Authors: Gayle Callen
At midmorning the next day, Audrey was in her bedroom with Molly, making decisions about how best to arrange things, when there was a soft knock at the door. Audrey opened it and heard—nothing.
“Who is it?” she asked, controlling her irritation. More than once she’d explained how she liked to be told who it was without asking. But she’d say it again. It would just take a while.
“Sorry, Mrs. Blake, ma’am, it’s Evelyn. You have a caller.”
“And the caller is . . .”
“The Earl of Knightsbridge, beggin’ your pardon. He’s in the drawin’ room.”
She felt a thrill of excitement she had no business feeling. He felt far too protective of her—that was the reason he’d returned. Or he thought she couldn’t handle things herself. “Thank you. Please tell him I’ll be down in a moment.” When Evelyn had gone, she heard Molly chuckle. “And what is that for?”
“You should see your face at just the mention of his name. Go to him, miss. Leave me to all of this. Take a walk and get out of this house.”
“But I just got here,” she said, feeling tired already.
“I know but . . . it is not the welcoming place I’d hoped for you, miss. We’ll work on that.”
It wasn’t as if Audrey felt like she could terminate the employment of a whole family, not without good cause. But . . . “Oh, very well, Molly.”
“Shall I escort you down?”
“No!” she said, too sharply, then sighed. “Forgive me.”
“Nothing to forgive, Miss Audrey. No one said adjusting was going to be easy, not for any of us. Now you run along and see that fiancé of yours.”
She was expecting Molly’s usual dreamy tone when talking about Robert, the one that made Audrey grind her teeth together, but instead, the maid simply sounded tired.
“Molly, you don’t sound yourself. Are you feeling well?”
Her hesitation spoke volumes.
“I’ll be fine, miss. Just overtired from the travel.”
“Then you rest while I’m gone.”
“I insist, Molly O’Hern.”
“Very well, miss,” she said, her voice as meek as a mouse.
Shaking her head, Audrey grinned at her before leaving the room. She moved at such a slow pace, it left her frustrated. But God forbid she fall down the stairs and become truly crippled. By the time she made it to the drawing room, she must have left Robert waiting an uncomfortably long time.
She heard . . . nothing. She said his name again, then stepped into the entrance hall. “Francis?” But the footman didn’t answer.
She went across the hall to the study and called Robert’s name again. She received no answer, but this time, she heard a noise, and as she slowly moved into the room to investigate, hands held before her, she heard it again. Snoring.
She cocked her head, then turned in the proper direction, trying to sort the correct layout of the room from all the ones she’d been shown. There was a deep chair right—
Her hand encountered a male shoulder, and she gave a little shake. “Robert?”
The faint rumbling died away in a snort. “Audrey? Did I fall asleep?”
She smiled. “You must have. I came as soon as I heard about your arrival. Has it been that long?”
There was a pause, and he said, “A half hour at least.”
She groaned. “We will do better next time, I promise.”
“Never mind.” She was not going to complain about the servants! “So tell me, how was your homecoming?”
“The place is the same as I remember,” he said ruefully. “Old and formal and run perfectly on schedule.”
“But I’m not complaining. They were happy to see me, and I was glad that old ghosts don’t seem to haunt the place.”
She wanted to touch his face, to soothe him, but she clasped her hands to keep them still.
“So have you walked the grounds of your estate?” he asked.
“Not yet. We were busy unpacking.”
“Then come take a walk with me.”
That coincided perfectly with Molly’s idea, and she couldn’t help smiling. “Let me fetch my shawl. I like to keep one in the entrance hall, just in case.”
But of course it wasn’t there, and Evelyn rushed back upstairs to retrieve one for her. Audrey knew Molly had put one in the hall, but she didn’t say anything.
“Shall we begin?” Robert asked, taking her arm in his.
And her very excitement at just that contact made her feel wary and resigned. This couldn’t go on, looking forward to seeing him, being with him—touching him.
But she let him guide her around the park and describe the sheep on a distant hill, the hedgerows separating farmed fields, the garden with the dirt paths.
“I’ll have to put gravel here,” she mused. “Much easier for me to stay on the path. Do you see Mr. Sanford?”
“I have once or twice. He’s in the stables now. Shall we go there and tell him about your plans?”
“Oh, I need to come up with a list first, rather than spring them on him whenever I think of something. But let’s see the stables just the same, and you tell me what you think.”
Mr. Sanford had a gruff voice that made Audrey feel like he put up with a mistress because he had to. But he seemed to listen respectfully to Robert’s military-orderliness suggestions, and they had a discussion about stable management that Audrey listened to, but felt outside of.
Once they were alone again, she said, “Robert, those things could have gone on my list, the one I’m preparing for my discussion with Mr. Sanford.”
“Forgive me—was I not supposed to speak to the man?” he asked, amusement in his voice. “I was a cavalry officer, so I’m considered an expert on horses.”
“I want the servants to trust and listen to me, not you. You won’t be their master, although we’re letting them think otherwise.” She hesitated. “This is a valid consideration, and one I wouldn’t have to worry about if we call off the engagement now. There’s no need to keep up the pretense,” she hurried to add.
“That’s a mistake, Audrey,” he said in a low voice. “Come sit by the pond with me.”
“Where we can be alone?” she said just as quietly.
As they walked, he described the reeds around the pond, the little dock where a rowboat could be tied up.
“Or I could jump off the dock for a good swim,” she countered, just to shock him.
I would like to see.” Then he turned her about. “The bench is right behind you.”
She sat down as gracefully as possible, then noticed how small the bench was when she could feel the line of his thigh against her skirts. She didn’t quite touch him with her own thigh, but if she moved just a bit . . .
Oh, what was she doing? “Robert, the engagement was just to get me away from my family. That’s over. I won’t even write to them that we have called it off.”
“So they can learn from gossip?”
She said nothing.
“And do you know how it will look? Like I used the engagement as a ruse to get you alone, away from your family, for only one reason.”
She felt overly warm with a blush.
“And then after a night in the inn, maybe I already took all I wanted.”
For a frozen moment, she imagined that, his kisses, the seduction she couldn’t resist, his hands on her body. She was no innocent maid—she knew exactly what he meant. Yet the thought of being intimate with him seemed so exciting, even though as a widow she knew the reality of it. The heat in her face spread lower, languorously across her breasts and down her body, full of fevered need and desperation.
That’s what it was, desperation, she realized with a start. She was lonely already, lonely and uncomfortable and too needy. But she was under no one’s command but her own. Giving in to these treacherous, fleeting feelings would be a disastrous mistake.
But . . .
“You are right, of course,” she said at last, embarrassed at how soft and breathless her voice sounded. “I would never want you to seem like an unscrupulous rake.”
“I didn’t say this on my own behalf,” he insisted. “An earl can afford to care little about his own reputation.”
She thought of his scandalous past, and the man who’d killed himself.
“But you, Audrey, would be . . .” His voice trailed away.
She felt her lips twist into a wry smile. “A Society widow? Is that not what some scandalous widows do, take a lover once their husbands are gone?”
She’d expected him to laugh, but when he didn’t, she grew uncertain. “Robert?”
“Is that what you want, Audrey?” he asked in a husky voice.
She felt the pressure of his thigh, no longer just next to her skirts, but against her own.
“To have people think you a scandalous widow?”
“Surely better than having them think me an invalid, or weak-natured enough to allow myself to be used.”
She thought of the servants she was trying to win over, imagined the rumors of their blind mistress they were already spreading to other servants, and hence to Hedgerley, to the people she hadn’t even begun to meet yet.
“No,” she said at last. “I want to be respected, to become part of the village society, not the fast London Society.”
He eased his thigh away. “That’s what I want for you, too, Audrey. So we will remain engaged for a while longer. Shall we continue our walk about the grounds?”
He took both her hands and pulled her to her feet, and for just a moment she stood before him, skirts tangled with his legs, their hands joined. The autumn wind tugged at them both, but they heard no other sounds, as if they were alone on the grounds.
Suddenly, she felt him looming over her, bending near.
“But if we’re engaged,” he whispered, “cannot a fiancé steal a kiss?”
Even as she gasped, she felt the press of his lips against her cheek. His skin was rougher than hers with newly shaved whiskers, but his lips—ah, his lips were soft and warm and lingered a heartbeat too long. She could smell the cleanliness of soap, even beneath the scents of horse and leather from his ride to see her. She leaned into him, unable to help her weakness.
Yet still their hands were clasped between them, the backs of his hands against her stomach. He felt solid, and she remembered him shirtless in the inn, and her hands on his hot skin.
She swayed, beginning to turn her head into the kiss, wanting more.
But she couldn’t want more—wouldn’t be so weak.
She took a step back, and the backs of her knees hit the bench hard, but at least the kiss was broken.
She cleared her throat, yet her voice trembled. “So you’ve stolen a kiss and proved to everyone we’re engaged for a reason. Very . . . smart of you.”
He chuckled. “I stole a moment of intimacy, but I’m not sure how much of a true kiss that was.”
“Enough to seem convincing, Robert. Thank you for thinking of my reputation as an engaged widow.”
Now he laughed aloud, and she felt her own smile grow wide. They started back to the house, but her ebullient mood didn’t last.
She’d felt some of these same feelings when Martin Blake had first paid attention to her—flattered and embarrassed and too afraid to hope. But they’d all been misconceptions. She’d thought Martin cared for her at least, but their wedding night had revealed her true worth in his eyes. He’d treated her maidenly shyness as an inconvenience, had done nothing to encourage any romantic feelings a bride should experience—or so she’d been told by Molly. After that, she’d known the twin blows of embarrassment and self-doubt, as if she were unworthy of even a husband’s attention.
And now to feel such desire again for a man who was openly falsifying their attachment—she was so disappointed in herself.
But she was a woman, and he was a man who knew how to seduce a woman’s senses. Was he a rake, then, one of those notorious men who slept with many women, regardless of what the Grand Dames of Society said?
But he’d been gone since he was twenty-one—hardly enough time to be considered a rake. But service in India might have changed him, and not in a good way.
She had to stop these doubts. She’d committed to this course, and she would see it through. He’d be returning to his estate, surely getting caught up in everything an earl had to do. It would be easy to pretend that their attachment was slowly dying.
But not so easy to pretend that she was strong, when she had trouble distinguishing between reality . . . and the fantasy of her own fevered dreams.
fter a detour to the kitchen to discuss the earl’s presence at luncheon with Mrs. Sanford, Audrey went back upstairs to see what Molly was up to. She said her name softly, wondering if the maid was still asleep.
In a groggy voice, Molly answered, “I’m awake, miss.”
“You don’t sound any better,” she said with concern, following her voice. She found Molly curled up in the window seat.
“I just don’t seem to have any gumption today,” the maid murmured.
Audrey reached out with the back of her hand, touched Molly’s arm, then skimmed up to her face.
“You have a fever,” she said in a brisk voice, although she felt a moment of panic. Molly never got sick.
“No, that can’t be,” she insisted weakly. “Just give me a moment and I’ll be fine.”
“Come lie down on my bed. Later, we can have Francis help you to your room.”
“The cot in your dressing room would be—”
She was shocked how slowly Molly moved, and she seemed to collapse when they’d reached the bed. Audrey felt a twist of fear deep inside. She was always afraid of fever and didn’t want her friend to suffer as she had, those hot, achy days that had blended into one long nightmare she still remembered though eighteen years had passed.
“You had letters you wanted me to write,” Molly said, as Audrey tucked blankets around her. “I could do it from here.”
She tsked as she shook her head. “That’s not important right now. You need to conserve your strength.”
“Then let me rest, and you go be with your lord.”
Audrey grimaced at that, remembering that she’d been off flirting while Molly was feeling ill. She brought her a pitcher of water and poured her a cup to drink.
him, miss?” Molly finally asked.
“Seen him?” Audrey echoed, already making plans to talk to Mrs. Sanford about sending for a doctor. Was Molly hallucinating?
“Like you did with me. Surely he wouldn’t mind if you touched his face.”
Audrey felt the swiftness of memory, his cheek touching hers. “I—I couldn’t impose like that.”
“You’ll be touching more than his face,” Molly said, giving a weak chuckle.
“You’re a romantic,” Audrey said, trying to keep her voice light. “Now lie here and sleep while I send for the doctor.”
“Surely that’s too much trouble. Just let me sleep.”
And then she did, just drifted right off, which frightened Audrey even more. Molly was one of those women who didn’t need a lot of sleep, went to bed after Audrey and was up before dawn. She touched Molly’s burning face again.
“Stay strong, my dear,” she whispered.
She hurried downstairs as quickly as she could, holding tightly to the banister.
She almost stumbled on the last step at Robert’s question. He caught her arm to steady her.
“Molly has a fever, and she’s never sick. I must talk to Mrs. Sanford about the local doctor. Robert—maybe you should go before you succumb, too.”
“It’s a fever, Audrey,” he said in a soothing voice. “I’ve been exposed to far worse in the East. I’ll stay and help.”
Molly rang for Mrs. Sanford. The housekeeper sent her son off to the village for Dr. Ascham, who ended up being a young man working with his father. All he recommended was that they bathe her with cold water when the fever was at its worst, and offered small draughts of opium if she experienced any pain. Audrey was frustrated that he could do no more.
To her surprise, Mrs. Sanford insisted Audrey eat the luncheon she’d skipped, and that she’d stay with Molly. The maid was sleeping, so that was the only reason Audrey agreed.
Robert greeted her again as she descended to the entrance hall. “How is Molly? The doctor only said there was little he could do to help her improve.”
Audrey had put the earl to the back of her mind, but his concern made her feel better—and then teary-eyed. She cleared her throat and willed herself not to cry. “We just have to wait out the fever. Molly insists she’ll be fine. But as you can imagine, I don’t like the thought of anyone having a fever.”
“Of course not,” he murmured, taking her hand in his.
She allowed the comfort for a moment, then said, “Have you eaten?”
“I decided to wait for you.”
“Then come, we’ll tell Francis we’re ready to be served.”
She wasn’t all that hungry, but it gave her something to do. And Robert had ridden over just to see her—he needed a good meal.
But when she found herself being unusually silent, she realized she could not be discouraged. There was too much to do—and Molly wouldn’t be able to help.
As if reading her mind, Robert said, “Molly usually assists you almost as a secretary, does she not?”
They were eating roast venison, and Audrey took a determined bite. “Yes, she does. And she’ll worry about that more than she’ll concentrate on getting better. I’ll be fine.” And she was not about to ask Mrs. Sanford for assistance—the woman seemed to have trouble completing her own tasks.
“Perhaps I can be of help,” Robert offered.
“That is very nice, but I certainly can’t—”
“Why not? I am not needed at my own home, and you can’t tell me to go back to London. It’s not even the Season. You’ll be doing me a favor. It’s been so long since I was involved in the daily workings of an estate. We can learn all about it together.”
He took her hand again, and she almost flinched at the touch of his bare skin on hers.
“Let me be of help to you.”
Because he felt sorry for her? she wondered. After all, she was Blake’s poor, blind widow.
Or was he just a man who had no family left, nothing to return home to?
“That is a kind offer,” she said at last. “I will accept.”
He squeezed her hand and released her, saying briskly. “Good. We will accomplish much together.”
She knew her own smile was weak, but couldn’t help it. Hours together every day, just when she was trying to make it look like their engagement would eventually end?
There was no help for it. She had to learn the workings of her new estate, and she needed eyes to help her. She’d fought the feeling of dependency so long that it was frustrating to accept it once again. She was used to moving fluidly, confidently, through her home, but every room in Rose Cottage seemed to have tables in odd places. As for the people, she was already working on memorizing the sound of their footsteps—that would help her know who was around her.
And Robert? His presence was a temporary convenience until both she and Molly were back on their feet.
She heard the footsteps before anyone even spoke. It was surely Evelyn.
And she’d been right. Feeling a touch more confident, she said, “Yes?”
“The land agent, Mr. Drayton, has arrived. He says you sent for him?”
Audrey turned toward Robert. “I requested a meeting. I didn’t realize he’d come so quickly. I have so many questions about the estate.”
“Are you ready?” he asked.
She heard the determination, even eagerness in his voice. She smiled, and did her best to put her concern for Molly aside for the moment. “I’m ready.”
obert left before dinner, almost as if he were just a neighbor who kept dropping in. Audrey wasn’t sad this time, now that she knew he planned to return. Oh, what did that say about the state of her attachment to him? she asked herself, even as she slowly climbed the stairs to visit Molly in the servants’ quarters in the attics.
She had to admit, Robert had had questions for the land agent that she would never have thought of—how many sheep did they plan to drive to market this month, the state of the recent grain harvest, the strategy for the spring planting. They hadn’t even begun to discuss tenants, but that could wait for another time. Mr. Drayton had seemed genial enough, although a bit too glad to have the Earl of Knightsbridge to explain things to. Audrey would be patient, and allow him to become used to dealing with a woman. For now, Robert was the bridge between her and the people who worked for her. And soon she wouldn’t need that bridge anymore. She’d be her own . . . island.
A pathetic comparison, she thought, even as she reached the top floor. To her surprise, when she went to knock on Molly’s door, it was already open.
“Hello?” she said warily. “Molly?”
“She’s asleep,” said a young man.
“Oh, Francis, I didn’t realize . . .” Her voice trailed off in confusion.
“I offered to sit with Molly while me mum prepared dinner. She’s been asleep the whole time.”
“That was very nice of you.” Audrey moved farther into the room, heard the young man step to the side as she approached the bed. She laid a hand on Molly’s forehead and winced. “Still so hot,” she murmured. “Please tell your mother to send up a dinner tray to me here when it’s ready, and also some ice from the icehouse.”
The ice and some broth for Molly’s benefit arrived quickly, but a dinner tray never did. Audrey spent an hour using cooling cloths on Molly’s forehead, neck, and arms, over and over again. She wasn’t even hungry by the time she felt she’d done all she could.
Molly woke briefly, took a few sips of broth, but was never quite herself. It was frightening not to hear her amusing comments about whatever state Audrey was in.
When someone knocked on the door and stepped inside without introducing themselves, Audrey was too weary to pay attention to footsteps. Sighing, she said, “Yes?”
“Me mum sent me to sit with Molly, ma’am,” Evelyn said. “You should rest.”
“Thank you.” Whatever Audrey had to say about the servants, she could not doubt their kindness toward her maid. “I’ll return in a while.”
But she couldn’t sleep, although she tried. Her thoughts whirled in fear for her friend, and at last she decided to do something constructive. With no prying eyes to watch her, she began to go through the rooms on the first floor again, getting an understanding of what each bedroom contained. She moved with hands outstretched to feel each piece of furniture, and cement its place in her mind.
To her surprise, in the bedroom closest to the servants’ staircase, she found nursery furniture—a cradle, low tables and chairs, and several toys. Nothing was dusty, although whether that was from good cleanliness or recent use, she didn’t know.
She stood among the trappings of a baby, and thought again of hers, who’d been born dead. It had been almost two years. Why now was her grief so easily awakened?
Perhaps . . . the wounds were still raw because her own child would have given her life meaning, someone to love and nurture—someone who loved her for herself and wouldn’t care that she was blind.
At last she left the nursery and closed the door behind her, trying to think of closing off the painful emotions, as well. This was a reminder of the pain she never wanted to feel again, the grief from caring too much. Living on her own and the pride in her accomplishments would have to sustain her.
At last she returned to Molly’s room and relieved the reluctant maid. Audrey dozed in a chair by her side, to be there whenever Molly needed a sip of water, a blanket, or just companionship.
or several days, Audrey focused on Molly, to the exclusion of all else. She had Francis take a note to Robert, asking him not to visit so he wouldn’t become ill. No one else had sickened, but she didn’t want to take any chances.
There was an hour or two, in the dead of night, when Molly barely seemed to be breathing, and Audrey wept at her side, begging her to hold on, to fight to be well.
At last Molly’s fever broke, and Audrey had cried over that, too. She was still very weak, sleeping much of that day, her rest deep and genuine. She would have a long recovery—but at least she would recover.
Audrey went to the dining room for her first formal meal since . . . since Robert had last visited. The food was cold and late, as if the truce between her and the servants was over now that Molly would live.
Audrey went into the kitchen afterward, and when she called Mrs. Sanford’s name, found her and Evelyn in the adjoining scullery washing pans. Audrey could hear the sloshing of water, smell the strong soap.
“Mrs. Sanford, I’d like to speak with you.”
“Ma’am, when I’m done, I’ll—”
“Evelyn can finish. Please follow me to the study.”
She listened as the housekeeper followed, her steps deliberate and heavy. Audrey took a seat behind the desk, then asked the woman to sit opposite her.
“Mrs. Sanford, much as I’ve appreciated all the help given Molly and me during her illness, I’d like you to concentrate on your duties now, and that includes the preparation of meals. You’ve only added two people, occasionally three. I cannot believe it is difficult to cook for us.”
“No, ma’am,” she said impassively.
“Will things be better in the future?”
“Then tell me about the nursery on the first floor.”
Her pause seemed overly long, and Audrey cocked her head with interest.
“There’s always been a nursery here, as far as I know, ma’am.”
“The room felt like it had been used more recently, with toys left out.”
“Aye, when my daughter visits, occasionally she lets her boy play there. I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The words seemed pulled from her throat, and Audrey couldn’t understand it.
“Mrs. Sanford, why would I wish your daughter not to visit you? Did I ever give you that impression?”
“No, ma’am.” Her tone was still wooden.
Audrey didn’t think it was time for last measures, so all she said was, “Then let us try to better manage this household together. I look forward to meeting your other daughter. You may go.”
She sank back in her chair, unable to decide whether to be offended or suspicious or exasperated. She’d always gotten along well with her servants—better than with her own family! She was determined to do the same at Rose Cottage.
obert didn’t want to disturb the household, so he let himself in the front door without knocking. It had been three days since he’d been here, and he couldn’t take the suspense any more. Was Molly on her way to recovery?