Authors: Gayle Callen
Audrey was starting to think he could do anything he wanted—he’d gotten her away from her father, he’d saved her from a thief, and now he’d brought her to her own home.
“Shall we allow it just this one time, Molly?” she asked.
Molly heaved a dramatic sigh. “Just this once.”
“With that kind of belief,” he began dryly, “I shall commence. I see a village green. And there’s a church on the far side with a pointed steeple.”
“A green and a church,” Audrey said dubiously. “Do not strain your creativity so.”
“The straight facts are important in the army,” he insisted. “But I shall try to go deeper. The church is made of stone, with ivy climbing.”
“Better, milord,” Molly encouraged.
“I do believe I see the sign of a tavern, which it seems I will soon need the benefits of.”
Audrey couldn’t help joining Molly in laughter. “You are so easy to tease, Robert. What is the name of the tavern?”
“The Lion and the Hen.”
“Now you are teasing me.”
“Molly, am I?”
“No, miss, in fact the sign shows the hen with its wings raised, as if it’s frightening the lion.”
“A strange village you have here,” Robert mused.
She loved it already. “What else?”
Too soon they left Hedgerley behind. Audrey could barely sit still as Molly talked about an orchard of pear trees, and a flock of sheep in the distance.
They took a turn down a bumpy lane.
“I see your house, Miss Audrey! It is two stories made of stone, cresting the top of a gentle hill, and the parklands slope down away from it—oh, and there’s a stream leading into a pond.”
“Can we swim?” Audrey asked excitedly.
“You swim?” Robert’s tone was incredulous.
“I do—not that you will see me.”
“Your husband cannot see you swim?” he retorted.
She withheld a wince. “Oh . . . I imagine there is so much for me to get used to.”
“You were not married long the first time,” Molly pointed out. Then, “Oh, so many windows and chimneys. I see a stable in the distance, but not a separate coach house. I imagine there’s room for a carriage in there.”
So many windows, Audrey mused dreamily. Was she a wealthy woman, then—at least where land was concerned? From what she’d been told, the estate supported itself. There were dozens of tenants leasing good farmland. She didn’t care about wealth, as long as the manor and lands were thriving.
It was Molly’s turn to sound dreamy. “It is a pretty place to live.”
“And ours forever,” Audrey said.
“Until you marry,” Molly pointed out. “And then perhaps you’ll live in a castle.”
Audrey smiled stiffly, then turned toward Robert. “Thank you, my lord, for bringing us here.”
“You’re welcome. I hope it is everything you wish.”
There was a thread of . . . something in his voice, but she would allow nothing to spoil this day she’d dreamed of her whole life long. She was the mistress of her own household.
“We’re pulling up to the entrance, miss. There’s no portico, but a lovely set of wide marble stairs leading up to an impressive door. Oh, it is opening! An older woman is standing there, and I confess, she looks confused.”
“She’s wondering who her visitors are,” Audrey said. “She will be so surprised.” And not too disappointed, she hoped. She’d had no time to send word ahead that this little servant family was finally to have a mistress after several years.
Audrey could barely wait while the coachman opened the door to let down the stairs, and Robert climbed out. She reached out for his hand, knew it would be there, and began to descend.
“Does your pretty home have a name?” he asked softly.
He knows how important this is to me,
she realized. She gave him a smile. “Rose Cottage.”
“A little more than a cottage, Audrey, but a lovely name.”
More than a cottage, she thought, almost hugging herself. It could be four rooms or twenty—she didn’t care. It was all hers.
“May I help you, milady?” said an unfamiliar voice. The woman sounded older, but respectful. “Are ye lost?”
“No, I am not lost. I regret I could not inform you in advance, but I’m Mrs. Martin Blake, and I’ve come to take up residence.”
There was a stark silence, and Audrey reminded herself that it was a shock. The woman was probably worrying about the state of the house, with bedrooms not aired and not enough foodstuffs in the pantry.
“Are you Mrs. Sanford?” Audrey asked gently.
The woman cleared her throat. “Aye, ma’am, I am. Do forgive me.”
“May I present the Earl of Knightsbridge,” Audrey said.
“Milord!” the woman said, sounding a bit breathless now.
Had she curtsied? Audrey barely held back a smile, wondering if it had been difficult at her age, or if she was a spry woman. “Fear not, Mrs. Sanford, his lordship will not be a guest, since he lives nearby.”
“He’s her betrothed,” Molly suddenly announced.
There was another silence as the housekeeper took that in. Audrey imagined it changed everything about how the servants might treat her—and she didn’t like it. But she had no choice for now.
“And this is my lady’s maid, Molly,” Audrey said dryly, “she who speaks before thinking.”
“I’m sorry, miss,” Molly said, not sounding sorry at all. “Shall I lead you inside?”
“Of course. Mrs. Sanford, you would soon realize it, but I find it’s only fair to inform you that I’m blind.”
obert saw the astonishment that Mrs. Sanford could not momentarily hide, but then she merely nodded, realized her mistake, and said, “Aye, ma’am, thank you for tellin’ me.”
He almost felt sorry for the woman. She’d received one shock after another. She was tall and robust, with gray hair pulled back in a simple bun, spectacles perched on her nose. She wore an apron tied at the waist of a plain black gown that did not quite hide her broad, working-class shoulders. Hopefully she kept house as if she always expected the mistress any moment, the way all competent servants should. They would soon find out.
And could she cook? His stomach rumbled at the thought. Their dawn breakfast had been many hours ago, and he still had at least an hour’s journey home by horse. He needed fortification.
But Audrey could barely contain her excitement, and he knew food was last on her list. Her expressions were so changeable now that she’d relaxed her guard around him. He’d practically been able to see her processing every part of the village as he’d listed the buildings, probably creating her own map in her head.
She traveled a few villages away from home, and it was as if her own world had opened up for her.
“Please come inside, Mrs. Blake,” the housekeeper was saying. “There are three steps up.”
“Thank you. You will find that I learn quickly, so you will not have to continually explain such things to me.”
“My fiancée moved so comfortably around her home,” Robert offered, “that I had to be told she was blind.”
Audrey gave another of those pretty blushes that set off her golden eyes.
He told the coachman to take the carriage to the stable for help unloading, and to come into the kitchens for a meal and the last payment when he was done.
Once they’d stepped inside the hall, a young man came forward and bowed. Tall like his mother, he wore plain livery of a dark jacket, starched white shirt, and trousers. His blond hair was a riot of curls, and his eyes lively as he glanced curiously at the housekeeper.
Mrs. Sanford gave a brief smile. “My son, Francis, is our footman.”
“So I’ve been told by my land agent,” Audrey said.
“Francis, this is our mistress, Mrs. Blake.”
Audrey smiled as she chose a direction, but it was the wrong one, and Robert watched the young man send his mother a confused glance as he said, “Pleased to meet ye, ma’am.”
Both servants looked fearful, but Audrey only adjusted the direction of her body. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Francis. I understand your sister is the maid here.”
“One of them, ma’am,” he responded shyly, still glancing at his mother.
Did Mrs. Sanford seem to flinch upon hearing her son’s words? Robert wondered. Of course, she would not want him to speak freely with their new mistress.
Francis continued, “Shall I fetch her, Mo—Mrs. Sanford?”
“I do not mind if you call your mother the name you always do,” Audrey said. “But yes, I would like to meet the rest of your family.”
She shrugged out of her cloak, and Molly took it for her, folding both of their cloaks over her arm.
“ ’Tis a brisk day, Mrs. Blake,” Mrs. Sanford said. “Shall I bring tea to the drawin’ room while you wait?”
“I don’t wish to keep you from your luncheon duties,” Audrey said.
“ ’Tis no bother, ma’am. If you don’t mind plain fare, I have cold ham and carrot soup that I can warm if you’re hungry.”
“That would be good,” Robert said.
Audrey cocked her head toward him, smiling.
Over the next half hour, while they sipped their tea, they met Evelyn Sanford, also as tall as her mother, who blushed profusely and kept tucking strands of blond hair behind her ears. Mr. Sanford, the groundskeeper and groom, was half a head shorter than the rest of his family, but made up for it with a barrel chest and workman’s large hands. He was balding on top, with a white fringe that circled his head and puffed over his ears. Robert thought he seemed somehow . . . disapproving of Audrey, but his tone was respectful, if clipped.
“You have an older daughter, I understand?” Audrey asked, holding her teacup between both hands as if to warm herself.
Before Mr. Sanford could speak, his wife entered the room. “We do, ma’am, but she is a widow livin’ nearby.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear that,” Audrey murmured. “Do send her my sympathies.”
Robert had spent too many years learning to read the faces of prisoners, and it seemed to him that this little family was hiding something, with the way they glanced at each other, and always quickly away from Audrey. In fact, there seemed to be a decided shift in attitude since the family had had a chance to speak alone together.
Or was he being too protective of Audrey, just as she’d accused him? These people were allowed to be dismayed that their cozy family life was about to change.
After a delectable luncheon—thank God—in a sunny dining room that overlooked a terrace, Robert followed Audrey about as Mrs. Sanford led them on a tour of the ground floor. Molly described everything with her usual thoroughness, and Robert saw Audrey’s concentration as she tried to absorb all the details.
He did not attend her on the first floor, but was waiting in the study that also seemed to be the library. When Audrey came to find him, he set down the book on London history he’d been reading. She looked much more hesitant than he’d ever seen her, but only in movement, not in manner. She still glowed with the excitement of the day.
“Robert?” she called.
Her body turned toward him. “Oh bother, I’ve already forgotten where everything is,” she mumbled, reaching forward with a hand as she started to walk.
Robert took her hand and held it between his own.
“You don’t need to do that,” she whispered.
“The door is open. Do you want your servants to see me taking my leave more formally than a lover should?”
She stopped fighting and let her hand rest in his. She pressed her lips together, even as he chuckled.
“No gloves, Audrey?”
“I forgot after luncheon.”
“You were far too excited.”
“It seems you were, too.”
He knew she referred to his hands, but his mind briefly went elsewhere, his smile fading. “I don’t want to leave you like this,” he said at last.
She, too, sobered. “But you have done everything I asked of you—more than even that. You escorted me to my new home and kept me safe from the dangers of the road. Why should you feel unsettled now?”
“Because this household is full of strangers to you.”
“But the land agent said—”
“He’s a stranger, too,” Robert interrupted. “He seems to have done his job, at least as far as household servants go. Everything shines with polish and is well taken care of.” But the servants had exchanged suspicious glances with each other and he couldn’t forget that.
“I could smell the lemon polish,” she said, smiling. “And in the unused rooms, sheets covered the furniture. They’re removing all of that now.”
“You haven’t seen the last of me, Audrey. I plan to visit you most frequently. I will feel better to see you settled in.”
“You worry about my blindness,” she told him, “but you needn’t. My other senses do almost as well, and people reveal much by their voices.”
“Tell me what it was like,” he said, deliberately delaying his departure. “Going blind, I mean. You must have been so frightened.”
He drew her toward a chair, and she accepted his help with a smile.
“It was a long time ago, Robert. I was seven, and so weak with sickness. I most remember being relieved to wake up feeling better.”
“And your sight was just gone?”
“Completely, like the sun had blown out. I remember my mother holding me and crying, and though she was relieved I would live, there was great sorrow, too. And fear. She worried that Blythe would succumb as well, but although she experienced the fever, it was never as severe as mine.”
“How did you cope, being so young?” Was he trying to torture himself, to feel even more guilty that this woman was alone in the world because of him?
“I was very sad for a long time, of course.” Her voice was lower, almost distant. “It is difficult to think of those days, when I was coming to the realization that people would treat me differently. I might have been only seven, but I was smart, and I understood what was happening. My mother was the only one who treated me the same, who did not coddle me or behave as if I should now be confined to bed or a chair by the window for the rest of my life.”
“She sounds like a good woman.”
“She was, and her death seven years ago was like the light leaving our family.”
She sighed and lost herself in a moment of reflection, but Robert had learned patience in the army.
“It was she who suggested I keep the world of sight alive in my mind, to replay the memories over and over, so I wouldn’t forget them. What my family looks like, the sun setting, a winter storm.”
“That did not make you feel bitter?”
“It did not make it worse,” she corrected. “Of course I felt bitter that I would be different, but my mother didn’t let me linger long in that. She pointed out that God has plans for people, and we can’t always know them.”
“A wise woman,” he murmured.
Audrey grinned. “She was. And I was lucky enough to have Molly. Finding things in the dark was almost a game between us. Even then, she was my guide in my new world, reading the words I painfully wrote out for my governess.”
“You still write?”
“Not often, but I learned to write by guiding my pencil between two pieces of string. I can make myself understood, but Molly is usually my secretary. But what Molly couldn’t help me with was the loss I felt being unable to see people’s faces. It is shocking how we depend upon that. We adjust everything we say and do because of a person’s expression, and I realized that at seven years of age I felt . . . left out. I gradually adjusted, of course, and learned about tones of voice, but it’s not the same.” She hesitated, then sighed. “I will confess, that part of me feels like that little girl again. I never imagined how much confident knowledge of my home affected me.”
“You’ll have that again,” he insisted. “It will just take time.”
She gave him a rueful grin. “You are so certain of me?”
“I am. But now I must go. My steward is expecting me. I have yet to set foot in my country house in nine years. Apparently, there is much I need to do.”
“And I am certain of you,” she countered.
“Thank you, but men do not need to be so bolstered,” he said. “We are confident.” He rose to stand before her, took her hand, and bowed over it. “Until tomorrow, Audrey.”
“That is not necessary, Robert. You have much to do.”
“I decide my own schedule, madam, one of the privileges of being an earl.”
“But I will understand if your duties keep you away. You have fulfilled your promise, my lord, and seen me safe. You owe me nothing else.”
he found himself wondering. Was providing escort all it took to make up for a man’s life? He didn’t think so.
udrey stood at the window for a long time, feeling the late autumn sun on her face, as if she could watch Robert ride away. She was surprised by how much she’d come to rely on him in just a few short days, on his solid presence, his confidence, his air of command.
She didn’t have any of that herself, as the tour of the house had shown her. She’d once believed she did, but now? Now she’d traveled to places she could no longer picture in her mind, been attacked in her bedchamber, and met servants who didn’t seem at all glad to see her. Oh, they were polite, but she felt they were directing their voices at Robert more than herself. She understood why, of course, he being a titled nobleman. They even spoke to Molly, as she explained each room in detail.
And the furnishings in those rooms! They were all hidden traps that could make her look and feel foolish.
she begin to use a cane? No, Robert was right; with practice, she would learn the layout of the house. She was simply still uneasy after the attack at the inn.
She winced, remembering how Molly had made certain the servants knew she was betrothed to an earl. Audrey had known the necessity at her father’s home, but she hadn’t thought through the consequences here. Did she want to be respected merely because she was supposed to become a countess?
Or should she just announce a change of heart today—right now? Then she’d be here on her own merits, dealing with the servants in her own right.
But she had to discuss it with Robert first. It seemed . . . ungrateful to make a sudden decision without him. She turned to walk toward the entrance hall and bumped her leg, hard, on a low table. Wincing, she put out her hands and began to move about the drawing room again, planting each piece of furniture in her mind’s eye. She would memorize everything, one room at a time.
hat night, Audrey was relieved to be alone in her bedroom at last. It was the only place she felt safe, since Molly had specifically helped her rearrange the furniture to more suitable, functional positions. And her day? Not what one would call a success.
Molly had spent the afternoon unpacking their trunks, and Audrey had had her first meal alone in the dining room. Though she’d invited Molly to join her, the maid didn’t think that set the correct tone for the household, and Audrey had reluctantly agreed.
She’d spent many a meal alone, of course, since she’d seldom been permitted to leave her home. But this was different. Audrey had been left sitting long past when she should, waiting for the meal to commence. Mrs. Sanford had apologized for her tardiness, and Audrey had believed her that she would need a day or two and consultations with Audrey to prepare the right menu.
But was that a reason some of the food was cold? It had tasted fine, but the service left much to be desired. She told herself it was just the first day—and a long one. Molly had already retired for the night, and Audrey would do the same. But first, she stood at the window and imagined where Robert must be—and missed him, even though he’d be gone from her life soon. She couldn’t become attached, couldn’t let herself care. She was never again going to be at someone else’s mercy.