Authors: Julie Anne Long
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
But she was not a wilting flower. “I’ll accompany you,” she agreed.
“What does it mean?” she asked. “Not his name,” when he whirled with shining eyes to begin to explain it to her in what she was certain would be an abundance of physiological detail.
He hesitated. “I’m uncertain what it means, if anything. The man he described doesn’t sound a bit like Kinkade. You know what Kinkade looks like.”
She did indeed. “Why would someone commission it and then donate it to the museum? And why would the museum hang it?”
“Because it’s a genuine Rubinetto, and I understand they’re quite rare.”
Rosalind laughed. “I should like to own one.”
“Would you?” Chase made it sound as though she’d revealed a disturbing new aspect of her character.
She smiled. She wondered if he realized how very much he cared about everything. “It looks so…peaceful.” Not quite the word she wanted. She, like the mistress Wyndham had described, knew nothing of art. But Mr. Wyndham’s contentment with his lot showed in his work.
“Peaceful?” Only Chase could make that word sound distasteful. “It looks unlike anything in this world or the next.”
He made this sound like treason. Which made her smile again. She was about to ask him what he knew of the next world, but stopped herself immediately. She’d listened to the ravings of men thrashing in the midst of their fevers when they were wounded; she knew they saw visions of torment and of bliss. She’d heard them conduct conversations with loved ones just before they died. She didn’t want to know what Chase had seen in that world between life and death, because she would be reminded of all the possible different outcomes to Waterloo.
And in none of them would he be walking next to her now. The chill of that possibility touched the back of her neck.
“Precisely,” was all she said.
He was watching her, a furrow between his brows; she’d puzzled him. She didn’t care. She’d thankfully jettisoned the need to explain herself years ago, along with that girl she’d been. She was content enough just to walk down a slightly disreputable street right now alongside a slightly disreputable man who had just a bit of a limp. The gold head of his stick flashed almost cheerfully in the sun.
“Isn’t it peaceful in Derbyshire?” He wanted to know. She was tempted to tell him of the terrain, and the little flowers growing by the brook near her home, and her neighbors, who were nosy and talkative but only intermittently interesting, and the house that was now hers thanks to her late husband but never actually felt like hers. Just to torture him with details. To see how long he could endure it.
And then she realized that details weren’t necessary and had nothing at all do with her answer.
“It isn’t my kind of peace.” She hadn’t realized this was true until she’d said it aloud.
“Your kind of peace?” It was, she realized, an invitation to expound. She wasn’t sure how to do it. “It’s just that…even though the painting is desperately odd and whimsical, every creature in it looks quite pleased with its circumstances and very accepting and a little
…a little dreamy. As though they know all is well and will always be well. It’s lively and strange and a bit…well, supernatural. And it’s very colorful.”
Chase was unaccountably charmed to the marrow by this singular list of reasons for liking a painting.
His sister Genevieve would have heard them, and stared at Rosalind for a dumbstruck instant before laying a gentle hand on her arm and issuing a gently appalled, “Oh no. Oh no no no no. Good heavens, my dear. No.” Genevieve would have explained the precise critical reasons for the painting’s hideousness, whereas Chase’s instincts told him it was hideous. Even Mr. Wyndham had no illusions about his own talents.
And then Chase began to understand. Everyone in it was content, she’d said.
Rosalind’s life had been hectic and colorful and violent and she’d seen more of the world than either of his sisters had. She’d done what she’d needed to do, she’d told him. And now she wanted to be able to choose what came next.
He understood afresh how much she’d been forced to surrender to circumstances, none of them of her choosing. But he also understood the great satisfaction that could be had in doing one’s duty. Her path to maturity hadn’t been entirely graceful, but she had navigated it, and all because of an innate courage. She hadn’t shied away from the blood and death of war.
She was as dutiful as he was.
Dutiful, he thought, rhymes with beautiful.
It was the only poetic impulse he’d ever had in his life. He decided it would be his last, because it made him feel foolish. If only he didn’t admire her as much as he desired her. And he suddenly felt something entirely new: he was afraid to seduce her as much as he wanted to seduce her, and as much as he suspected she could be seduced.
For then he would have to leave her. He honestly didn’t think he’d be able to give her up.
And he didn’t think he could make love to her without possessing her.
She’d made it very clear that it wasn’t what she wanted. And he still wanted her to choose.
So he knew a strange happiness, a simple pleasure in being with her cut through with a strange desolation. Like those sunbeams pushing through rain clouds on the day he was attacked, his first day back in London.
It was an oddly peaceful sensation, for all that.
“It is colorful,” he allowed gently. “The painting.”
“Why are you smiling?” She was suspicious of the gentleness. He shrugged innocently. They walked on.
“Is it peaceful in Sussex?” she asked. “In Pennyroyal Green?”
“It is never peaceful in Pennyroyal Green,” he said grimly. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“Doubtless because you live there.” It was her turn to smile. Her eyes disappeared with her smile, her cheeks rounded, her face luminous; her mouth made a sort of vee. Her smile was entirely unselfconscious, and it transformed her from delicately, sensually, beautiful into plain but joyously lit.
He felt restless watching her.
“Which is why you can’t wait to return,” she added. He ignored this. “I’m certain India will be significantly more peaceful by contrast.”
“Why isn’t it peaceful in Sussex? Apart from the fact that the benighted Redmond family lives there.”
“Ah! Very good use of ‘benighted.’”
She shrugged modestly.
“Well, the Redmonds live in Pennyroyal Green. For a beginning. You might know how our family feels about the Redmonds. And my brother Colin lives there, whom you may have heard a thing or two about—and now that he’s married he’s become an insufferable livestock authority. There’s Miss Marietta Endicott’s Academy for Girls, which we all call the School for Recalcitrant Girls, and indeed it is—all the girls in England who make rather a habit of misbehavior get sent there, which means all the boys in town can scarcely stay away. Ned Hawthorne’s daughter Polly—his family has run the Pig & Thistle for centuries—cannot seem to forgive Colin for marrying at all and she’s but seventeen, which is the age when such things are taken quite seriously and most painful. Sometimes it’s hard to get served in the Pig & Thistle for that reason!”
“You don’t say!”
“My sister Olivia pretends she isn’t becoming a spinster simply because that bastard Lyon Redmond took it upon himself to disappear some years ago, but she becomes thinner and more glittery-eyed every day.”
He shrugged. “And Ian seems to be following in Colin’s footsteps. Back when he was dangling from the balconies of married countesses, that is.”
He smiled again. “It gets better. I was banished to London to ascertain the suitability of a distant cousin for the role of the new vicar of Pennyroyal Green because in fact my family can no longer stand my company. I haven’t yet seen him.”
She turned to him in surprise. “Your family owns the living in Pennyroyal Green?”
He was amused that she didn’t leap to disabuse him of the notion that his family could no longer stand him.
“Yes. As unlikely as that seems. He’s a cousin, allegedly. Dozens of times removed, but possesses the surname Sylvaine, as did my mother. A Mr. Adam Sylvaine. It’s my second given name.”
She stopped and stared at him incredulously. Well, it was more of a glare, really.
He stopped, too. “What is it?” he asked, irritated.
“Chase, you must go see him straightaway! He’ll want to know whether he’ll be able to feed himself or start a family or move to a new home. Perhaps he’ll be offered a living elsewhere if you don’t find him suitable.” She sounded appalled at his lack of consideration.
He, in truth, wasn’t proud of it, either.
It was her fault. He’d been thinking entirely of her. Still, he fixed his captain’s glare upon her, haughty and affronted. She gave him cool green implacable command in return.
“How on earth will I know whether he’ll make a suitable vicar?
Deciding such a thing is an enormous responsibility. My father was clearly not in his right mind when he entrusted this godforsaken task
—yes, I realize that sounds like a contradiction in terms—to me. Now why are you smiling?”
“Your definition of an enormous responsibility. Truly. Remind me again: how many men were under your command?”
He was silent.
She began walking again. “No one expects you to know everything, Captain Eversea.”
She was smiling to herself.
He studiously did not look at her. It was outrageously disconcerting to be understood.
What was odd was that he didn’t mind being shamed into going to see his cousin, necessarily. It could have something to do with the fact that Rosalind was doing the shaming.
He’d sent a note round to his cousin, apologizing for being remiss in seeing him, saying he’d been unavoidably detained, which was not strictly a lie, and in response his cousin issued an invitation to call upon him straightaway.
How on earth was he supposed to ascertain the “suitability” of a new vicar?
He knew his Bible; his parents had insisted the whole brood attend church every Sunday in Pennyroyal Green, despite the fact that he was absolutely certain he’d seen his father sleeping with his eyes open more than once. In fact, a fly had once done precisely six aerial figure eights—Chase had counted them—before it settled on his father’s nose during one summer service, whereupon his father shot bolt upright with a grunt, kicking the pew in front of him and jarring Mrs. Notterley’s hat from her head. Despite the fact that his eyes were open and that everyone could see where the fly was about to land.
A good skill when one has a slew of mischievous brothers: sleeping with one’s eyes open.
He wondered if this vicar could keep the congregation awake, and how on earth he would determine whether he would. Perhaps he would ask him to orate, and he would sit like an Oxford don, unsmilingly judgmental, tapping a rule against his palm. Or glare blankly like a captain inspecting a subaltern.
He could always challenge his cousin to a card game for the living. If he was any sort of respectable family member, then gaming would be in his blood.
Unsurprisingly, given the neighborhood and the accommodations, Adam Sylvaine answered his own door.
A wedge of lamplight lit his first glimpse of his cousin, who could nearly look him in the eye. Tall. Blond. Surprising. He’d never before met a blond family member. He did have the elegant long-boned face and pale eyes, vivid against his fair coloring. In all likelihood they were blue.
“Charles Eversea,” Chase said, and bowed.
“Captain Eversea—cousin,” Adam said pleasantly, establishing their relationship straightaway. “Very good to meet you, indeed.”
Good voice. Good bow. Not obsequious. He would not have been able to abide obsequious. Not too hale-fellow-well-met. Did sound genuinely pleased to meet him.
Adam stepped aside and ushered Chase in, taking in his own hands Chase’s coat and hat. Chase did not proffer his walking stick.
“I must apologize for…” Adam waved a hand at the simplicity of the room.
Chase saw a small sitting room; a fire burning low, which served as a place to toast bread in the morning; doubtless the bedroom was a tiny cell off the short, narrow hallway.
“I only intended to be in London for a few days, and these rooms were close to the library. I take my meals at the pub across the road.”
Chase hated it when people felt the need to apologize for what they couldn’t help, though he realized it was all part of social niceties. The room was perfectly adequate for a cousin begging for a living from another much wealthier cousin, and perfectly adequate for temporary lodgings, and perfectly adequate for a man who’d slept in the mud before—as he had. Irritation must have shown on his face, because one of his cousin’s eyebrows leaped into a steeple. His mother could do that. Interesting skill.
“That is to say, I would have received you at Whitehall, but the King was using his antechambers.”
Chase laughed. It was a decent attempt at a joke, but Cousin Adam was nervous.
A silence followed. It suited Chase, for the moment, to allow the silence. People tended to reveal things about themselves during silences.
Adam did. He had long scholarly fingers that drummed in intervals on his knees, as though they would have been preferring to turn the pages of a book. He was thin—his shirt hung a little too loosely on him—which was to be expected of someone who likely read a good deal and forgot to eat while he was doing it. His boots were old, creased at the toes, but had been recently polished. Broad shoulders ran in the family, Chase noted; Adam had them. Chase seldom knew how to talk to scholars. Miles Redmond would have known, as he was an eccentric intellectual, too. He spent a good deal of time hunched over the chessboard in front of the fire at the Pig & Thistle with Mr. Culpepper and Mr. Cooke, and was planning another trip to the South Seas. He’d gone and married someone no one ever heard of before, a lovely woman of the sort Chase had never dreamed would look twice at Miles Redmond, and brought her to church, which caused necks to tremble with the effort of not craning to stare.
Marriage was an epidemic in Pennyroyal Green these days. Perhaps his impulse to propose to Rosalind had stemmed in part from that: the contagion.