Authors: Gayle Callen
“Oh, I had not realized,” she murmured, her forehead wrinkled with doubt.
“You can’t be nervous to be alone with your fiancé,” he teased.
“I’ll have Molly with me. We’ll be perfectly respectable.”
But she still looked nervous, and that amused him.
udrey ate a simple breakfast as she felt the first touch of the sun’s morning rays on her face. She only nibbled toast and eggs because Molly insisted.
Strangely, she was almost too nervous to eat. She was leaving the only home she’d ever known, where she knew every piece of furniture, and every person’s distinctive footstep. She was going off into a dark world she couldn’t see, in the hands of a man she’d only just met—Martin’s friend. Shouldn’t she have considered that more closely? she wondered a bit wildly.
No, he was an earl, a former captain in the Queen’s army. He would not mistreat her. He said he owed her his assistance, because he felt so badly about Martin’s death. She would have to trust in that.
“There you are,” Robert said.
“You sound almost relieved,” she answered lightly.
“I thought someone might have changed your mind.”
She’d certainly been worried her father might try. But she hadn’t seen him yet this morning.
“You should eat before our journey,” she told him.
“I did, since I had to meet the carriage when it was delivered. The footmen are already loading your trunks.”
“Thank you,” she said, feeling surprised. It was so rare for someone to do things for her, or on her schedule. She had so much to get used to.
“Audrey?” said her brother as he entered the dining room.
“I’m still here, Edwin. Please share this last meal with me. Is Father—”
“No, he’s in his study,” her brother said, “and doesn’t wish to be disturbed.”
If that was how he wanted it, then fine.
“I . . . had some things I wished to say to you,” Edwin began, his words awkward. “I was never home much, and I think I was so concerned with myself, I never . . . thought much about you. It was wrong of me, and I ask your forgiveness.”
Audrey blinked at the sting of tears. Wasn’t this just what she’d wished, to improve relationships with her siblings? It took her leaving to make her brother treat her better, she thought with faint irony.
“I accepted Father’s certainty that you could never handle the outside world,” Edwin continued, “especially after Blake abandoned you as he did. But that was wrong. I saw how you were with my friends, how—normal everything seemed. Forgive me if that sounds cruel, but I hope you understand what I mean.”
Robert said, “Collins—”
“No, Robert,” Audrey said firmly. “It is all right.” She turned toward her brother. “Edwin, I accept your apology, and I want you to know how glad I am for it. When I write to you, I hope you’ll answer.”
“I will,” he said, relief in his voice. “Now I must go. My friends are just rising and will be departing soon.”
“Go. Enjoy yourself, Edwin. We will keep in touch.”
When he’d gone, Audrey turned to Robert. “I know what you might have said, that Edwin’s words couldn’t make up for years of neglect. But I consider his words a good start. And accepting them—forgiving him—is my choice, not yours. Again, you’re trying to do too much for me.”
“Perhaps you’re assuming too much,” he said. “You didn’t know what I was going to say. Please do me the courtesy of not scolding me unless I need it.”
The awkward moment felt strange to her, for everything had been so easy between them so far. “Very well, if I was mistaken, then I apologize.”
you were mistaken?” he echoed.
She couldn’t help but smile ruefully. “Ah, these word games we play. Then I apologize with no conditions attached.”
“Good. I feel much better. But I want to explain one thing that you should consider. I feel protective toward you as I would toward any woman I had agreed to marry. That is just what men
Perhaps you’re occasionally being too sensitive.”
She considered that with astonishment. “I have not experienced protectiveness in a long time, my—Robert. I will consider what you’ve said.”
“Thank you. Then shall we go?”
The smile spread so wide across her face, it felt like a flower opening up to the sun. “Yes, oh yes, let us go.”
In the entrance hall, Molly called, “Miss Audrey, I have your valise and reticule.”
“Thank you. You didn’t forget your own, did you?”
The other woman laughed. “No, miss. I have sandwiches in there and your writing paper and a book or two.”
“I noticed that the footman could barely lift your trunks into the boot,” Robert said.
“I only took what was necessary,” Audrey insisted. “I am starting a new life, sir. There are things a woman must have.” She was rattling on a bit, and she kept listening for her father’s study door to open, but it didn’t. “Excuse me.” She went to it and knocked, opening it without waiting for a reply. “Father?”
“I’m busy,” he called in a gruff voice. “Be on your way if you’re going.”
She lifted her chin. “I’m going. Good-bye, Father.”
When he said nothing, she closed the door again. Neither Robert nor Molly made a sound. Audrey felt embarrassed more than anything, by how little she meant to her own father. Then the anger set in, as she realized that her success could
to him that she’d made the right decision. But in the end, what he thought didn’t really matter. He’d treated her like a servant, not a daughter. Let him hire someone else.
“Good-bye, Mrs. Blake,” said the housekeeper. “Do enjoy your new home.”
Audrey hadn’t even realized she’d arrived. “Thank you so much for everything, Mrs. Gibbs. And to all the other servants, too.”
Robert put her hand on his arm. “May I escort you to the carriage?”
“You may.” She could have done it herself, but it would have taken longer. And she was impressed that he remembered to tell her where the stairs began. People often forgot the most obvious things when dealing with a blind person.
Outside, the breeze was almost warm, for autumn, and she inhaled deeply. This might be the last time she ever smelled these scents, if her relationship with her family didn’t improve. But she wasn’t going to think that way. Molly told her that the coachman had already lowered the step. Audrey found it, and Robert held her hand as she stepped up inside.
“Molly,” Robert said, “take the rear seat with your mistress, and I’ll sit across.”
“Facing backward?” Audrey teased. “How chivalrous.”
“I do have my moments.”
She felt a flash of excitement as the door closed, and soon the carriage jerked into motion. “Oh, you have my horse?”
“Tied to the back, on the opposite corner from mine,” he assured her.
“Then I’m ready.”
It was time to head into the unknown.
s the morning went on, Robert kept expecting the carriage ride to grow monotonous, but it never did. He couldn’t stop watching Audrey’s face. Molly would excitedly describe a thatched-roof cottage or a stone bridge, and it was as if he could see the wonder of the world reflected in Audrey’s expression. Molly had obviously spent much of her life in this capacity, and she was good at spotting the tiniest details, from a spotted dog lying beside a child fishing on a riverbank, to the ruins of an old stone wall, “which was surely part of a castle,” Molly would insist. Audrey laughed as if this was a game they’d long played.
Audrey must have been nervous before the journey, and maybe that was why they’d quarreled, but once on their way she seemed only full of eagerness and excitement—and relief. When he’d mentioned they’d left her village behind, she’d sagged back against the bench and looked almost bewildered.
“He really let me go,” she’d murmured. “I had feared . . .”
But her words had trailed off, and he hadn’t pressed for more. He well knew what she feared: a scene, some reason to involve the law. But Robert and his earldom had won the day.
It was amazing to think that the daughter of a baron had never been beyond her own village, never been to London. Part of him wanted to give her some of those experiences—and then he had to rein himself in. He was escorting her to her new home, making sure she was settled, and then his debt to Blake would be repaid.
But would it? he wondered. Would these feelings of guilt finally give him some peace?
“You must think our excitement rather silly, Robert,” Audrey said, “especially when you’ve seen so much of the world.”
“And that’s why it’s refreshing.”
“Were you just as excited when you first left England?”
He hesitated. It had been nine years ago, and Stephen Kepple had just taken his own life. Robert had been questioning everything about himself, his motives, his beliefs, his ability to be the earl. But he wouldn’t tell her any of this. “I was excited to see lands that weren’t green and wet all the time. Little did I know, but India has a monsoon season that makes England’s weather look tame in comparison. And don’t forget about the six weeks at sea.” He gave an exaggerated shudder, then realized she couldn’t see him, but he got a smile out of Molly.
The carriage was bouncing on the country roads, making it too difficult for Molly to read aloud for any length of time. So the two of them settled on going over the list of servants at the manor.
“I’ve been corresponding with the land agent hired by my late husband’s estate,” Audrey explained when he expressed curiosity. “I’m told a family has been caring for the manor for the last few years. The mother is the cook and housekeeper, the father takes care of the grounds, their son is the footman, and a daughter is the maid.”
“Well, that makes it convenient,” Robert said. “With none of the Blake family there, it’s been like their own home.”
Audrey’s brow furrowed. “Very true. I imagine we’ll all get used to one another.”
She was already taking care of the people attached to her manor. Robert didn’t even know most of the ones who served him. At the London town house, the only familiar faces had been the butler and housekeeper. He hadn’t even been to his country house yet. He and Audrey were almost on the same journey. While she’d be getting to know her new home, he’d be relearning the one he left behind a lifetime ago, one that ran without any effort by him at all. He’d hired the right staff, he told himself. That’s what he’d paid them to do. He found himself hesitant about getting too involved—his father had always had that trait. In the military, one allowed the officers to command their regiments, one did not try to do every job. He’d learned his lesson.
e’s fallen asleep,” Molly whispered sometime later, and the two women lapsed into a peaceful silence.
Audrey’s thoughts drifted, but she was too wound up to sleep. She recalled her earlier conversation with Robert, when she’d asked if he’d been excited leaving England. There had been something in his voice that seemed . . . different. He’d answered lightly about the weather, as if that was all that mattered. She hadn’t asked more questions, because there was no point in prying. Yet he knew so much of her life; she couldn’t help being curious about his.
Audrey still felt dreamy with happiness and expectation. At last she was free to chart her own course. She imagined the countryside streaming by her, all detailed so lovingly by Molly’s gift for words.
She felt the carriage slow and thought it must be noon. They’d stopped midmorn to water and feed the horses, and decided then to take a more extended break for luncheon.
“I must have closed my eyes,” Robert said.
She smiled. “So I heard. I hope you found some rest.”
“I did, thank you. We’ve arrived at an inn. Let me get down and I’ll assist you.”
She accepted his hand, and when she was on the ground, she trailed her fingers along the carriage until she reached the back. Her gelding, Erebus, came near and nuzzled her shoulder.
“You’ve been so good,” she murmured, petting his nose.
She heard their coachman call for grooms to care for the horses, and then Robert took her arm.
“Shall we share a meal?” he asked.
“I’m starving,” she agreed.
As they walked, she heard the ringing of a hostler’s bell at the gate, and the voices of servants in the stable yard off to the side. There were so many people, she realized.
“I’ll rent a private dining room,” Robert was saying. “We can relax there.”
“No, I’d like to eat in the public rooms with the other travelers. I can’t see, but I can hear, and it all sounds wonderful.”
He chuckled. “Very well. Take a step up here, and we’ll be in the front hall.”
“Ooh, Miss Audrey, there’s a row of basins and jugs,” Molly said. “Would you like to wash?”
Molly chatted on about the cupboard displaying pies and cheeses, and how the next open room was crowded with tables and benches where people were eating.
“This way, ladies.”
“There must be a servants’ hall,” Molly protested.
“You’ll eat with us,” Audrey said. “We’re sharing this adventure together, remember?”
As Robert once again took Audrey’s arm and turned into the next room, the sounds were overwhelming, dozens of people talking at once. She was suddenly bumped from behind.
“Excuse me, miss!” someone called.
“The waiter,” Molly said quietly. “There are so many bustling about.”
“He should watch where he’s going,” Robert said coldly.
“He didn’t hurt me,” Audrey pointed out.
“Our table has benches, not chairs,” he said. “Will that do?”
“Of course.” She reached to feel the table, then let go of Robert to find the bench. She stepped sideways along it, making room for Molly at her side.
And that was when the hushed voices began, spreading out from around them. The travelers around them had realized she was blind.
“You can’t be the only blind woman they’ve ever seen,” Robert said crossly.
Audrey smiled. “I imagine most are beggars, and anyone highborn isn’t using a public coaching house. They’ll become used to me.”
The waiter raised his voice, the old trick, and Audrey could feel—and hear—Robert’s tension rise. He really was far too protective. This was nothing she had not experienced the time or two she’d been permitted into the village.
And then a baby wailed.
The sudden stab of grief took her by surprise, and she found herself holding still, listening. After her baby had died, she’d spent months wallowing in her sorrow, wondering why God had punished her, when so much had already happened. Gradually she’d come to terms with her loss, but she was never near babies.
“Audrey?” Robert asked.
Hearing the puzzlement in his voice, she put those feelings aside again. “Yes?”
“The expression on your face—” he began, then stopped. “It is none of my business.”
She didn’t have to answer, because a waiter chose that moment to inform them of the menu.
The meal, veal pies and cabbage, was plain but hardy, and afterward they strolled through the gardens, both vegetable and flower gardens, to stretch their legs and give the horses a chance to rest. But they changed the carriage horses, and soon they were on their way again. The coachman had an inn in mind for the night until an axel broke, jolting the passengers.
Robert cursed their bad luck, but was surprised how unaffected Audrey seemed. She said she was happy for any new experience, and listened contentedly as Molly described the coachman riding one of the carriage horses up the hill toward a manor in the distance. Robert didn’t know if he should have gone himself to smooth the way, but wasn’t about to leave Audrey. Soon enough, an older-model carriage came trundling down the drive.
As he assisted Audrey from their listing carriage, the coachman said, “Sir Miles Paley and his family live here. They’d be honored if ye’d spend the night while I see to the carriage repairs at the local blacksmith.”
When they finally stood in the little entrance hall of the manor, Lady Paley didn’t bother to hide her surprise as she studied Audrey. She was a petite woman, with delicate, childlike hands she absently rubbed together. “
“Audrey Blake, ma’am,” she corrected. “My husband was killed when stationed with the army in India.”
Sir Miles, tall and slightly stooped, gave a guilty smile. “We all assumed you a reclusive invalid, Mrs. Blake.”
Audrey accepted their assumptions with ease, while Robert wanted to bash some heads together. Of course, this wasn’t their fault.
And then they turned the full force of their enthusiasm on him.
“Please meet my daughters, Lord Knightsbridge,” Lady Paley said with proud formality. “Miss Rachel Paley and Miss Rosalind Paley. Girls, meet the Earl of Knightsbridge, here in our own home!”
Both young women were tall and coltish like their father, almost meeting Robert in height. It must be difficult to find husbands, but his presence unquestionably put that worry right out of their minds.
He smiled politely, then took Audrey’s arm. “May my fiancée rest before dinner? It’s been a long day.”
Surely the coachman had already told them of Audrey’s status, but their faces looked like he’d slapped them with the reminder. He saw Audrey holding back a smile. She’d come in handy—and she knew it.
By the time dinner was served, the Paley family had calmed down, eager to show off their lovely china and silver place settings.
In the middle of an awkward pause, as the family tried not to stare at Audrey eating, Sir Miles said, “You’ve been long gone from England, my lord, but not on the Grand Tour other young noblemen take. Why the army?”
It was a personal question at the same time as it was an obvious one. He’d answered it with Audrey and her father, but he saw that she was still very interested, by the way her head was tilted toward him. Had she sensed there was more?
And suddenly he flashed back, to when he’d heard Stephen Kepple was dead by his own hand, the stunned, sick feelings that had tightened his gut, the first realization of guilt. He’d wondered if it had been his fault Kepple was dead, even as others told him that Kepple was never strong enough for the risky investments he’d gotten involved in. It was Robert’s fault Kepple was even involved, for he’d pretended to be the man’s friend, all to get his participation in the early railway deal. And when it had gone bad, everyone had lost money. He would never know if Kepple had realized he’d been manipulated into joining, or if the man had foolishly risked too much of his own money. But none of that mattered, for Robert had discovered he was a controlling bully, just like his father. And he’d had to find a way to change himself, before he had no friends and no self-respect, which had already taken a terrible blow. The army had helped him before it was too late.
Could he say that to the waiting Paley family? No. But he could say part of the truth, and perhaps Audrey would be appeased as well.
“There was a retired army colonel in our village while I was growing up,” he said at last. “Originally he helped my tutor teach me history before I went off to Eton, but it was his own stories that I found the most fascinating. He’d been at Waterloo and other famous battles. Everyone respected him, and he knew he’d contributed much to the protection of England. I wanted to feel that way. I was only twenty when my father died, and even though I reached my majority within the year, I never felt like I was the earl.”
“Your father’s shadow was long,” Sir Miles said, nodding with understanding. “It is difficult to follow a great man.”
Robert only nodded. It wasn’t difficult to follow his father—it was all too easy to
him. He felt ashamed at the thought of his military mentor knowing about the men who’d died because of his rash decisions. “I learned loyalty and duty in the army, and I became a man. There were triumphs and there were sorrows, but I don’t regret many.”
He glanced at Audrey.
I regret some.
And now here he was, supposedly engaged to a woman who swore she never wanted to marry again. But he’d seen her expression when that baby had wailed at the coaching inn. Didn’t all women wish to be mothers? Or did she think a blind woman shouldn’t give birth, and that was another reason she swore never to marry?
They all retired to the parlor together, where the daughters took turns at the piano to show off their skills, and never once did their hosts direct much of their conversation toward Audrey.
Robert had had it. “Please allow me the pleasure of introducing you to my fiancée’s talents at the piano.”
Audrey blinked those lovely amber eyes at him. “My lord—”
“She is very shy, you must understand,” he confided to the Paleys. “But you’ll soon see that she’s wrong to be worried about her musical skill.”
The family looked ready to wince, so their shock as she played the first measure was satisfying to behold.