rag paused. “The lady formerly betrothed to his lordship.” She gave Lydia a pointed look, pursed lips and all.
“Isn’t she the one the papers say slit her wrists?” Her tassel flipping slowed.
“Humph! Don’t be fooled. Conniving bit of baggage, she was. More drama in that one than all of Drury Lane, if you ask me.” Edith’s rosy cheeks darkened with a scowl, and her rag picked up speed. “Only wanted parties, she did,
Greenwich gold. To think, growing up she chased after Lord Eddie and cried her undying love. That is until…” Edith’s voice faded as she put a hand to her heaving bosom. “I forget myself, miss.”
Eddie, is it?
Edith set the shoes on the stone hearth and missed the way Lydia gaped at the familiarity. The maid was so caught up in calming down from her angry flare. Lydia couldn’t imagine the mysterious brigand she met last night as a
. Edith stuffed her rag in an apron pocket and banked the fire before taking her leave.
“Oh, there is one thing, Miss Lumley.”
She scooted off the settee and retrieved a list of art supplies sitting on the pristine desk. She’d already made this wish list earlier that morning, anticipating the earl’s support.
“I discussed this with his lordship, and he bade me give it to you or Miss Mayhew. These are a few things I’ll need.” She folded the paper and passed it to Edith. “Some painting supplies.”
The maid slipped the paper into her other pocket. “I’ll give this to Miss Mayhew. She’ll take care of it.”
At the mention of the lovely housekeeper, Lydia opened her mouth to probe. A warning voice inside her head bade her not to dive into that muddle. Not yet.
“Thank you for taking care of my shoes.”
“Of course, miss,” Edith said with a wink. “And you hold fast with his lordship. He’s really a good sort, he is.”
A few tidbits had been dropped at her feet about Lord Eddie, but nothing of true substance. His childhood moniker made her smile at the elegant but austere lady staring down at her. She drummed her fingers on the striped upholstery. Things got very prickly when she asked about the housekeeper.
Tread carefully there.
Still, Lydia couldn’t help but be a touch irked. Was he planning to marry her and dally with the housekeeper? Such an arrangement wasn’t unheard of amongst nobility. Did his lordship have a thing for women of the lower classes?
“Miss Blackwood, a young lady of quality, besmirched. Miss Mayhew, a housekeeper, respected,” she mused. “Just how does one win over the reclusive Lord Eddie?”
She tipped her head back and smiled at the absurdity. Lydia studied the adjoining door. Win over Lord Edward?
That closed door, like the closed man, taunted her, a challenge. Most people liked her, really.