Authors: Margaret Evans Porter
Tags: #bestselling author, #England, #regency romance, #regency historical, #Devonishre, #award winning author, #historical novella, #margaret evans porter, #short fiction, #novella
Summoning a hollow laugh, she acknowledged that her luck couldn’t possibly get any worse.
“Now that’s a puzzler. At breakfast you were all smiles and sighs.”
She gave him a pithy account of her encounter with Garth Corston.
“After he has blackened my reputation, Sir Edwin will be done with me,” she concluded miserably. “And once I’ve lost his esteem, I’ll never be able to recover it.”
Breaking off a thoughtful silence, the squire said, “If this young villain is intent on making trouble, you’d better take refuge with that cousin of mine in Totnes. Now hear me out, Annis, before you refuse. Besides getting you out of Corston’s way, a visit to Myra will do you a world of good. She knows everything about choosing servants, entertaining guests, mixing with the gentry—skills you need when you’re the mistress of a great house.”
“If I run away I can’t defend myself against Mr. Corston’s falsehoods.”
“Never fear, I’ll make sure Sir Edwin knows where you’ve gone—and why. Harbourne Court is nearer Totnes than Orchard Place. I don’t doubt he’ll be calling upon you there.”
Upon consideration, she found no reason to oppose his suggestion. “I will go.”
“By the time you see your baronet again, he’ll know his friend’s untrustworthiness—I’ll make sure of it.”
“Oh, I do wish he had come instead of Mr. Corston! You’ve raised my hopes so high—and in a way, that scoundrel did as well. But Sir Edwin hasn’t offered for me.”
“Not yet,” his said sympathetically. “I predict that within a very short time your future will be settled to your satisfaction. I’m off to explain to your mother that you’ll be off to Totnes by evening. I’m off to the cellar for a cask of my apple brandy to send.”
After he left her Annis remembered the pail of milk she’d abandoned outside the dairy. When she went back to fetch it, she discovered that the kitchen cats had tipped it over onto its side and were lapping up the last drops of milk, most of which had seeped into the earth. That robin, she thought glumly, had definitely been a harbinger of ill-fortune.
Late in the day, as thick, dark clouds obscured the lowering sun, Annis departed for Totnes. The box-like trunk containing her finest garments was strapped to the pony’s back, along with a small round keg, Squire Dundridge’s gift to his cousin. Pippin’s pace was typically slow, and Annis doubted she’d reach the town before the rain began to fall.
Passing Sir Edwin’s gates, she looked toward the distant manor house, just visible through a screen of trees. Should she stop—did she dare?
It was an opportunity, she decided, to refute Garth Corston’s vicious lies before they took root. Guiding Pippin between the ivy-hung pedestals marking the entrance, she swatted his rump with her willow switch, wishing he’d lift his heavy feet more quickly.
The stable boy Bart took charge of the pony. He bobbed his curly head in affirmation when she asked if his master was at home. “Aye, and proper busy he is.”
Annis reconsidered her plan—but when Sir Edwin heard she’d stopped there, he would wonder why she went away without seeing him.
She crossed the lawn, dotted with gay yellow celandines and white ox-eye daisies. The front door flew open at her approach, startling her.
The man she loved beyond reason invited her to enter his house.
“I saw you from the parlor window,” he said, stepping aside to permit her entrance. “This is an unexpected and most welcome surprise.”
“I’m on my way to Totnes,” she blurted.
He led her into the parlor, in a pitiable state of disarray. She had interrupted his dinner—atop a gate-leg table was an array of serving dishes and cutlery.
“Pray excuse the untidiness. The business of imposing order can be a messy one, I’ve discovered. So many objects, and many of them unnecessary. There is, however, one thing the place sorely lacks. A mistress.” Reaching for her hand, he drew her to the window. Pointing at a stand of flowering trees, their branches whipped by the wind, he asked, “What do you think of my orchard? It’s not as large or as fine as yours, but it does produce excellent fruit—or will if we can keep the bullfinches from eating all the blossoms. The squire says most of my trees are an old Devonshire variety, the Red Quarrenden.”
“A good sort for cooking and eating,” she said, nodding approval. “Though the land is partly responsible for the quality—the finer the soil, the sweeter the apples.” She was silenced by raindrops slamming against the windowpanes.
“You cannot ride to Totnes in a storm,” Edwin pointed out. “Stay and share my dinner. Mr. Corston left me this morning, I loaned him my gig for his journey. He won’t return.”
For Annis, fortunate development. Her enemy hadn’t returned to Harbourne Court after his visit to Orchard Placing—meaning he hadn’t spouted his lies about her to Edwin.
“I don’t know about you,” he murmured, his lips close to her ear, “but I hope this storm doesn’t subside too soon. For I’ve something to say to you, Annis Kelland. And to ask.”
Turning from the window, she met his gaze. Her heart skipped erratically.
“This house and the orchard, and all my other worldly goods can be yours—including that stuffed pheasant in the case, which I’ve not yet consigned to the attic. If you want them, you must take me as well. Would that be too severe a hardship?”
She smiled back at him. “To be sure, you’re the best of the lot.”
“Flatterer,” he accused. “It’s the pheasant that you’re after, admit it”
Annis placed one hand upon his chest, confiding, “I wanted to be your wife long before I knew about your silly pheasant.”
“Ah, Annis,” he breathed, his mouth hovering near hers, “you do me great honor.”
* * *
~ Chapter 5 ~
eep breathing roused Annis from slumber. When the feather mattress suddenly shifted beneath the heavier weight of another body she was startled into full consciousness. Discovering that she lay naked in a bed beside Sir Edwin Page, she recalled how they had come to be there, and everything that they had said—and done.
Unaware of her scrutiny, her lover slept on. He was no less handsome when his chestnut hair was madly tousled and his strong jaw was shadowed with dark whiskers.
Her pledge to marry him had earned her many tender kisses and avowals of devotion. The storm hadn’t abated, nor had Edwin been at all eager to send her off to Totnes in his carriage.
Elation had so overwhelmed her that she’d hardly tasted a morsel of the food he offered her. They remained in the parlor, talking late into the night. Eventually he’d escorted her up the staircase to a guest bedchamber—on the threshold she received additional proof of his affection. Dizzy with desire, she answered his searching look with a nod that expressed her willingness to receive more than passionate kisses. Her need to become entirely his was so strong, and the invitation was too tempting.
After discovering the wonder and beauty and mystery of his lovemaking, she felt no shame or regret—only joy.
Murmuring unintelligibly, Edwin clutched a strand of her hair. “Annis.”
He was awake and regarding her with warm drowsy eyes. His beatific smile was one she would remember forever.
“If we sent for the parson straightaway, you needn’t leave.”
She sat up, draping herself with the sheet. “He wouldn’t be at all pleased to find us like this.”
Pulling away her covering, he said, “Let me look at you. Last night it was so dark, and I was too enraptured to light candles.”
She blushed all over as he examined her, wishing for his sake that she were beautiful, with a clear, pale complexion. But in the night she’d learned that he liked her body, for he’d frequently placed his hands and even his lips upon her breasts, a most gratifying form of appreciation.
His fingers trailed across her shoulder. “You’ve got freckles here, too, a few very light ones.”
“In time they’ll fade to nothing,” she assured him. “I use a lotion made from primroses, and wash my face in water distilled from elderflowers.”
your freckles. Every one of them.”
“Edwin?” There was a catch in her voice.
His hand, warm and comforting, cupped her cheek. “What is it? You aren’t sorry you stayed, I hope.”
“After a country couple pledge to marry, it’s common for them to lie together,” she said matter-of-factly. “But you’re used to gentry ways.”
He pulled her closer, saying, “I wanted you to, Annis. All these weeks you’ve been so aloof, so distant, I feared I’d never win you.”
“I couldn’t let you guess how much I fancied you,” she confessed, hiding her face against his chest. “And now I’ve ruined your reputation.”
“Your stable boy knows Pippin boarded here overnight.”
“Dawn won’t break for another hour yet—you and your pony can be on your way long before Bart leaves his bed. Be easy, I’ll take care to remove that all signs of your presence. My aged housekeeper won’t stir for a good while.”
His kiss distracted her from worry. When his strong arms enclosed her, she made a token attempt to disengage herself, only to find that she was trapped by the thickly muscled leg he’d flung across hers.
“Stay,” he declared in a voice thick with need.
She sank back against the mattress, welcoming his embrace. The delicious weight of him, the heat of his skin, the feel of his hands as they traced her curves—they summoned a hunger that matched his. Soon he was making her gasp with delight, and just when she was all but delirious with sensation she felt him enter her, slowly and with infinite care.
His fire teased and tantalized her, and before it consumed her altogether she let out a little cry, the only way she knew to express her awe at what he had done to her. And then she was melting, and it was too late to save herself from the unknown and wholly unexpected result of giving herself up to this man, body and soul.
“My own Annis,” he murmured into her neck as the tension left him and he sank against her.
She flattened her damp palms against his back as though to hold him there forever.
They dressed, handing each other the various garments they had hastily removed hours earlier.
“Will you go to Totnes fair on Monday?”
“We’ll meet there—at the enclosure where horses are bought and sold.”
Silently they descended the great oaken staircase, wincing at every creak from the ancient wood, and crept furtively to the stable. Edwin saddled Pippin and strapped the small trunk and the single cask behind the sidesaddle.
“What’s this?” he asked, rapping his knuckles against the side of the wooden keg.
“Brandy,” she replied.
Afterwards, while riding along the twisting country road, she worried that her candor might have given him a false impression. She would have been wiser to explain that the liquor she was carrying was the squire’s present to his cousin, and she regretted her failure to clarify that it had come from the cellar at Orchard Place and not off a smuggling vessel from France.
Miss Myra Dundridge, a middle-aged spinster, warmly welcomed her unexpected guest and received the news of an impending marriage with delight.
“I was slightly acquainted with the late baronet, your Sir Edwin’s great-uncle,” she said one day while demonstrating how to lay the table for a dinner party. “Rather a grumpy old gentleman and inclined to show his pride. He always came to town in his chaise, though Harbourne Court is a scant three miles away. His nephew, I’ve noted, prefers to ride. A handsome young man, and such fine horses he keeps!”
It occurred to Annis that in due course she’d be able to ride his easy-paced bay mare whenever she liked. “He’s coming to the fair to buy more,” she informed her hostess, “and he expects me to meet him there.”
“We shall certainly go,” Miss Dundridge replied. “It’s never too soon to begin looking about for suitable servants, and many will come to town on Monday seeking new places. Sir Edwin being a bachelor, his stables are likely staffed better than his dwelling. You’ll want at least five women. How many has he now?”
“I’m unsure,” Annis admitted. “He says his housekeeper is old and, I think, infirm.”
“Pension her off and hire a new one, that’s my advice. No manservant, either? Well, that’s’ easily be remedied.” After studying the placement of the silver utensils, porcelain plates, and crystal goblets, Miss Dundridge nodded briskly. “Now, my dear, come and see what I’ve done. After I clear it all away, you must copy the arrange on your own. As mistress of Harbourne Court, you need to direct your servants properly.”
Annis paid close attention to all of Miss Dundridge’s instructions, however tedious. She meant to make sure her baronet never regretted choosing her for his bride. Nor would she be haunted, as her mother was, by a terror of inadvertently disgracing her husband at a social function. The rules laid down by her instructress might seem unnecessarily rigid, but they were easily learned. In her more optimistic moments she felt confident of becoming a proper lady.
On Monday the sky was overcast but the rains had ceased, and the fair drew hordes of town and country folk. Parting from Miss Dundridge at a cloth-maker’s stall, Annis made her way to horse paddock, but found neither Edwin nor his grooms among the farmers and dealers. She waited more than an hour, prey to a dread that his absence resulted from accident or illness.
In the afternoon, as she and Miss Dundridge wearily traversed the town’s clean and well-paved streets, she confided her unease.
“My dear Annis,” the older lady replied, “most likely Sir Edwin forgot that the fair would be today—you said he’s quite busy putting his house in better order. I’ve no doubt he’ll call upon you tomorrow to apologize and plead for forgiveness. Why, you might find a message awaiting you at home.”
But Annis received no explanatory note, and she continued to ponder Edwin’s failure to meet her. Even though her hostess and her family expected her to stay for several days longer, she decided to return to Orchard Place without delay. And once more she would break her journey at Harbourne Court.