Authors: Sherrill Bodine
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Short Stories, #Single Author, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Single Authors, #Historical Romance, #FICTION/Romance/Regency
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 1993 by Elaine Sima and Sherrill Bodine
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition December 2013
All was as it should be. The stately, hallowed halls of the British Museum were cool and hushed, and vacant—precisely the way he enjoyed it.
“Laurentian Wilburforce Cranston!”
The shouted name echoed around him, bouncing off the gilt-framed portraits of England’s former monarchs, who suddenly appeared to glare with disapproval at such a disturbance in their august midst.
The mere shock of hearing his given name, which he never allowed spoken, brought him to an abrupt halt. It had been years since anyone had dared to speak it, much less shout it out in this vulgar way. The nine syllables, enunciated just so, reminded him of Eton, where he’d bloodied more than a few noses over just such a taunt.
Both Leticia and Lawrence looked up at him wonderingly. He gave each nearly identical face a reassuring nod before turning to confront the source of such an outrage.
Seated on a stone bench directly under a life-size portrait of Queen Elizabeth was a stiff-backed, silver-haired woman swathed in stark black.
His face muscles shifted from the set-down he’d had every intention of delivering to quiver into a semblance of pleasure.
“Tildie?” He breathed his former governess’s name, disbelief holding him immobile.
“Come here to me. At once!” she commanded.
No one commanded the nonesuch, Lord Vane, but then very few would have known his full name or how to use it to such advantage. For just an instant, time fell away. He did as he was bid, crossing the marble floor with the twins dutifully following in his wake.
Tildie’s dark eyes were as full of intelligence as they had been twenty years earlier. Only silver hair and the fine lines fanning across her pale cheeks proclaimed the passage of so long a span. Then suddenly he recalled the most astonishing change of all.
“Your Grace, what a pleasant surprise.” He bowed over her outstretched hand smoothly. “May I present my children, Lawrence and Leticia.”
His son’s very proper bow and Leticia’s perfect curtsy curled pleasure and pride through his chest. They were children to be proud of.
“Very nice,” she snapped at him, while curving her mouth into a peculiarly sweet smile for each child. “However, why are they spending the day in this dreadfully dull place? They should be at Vane Park playing in the woods or riding through the fields. You, of all people, should know that, Laurentian!”
Very properly, his son stared straight ahead as if oblivious to Tildie’s words, but his daughter gazed up at him with wide cornflower blue eyes. Her delicate face was a study in awed disbelief. He assumed, and rightly so, that she had never heard him spoken to in just such a tone.
His old governess’s leveler didn’t faze him, for he expected nothing but her straightforward honesty. Time could never dull the memory of this woman who had descended upon Vane Park and opened up the world for the first time, beyond his mother’s stuffy sickroom and his father’s somber library.
“The children have just arrived from the country, Your Grace.” He returned with just the right touch of composure. “The Little Season is the perfect time to bring the children, as it fits into the course of study I’ve laid out for them.”
“Never did cure you of your obsessive need for orderliness, did I?” she sniffed. “More’s the pity. Although I still hold out hope it can be accomplished one day.”
Even Lawrence could no longer maintain his proper stoic facade. His set mouth quivered as he slid his father an entranced glance from the corner of his eyes.
A man used to control by a flick of his head, Vane did so now. “Children, there are very fine examples of Flemish art at the end of the hall. Your tutor will be questioning you later.”
He watched until they were safely settled beneath three enormous canvases. Only then did he confront Tildie, once a governess, now the Dowager Duchess of Worthington.
“Your Grace, I wasn’t aware you were in town yet or I would have been the first to call.”
“You will be!” Her normal clipped tone might have put a lesser man off. “I shall expect you for tea this very afternoon. No one else knows we’ve taken up residence. We only arrived last night, but this morning Georgina insisted she couldn’t wait another instant to view the Elgin Marbles. The chit’s been keeping me waiting for nearly an hour while she admires them. Just like her!”
A punctual man, Vane lifted his brows in disbelief that a girl straight out of the schoolroom would keep the dowager duchess cooling her heels.
Suddenly feminine laughter drifted around them, the sound sparkling the air like soft notes of favorite music. Vane turned to watch two women hurrying toward them. The taller woman was the younger with a lithe body and the smooth characterless face of inexperience. The older woman barely reached her shoulder. She had luxuriant dark hair framing a perfect, serene, oval face. Large brown eyes and uptilted noses, too short for real beauty, proclaimed the two, mother and daughter.
“I’m surprised the mother doesn’t keep Georgina in line,” Vane drawled, noticing the elder’s features in repose fell into slightly stern lines.
“Good God, Vane, Georgina
Vane was mildly surprised. But Tildie’s life, since she’d left Vane Park, was a mystery, beyond the fact that four years ago the old Duke of Worthington had suddenly married her. After three years, he’d unexpectedly turned up his toes.
“There you two are at last!” Her Grace’s scold was punctuated by an indulgent smile. “Look who I’ve found while you kept me waiting. Vane, meet my stepdaughter, Lady Georgina Sherbourne and my step-granddaughter, Sabrina.”
Lady Georgina Sherbourne’s serene countenance split into a wide smile that banished utterly any remnant of sternness; sherry washed through her eyes, and her mouth, which had appeared thin and straight, curled into a lush smile.
“At last we meet!” She stretched her hand out in an all-too-friendly manner.
Her fingers curled strongly around his own as he bent over her hand. She was much too coming. His interest disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“I am delighted we shall have the opportunity to become better acquainted, my lord.” That light musical laugh, airy and free, was hers.
Her easy manner contrasted sharply with her daughter’s blushing cheeks and demure curtsy. The Lady Sabrina seemed a pattern-card of propriety, an unusual trait to find considering the impropriety of her mother.
He’d received a missive from the dowager duchess about a fortnight ago. It had been as surprising as it was vague. Now, dismay coiled through his chest. His eyes narrowed with a suspicious glance and focused on his former mentor.
She met his stare with the same clear eyes he remembered so well. They had examined him from head to toe that first day as he’d stood dutifully beside his mother’s sickbed. He suppressed a shudder; she’d changed his life irrevocably that day—and although it had been for the better, he was perfectly content as he was and needed no managing female to interfere for him now. Not even if that female was Tildie.
“Georgina, take Sabrina and fetch Vane’s children from contemplation of those insipid paintings!” The duchess never merely asked, she commanded.
“Of course, Tildie.” With another easy smile the lady was gone, hand in hand with her daughter.
“I recognize that suspicious visage, Laurentian. You have nothing to fear from me.”
He cocked his right eyebrow and slid his mouth into its habitual sneer. “I’m no longer nine years old, needing direction. Neither am I hanging out for a wife—even one chosen by you, Tildie. As unexceptional as your step-granddaughter appears, schoolgirls are not in my line.”
Laughter shook her until her fingers trembled around the silver handle of the ebony cane she held before her.
“Goodness, Vane, you may rest easy!” Her bark of genuine mirth reassured him somewhat. “I have absolutely no intention of making a match between you and Sabrina. I give you my word! Come to tea, my boy. Then I’ll tell you what I’m about.”
“Lord Vane’s phaeton is pulled by the most magnificent grays I’ve ever seen.” Georgina allowed the green velvet drape to fall into place and turned to confront Tildie, who sat stiffly upright upon the settee, smiling beatifically. “Is that why you have me peering out the window like the veriest green goose? To impress me with his horseflesh? What game are you playing?”
“I’m greeting our first guest.” Tildie turned her head to the door, evading any further questioning. “Ah, my boy, right on time, as always.”
He loomed large in the narrow doorway of the town house, his shoulders so broad they nearly brushed the wood as he stepped into the parlor.
Georgina had heard many stories about the nonesuch over the years, and not all of them from Tildie. But the storytellers had neglected to mention how his deep auburn hair brushed back from a wide forehead, or how his cornflower blue eyes were set in a face that was at once masculine and beautiful. He was an Adonis who should have taken her breath away, even at her advanced thirty-five years. But, he engendered quite another feeling—annoyance. Those magnificent eyes should be lit with dancing lights to match their beauty. And that mouth shouldn’t be so rigidly set, making his square jaw unnaturally stern. A man of his reputation held the world in his palm, and should be full of the joy of living. The fact that he was not sent little pinpricks of uneasiness along her flesh.
Georgina resolutely shook her head, smiled brightly, and slid down next to Tildie on the cream brocade settee. “My lord, your grays are quite magnificent.” She felt sure an appreciation of his horseflesh would fetch a pleasurable reaction.
Instead, cool blue searched her face. “Thank you, Lady Georgina. They are the best stock to come out of Tattersall’s in the last ten years.” His deep voice was as chilly as his eyes.
“I’m certain you made a thorough study before you purchased them, Laurentian,” Tildie nodded knowingly.
He flicked her a sardonic glance. “Of course, Your Grace.”
Those little pinpricks suddenly gained strength. Surely, something, someone, could elicit a response from this infuriatingly superior man. “You seem to know a great deal about horses, my lord,” she said sweetly, for she did not give up easily.
“Laurentian is a master at all he endeavors. And you will find he is considered a nonpareil of the first order.”
The man didn’t even have the good grace to demure at Tildie’s fulsome praise! She felt a flush sear her own skin at his calm acceptance—as if it was only his due.
“Of course,” she muttered into her teacup, hiding her disgust.
“Which is precisely why Vane will be of such valuable assistance to dear Sabrina.”
That pronouncement certainly attracted her attention, but Tildie took no notice of her stunned reaction, continuing relentlessly.
“Laurentian, the reason I wrote and asked you to call upon me is because I require your help. As you can see, Sabrina is not joining us for tea. She is resting. Those dreadful measles that plague the countryside afflicted her this past spring, and she is still not robust. In addition, she is much too shy to gracefully withstand the pressures of a full Season. So we have come now to ease the dear child into town ways.” She paused expectantly. “And who better to help us do so than the nonesuch himself?”
Although Georgina recognized the truth, she couldn’t, for the life of her, understand why the dowager duchess was laying it so bluntly at this unyielding man’s door!
“Darling Tildie, I’m afraid Lord Vane is much too busy to take the time for our slight difficulties.”
Tildie frowned at her, and Vane spoke as if he hadn’t heard her protest. “For you, Tildie, I would be delighted to assist in any way I can.”
That took the wind from her sails. Yet, he persisted in withholding any emotion. If he was annoyed at her thinly veiled sarcasm or bored by the thought of escorting a schoolgirl about town, all was hidden well beneath his calm exterior. Oddly, that made her distinctly uneasy. Never one to hide her own feelings, Georgina set down her teacup and glared at him.
“Splendid, my boy!” Tildie declared stoutly, ignoring Georgina’s sudden lack of good manners. “Since Sabrina is not yet out, we can have nothing but small gatherings with family and friends. Yet perhaps you might drive us through the park and just generally make your approval known. Let’s say tomorrow, midmorning?”
He never smiled his agreement, but in one fluid movement bent over Tildie’s hand, nodding. Georgina had to admit he was remarkably graceful for such a large man.
“Until the morrow then, Your Grace.” He executed a perfect leg, first to Tildie and then to herself.
She barely controlled her tongue until he was free of the parlor. She leaped to her feet and paced the faded Oriental carpet in a most agitated manner. “Tildie, are you absolutely sure this is necessary?”
“Georgina, we discussed from the outset the advantage Vane presented. I only wrote him after we had thoroughly agreed on our course of action.” Her deceptively innocent tone was not lost on Georgina. “However, you neglected to mention Lord Vane was so … so overbearing and full of his own consequence. Surely that will not serve to put Sabrina at ease. I should think she will be terrified of him!”
“And you, my dear?”
Georgina met Tildie’s amused smile and thrust her chin to the ceiling. “I find him annoying. Does the man never smile? He should. His countenance is made for merriment.”
Tildie regarded her for a moment before she related, “My fondest memory of Laurentian is the moment he sat his first horse. He took to riding as naturally as breathing. Just as he did to every other physical pursuit once he was released from keeping vigil at his mother’s sickbed. But, of course, he continued his studies relentlessly, never ceasing to worship at his father’s scholarly altar.”
Understanding spilled through her, and her annoyance evaporated away. “I should have realized what you are about.” Georgina jumped up, crossed to her chair and knelt, taking one veined hand in her own. “Darling Tildie, you feel your job with Vane is not yet completed, correct?”
The duchess’s snapping eyes softened as she stroked Georgina’s hair. “Wise child. I should have known you would see through my ploy. I left Vane Park to go to your dear mama because Laurentian’s father thought he should have a tutor to ready him for Eton. It is one of the regrets of my career. Now I believe we can all benefit from some time together. There is much to admire in Laurentian. Eventually, Georgina, both you and Sabrina will see that.”