Authors: Margaret Evans Porter
Tags: #bestselling author, #England, #regency romance, #regency historical, #Devonishre, #award winning author, #historical novella, #margaret evans porter, #short fiction, #novella
Avoiding his gaze, she stacked plates onto her serving tray. “I’ll ask Mrs. Russell.”
“I’d be most grateful.”
She hoped the landlady’s answer would be a negative one—the prospect of sleeping in the same location as Sir Edwin Page was singularly unnerving.
Her mother’s former employer, elated by the prospect of filling all the beds that night, had a single unoccupied room, the one she’d offered to Annis.
Knowing Mrs. Russell’s dislike of losing paying customers, Annis said, “I shan’t mind sharing with Polly. One gentleman can have the bed that was Mother’s, and the other must sleep on the trundle that was mine.”
“It’s far from being my best room, as you well know. Not nearly worthy of Sir Edwin Page. Or his friend.”
“You did say the sheets are clean,” Annis reminded her.
“And the rug was beaten this just morning. Of course I’ll give them the room—better that than letting them seek one elsewhere.”
Annis delivered the substance of this message to the guests in the parlor, leaving out the part about the rug. She circled the table once more, taking up the few remaining utensils and Mr. Corston’s bowl of soup, which he’d scarcely touched.
Tugging the long braid that hung down her back, he leered up at her. “I wonder, is the serving maid at the Castle as accommodating as the landlady?”
“Mind your manners, Garth,” Sir Edwin reproved him.
“Don’t be such a prude, Eddie. She ain’t offended. Are you, m’dear?”
“Let this be your answer,” Annis shot back, tipping the contents of the soup bowl into her lap.
Mr. Corston leaped to his feet. “Slut—I’ll have you sacked for that, I will!”
“You can’t,” she told him triumphantly. “I don’t work here.”
Before storming out of the room, she dared to look toward the baronet. His eyes met hers for an instant. Was it really amusement she read in his face, or merely a trick of the light that made her fancy it?
That’s hardly likely to impress him, she chided herself, returning to the kitchen.
It made no difference, not really. Sir Edwin Page had made up his mind about her long ago. He liked her well enough for bussing and groping—and for tumbling in the grass, no doubt—but it would be madness to expect anything more.
For days after the harvest dinner she’d cherished a foolish hope that his intentions were more honorable than not, until her mother had set her straight. After scolding Annis for allowing the baronet to steal a few kisses, she’d warned that titled gentlemen wanted but one thing. And after getting it from one lass, they sought it from another. If Annis had her heart set on becoming a ladyship, she was destined to be sadly, tragically disappointed.
Much later, wearily climbing the long and crooked stairway to the female servants’ garret, she reflected upon her mother’s doleful prophecy. Just as she reached the uppermost step, the door opposite the landing swung open. Sir Edwin Page stepped out.
“Might I have a word with you?”
His frown indicated that the words would not be the ones she most wanted to hear.
“I’ve set Mr. Corston straight about who you are. But I’m at a loss to explain precisely
you were serving customers tonight.”
“The staff was shorthanded, and I wanted to help.” She’d had another reason, and dared not tell him. If she mentioned her stepfather, whose authority she’d so recklessly defied, Sir Edwin might seek him out and expose her misdemeanor. “Do you disapprove?” she asked him, her voice as frosty as she could make it.
“I do,” he said curtly, almost angrily. “So would Squire Dundridge.”
Although she’d already lowered herself in his estimation, her pride would not let her plead for mercy. “My mother was doing exactly what I did tonight when she met him.”
He folded his arms across his broad chest and regarded her through narrowed eyes. “Exactly what sort of husband do you seek, Miss Kelland?”
A wave of anguish crashed over her, leaving her speechless. More than she’d wanted anything in all her life, she wanted him. No other man was as handsome and clever and strong and passionate as the one who stood before her.
Correctly guessing that his question wouldn’t get an answer, he commented, “Mrs. Russell meant for you to have this room, didn’t she? Where will you sleep?”
“I’m sharing the cook maid’s bed.”
“I wish you might share mine.”
A wanton, that’s what she was to him. In a tone more sorrowful than saucy, she said, “You are too bold, Sir Edwin.”
“It wasn’t an invitation,” he said defensively. “I merely said I wished it. Lest you have any doubts, that’s a compliment to you, not an insult. There’s no cause to treat me as you did my drunken friend.”
Half afraid he might say something even more alarming—and gratifying—Annis wished him goodnight and sped along dimly lit passage. When she glanced over her shoulder, his yearning face caused her heart to pound so violently that she placed her hand against her chest as if to keep it safely in place.
* * *
~ Chapter 2 ~
shot shattered the morning stillness. With an explosion of breaking glass, the bullet struck one of several wine bottles arranged atop a low stone wall.
Glancing down at the old-fashioned dueling pistol cradled in his hand, Edwin wondered what his gruff great-uncle would have thought of his skill. The old gentleman had been a superior marksman.
“Well done,” Garth Corston commented, not without envy. He’d not yet hit any of the targets. He lifted his arm, his finger pulled on the trigger, and with the report a blast of fire and smoke issued from the barrel. But the row of bottles stood undisturbed.
“Damn,” he muttered.
For nearly an hour they’d competed, strive to fire, reload and fire again with speed and accuracy. Both were unshaven and carelessly dressed.
Garth was an awfully bad influence, Edwin acknowledged, raising his pistol. Not once during the past two days had they gone riding. They hadn’t done much of anything besides drink and dine and play cards. And waste lead shot and powder. Despite having company at Harbourne Court, he felt lonelier than ever.
It was female society he craved—a particular female. But his recent encounter with Annis Kelland had unsettled him, and his chances of softening her seemed depressingly remote.
He’d known Garth since their days at Eton. Their paths had diverged after leaving school, only to cross in London some years later at the height of the social season. Discovering that the easy camaraderie of their boyhood had survived, they’d sampled the delights and tested the dangers of the Metropolis together. Edwin, a regular visitor to the Corston house, embarked upon an intense but short-lived flirtation with Garth’s sister, Elizabeth. Simultaneously realizing that her parents had certain expectations he was reluctant to fulfill, and that in fact he had no desire to marry her, he’d decamped from London with all possible haste.
He’d returned to Somersetshire and the kindly and unpretentious relatives who had raised him, until summoned to Harbourne Court by his ailing great-uncle. On the crotchety bachelor’s death, Edwin had become possessor of his baronetcy and his estate.
The imposing Elizabethan manor and its outbuildings were surrounded by a spacious and overgrown park containing a scantily stocked fishpond and a neglected rose arbor. Although the house had lacked a mistress for decades, its furnishings and appointments were rather well preserved. In the library Edwin had found an antique housekeeping book written by an ancestress at the close of the previous century. Reading it, he’d ascertained how many tasks had been dispensed with by his late uncle’s staff, all of whom remained in his employ. The decrepit housekeeper’s eyesight had all but failed, and her loyal subordinates resented taking orders from anyone else. Someday soon he’d have to pension her off.
Garth interrupted his reflections by observing, “That boy wants you.”
Edwin looked around and saw one of his grooms coming towards them.
“A message came from the squire, sir,” the young man announced. “He asks that you call upon him at—at—” He wrinkled his brow in an effort to recall what he’d been told to say.
“At my earliest convenience,” Edwin supplied, handing his pistol to Garth. “Take this one—perhaps it will prove luckier than the other. Take care not to slay any of my sheep.”
“Shall I go with you?”
“No, no,” he responded quickly, preferring to keep Garth at a distance from Annis Kelland. “I’d best have a wash and change my clothes.” Running his hand across the two-day growth of beard, he added, “And I’m in need of a shave.”
Within an hour he had completed all of these improvements, and by the time he descended upon the stables he was the model of a respectable country gentleman. The young man who delivered the squire’s summons had saddled his favorite mount. The head groom watched from a nearby bench, a piece of hay firmly between his lips and at Edwin’s approach he bounded to his feet.
“Did you and Bart muck out the stable, Jenkins?”
“Aye, sir,” he said, clearly affronted by the implication that he might in any way be derelict in his duty. “Sir Edwin, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say to you. Yon horses badly want exercising, and have these two days past. Bart and me can’t take more’n two out at a time, and there’s a full half-dozen of ’em in need of a good gallop every day. I was thinking p’raps you might take on another groom, or else go back to riding ’em yourself.”
“Mr. Corston claims to be an excellent rider—it was to try my horses that he came to Devonshire.” Or so Garth had claimed. Edwin wasn’t altogether certain it was a credible explanation. “When I return from Orchard Place, we can talk more of this.”
Edwin took his horse’s reins from Bart, who gazed up at him expectantly, his Adam’s apple rising and falling as he gulped. “What is it, lad?”
“Might—might I ride with you to Squire Dundridge’s, sir?”
Edwin studied the self-conscious youth. “Have you a sweetheart in his employ?”
Jenkins chortled, letting the straw fall out of his mouth. “Silly ass, he fancies Miss Annis Kelland. Everyone knows the squire will marry her to a gentleman, not some spotty-faced stable boy.”
When Bart whirled upon his senior, eyes dark with fury, Edwin gripped his shoulder. “Return to the meadow and inquire of Mr. Corston whether he wishes to ride this morning. Don’t delay.”
When the reluctant Bart obeyed the order, Jenkins commented, “He b’aint serious about the squire’s lass. He’s at that age where he can’t help but have a care ’bout the one he can’t have. I’ll tease him out of it, sir, you’ll see.”
“Don’t be harsh,” Edwin cautioned before climbing into the saddle.
“Eh, I’m fonder of him than I let on. A good boy, that one, but even the best of ’em needs some rough words to keep ’em in line.”
The road to the squire’s farm carried Edwin southward, past meadows swarming with sheep and their new lambs. The sky was overcast, rather like his mood, for he was concerned that he might be about to receive a scold—or worse—from Squire Dundridge. Had Annis revealed his admission at the Castle Inn that he wanted her to share his bed? That remark would be difficult to explain to her guardian.
The squire received him quite cordially, allying his fears. Edwin found him flinging corn to the geese wadding about the barton, a large yard enclosed by ricks and outbuildings.
“I think to see you so soon,” said Dundridge, dusting his hands. He led Edwin to the house, a handsome stone structure with chimneys at each end, a new slate roof, and ivy-covered walls. “My wife is paying a call, and I left Annis in the orchard, supervising the workers. We can converse in private. Sir Edwin, I stand in need of your advice.”
Squire Dundridge’s income, reportedly an ample one, derived partly from his extensive apples orchards. He brewed hundreds of hogsheads annually, some of them going to the Plymouth and the Navy ships. The remainder was sold to taverns too small to produce their own cider. The squire’s social presence had decreased since his marriage to smuggler’s widow eight years ago, but he seemed quite contented with what the majority of the district regarded as a misalliance. In Edwin’s view, Mrs. Dundridge was a pleasant hostess and an admirable housekeeper and did not disgrace the position to which she had been raised.
The squire ushered him into a tidy parlor and after pouring out two glasses of amber liquor. “Tell me your opinion of this latest attempt to produce Calvados. I’ve tried with varying success to get it right, ever since I visited France. What began as a hobby has become my obsession.”
Edwin sampled the contents of his glass, savoring the rich taste of apples mingled with the fiery heat of brandy. “Nectar of the gods,” he delcared, barely repressing an urge to lick the residue coating his lips. “I wasn’t aware that you’d travelled abroad, sir.”
“Decades ago, between wars. My father sent me to the Channel Islands to pick up a few cider-brewing secrets, and from there it ’twas but a short sail to Normandy. I drank Calvados night and day—and would still, if Mrs. Dundrige didn’t demand moderation.” Setting down his glass, he said on a pensive note, “Our Annis should also see France someday, though I doubt she ever shall.”
Edwin lifted his head. “This war won’t last forever.”
“I pray not, for it has wrecked our foreign trade. Even if ’twere peacetime, the girl and her mother together would resist any suggestion that she should travel. A pity.”
Edwin was seized by a powerful and inexplicable desire to take the squire’s stepdaughter on an extended foreign tour. But not until he’d shown her the part of Somersetshire where he’d grown up, and only after she’d seen London and its many splendors.
“In fact,” Dundridge continued, “our Annis is the subject I want to discuss with you. For some time now I’ve contemplated the purchase of a horse. Oh, she’s got her pony Pippin, adequate for hacking about the farm. But to my mind she deserves a mount more worthy of a young lady. And you’ve got the finest bloodstock in the neighborhood.
“I daresay I can provide an animal that will suit Miss Kelland. What are her requirements?”